In just a few hours, I will be on the road heading towards my first camp of the tour. The weather has been good — cool and dry in the low 20s. The legs are fresh and yearning for the road.
Last night, I bought the largest trash bags I could find – 1m X 1m in size. I had to buy the whole pack though, 15 pcs. I took only 5 with me and left the rest in YC’s house. I’m sure he’ll find some use for it.
All packed and ready to parachute out of the hostel, I decide to fuel up first. Across the street, a small little stall selling Taiwanese style ‘mee suah’ catches my eye, beckoning me to check it out. I’m not disappointed. A small bowl of the soupy rice noodles cost only NTD40, and it was very delicious. Next, in preparation for a 3-hour bus ride, I walk back to the ‘pao’ shop where I had breakfast yesterday and buy some biscuits and a Fan Tuan, a great slow-burning fuel.
Already familiar with the route to Taipei Main, and the bus terminal, I take my time. Along the way, I’m entertained by a demonstration of some sort. Apparently, some people are not in agreement with some kind of trade agreement with mainland China. It’s a loud, colourful protest, but a non-violent one. But the police are not taking any chances. One the main government building is fully barricaded with anti-riot barb wire, further supported by a large force of riot police in full gear.
I have 10 minutes to spare to catch the next bus to Chiayi, not that it matters. Seems there’s a bus every couple of hours or so. Bagging the Surly LHT is easy. I only need to employ 3 trash bags — one for the detached front wheel, one for the front half of the bike, and one for the rear half of the bike with the wheel still attached. 5 minutes and I’m done.
Chiayi is about 260 kms south of Taipei on the west coast of the island. The journey, like any bus ride on an expressway, is uneventful, with little of interest to see.
About 3 hours later, the bus rolls into Chiayi’s main station. By now the sky has turned greyish with clouds rolling in, looking very pregnant with rain. I quickly de-bag the bike and in equally quick time as I did bagging it, I’m on the road heading towards Lantan Scenic Area (藍潭) just out of the city where I think there’s a campsite I can stay for the night. By now, it has started to drizzle… I ride off anyway, hoping it won’t become a deluge.
I sprinted towards shelter in front of a shop that’s closed for the day and restlessly wait out the rain. A little later, the rains slows to a drizzle again and I decide to move out before it gets too late.
At Lantan Scenic Area, I ride along the peripheral road of the reservoir trying to find the campsite that I had read about. I can’t seem to find to it, and neither is there any signboard indicating one. It’s getting a bit late and I’m wondering if I’ll find it. Then I see a signboard with symbols for parking and toilet. I could ride back towards Chiayi but it seems like a nice scenic place here so I decide to check out the place.
The place turns out to be a parking lot with a toilet next to the quiet road. It parks maybe 8 cars, but is completely empty now. I decide that I’ll just chance it and setup camp in a corner that’s out of sight of the road. At least there’s a toilet with water. As I was still contemplating, an old man rides up to the toilet, a pocket radio blasting away some tunes. I ask him about the campsite but he says there’s none that he knows of around here. I tell him if that’s the case, I’m going to camp here for the night.
“No, no, no…that’s not a good idea”, he says. “Why don’t you try the temple nearby?”
“The one up on the hill. I tell you what, I’ll take you there and ask if you can stay the night there. It shouldn’t be a problem”
“Oh, thank you. That’d be great!”
(Note that the above conversation is in Mandarin, as well as I can manage anyway. In dire situations like this, one tends to try very hard)
After he’s done with his toilet break, he leads me up the road. A hundred metres later, he stops and locks his bike and then asks me to follow him. We turn into a very steep path that could only be ascended on foot. He helps me push my pannier-laden bike up and I can’t help thinking that if this is the only way in and out, how the heck am I going to come down it, the ground being a little mossy and all.
After some huffing and puffing, we come out onto a clearing, and there ahead, stood a Chinese temple overlooking the city of Chiayi. Very nice. There are some folk hanging around, obviously just finished their evening walk around the reservoir.
At the temple office, the old man petitions the caretaker on my behalf, saying that I’m from Malaysia and would it be ok if I pitched my tent here for the night and so on? “Can, can, no problem” says the caretaker. I’m relieved, and happy that I don’t have to stealth camp in a car park. Best of all, I’m getting a magnificent view of the city in the distance. I’m also hugely relieved when Mr Lee, my saviour of the day, pointed out to me that the main road is just a hundred metres away by the slip road and not the steep path we just ascended.
There’s still some daylight left so I decide to quickly ride out to the main road and look for a 7 Eleven to stock up on food and drink for the night. Before he left me, kind Mr Lee asks for my phone number… just in case, he says.
Back at the temple, the caretaker has left for the day. I look around and decide that I will set up tent at a nice spot under some trees nearby. As I’m putting up my tent, a couple and another woman who looks like a mother, walks up from the steep path, obviously also just finished with their exercise. The couple is curious about me and approaches with a smile and a hello.
After exchanging pleasantries and small talk, they suggest that I should tent on the front porch instead of under the trees. Much cleaner and not so many mosquitos, they said, which is true — I can hear the buzzing around my ears. I take their advice and move house quickly. Not far from the toilet at the side of the toilet, I claim my spot for the night, but what really catches my eye is a drinking water dispenser. You know what they say about a hot shower at the end of a touring day? Well, this is going to be my version of a hot shower. I won’t go into the details of how I manage it but suffice to say I end up squeaky clean and feeling very refreshed.
The Tans, before they left, gifts me with their own home-grown tomatoes, a strange-looking specimen unlike anything I’ve ever seen before (I think it’s called Hot Spring Tomato 温泉蕃茄 ), and also some cut pieces of guava. It’s very sweet and juicy. They also give me their phone number; like Mr Lee earlier, “Just in case”.
Mr Lee, incidentally, actually calls me later in the evening, just to check on me. I’m simply overwhelmed by the kindness and generosity of the nice folk I’ve met to day.
As night falls, the temple and its surrounds are quiet. The lights of distant Chiayi is flickering in the distance. 5 or 6 dogs have settled on the front porch as well, my guardians for the night. I settle down and sleep comes easy, although I’m awakened in the middle of the night by the flashing lights of a patrolling police car doing its rounds. I don’t even bother coming out to to take a look. I’m obviously as safe as I can ever be.
Tomorrow, I begin the next leg towards Alishan mountains. I have no idea where the climb starts, what the gradient and distance are like. Sometimes, the bliss of ignorance is better than too much foreknowledge of what lies ahead.