Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan Day 1 - Taipei to Jiaoxi 80km

Note bike friendly flag!

The breakfast at Rido Hotel was awesome offering a good spread of Western as well as traditional Taiwanese porridge. We gobbled them down heartily at 0730 as we really needed to fuel up for the long ride ahead of us to Jiaoxi (calling it Chelsea helps me). Ying Chang had warned us of 2 serious climbs and that got some of us really worried especially the newbies among us. Despite climbing the walls of Mae Hong Son in N Thailand just in Jan, I must confess that I had some butterflies in my stomach too.

We met up at 830am outside the hotel and rode to the National Taiwan University to meet up Joeel and Esther. Riding through the quiet Sunday streets of Taipei fully loaded in the cool morning air, I just felt so elated and happy cycling with this bunch of merry folks. We were like excited school kids going on a very interesting excursion, except this one entails one very long and hard ride. They say in life, its always better to get the difficult bits done at the start, so you can enjoy the rest and I cannot agree more.

NTU was established in 1928 when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule and boasts of some very classic architecture. We gathered at the main gate where the stylish Lees were waiting for us. Ying Chang took this opportunity to give us a briefing and we shot a group pic. It has to be said that I have never met a more friendly security guard who pointed us to the best photo location. This country is so bike friendly!

We stopped at 7-11 to stock up for climb #1 but not before enjoying 15km of Taipei's excellent bike paths that skirted the river. It was wonderful to see the local residents play and live along the river, some cycling, some walking with their dogs, jogging and just having a great time. This together with perfect weather with just a spot of sunshine really made for a great start to our adventure.

Soon, we exited the bike paths and joined Beiyi Road or Highway 9. This route is famous for roadies  as well as high powered motorcycles & maxiscooters due to many incredible hairpins.  It being a Sunday, what was supposed to be a quiet ride became like a Grand Prix with highly modified superbikes with deafening exhausts overtaking us like we were standing still. It can be quite unnerving for some of the newbies but after a while, we got used to them. It's strange to say this but though they were fast, they seem surprisingly considerate. It was amusing to see photographers waiting at each bend, snapping away action shots of steeply leaned machines.

When the first climb began, the team started to fall into a natural grouping. Those who trained hard or are old birds in the game, went in front leaving others to follow at their own ability. It's good to know that this once again is not a race and climbs are best done at your own pace, especially long climbs. Our gathering point was a large tea pot in a spacious park that we were told was 12km or so. However, that came at just under 9km and if YC was using psychological techniques to get us up, it certainly was working very well.

Celia, Carolen and I continued on to to Helen's Cafe, a very famous coffee place to wait out for the rest. This proved to be a real gem as it offered splendid views on a huge verandah, served very good hot brews and had a cuddly dog. Very appropriate considering the chilly winds up there. 

There were many cyclists taking breaks there too and our small wheeled foldies drew a lot of curious attention. A Taiwanese family got chatting with us and their daughter was an English teacher. They wanted to know where we were from and where we were going. Such friendly folks indeed.

When the last ones finally came up, we welcomed them and cheered for them. Pru who was doing this for the first time was understandably unnerved but the constant encouragement and support from dutiful Ben got her up. Legend Mike who was acting as sweeper followed diligently behind them until Ben told him to take off, as he "had a (marriage) contract" while Mike didn't. With hot piping Latte and chocolate pancakes flowing, everyone's energy got restored nicely. It was hard to leave Helen's but we had to as it was already way pass noon. Fortunately, we enjoyed some lovely descends and that was exhilarating. We stopped at a small town for a simple lunch. It was mostly veggies unfortunately. Time check - 330pm!

Climb #2 began all too soon and though it was gradual at first, it was unrelenting. At this stage, we were all wondering if we should have packed lighter. Perhaps break off the toothbrush handle into half and travelled with less clothes. I had about 15kgs on me as I was on "mule" duty for my beloved and even my faithful Expedition was creaking.  If that was not enough, it started to rain and that meant climbing in hot and sweaty raincoats. Visibility started to get bad and it was getting cold. The fun definitely faded away like the sun. Our cameras too had to be kept which explains the lack of pics on the 2nd climb.

By the time we reached the summit, it was nearly dark and the rains and winds were howling incessantly. We huddled together and took shelter of all places - the public lavatories, together with some other desperate folks. This had some semblance of the smelly tofu we had last night. Though tired, wet and miserable, our spirits were still quite high especially Siew Ling.

The group wanted to wait for each other and regroup before taking on the final descend. A local cleaner advised us to go asap as light was fading quickly. We broke into several groups with Oreo leading the first 15km downhill charge to Jiaoxi.

I was relieved to see Papa bravely soldiering on at the rear despite a knee problem. This is one extremely determined old dog whose fortitude is second to none. It was my turn to brave the howling rains and I took my time to descend safely. It was pitch dark by then and I was glad I had my Moon 400W headlight that lighted the path. I was also glad for my Da Brim visor which kept the rain from pelting my eyes. Cil and I eventually got down to the intersection safely and we thank God for His protection.

God's protection was even more apparent over Roland's group, who was behind me.  His wife May's Dahon TR had one brake that malfunctioned unexpectedly. Needless to say, this was harrowing considering the steepness and length of the descent. With only one working brake, she managed to gingerly and skillfully come down without any incident.

Roland described her Fred Flintstone encounter, "Alvin, her brakes were nearly bared for both. She charged into me, two bikes were together while I controlled and braked to slow down both bikes before she stopped her bike with the foot. She was shaken and refused to ride further. Calmed her, swap the bike for her to go down. A frightening experience for both!"

What was even more incredible were flashing lights of red and blue that stayed at their back all the way down. Most amazingly, a police car was making sure that traffic was held back so that Roland's group could descend safely under such treacherous conditions. One of our riders too got separated from the group, and sought help from the Police. They were willing to take her to the hotel! I was speechless. We later wrote to the Taiwan Police to commend them for their very kindness and consideration, proving to me once again, that Taiwan is indeed tops when it comes to supporting cyclists.

We all gathered at the intersection and rode the last 4km leg to Jiaoxi DuoAi Hotel (means "more love hotel"). It was so good to see YC wife, Doreen greeting us ever so warmly at the lobby and giving us our room keys. We were cold and soaking wet but what caught us by surprise is the natural hot spring waters that flowed into the spacious spa in our room. Cil went in and didn't want to come out and I don't blame her. It was so good to soak our tired bodies in rich, hot mineral waters! Our room had 2 floors while Papa's even had a swing. This was after all, a hotel for honeymooners.

Dinner was at a Taiwanese open kitchen eatery and we ordered literally everything. We were grateful for Roland's expertise in Taiwanese food. The great thing about touring is that we can eat without guilt and eat we did.

It has been one adventure filled day and Pru was remarking that if she quitted now, she had no regrets as she had experienced everything a tour could throw at her - steep climbs, fast descents, riding in storm, in total darkness, many close shaves by speeding motorcyclists etc. A full touring adventure all crammed into one day! 

At our nightly debrief, it was remarkable that everyone was still bouncing with adrenaline. Our folks could still clown around despite being on the saddle for the whole day through rain and shine. And these were not exactly teenagers! 

Trust YC to engineer such an action pack first day of touring. What will tomorrow hold? It goes without saying that all of us slept very well that night, very well indeed in Chelsea. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan - Introduction

Team 1 - first breakfast in Taipei!

Ever since I did my first ride in Taiwan up Wulin in 2012, I made a promise to return again some day soon after experiencing what I think is perhaps the best country in the planet to cycle. This opportunity presented itself late last year when Ying Chang, my faithful touring buddy, who was planning to be in Taiwan for the Qing Ming festival in late March/early April, sounded the idea out. It was not difficult to fill the team as Ying Chang hails from Taiwan and is so well loved among all our friends. Turned out we had 16 folks when all the dust was settled.

The plan is to do a Spring bike tour of the East Coast of Taiwan, riding out from Taipei, to Jiaoxi, do a loop via Fulong and Jui Fen. We ride out of Jiaoxi to Yilan where we train to the beautiful coastal city of Hualien. One highlight is to do part of the incredible Taroko Gorge, where we shall lunch at a magnificent waterfall at Baiyang Trail just a whisker up from Tiensiang. Then, it will be our longest day - 110km to Yuli where we stay in a hot springs resort. Following that, an easy ride to Chishang which has amazing rice fields all around. Our last ride to Taitung, home of the world's best custard apples is an easy 50+km. We return by a 6 hr train to Taipei on a special bicycle carriage.

We were all very excited and I could not wait for Apr 6 to arrive. Mike "Hard" Khor, the Legend from KL, in fact went 2 weeks earlier to do his own cyclo tour and exploration. He brought along his own tent and cooking equipment on his trusty Surly LHT and had fun camping in parks and sleeping in churches and temples.

Though we admired his spirit, we were quite disheartened as poor him faced really wet and cold weather. Spring in Taiwan is really unpredicatable. Would we face similar conditions?

A pre-trip evening was planned in late March at Ying Chang's home to have a get together and dinner. It was great to meet everyone old and new. It also meant that our long wait was finally over, and hearing the plans only wetted our appetite for adventure to no end.

That also meant some last minute hill training in Singapore and we managed to put in at least 3. Compared that to Carolen from Perth who had trained really hard covering over 2000km, we felt really inadequate.

With my Bike Fridays packed snugly in 2 Samsonites, together with my Orb panniers carefully and thoughtfully filled, we made our way to Changi Airport on Sat Apr 5 and landed at Taoyuan International Airport. We were the last team to touch down for the day. We took the sky train to T1 where we met up with Oreo and CK. Poor CK's Dahon TR did not arrive with him from Kuala Lumpur and sometimes despite all the planning, things can still go wrong. But it did not dampen his spirit and trusted the problem into the good hands of MAS who came through later in the evening.

Our chartered van whisked us to Ying Chang's home where we assembled our bikes in the park and that provided for on street entertainment for the locals. Once that was done, we checked into the lovely bike friendly Rido Hotel for the night.

It was so nice to meet everyone in Taipei finally! We cycled to the Night Markets for dinner for street food. Some of us had our first introduction to smelly Tofu. Though we were tired, we retired excited and happy knowing that somehow, the week ahead will touch our hearts forever.

Monday, March 31, 2014

1000 Hills Day Six – Thaton at 100km/h

Pic KC

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Pic KC

It was to be a long 100km journey to Thaton today from Chiang Dao but we were not too worried. We took our time to enjoy a nice breakfast and said a leisurely goodbye to the lovely ladies that ran CD Huts. The beautiful thing about Thailand is the warm hospitality and it was more like saying farewell to family than anything else. One of the staff wanted to try our foldies and had fun, squealing away!

Riding out at 830am, it was still chilly and misty as we left the beautiful woods and headed for Highway 107. It was a great privilege leading our team of riders through such a delightful route and we all felt very excited about what laid before us.

We passed the James O'Fraser Centre on our way out and that fascinated me. Why a bible school in the middle of nowhere, and in the heartland of Buddhism? The story about a brilliant English engineer James Fraser is a fascinating one. He is recognized as one of the most successful missionary in Asia. Known for his perseverance, he once rode his bicycle 300+km without dismounting! Called to bring God's love to the the Lisu hill tribe people in China and Northern Thailand at the turn of the century, he did so with great success despite enormous difficulty. I discovered later that Ian Howard, my touring buddy, has an aunt whose fellow missionaries actually built this centre some years back!

I have done this route 2 years ago and felt very familiar with it. It has nice gentle climbs but some bits go up for quite a distance thus the need to find your pace. Doing it the 2nd time and especially after those killer hills at Mae Hong Son, I found it easier and managed to ride through all without pushing. With hills mean fast descents and it was here that Uncle KC hit his famous 117km/h 2 years ago downhill with everything in his favor.

Pic KC

Some say his wireless computer went a bit haywire due to the speeds but I will just leave it as that. All I know is that once he is in front of me where there are downhills, he hits warp speed and disappears pretty quickly. That's my buddy KC for you!

We stopped at the usual restaurant and enjoyed a morning tea of Khao Pad (fried rice) and noodles which somehow tasted so good, and downed with too many sweet drinks. Just 25km or so and all our breakfast was gone! Such is touring I supposed and this is one of the joys of our sport - to be able to eat wholeheartedly without guilt.

Pic KC

As the hills began, we were separated by the law of natural progression. Uncle KC was ahead, then followed by Cil and I, then the Howards and pulling up the rear were Papa Mike and the Roscoes. I must say this being Day 6, everyone got fitter and stronger and the waiting time at re-grouping got significantly shorter. The last climb proved really tough but it was great to see everyone still looking quite fresh and not like the living dead.

Zooming downhill was exhilarating but I went slow deliberately so as to enjoy the scenery longer. I have learned the value of not missing out on opportunities for photos too. As once passed, they are gone forever! After about 50km or so, we had covered the mountainous segment and glided onto flatter terrain. As we approach the intersection at Chai Prakarn, I spotted 2 Songtheaws parked, waiting for customers. A quick negotiation led to an agreed fare of 1000B to take the 8 of us all the way to Thaton. The reason for taking transport is simple  - this part of the journey is flat, dusty and boring with a fair amount of traffic. It was amazing that the yellow Songtheaw could take all of us in - 8 foldies and 8 riders! Times like this really makes me appreciate the versatility of the folding bike!

Pic KC

The ride on the Songthaew to Thaton was like flying without wings literally as the driver kept the pedal to the metal. We were speeding way past 100km/h fully loaded and with our precious bikes tied on the roof rack. Every time we hit a bump, I dreaded the thought of seeing a foldie flying off the roof and bouncing onto the road but fortunately, everyone and every bike survived.

It was like a homecoming for me as we arrived at the beautiful Thaton Apple Resort. We stayed here 2 years ago and it was easily the hotel that made the biggest impression thanks to its amazing location just by the river, offering views of the Thaton Bridge and mountains.

Got this booked some 3 months back just to make sure we got the best rooms and I was delighted to see the same friendly golden retriever welcoming us, tail wagging and all. The team was also thrilled to bits and just soaking in the view from the balcony after hanging up the laundry was so special.

We had afternoon tea at the Sunshine Cafe but Yanee our friend was at Chiang Mai so the cafe was severely short-handed, with only grandma managing the business. Understandably, it took forever to get our drinks so dinner had had to be somewhere else.

A bit of a walkabout led me to a lovely seafood restaurant just opposite the river from our hotel. The owner had invested lots into building a brand new glitzy hotel named Saranya which comes even with a swimming pool. She extended her warm charm on us and even arranged for our long tail boats down river to Chiang Rai. As usual, we over ordered on delectable Thai dishes and were well and truly stuffed.

Pic KC

Temperatures dropped quickly after dinner and it was a pleasant cool walk back to our cosy chalets. But not before a nice soya bean dessert where we met up with Linda who is actually an IT professional in KL. She was back in her hometown Thaton to visit her parents and managed the family business.

It was a real shame that we only had one night here in beautiful Thaton so we really stretched the evening as long as possible. Thaton remains one of my favourite small towns in Northern Thailand and I will certainly be back real soon. No better town to end our 1000 Hills ride than at beautiful Thaton! Tomorrow, we go hi-speed down the river.

Post Trip - The long tail boat ride down the Kok River is exhilarating and bouncing off the water at high speeds, sitting just at the water line is a must do. Its a 4 hr boat ride from Thaton to Chiang Rai.

Chiang Rai itself is worth spending a day as our fav bike shop, Fat Free is located there. We chartered 2 vans to take us to back to Chiang Rai but not before visiting the famous white temple Wat Rong Kun. We managed to do a Sunday ride with the Chiangmai Cycling Club to the Umbrella Village and that was a very colorful ride. Our timing could not have been more perfect as there was a festival then.

The 1000 Hills Ride ended too soon but not for the Roscoes. Pete and Jan continued the bad habit of touring. They went on to Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore and will be riding Phuket to Chumpon in Southern Thailand with me in August, with a quick dash into Burma. Stay tune!