Tour De Taiwan
"My cycling trip in Taiwan was an incredible journey. I still have friends tell me that it was the best trip they’d ever taken. Some even want to do it again. Maybe we will all ride again after we’ve all retired. Who knows,we may make a round trip of Taiwan next time. I encourage anyone who is passionate about cycling and about Taiwan to consider participating in a similar trip. It was a pilgrimage to pay respect to the country that gave me life and to the sport I’ve fallen in love with."
At the end of my “Introduction to Cycling” article in the CADSSC 2013 Annual Book, I wrote about my goal to eventually complete a cycling trip in Taiwan. I am glad to report that I had the good fortune to fulfill that dream in November of 2014. A group of seven friends decided that we would take the Thanksgiving week off to cycle in Taiwan. We engaged the services of the same tour guide and travel agency as CADSSC’s 2013 France CE Tour – Fantasy Tours. We brought along our own cheerleading squad by convincing our families to join us. We even enlisted a special guest Paolo, an Italian bicycle shop owner former professional cyclist whom our tour guide had met 3 years ago near Venice, to ride with us. Paolo was told that he’d be joining cyclists from the U.S. Imagine his surprise when he was greeted by a decidedly Taiwanese group of riders. Luckily, we managed to understand his broken English and found body language to be a good tool of communication.
After months of preparation and anticipation, the day finally arrived on November 22, 2014. Our trip began with a train ride from Taipei to Hualien. From then on, it was cycling from hotel to hotel, down south to Kaohsiung, where we took the bullet train back to Taipei, all in 6 days. A tour guide drove the wives and children along the same routes the cyclists took, with occasional detours for sightseeing and activities, while the cyclist group rode for the entire duration of the itinerary. The two groups converged for lunch and dinner every day and sometimes partook in activities together. For example, we met at a Hakka Village (indigenous Taiwan mountain tribe) where we learned about and participated in the traditional process of tofu making, from grinding soy beans in a stone mill to cooking the soy milk and pressing it into the final product. The best part was to taste the tofu we made. It gave us greater appreciation for the work of farmers and artisanal tofu makers to produce such a relative common stable in Chinese cuisine. The tour van with the wives and children would pass by or stop along the route for them to cheer their husbands and fathers on and capture these precious moments on their iPhones and cameras. It was an encouraging sight for the cyclists and definitely fired up the competitive warriors in us to pedal those last elusive rotations to reach our daily goals. Having my family there to support and cheer me on really made the trip a once-in-a-lifetime event that I shall always cherish.
We visited the Chihshang Township of Taitung County, a village filled with golden rice fields as far as your eyes could see. Its residents have done a wonderful job to preserve this historical village to its postcard pristine state. It was as if time had stood still for 80+ years. Not a single modern intrusion was there to disrupt the beauty and memories of the rice fields. We learned that it took a lot of effort and sacrifice on the part of the local residents to ward off the government and big companies’ plans to develop and commercialize the area. Second and third generation locals have moved back from big cities to raise their families, operate farms, and start up B&B’s to help improve economy in this area. Also surprisingly, for the first time in my life, I saw fireflies! The locals were much bemused by tourist flocking and making childish cries of wonderment taking pictures and selfies with the fireflies buzzing around their front yards.
At the end of the longest and hardest day of riding, after 72 miles and 4500 ft of climbing, we stayed at a B&B in An Tong Hot Spring. It was rejuvenating and rewarding to immerse in the hot spring after a long, hard day of riding. The traditional Taiwanese cuisine that night was authentic and reminiscent of home-made dishes from childhood memories. The owners of the B&B were retired Taiwanese Australians, not a bad place for retirement, I must say. After the hot spring, the food, and beer, the aches and pains of the day seemed to have melted away. Soon the cyclists felt renewed and ready for another day of arduous cycling.
Along the way, not only did we enjoy breathtaking and magnificent sceneries, we also took advantage to replenish the depleted calories with some morsels (in some cases multiple servings) of tasty authentic local dishes and indigenous wild and farmed fruits. By some strange coincidence,our lunches were almost always on top of a steep hill. Perhaps they were carrots dangling in front of us to lure us to ride just a little bit harder to get on top of that hill. Our daily routes varied between 30 to 70 miles a day, with climbs ranging from 1,000 to 4,500 ft. I have been going back to Taiwan pretty often throughout my life, but I have never seen this side of Taiwan. Taking in the scenery on a bike while traveling at an average speed of 15mph, you become one with the elements, an experience quite different from traveling by car or bus. We could see every little detail along the road, smell the aroma of the damp forest and the autumn leaves after the rain, feel the soft enveloping moisture of the fog on our skin, and taste the salty ocean breeze. These sensations were invigorating. This is the Taiwan that I knew, this is the Taiwan from my earliest foggy memories, this is the Taiwan that tugs at my heart strings.
We had a support van that followed us with food, drinks, emergency first aid kit, and tools to repair flat tires. More than a few times, it doubled as a passenger van for those of us who were too tired to continue. At least three tour guides rode with us every day, one in the front, one in the middle, and one in the back, to make sure all cyclists were safe and accounted for. On the first day of riding, right before lunch, the support van brought us some of the best mochi I’d ever tasted. It was amazing! All things considered, we were well taken care of.
In the span of six days, we passed by fishing villages, peninsula, rain forest, marble gorge walls, waterfall, mountains, seemingly endless tunnels (one of the tunnels we rode in was 1.55 miles long) and bridges. We visited artisan village, aboriginal villages, and a wild habitat of monkeys where we had some “banana business” with some mischievous monkeys. Paolo didn’t know how feisty the local monkeys were and tried to fight with one of them for a banana. Needless to say, he successfully provoked the monkey into a chasing episode that only ended when he surrendered the banana. It was an unforgettable trip, surrounded by the tropical environment, experiencing the renowned friendliness of the Taiwanese people, soaking in their culture, and enjoying the local and unique cuisines of Taiwan. At the end of each day, we shared stories and jokes over dinner and drinks. The bond built up between us and between our families was priceless. On the last day of the ride, we had to enter the city of Kaohsiung to reach the train station. It was quite exhilarating to ride through the crazy city traffic. We were cutting through traffic amongst motorcycles and cars. Everyone was exhausted on the High Speed Rail train back, but at the same time couldn’t believe our trip had ended.