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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.