Made in Taiwan. Alishan (阿里山) to Sun Moon Lake (日月潭)

3am.

The rain starts pouring down. Heavy, incessant rain. I’m glad I’m under a roof; and warm and dry in my tent. The temperature is creeping downwards as the night draws on. Outside, the parking lot is dark and empty, fringed by the tall black outline of the trees around the perimeter. The sound of the rain is very comforting. I tighten the sleeping bag noose around my neck a little tighter, trapping the warm air inside. Woolen socks help keep the toes extra toasty and warm.

When morning breaks, I’m dismayed to see the rain still falling, and grey clouds still puffy and bloated in the sky. The warm dry feeling is gone just thinking about riding out today in foul weather.

It’s a dreary 11º C. The kettle goes on the stove — one hot, freshly brewed cup of coffee coming up…just the thing to warm up body and soul.

10am. The rain finally eases up. There’s still a light rain falling softly. I can’t wait anymore. I’ve done nothing but sit around the whole morning, and it wasn’t even in my tent which I had to pack up quickly, as the first buses started rolling in before 9am. This was politely requested of me by the man who seemed to be doing the first shift manning the bus park.

He had ridden in around 8am on his motorbike. With nothing else to do, he chatted with me…and smoked. But now, it’s time to get on the road. Today’s destination is Sun Moon Lake, about 110 kms away. But first, there’s still some 22kms of climbing to Tatajia 塔塔加 before it points downwards, hopefully all the way…

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It starts filling up quickly by 9am. The tourists are back in full force.

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Seeing as it’s already late in the morning, I stop at the 7Eleven at Alishan park centre on my way up to Tatajia and enjoy a bento box, and fresh milk to shore up the calories.

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21kms to Tatajia.

 

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A few kms after Alishan, I’m awe-strucked by this impressive specimen of a tree, standing tall and majestic by the road shoulder.

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It turns out to be a 1,600 yr-old ‘gaint crypress’ or, if the sign had been copy-checked properly– giant cypress. It’s a very impressive 36 metres in height and 10.2 metres in circumference. I hope it sticks around for another 1,000 years.

 

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This is now very much alpine country…and cold too.

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The rain isn’t quite going away just yet.

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An unimpressive little dot on the map — Tatajia. Earlier in Fenqihu, I had already been advised against camping here as the macaques that roam the area are quite aggressive and are known to attack tourists, including those on bicycles, I suspect. It’s also very cold at night here, which is more discouraging to me than the monkeys.

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A Formosan Rock Monkey. These macaques are prolific in these mountains. They’re a little hairier than their lowland counterparts. (Photo shamelessly stolen from National Geographic website)

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The mountain ranges are quite impressive and seem to stretch endlessly into the horizon.

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The road points down from here onwards. The gate is open, which can only mean a clear road ahead.

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As I coast down, the scenery changes. I’m now riding down into a valley. I see a road hugging the sides of the valley floor and wonder where it leads to..

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Question answered. It seems I’m to cross the bridge and continue on the other side of the dry river bed towards Dongpu.

Not too far from the red bridge crossing, I arrive at Dongpu, a very small, insignificant looking town.  Dongpu is known for its hotsprings although one can be forgiven for thinking otherwise just driving through the main street. After a quick lunch at 7Eleven, I decide to make today’s stop at Sun Moon Lake instead (hereafter abbreviated to SML).

Here’s a tip for those planning to ride to SML  from this direction — there’s a longish climb that will bring you down to earth very quickly if your pre-conceived notion of a lake is that it’s located somewhere on a lower elevation. It’s made worse if there’s rain … and it’s cold … and it’s getting dark … and you’re hungry.

I’m experiencing all of these, and it’s not fun at all. When I finally roll into the first sign of civilisation of SML, I check into the first decent hotel I see. There’s no way I’m looking for the campsite at this hour, and in my sorry condition. Tonight, I’m sleeping in comfort; after a long hot shower, and a hot meal.

 

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There’s only fading light at the end of this tunnel. Not tool long after I emerge from it, I reach Sun Moon Lake.

 

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Made in Taiwan. Fenqihu (奮起湖) to Alishan (阿里山)

Sleeping inside a tent, comfortably warm in a 5ºC sleeping bag on top of a Thermarest pad, with the temperature outside a nice 16ºC is very, very nice. I love days like these. A hot, freshly brewed Aeropress coffee completes the contentment.

Alishan National Park is on today’s agenda. It’s just under 40kms. No sweat.

By 9am, I’m on the road pedalling towards Shizao. The car-campers are just about to go off for their day’s hikes and on seeing me, they cheer me on as I ride past. I finally get a standing ovation. What  a hoot!

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Bye bye Fenqihu

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Back at Shizao, I stop at the 7Eleven for breakfast #2. Looks like it’s going to be a busy Sunday.

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Busy and uphill all the way…not always a good combination.

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A very obese pagan god along the road…

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Great views all the way.

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Finally, Alishan National Park. The last 10 kms has been quite a workout…I’m pretty sure it’s 8-10% at some places.

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The main entrance to the park. NTD200 entry fee. Notice the line of buses on the other side of the entrance

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The contents of the buses have to be disgorged somewhere….like here. I’m not getting a good buzz about this…

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Alishan National Park is not really a cycle-tourist friendly place. Bicycles are not allowed inside, which would have been great (and great for stealth-camping). The park office, however, lets me keep my panniers in a store room while I have a walkabout inside. I lock my bike on an abandoned motorcycle just in front of the 7Eleven.

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The contents of the buses are making their presence felt. They’re everywhere, and I do mean everywhere…

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People, people everywhere. No fun…so I decide to photograph the photographers instead.

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Take 1 for this auntie shooting herself with a SLR on self-timer

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Takes 2, and 3 and 4….she’s quite the perfectionist.

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Cameras at the ready, waiting for the choo-choo train to pass.

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As I’m walking out of the park, this hiker in full garb, catches my eye. He must have been exploring one of the many hiking trails inside the park. I’m walking behind him, admiring his getup, and it struck me that he’s as clean as a whistle.

The hotels here are very expensive. Not surprising. As I was riding up earlier, I had seen the bus parking lot that the car-campers at Fenqihu had been telling me about, and where they say I could camp for the night. It’s just about 1km from the park entrance and it looks like a great spot, especially the wooden building complete with toilets.

At around 6pm, I coast downhill to the bus park. It’s empty, and the entrance is barred with a chain across it. I ride in and see a man standing next to a white Peugeot coupe, looking intently at his phone. He’s obviously looking after the place. He’s startled to see me and I quickly introduce myself. At first, he’s not very sure about letting me stay here but relented and said ok, “You can stay here for the night, no problem”. The porch of the building is perfect for setting up camp, out of the rain, if the heavens should decide to pour out its contents tonight.

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Nice, free campsite with clean toilets. It did rain later in the night…non-stop until the next morning. I am so thankful for this shelter.

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My kind benefactor of the day.

Tomorrow I make my way to Sun Moon Lake, but not before a 25km climb to the top of the mountain, crossing Tatajia Pass and then all the way down to Dongpu town. It’s going to be a longish ride.

Made in Taiwan. Lantan(藍潭) to Fenqihu(奮起湖)

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.

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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.

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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.

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Google street view of Chukou:

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The road that starts climbing can be seen snaking its way up just after the town

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A signboard advertising the famous bento box that used to be served on the old Alishan Mountain Railway between Alishan and Chiayi.

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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.

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The friendly lady boss of the shop

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.

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I have never seen so many betel-nut trees before, but then again, betel-nut chewing is a national pastime for many men in Taiwan

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Roadside BBQ stalls

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Non-halal menu

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Without warning… from sunny tropical to a cold fog

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Shizao. Google street view below.

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.

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The cyclist, and his wife, who advised me to stay the night at Fenqihu.

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.

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Fenqihu

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.

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Sister Ou from Switzerland. Faithfully serving God for the last 40 years in this church. She visits home only once every 5 years.

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Small, very clean and cosy with a great view for only NTD500. Notice the thick blanket.

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The common room

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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.