Made in Taiwan. Taipei to Chiayi (嘉義)

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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.

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Mee Suah man…

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Bus-riding food — Fan Tuan, sticky rice filled with You Tiao which is, in turn, filled with pork floss.

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.

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Even the church gets in on the action

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.

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Yessir, yessir, 3 bags full…

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and straight into the hold

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.

It does. 

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. 

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As I ride out of Chiayi, a beautiful rainbow arcs it way across the sky…as always, a sign of good things to come.

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. 

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Lantan Scenic Area

“No, no, no…that’s not a good idea”, he says. “Why don’t you try the temple nearby?” 

“What temple?” 

“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. 

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Mr Lee, every cycle-tourer’s good friend

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”.

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The Tan family.

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Hot spring tomatoes, from their own vegetable plot

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My fruit basket included guava

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.

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View from the temple

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Divine accommodation

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Bathroom on the right, and hot water dispenser on the left of my tent

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. 

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Made in Taiwan. Still in Taipei.

What do the Chinese usually eat for breakfast in China and Taiwan? Usually the same thing – Dou Jiang (soya bean milk), You Tiao (crullers), Pao (dumplings filled with everything from cabbage to spring onions to fatty pork). Chinese breakfasts are always warm, fragrant and savoury … just the thing for chilly mornings. I’m having some today, at a little shop just across the busy intersection from Parachute. 

It’s a loud, busy place – workers moving about animatedly, customers outside ordering their food to-go, the smell of freshly steamed dumplings wafting up from the steamers, flour floating in the air from the snow-white hands of the boss as he slaps a piece of dough onto the worktable, deftly shaping fresh dumplings. On a skillet, just-steamed dumplings are being lightly fried, sizzling in sync with the deep-frying of crullers in huge woks.

“Ni hao!”, I’m greeted by a friendly lady who takes my order. Though not a full-fledged cafe, there’s a little room at the back of the shop with long tables lining the walls. Minutes later, my food arrives. I just love mornings like this. 

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Breakfast of Chinese champions — soya bean milk, crullers and vege dumpling

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Ying Chang and family has just arrived from Singapore early this morning. He and his family are here ahead of the LCSG group, which will be arriving in 10 days’ time for their week-long tour. Ying Chang is staying at his sister’s home, not far from Parachute. We arrange to meet for lunch later for a catch-up. Meanwhile, I explore the streets on foot, wandering around the back lanes and stumbling upon on a small morning market, one of my favourite places to visit in any new country I go to. Back on the main street, a little cafe boasting freshly brewed coffee draws me in. Cup in hand, I sit on the sidewalk outside and contemplate the colourful goings-on of Shida Road. 

“Let’s go for beef noodles”, Ying Chang suggests. We’re at his home, having cycled there from where we had arranged to meet at the main gate of Taiwan University. On the shortcut across the grounds of the university, I’m struck by how normal it is to be moving around on bicycles for these students. And if you’re a couple, it’s proper etiquette for your gal to stand on the custom-fitted pegs of the rear wheel, holding on to your shoulder while you provide the pedal power to get to wherever you’re going.

I park my bike at his place and we take a short walk across the narrow streets to a non-descript little shop. Inside, it’s abuzz with mostly students. In keeping with the appetite, and budget, of students, most food shops around the university serves value-for-money portions including all-you-can-drink tea; and I do mean value-for-money. I can hardly finish my bowl of beef noodle. 

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The beef noodles kitchen, at the front of the shop

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It’s a full house

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Back at his place, we discuss my intended solo route. He suggests an interesting route starting from the city of Chiayi, up to Alishan National Park, down towards SunMoon Lake, Puli and from there climb all the way to 3200m Wuling Pass on Hehuanshan, the highest road on the island. From there, it’s downhill all the way to Lishan, and then northwest across the island on the Northern Cross with stops at a few interesting places and ending at Sanxia, a few hours out of Taipei. That, of course, is the grand plan. 

I also plan to camp where possible, not so much to save money but because I just enjoy the solitude and carefree nature of sleeping in the outdoors. 

To get to Chiayi, about 300kms south on the western coast, I will have to ride the bus. So Ying Chang, who needs to finalise train transport arrangements for the group for certain segments of our ride, suggests we go to Taipei Main Station, where all intercity bus and trains converge, to inquire about the bus to Chiayi. 

It’s quite a novelty pushing the bike all the way into a mall as if it’s the most normal thing to do. Well, actually it is, at Taipei Main. To get to the bus ticketing counters, we pushed our bikes past rows of shops and cosmetics counters. At the ticketing counters, we made inquiries for buses to Chiayi. Bikes, we are told in no uncertain terms, have to be bagged before they are allowed into the luggage holds of the bus. Ok, sure, no problem. I can already visualise large trash bags …

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The main lobby of Taiwan Main station

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Bicycle-friendly city… even inside the mall connected to the bus terminal

Then it’s across the road to the train station, with its cavernous lobby reaching all the way to the roof. Taipei Main is an impressive building. Leaving YC to his errands, I head off for some riverside riding, but not before we make a date for dinner with his family later that evening. 

As a bicycle-friendly city, Taipei is on par with those in Europe. The riverside bike paths are simply world-class, and is both an idyllic getaway for its stressed-out city folk as well as a great alternative route for bike commuting.

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Mobile bike shops along the riverside paths

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Bought a multi-tool…needed an extra one anyway

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Bian Shi 扁食 (or sui kao to the rest of us here in this part of the world), at least 40 pcs of them, and more beef noodles, and all-you-can-drink tea … that’s our dinner. This particular shop is a favourite of YC and his family, and Taiwan uni students, as can be seen by it being a full house. The wontons are excellent, and so is the company.

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Doreen and her 2 boys

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I think we ordered about 40 of those little wontons

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It’s off to Chiayi tomorrow where I’ll finally start my own tour. I can’t get wait. 

Made in Taiwan. Arrival, Taipei city.

Made in Taiwan. Used to be when any product was labeled with that byword it was considered second-rate. Today, even Pinarello’s Dogma, its top-of-the line frame, is made in Taiwan. And so are a dozen other big-name bike brands. Not just in bike manufacturing, Taiwan boasts of world-class cycle touring routes, big mountains paved with some of the best roads, and a cycle-loving populace.

For the next 3 weeks in early spring of March, I have nothing but high hopes for a first-rate bike tour, 10 days of which I will be riding solo, followed by a week of riding with friends from Singapore – the Love Cycling Singapore group. It should be fun. Ying Chang, who’s leading the group ride, was born here in Taiwan but raised in Singapore, and he knows this country well, visiting his country of birth almost every year. He has already planned out the route for us, and for once, I’m just coming along for the ride.

Tuesday 25 March. MH370 is still fresh on my mind. It has only been less than 3 weeks since it disappeared into thin air, and I have to confess I’m a little bit relieved when MH409 lands without incident at Taoyuan airport.

But….if first impressions are anything to go by, my first-ever visit to Taiwan doesn’t bode well.

The first thing I see through the windows, as I’m shuffling along the narrow aisle with the rest of the passengers making our way out of the plane, are two baggage handlers tossing boxes from the cargo hold into a truck, with a look that says, “Who cares, it’s not my stuff”. The huge bike box with my Surly hadn’t made it to the baggage handlers’ hands yet so I’m spared the agony.

My first impression of the airport terminal, however, is a good one. It’s very well-planned – arrivals on one side of the building while departures are from the opposite side of the square structure, neither meeting each other.

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As I collect my bike, the box looks intact enough. I guess we’ll see soon enough. Next, I need to mobilise my phone. Taiwan Mobile, recommended by Ying Chang, gets my business.

In just 10 minutes, I’m back online… with a 30-day unlimited-data connectivity for just NTD1,000. The next thing to do, is of course, update my status to friends and loved ones…what would we do without FB and Whatsapp?

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Outside the terminal building, I make my way to a long, covered bus-stop, complete with wooden benches that look more like sculptures then benches, and proceed to assemble my bike. It’s none the worse for wear.

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It’s late afternoon by the time I’m satisfied with the setup. As always, whenever possible, I prefer to ride straight out of the airport. Gets me into touring mode immediately.

The sky is somewhat greyish, the air is cool and I’m raring to go. New sights always excite me. As I roll out of the airport, I get my first downer of the day – my gps doesn’t show the map of Taiwan. That’s what happens when you leave it till too late to upload the map properly. Looks like I’ll have to rely on street signs to get to the heart of Taipei. I always dread riding into a city gps-less.

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The first cyclists I meet on the road…a couple commuting on their way home.

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Scooters rule the bike lanes of Taiwan. Not surprising… Taiwan is the world’s biggest scooter manufacturer. Between the airport and Taipei city, a few thousand scooters must have zoomed past me. The roads are teeming with them, in every shape, size and colour.

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The bike lanes are mostly shared between pedal-power and petrol-power, and it’s quite unnerving at first. But after a while, I realise they treat cyclists as vehicles with every right on the road as they are. This country is, as well, one of the biggest bicycle manufacturers in the world. I don’t recall any scooter honking at me as I lapse into the wrong side of the road, which is the right side of the road back home. But seeing scooters and cars coming at me at speed, I adjust to ‘left-hand drive’ cycling in a hurry.

It’s getting dark, and already cooler at 22C, by the time I reach Taipei. I’ve just ridden over a bridge and then turned right onto a no-2-wheels-allowed road. Now, I get a couple of honks and strange looks. Yo, give me a break, ok — I’m cold, hungry and a bit lost, a foreigner in a strange land la…

I finally locate Parachute Hostel on Shida Rd in Daan district, a stone’s throw from National Taiwan University. The hostel is actually on the first and second floors of a café. My bike gets to sleep inside the café while I lug my gear upstairs. I checked into my already pre-booked accommodation … a tiny little room facing the main road; illuminated by bright sodium lights from the street. On tour, I’m always prepared with ear-plugs and eye-patch so I don’t really care.

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Shida Road

Taiwan’s famous street food is calling and I waste no time. 5 minutes walk and I’m at Shida night market — just across the intersection between Shida and Roosevelt (Luosifu) Road, sprawling across a series of back lanes. It’s as bright, colourful, busy and as wonderfully-smelling as I expected it to be, including the deliciously stinky tofu that the people here love.

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A long queue can only mean one thing — great food.

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My dinner

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The Taiwanese, I realise, don’t care too much for non-Chinese reading foreigners like me, as almost all the stalls are signed in Chinese only. My very-limited Mandarin doesn’t take me far in ordering food. Luckily, Taiwanese also speak Dayi, a dialect that traces its roots all the way across the straits to China’s Fujien province. It’s similar to the Hokkien dialect that I speak at home, which means I won’t be so helpless after all.

I’m attracted to a stall that has an array of colourful food on display, and order a bowl of assorted porky ‘things’. Not the most delectable but good enough.

Tommorow, I’m meeting up with Ying Chang and Doreen and their 2 boys. Even now,  I have not finalised my solo route as yet, and I’m hoping YC will help me with that, being a local boy and all. It should be interesting.