Cycling around Taiwan: Days 10-19

High Mountains. Landslides. Dangerous downhills. Taiwan had more in store for us, but gave us a fantastic, memorable time.

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Day 10: Start climbing and getting wet

Songluo, Yilan County to Nanshan, Yilan County41 km

We split up the climbing of Taiwan’s high mountains into 3 parts, so we wouldn’t climb more than 1000 m each day. This meant reaching the tiny village of Nanshan with its elementary school today at about 1100 m altitude.

The rain, which had been going on all night, finally stopped around 10:30 am when we got going. The road was one up-and-down fest, making us gain altitude before dropping us on a downhill again. But it was nice to be away from all the buildings and farms and out in the nature.

Around 7 km before Nanshan I got my first puncture of the trip. To avoid the traffic we were riding on loose rocks on the side of the road pretty often, one of which managed to go into my tube. I repaired it while Yuily kindly carried my bags to a safer place.

Unfortunately we had a relationship argument soon after. I will skip the details, but the remaining cycling wasn’t the most fun.

When we arrived in Nanshan the village was covered in thick fog, so thick that all the humidity easily made everything wet. Although we could camp sheltered in the school, this didn’t help much and everything we left outside our tent would get completely soaked.

Day 11: A fantastic day in Canada Taiwan

Nanshan, Yilan County to Lishan, Taichung City49.5 km

When we left the tent there was still a thick fog engulfing Nanshan, but at least not as thick that it had the power to make everything wet anymore at least. By the time we had everything packed we even caught a glimpse of the sun.

I knew from planning this route much earlier that today would be one of the toughest: we had a steep mountain pass ahead of us, taking us from 1100 to 2000 m, only to drop us to 1500 again for a climb back up to 2000 m, to the town of Lishan. Fun.

We started out, quickly overpowering our complaining muscles. The road soon reached the clouds which obstructed any views and I was already getting ready for cycling into white again while getting soaked from the sheer moisture. Luckily it wasn’t as bad and the road not to steep, easing up its way to the pass with switchbacks.

What waited for us on the other side was a completely different world. Suddenly all the clouds were gone and we found ourselves freewheeling downhill under blue skies and a brilliant sunshine, passing a scenery that is reminiscent of the Rocky Mountains in Canada.

It got even better as we passed by Wuling farm to see a snow-capped Xueshan! Fittingly named “Mt. Snow” in Chinese, Taiwan’s second highest mountain remained in full view all the rest of the way until reaching Lishan.

We made our way towards the school when a local was wondering where we are going. We mentioned our plan to camp at the school, but he said it wouldn’t be allowed. But since he was in charge of a market stall, he let us camp there instead, provided we leave by 8 am. Very awesome. We had a great day and were able to enjoy every great thing cycle touring has to offer!

Day 12: Descending into the Taroko Gorge at speed, without traffic, in the darkness!

Lishan, Taichung City to Hualuxi, Hualien County66.8 km

We woke up to pouring rain at about 5 am, as if the weather was saying “You wanted to pack a dry tent? Haha forget it!”. Luckily before we had breakfast the sun showed up anyway.

As we packed, a woman that asked us about our trip the day before came by to give us some boiled eggs. Even better, during breakfast in one of the shops, another woman came in after seeing our bicycles outside and insisted on paying for our meal! Have I mentioned that I really love Lishan?

We got underway on the winding but not too steep road. After passing a muddy construction site, I noticed a rattling sound on my bike. I thought it was just the lock banging against the frame, but several kilometers later saw that one of my rack screws came loose and disappeared! I didn’t have any spares, so had to salvage one from a bottlecage. The thread was worn out, so I supplemented the rack with some cableties and duct tape, of which we had plenty. After that we made sure to tighten all of the screws on our bikes!

As we got further up, we saw an injured dog lying on the road. A string of barb wire was wrapped around his waist and hurting him badly. There was not much we could do as he would not let us come close to remove it. Luckily there was a police station nearby who could take care of the matter.

We reached the top of the pass, which was also the intersection with highway 14, at 2:30 pm. At 2600 m altitude this was the highest point we would reach on our trip and we congratulated ourselves on making it and proceeded on checking our brakes for the long descend that followed.

I was looking forward to this all last year. Cycling through the famous Taroko Gorge, a 75 km long downhill marble canyon, is said to be one of the most fantastic cycling experiences ever.

We saw a noticeboard that highway 8 was closed way down in the Taroko Gorge. Ok for us as we were planning to stay in a place way before that. In fact it sounded like great news as it would minimize the traffic to almost nothing!

We proceeded on cycling and soon a police car passed us, saying the road would be closed down there due to a landslide for the next 5 days! We contemplated on still going, as closures like this are possibly still passable for smaller vehicles like bicycles. Also, a touring cyclist never ever goes back the way he came from.

The scenery was breathtaking. I could write a lot but just look at it! This road had absolutely no traffic on it!

Later on as we descended into the cloud below us things got less fantastic. The moisture was soaking us and after stopping at a restaurant we were told the next place to camp or stay is 22 km down the road. As it would be dark in the next 30 minutes we had no time to lose! Even though it was all downhill, it was a little far!

We raced at way too dangerous speeds through the Gorge, getting increasingly wet and cold just from the moisture. I counted down the kilometres, but it got dark very quickly and the lights on our bicycles were simply not designed for these speeds in a cloud! Fortunately there was virtually no traffic. As I got colder and wetter, I thought a room is needed, no camping spot!

After 16 km, just before it was pitch black, a house with lights on appeared out of nowhere. We quickly asked the man outside if he could let us camp under his roof, to which he replied that he has rooms for rent. Even though it meant breaking one of our goals for the trip, not paying for accommodation, this was music in our ears.

The room was one of the worst I ever stayed in. The whole place smelled of cigarettes, dirt was everywhere, flies crowded every light, the worker himself recommended using our sleeping bags instead of the bedsheets, the water was dirty and at NT$1000 a night, not even cheap! But in our wet and shivering state, outside being dark now, it was heaven. We made liberal use of the hairdryer while the worker cooked up some instant noodles for us.

We later learned that the road below was closed for 4 days already. How did we not hear about this before? It would’ve been early enough to change course, but now it was too late. We originally wanted to arrive on Liuqiu island to visit Yuilys uncle for Chinese New Year (February 7), but with this it seemed like an impossible task.

Day 13: Landslide, gathering intel

Hualuxi, Hualien County to Tianxiang, Hualien County22.6 km

We woke up to heavy rain, so we had a relaxing morning further drying our stuff. There was far from any rush because of the road closure so we just waited for a break in the rain. We were still going to go further downhill to Tianxiang, about 23 km away and 8 km before the landslide, as it is the only place resembling a town in the Gorge, even with a 7-11!

The rain stopped around 12 pm and we had an exciting downhill ride through more fantastic scenery and a traffic-devoid road.

Upon arriving we gathered information on the road closure. Some said it will open on two days, others said in a week! It was a really heavy landslide which collapsed a tunnel. We made the plan to still check it out the next day ourselves to see if there is any way for bicycles across. Overhearing a drunk woman who said that there was a simple path wide enough for motorcycles gave us some hope.

We’ve been in Tianxiang twice before and each time it was full of tourists. Now it was completely different. Only the few locals were in town together with a few other stuck tourists. All shops except the 7-11 were closed. Everyone was wondering why we still rode down here as the landslide happened several days ago. Yeah why? At least it gave us the most touristy spot in Taiwan and one of the most scenic places I’ve ever seen virtually to ourselves.

Police officers who were curious about us showed us a good, sheltered spot to camp. Later on, as we were still sitting in 7-11, they came by again and asked the staff if they had any place to crash for us. They said they do, and so we were shown to a private room with hot shower! Awesome people. We hoped the best for tomorrow!

Day 14: Rest (stuck) day in Tianxiang

10 km unloaded

Yuily convinced us to stay an extra night as we were unlikely to pass the landslide today and we could rest in such a nice place for free.

And that’s what we mostly did. We went on a short hike and to the local hot springs. It was nice to have such a touristy place on our own.

People we asked now all said the road would open no earlier than February 7. While you could walk across, this was definitely not a public option. Still, we would attempt it tomorrow, for me the biggest reason slowly being the lack of food different from 7-11 instant noodles!

Day 15: Out of the Gorge!

Tianxiang, Hualien County to Shoufeng, Hualien County60.5 km

Today we would definitely make an attempt to cross, no matter what anyone said. It didn’t rain the day before so there must’ve been good progress for the workers on the landslide.

We rolled down the amazing scenery of the Gorge, devoid of cars. After around 7 km we saw the river becoming a small lake and heard the noisy diggers. Around a bend in a tunnel we saw the landslide. It had taken out a good 50 meters of road.

But it was not a complete block. The rocks already had been flattened enough for diggers to go from one end to the other. Pushing our bicycles across would be no problem.

Sadly, the supervisor stopped us. I was begging, but he mentioned that only sick or injured can go, the rest had to wait until the road opens. The horror of more 7-11 instant noodles for the next three days made me quite desperate. Sure, we could go out the other way, but cycling up the mountains would take us just as long. I suggested waiting until their lunch break in the hope they would let us through after all.

Around 12:20 I saw all the diggers rolling away from the landslide area. I waited patiently and saw one of the workers coming across with a very clear hand gesture that we could go. I shouted from joy and we didn’t hesitate. The workers helped us to push and lift the bicycle across the big rocks and we were finally free.

We couldn’t even properly thank them as they wanted us to leave the danger area quickly. We were so happy not even the rain that just started could dampen our mood. We cycled down through more great scenery and from the back through some roadblocks with the guards totally surprised at us.

Once out of the Gorge, Yuily messaged a friend in a suburb of Hualien if we could stay with him. A positive reply came very quickly. The rain also stopped and we had some pleasant cycling to his place, followed by going out to the local festival night market.

All the mountain roads being over, we finally noticed how they trained us. On flat ground we were averaging around 17-23 km/h now, previously 12-16 km/h. A big difference.

We now had hope of reaching Liuqiu island, where we originally wanted to go for Chinese New Year, on February 9, five days later. We would have to average 60-70 km per day, which seemed doable.

Day 16: Taiwan, stop it

Shoufeng, Hualien County to Fengbin, Hualien County48.2 km

Taiwan was really not easy on us so far, and it wouldn’t change. There was a drizzling rain outside, the kind you know of that will stick around all day. We were thus in no rush to get going.

When we finally did, we found that highway 9 actually has separated cycle lanes most of the way. They made tolerating the miserable weather a little easier. Still, it was hard to keep a good mood.

Yuily got her first puncture of the trip. We took our time fixing it and I knew we wouldn’t make it very far today. After going through some watery mud left behind by trucks, our drivetrains were all crunchy and we had to use some drinking water to clean them. Some of it also got into my rear hub with my bicycle then sounding like it’s riding in popcorn.

When an uphill came our moods snapped. We had a fight. The reason was secondary, miserable days just make you want to vent at someone or something. Of course we made up. Things like this only strengthen relationships in the end.

We made it to the coastal village of Fengbin and immediately got permission to camp at the school. We got some supplies as the public holidays around Chinese New Year started tomorrow and many shops would be closed.

Day 17: Rolling down the coast with tailwind

Fengbin, Hualien County to Sanxiantai, Taitung County65 km

It wasn’t raining in the morning for a change as we got going on a dry road. I knew this wasn’t going to hold as the sky was filled with thick clouds and along the coast I could see showers both behind and in front of us.

Luckily, as is usual for this time of the year, we had a tailwind pushing us on. Soon enough rain arrived. Never too heavy or too strong, but the unusually low temperature of 13°C made it very unpleasant.

We pushed on to Sanxiantai, a huge sightseeing spot on the East Coast. A major reason was the free showers offered here. We got permission to camp next to the tourist workers dormitory and made use of the showers.

Day 18: Taiwan, please continue

Sanxiantai, Taitung County to Zhiben, Taitung County70.2 km

We woke up to the sun peeking between the clouds. Although still chilly, this day would prove to be much better.

We started by walking around the island, a very scenic spot with a long walking bridge with eight arches connecting to it. How this attraction is still free is beyond me – millions of tour buses unload here. We were early enough before they arrived and had the island to ourselves.

Cycling down the coast was fantastic. The tailwind kept pushing us and with no rain but sunshine our average speeds were between 20 and 30 km/h. I then very soon had puncture no. 2 of the trip, on the rear again, an almost instant deflation.

I fixed it in about 20 minutes, while Yuily made a good point by very frequently painstakingly checking her tires for debris and small rocks stuck in them. It couldn’t dampen our mood.

We rolled into Taitung were we restocked in the local Carrefour. Gas for our stove was needed, as well as food supplies since only few stores would be open during the upcoming Chinese New Year.

Wanting to shave off as much distance as possible before dark, we decided to overshoot Taitung and spend the night in Zhiben. Here we found our usual elementary school and set up camp. Since it was Chinese New Years eve, we treated us some beef noodle soup at one of the only open shops in town.

Day 19: Super Yuily

Zhiben, Taitung County to Fangshan, Pingtung County94.8 km

Before setting off I tried to clean my rear hub, unsuccessfully. While I didn’t get the popping and cracking sound away, I noticed it came from the spindle locking the wheel in place, which was totally not critical as long as it locks properly. I would just have to live with the annoying popcorn sound.

The weather was fantastic. We were speeding along the coast with the help of tailwind and motivation. Our goal of being in Liuqiu by tomorrow seemed like no problem anymore. There was a huge amount of traffic from holidaymakers, but most of it in the other direction. Drivers generally gave us adequate space when the road didn’t have a shoulder, so it didn’t bother us too much.

There was also a massive amount of touring cyclists coming the other way. We greeted all of them and they us back. I was also positively surprised by Yuilys speed. Normally I was trying to push her and get her speed up, but this time I actually had to try really hard to keep behind her as she kept averaging 25 km/h on the flats. On the hills, sometimes she would say “Motivation on!” and speed off into the distance leaving me behind.

When we arrived at a hillclimb, crossing from east to west, we even started catching up to a cyclist on a road bike without luggage and eventually overtook him. I tried to give him a boost by shouting “You can do it!”. We even started losing him, but the mortification of heavy touring bikes with even heavier luggage easily shaking him on his light road bike off must’ve been too much for him as he stood in the pedals and passed us again. As he did, he thanked is sincerely because he was about to give in to his fatigue, but we motivated him to try harder.

We passed the 70 km mark on the downhill towards the west coast, but we still had plenty of daylight left, so why stop? As we arrived on the west and started heading north, I was expecting a headwind, but to my surprise it wasn’t. We had no trouble keeping our speed and made it to Fangshan before dark and camped at the elementary school. Now we only had 35 km to go to the Donggang ferry for Liuqiu island the next day. We felt incredibly proud and satisfied – it was a fantastic day, this is how I imagined bicycle touring to be like!

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