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.

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:



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


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


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.


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.


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


Non-halal menu


Without warning… from sunny tropical to a cold fog


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.


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.




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.



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


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


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.

Made in Taiwan. Taipei to Chiayi (嘉義)


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.


Mee Suah man…



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.


Yessir, yessir, 3 bags full…


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. 


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. 


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. 


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”.


The Tan family.


Hot spring tomatoes, from their own vegetable plot


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.


View from the temple


Divine accommodation


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.