5.30 am. It’s still dark but I can already hear cars and bikes driving in to the temple, and the chatter of early-morning Chiayi folk out for their daily exercise.
I guess there’s no waking up with the sun after all. Time to start packing up. Breakfast is some 7Eleven buns and coffee. The hot water dispenser saves me the trouble of boiling water.
As I finish my simple breakfast, I see an old guy, a devotee of the temple, sweeping the porch with a broom made from bamboo branches. I see another spare broom and I decide to repay all the kindness that was shown to me yesterday by helping to sweep the grounds as well. It’s the first time I’m using a bamboo broom, and I must say it sweeps very well. It’s also making use of materials that are easily available around the temple.
After thanking the caretaker, I take my leave and roll down the path to the main road. It’s a beautiful morning and I’m heading for Alishan.
After an easy 20 kms, I arrive at Chukou. It’s a busy place overrun with busses and tourists. But what catches my eye is the road switchbacking its way up and up from Chukou. Obviously, this is where granny will be called upon…a lot.
Google street view of Chukou:
Seeing the kind of pedalling before me, I decide to have an early lunch. I ride back a little on the road from where I came from, and I see a quiet shop … just the way I like it, no tourists. A friendly lady welcomes me and I order whatever she recommends — a bowl of noodles with some fish cutlets. She even gives me a plate of very sweet baby tomatoes, for free, just because I’m a visitor to her country.
I’m glad I stopped for lunch because the road continues to climb and climb, with 7% to 8% gradients that go on and on for (I don’t know it yet) the next 40 or so kms.
But what makes it worse is the fog that suddenly rolls in and envelops everything. One minute its bright and sunny, the next, I can barely see more than 50 metres, and the endless stream of busses that go up and down the winding road isn’t helping either.
By 3.30pm, I reach the town of Shizao. Time for food again, at 7Eleven, of course. As I sit outside slowly sipping a cup of freshly brewed coffee after my lunch, a guy from the next table approaches me and starts chatting. One can always sense the unspoken connection that all cyclists seem to share, and I can tell he is one. When he finds out that I’m heading for Alishan, he’s quick to discourage me from doing so.
He takes one look at my loaded bike and says that if I were to go now, it would be too far to make it before dark, too foggy and too risky. “Why don’t you stay the night at Fenqihu? It’s only about 5 kms from here and it’s just as nice.” I decide to heed a fellow cyclist’s well-meaning advice and head for Fenqihu instead. As it turns out, I’m really glad I did.
The road that branches off to Fenqihu from Shizao is only a few pedal strokes from the 7Eleven store. It’s a quiet road with the mountain rising up on my right, and the valley dropping away on my left. The road is also lined with impressive greenery, almost alpine-like, with tall and lush trees.
Fenqihu is a very small town and, from the looks of it, a bit touristy. I see many tourist busses parked in a designated lot, and tourists wandering about the town. I ride around a bit, wondering if there’s a campsite I can stay for the nite. I remember Ying Chang and Doreen telling me that schools are always a good place to camp if need to. In fact, so they say, schools are almost obliged to offer assistance to cyclists. That’s a comforting thought.
I ride towards a school that I passed a little earlier and proceed to the office. School’s out, it seems but the office is open. I confidently walk in and see 2 teachers in the teachers common room. I smile a warm hello at them and, in my limited Mandarin, I make my pitch about pitching up my tent on the school grounds.
Note to Ying Chang and Doreen: This school is obviously not on the list of schools that you were referring to 🙂
“No, no, no….that’s not possible! The headmaster is not here and we cannot let you camp here.”
So that was that. They do, however, suggest an alternative. “Why don’t you try the church down the road?” Church? That’s interesting. Ok, I said. Well, actually I don’t really have a choice, do I?
I make my way down the road and see an old building with a cross on the top. The name outside strangely says ‘Arnold Janssen Activity Center’ instead. But anyhow, it looks like a catholic church. I push my bike in and I see a elderly Caucasian nun coming out of a side building. I go up to her and ask her in English if I can stay here for the night. It turns out the actvitivity center actually houses a hostel, and Sister Ou (the Swiss nun), tells me to wait while she goes in to check. She speaks to another Caucasian man who looks like the parish priest, walks back to me and says “Ok, you can stay here for the night in the hostel. NTD500, is that alright?” Sister Ou shows me to my room on the first floor. It’s small, very clean and comfortable but the view of the mountains is great. Well, hallelujah, what more can I ask for? This is even better than I expected.
Outside the hostel is an open-air courtyard with picnic tables and benches. In the darkening dusk with the temperature creeping southwards, I cook a simple dinner. In the quiet of the cold, dark evening, the lights of the church and activity center warm my heart. As always, at the end of a touring day, I give thanks to God for leading me to safety and comfort.
As I turn in for the night, I decide to stay another day and explore this lovely hamlet instead of heading on towards Alishan.