Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan - Day 5 Hualien to Yuli,110km through rice fields

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Pic Papa Mike

It was hard to leave Kanazawa House after 2 glorious nights here but as they say, the show must go on. We enjoyed a hearty breakfast and stuffed ourselves for good reason. Today's ride was going to be a longish one, 110km to Yuli along the famous route 193. But YC assured us that it ran parallel to the train tracks so we could always hop on the train at anytime. This was very comforting for the newbies, and trust YC to plan it so well.

Many who have cycled Taiwan would describe this route, also known as the East Rift Valley, as one of the best routes to do.  Imagine quiet country roads that are largely flat but enough climbs to make things interesting, passing through rural and quaint farming villages with friendly folks and in the most beautiful of surroundings. Carefully manicured rice fields everywhere, in the greenest of greens as far as the eye can see, framed by stunning rugged mountain ridges whose summits disappear into whispy white clouds, make for a truly unforgettable riding experience.

Pic fm acruisingcouple.com

Then again, this is Taiwan and there are so many "best" routes that as cyclists, we are truly and wholly spoilt. If ever there is a country that God has designated for his cycling children that He loves, Taiwan must be it.

Truth be told, the ride began with some apprehension as dark clouds were looming. Long wet rides in soggy underwear isn't my idea of fun. Yes, we were all well equipped with our new Taroko tested 100% waterproof Giant raincoats, Ortlieb panniers, fenders and even my shower cap but the best "equipment" we can have in any tour is a cheerful disposition. That was available in spades with this bunch of merry people and the unpredictability of how a day turns out is always part of the fun.

As we rode happily out of Hualien, all 16 of us were like a super long road train except we were powered by none other than our own legs. It is said that the happiest people in the world are cyclists and our smiles and laughters bear testament to this despite the gloomy weather. It was great to have KL Mike back in the pink of health and playing the critical sweeper role on his Surly LHT.

Chasing the Rabbit was one game we played often and that fast rabbit was none other than Carolen from Perth who seems to be getting faster and stronger with each passing day. The real test of any cycling prowess must be when it comes to climbs and this is where the men get sorted out from the boys. Here, the man of all men, Ben, came into his element when he not only went up those hills effortlessly but came back down again to check on his wife Pru. His Mango Orange Dahon Speed Pro TT was blistering fast despite being saddled by 2 huge black panniers holding their stuff.

The rest of us "boys and girls" tackled the hills to the best of our abilities and one technique that works is tagging when the going gets really tough. Here is Esther demonstrating the finer points of tagging with her sifu watching closely.

It was truly divine that despite the clouds that threatened to burst at any time, we had very little rain on the first part of the day. That kept the ride nice and cool and we could all cruise at a fairly good clip. We passed through several villages and I was heartened to see a community hall of senior citizens gathering for some event, chuckling together. I got excited when I saw 2 old men on their bicycles, riding side by side enjoying a yarn. I hope that I will be like them when I hit 70.

One of the downsides of traveling through these beautiful country roads is the lack of our favorite 7-11s and eateries! So morning tea was whatever we picked up earlier at Hualien and we enjoyed it at a beautiful spot which had an interesting tall structure of pots at 42km along Route 193. This is an important trading settlement of the Hans and the tribes from east coast valley. The bonus of having clean toilets was appreciated by all. It was so nice to be sharing food and Siew Ling, our caring accountant, managed to pick up a bunch of lovely bananas for us all to munch on.

Somewhat rested and refueled, we continued our ride along flatter plains passing by dry river beds and plenty of green rice fields. All this time, we were like storm chasers or rather storm runners as we seem to be able to stay dry while keeping on the move from the rain clouds. What is nice about this route is that there are so many things to see that keeps it from being boring. We came through a small village where there were a group of elderly ladies preparing young bamboo shoots for sale. They didn't mind us hanging around and giving them a hand. One old lady offered me one raw shoot and it tasted like raw Broccoli. Can't say it was enjoyable but it sure was healthy and I appreciate her kindness.

To make things interesting, we did a free wheel race down a nice hill to see whose bikes could coast the furthest. Mike's Surly won this race, having 700c tires which was expected. It helped too that he is such a skilled rider on any type of wheels. But the main thing was that we all had fun! By the time it was noon, we had covered about 60km and arrived at Guangfu feeling very depleted.

Fortunately, we found a lovely restaurant that offered braised pork, veggies and rice and we all dug in merrily.  As always, we are grateful to Uncle Roland who did the ordering. His penchant for good food is our gain! The rain then began to pour and we were glad to be seated snugly enjoying piping hot meals and tea instead of being out there in the cold and wet. Once again, we see the divine hand just watching over us!

It was hard to get back on the saddle after such a huge meal and the rain, though lighter, was not motivating us. There was an option to take the train from here to Yuli and I was very tempted to do that. About 5 or so folks opted for that as they had enough and we were to meet them at the Yuli Train Station some 40km away later in the day. We said our goodbyes and put on our rain gear ready for some wet riding. Surprisingly, we all were in a super high gung-ho spirit once back on the bikes and began the ride at a lighting pace. Ben who was now temporarily free from his husbandry duties, took off like a rocket, followed up Oreo and YC in close pursuit. I was trying my utmost to keep up. It's amazing what some food and motivation can do. 

When a 7-11 showed up, we took this opportunity to regroup and restock. This was to be our after lunch coffee break but my heart was still pounding furiously when I arrived and more caffein was NOT what I needed. I enjoyed cold creamy ice cream instead and savored that very much while we waited for the rest of the gang.

At this stage, the rain started to catch up with us and with a vengeance. But all we wanted was to reach Yuli as soon as possible and we just braved the rains and did our best. I actually enjoyed the experience and it reminded me of my Mekong River adventure in Thailand where it just rained cats and dogs almost the whole week.  

Because of the vast distance and different level of energy among us as the wet afternoon wore on, we were all pretty spread out. Thankfully, there were pockets of lull from the rain and I was just enjoying this beautiful ride at a higher than average speed on our Bike Fridays.

The sun was setting when we all arrived at the turn off to Yuli. It has been a really long day but we all felt very accomplished despite the wet weather. It is through the dark times that we can learn to appreciate the sunny moments of life better. We rode to the train station to find our dear friends. 

They were looking in much better shape than us and were all singing praises about some ice cream from heaven. We smiled polite, and would love some but for now, we were desperately in need of a good solid feed and a hot shower. To be honest, I was starting to smell like dried salted fish and felt rather embarrass about that. Dinner was taken at a local restaurant that served typical Taiwanese dishes and Yuli noodles, and we were grateful. Hot food has that magical ability to lift tired spirits! After dinner, we also enjoyed sweet local desserts that were so cheap and so good.

Our abode for the night was quite an effort to reach as it stood perched on top of a steep hill some 10km from town. Riding in the night and through the rain and cold, even I was running low on optimism. However once we got to the Kagaya Hot Springs Hotel, we were all so relieved. Like saving the best for last, this "Hamburger Hill" climb really winded us completely. Even with granny gear, it was a hard struggle in pitch darkness. Odometer reading - 113km when we finally hit the Kagaya entrance.

Things took a different turn when we checked in! Our eyes were all wide opened at the rooms as it has its own hot tub with natural hot water in it. This truly is a place to be. However, we all preferred to jump into the outdoor Onsen and had great fun soaking our aching muscles in hot 37c mineral water together. This must surely be the best way of finishing a long ride. Kudos to YC for this amazing surprise! Needless to say, everyone slept like babies that night.

Pic Esther/Joeel

Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan Day 4 - A taste of Taroko National Park 80km

Pic Roland Lee

Pic Roland Lee

If the question, "Mirror mirror on the wall, which is the prettiest place of them all in Taiwan?" is asked, Taroko Gorge will certainly be right up there among the many other amazing places that Taiwan has to offer. In Aboriginal language, Taroko means beautiful and magnificent. With marbled cliffs, deep gorges carved out by flowing blue streams and lush green forest, Taroko is sheer magic and certainly deserves it name. 

Some of us had the privilege of crossing this beautiful national park from West to East in 2012, scaling the mighty Wulin @ 3275m that left me injured for 3 months. Therefore, it was a real joy and honour to be able to ride through this awesome park once again.

It was a pity that KL Mike felt a bit under the weather and spend the day convalescing at Kanazawa House. But he had already crossed this journey some 2 weeks ago on his own, fully loaded with camping gear and panniers in very bad weather. Guess even the all weather interceptor needs some down time, some time. For the rest of us, we made our way by van early in the morning to the train station. Our destination was Xinchen, the gateway to Taroko. It was strange to board the train without our bikes for the first time as bikes were not permitted somehow on this particular train.

Hence, YC and Oreo rode in a truck loaded with our bikes and met us there. While waiting for them, we had a breakfast of Taiwanese treats in a local coffee shop until our bikes arrived. We were not the only ones that were "snacking" as the local sand flies enjoyed us literally. Fortunately, it was very kind of Joeel and Esther to rescue me from these pesky bugs with their superb repellent.

It was an easy 5km ride to the park entrance through lots of shade and greenery. Traffic was almost non existent and it was special to ride with just the sound of our wheels spinning, and the cool wind against our face. This was to be a 23 km climb to Tianxiang through magnificent scenery and my heart was beating excitedly. This road across the central range of Taiwan was the brain child of Chiang Kai Shek and was built by soldiers in 1956. Though it took only 4 lightning years to complete, 450 lives were lost sadly!

We got together at the Taroko Gateway to take a group pic before beginning our climb up. Traffic was pretty busy so it was a tad tricky gathering in the middle of a busy junction. But we did it.

Pic Roland Lee

Surprisingly, the gradient was very manageable and even the newbies were coping very well. But those of us who have done the route from Puli know that stage 1 to Tianxiang is the easy bit. After that, serious climbing of up to 15% begins but that is not the agenda for today thankfully. As expected, the group began to stretch longer than the Great Wall of China due to different abilities.

But this was not a race, and most important was for everyone to enjoy themselves safely, and soak in the breathtaking views of the river, valleys and mountains. We did not really feel the climbs as we stopped often to take pics, lots of pics. It was like an amazing kaleidoscope of colors before our eyes and our mouths were left agape permanently. Taroko is truly a masterpiece piece of natural artwork by our Creator and Papa, Cil and I broke out in fitting praise to Him who gives us all good things and more!

We regrouped at Swallow Grotto or Yanzikou which is a very popular stopover for tourist groups. Fortunately, we were there early before the hordes came and that called for a celebration jump!

There are signs requiring us to wear hard hats due to rocks falling ever so often but we had our bike helmets and that counted. What impresses us here are the steep gorges that are constantly cut by the flowing emerald blue waters resulting in indescribable works of art. The rock face also makes it a natural and safe home for many swallows.

As we continued our way to Tiansiang, it started to drizzle slightly but that was welcome as it certainly helped cool our hot "engines". We were glad that it was uphill and not downhill as slippery roads and fast descends can be hair raising and dangerous.

Here, the climbs seem to be a bit steeper and when it comes to climbs, I always have the highest respect for my dear brother and buddy, Papa Mike. No matter what happens or how steep the incline, he will ALWAYS make it.

When we finally arrived at Tianxiang, I was surprised that we got up there in pretty good time and feeling fresh but rather famish. We were looking forward to having a well deserved sit down lunch at a nice restaurant after all the climbing but, YC wanted none of that. He had strict instructions to buy a bento takeaway and continue cycling on - destination Bai Yang Waterfalls just 600m after Tianxiang. He promised we won't regret it. Like obedient sheep, we just followed instructions despite the obvious disappointment written all over our faces. I mean - a humble Bento after all that workout? You got to be kidding me!

This little secret waterfall turned out to be the perfect place to have our lunch! It was quite tricky to get to as the inconspicuous left turn off was easy to miss and poor Oreo actually did not see it, but continued up the highway battling steep climbs. It took a motorcycle to catch up with him to tell him to turn back. The adventure took us through a very dark tunnel before another 2km or so of gravel and dirt roads. 

I was really pleased to see the whole team finally arrive at the waterfall observation wooden deck. It was fun crossing the swinging suspension bridge and some of us did it a few times for the fun for it. Poor Ben who has acrophobia, understandably did not join in the rocking and rolling.

The magnificent views surrounding us at Bai Ying Waterfalls more than made up for our simple Bento.  All of us were chomping away with happy hearts and just feeling exhilarated. YC was right.

A special surprise awaited us further 1km down the track - a walk through a dark and wet cave. This was no ordinary cave but one that has a stream running through it and water drizzling from its roof.

We put on our raincoats, carried our bike headlights and gamely entered the dripping cave hoping for the best. This was the perfect test of our brand new Giant raincoats!  Glad to report it passed the wet test with flying colors! But because I forgot to put on the shower cap on my Da Brim, I got an au natural hair wash for free.

It was soon time to turn back for the greatest and most exciting downhill ride for this trip. 24km of gravity assisted high speed riding back to Xinchen train station. There are not many pics for the descend as we were all flying too fast to fire our cameras. We were averaging 40-50km/h and some of us managed to hit a top of 60+ km/h! This is the best shot I could manage holding the camera with one hand and the handle bar with the other, half wobbling.

We hit the Taroko Gateway in no time and rewarded ourselves with freshly squeezed super sweet orange juice. The poor lady serving us was so stressed trying her best to prepare so many cups at one go, and it did not help that we were in a bit of a hurry as we had a train to catch.

With the clock ticking, it soon became apparent that the possibility of missing the train back to Hualien was a reality. Hence, it was everyone for himself as we pedaled our way furiously to Xinchen. Team Bike Friday consisting of Cil and myself went into drafting mode where we were maintaining 30-32km/h, catching up and overtaking everyone in sight. When we passed Carolen on her KHS, she joined in our speeding team and we reached the station in no time. While waiting for the rest, the last group got lost! This got us all so worried and they apparently missed the turn off to the train station. By God's grace, they showed up just 9 mins before the train departed and we all boarded safely. That was a close shave and truly, never a dull moment on this trip.

When we got to Hualien, some of the bikes needed fixing and we all trooped happily to the bike shop. Needless to say, we went into shopping mode and cleaned out the bike buffs which was on sale. It was then a quick stop at the night markets for a snack before we rode back to Kanazawa House.

Dinner was a very nice Taiwanese hotpot of meat and fresh veggies, which was a fitting end to an absolutely splendid day. We spend the evening recounting the highlights of our day, still reeling from the beauty, majesty and magnificence of Taroko. For those first timers, it was an unforgettable taste that required a re-visit soon. And I suspect, will be done sooner than later.