Made in Taiwan. Cing Jing (清境農場) to Lishan (梨山) via Wuling Pass (武嶺)

11ºC inside a house, in bed and under a thick blanket, is bearable.

11ºC inside a canvas-covered steel structure is not.

It’s cold. Stepping out, it’s worse. The chill of the cold mountain wind is biting. But I have to hit the road. Destination: Lishan, or Pear Mountain. It’s a long ride up the highest motorable road in Taiwan — the Hehuanshan road, over Wuling Pass and down the other side.

There’s no sun. Only cloudy overcast skies. Breakfast is another complimentary meal  — toast and coffee, prepared by the motherly Mrs Tan. The Tans are such lovely people. Kind and unassuming. People like them really do make my day.

I make my way up the steep access road … pushing the bike up, rather. On the road, visibility is limited to less than a hundred metres. The scenery is all but enveloped by heavy mist. I’m resigned to another cold, miserable, uninspiring ride; made worse going uphill. The only thing I’m looking forward to is the crossing of Wuling Pass at 3,275m.

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A little further down the road, I make another breakfast stop — at a 7Eleven. Of the almost 5,000 stores in Taiwan, this one boasts of being the highest on the island, at just over 2,000+ metres elevation. 7Eleven’s coffee is not too bad (as far as picky coffee drinkers are concerned…that would be me, of course). But then again, food and drink always taste better when you’re riding in such weather.

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Back on the road, the slow cold climb makes … slow cold progress. The only thing that piques my interest is the sight of a lone cyclist on a mountain bike. Like me, he’s making the same slow cold progress. He’s an elderly gentleman, heading towards Wuling Pass, as most cyclists making a day-trip are. The missus is manning the sag wagon, just in case. I ride together with him for a while and soon, we come upon his #1 fan, standing next to a car parked by the side of the road.

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Soon after this, as I stop to rest, I realise with horror that I’m missing my money-pouch, usually strapped and tucked half-hidden in the back of my pants. What makes me panic eve more is the realisation that my most valuable item, my passport, is inside the pouch. As it is, I’m already 12 kms from Cing Jing and the thought of riding down, and then up again, is not a very encouraging one. But, what else can I do? I call Mrs Tan and tell her of my predicament, and can she please check out the last place I was there with my pouch, the outhouse toilet?

She calls me back a few minutes later and tells me yes, it’s still there. It’s a good thing it’s off-season and practically empty of campers otherwise….. I don’t even want to think about it.

I tell her to please keep it for me and I will ride back down to pick it up. But in typical motherly fashion, Mrs Tan says no, asks me where I am, and tells me to stay put and says “I’ll bring it to you”. An angel in disguise, Mrs Tan is. She knows how hard the ride up is. Bless her kind heart…

I find a nice wide section of a corner and I wait. It’s cold so I jump, and walk around a bit. It’s a good thing I’d bought a face-mask yesterday, in anticipation of the long run downhill in the cold. This is even better than the Buff that I normally use.

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Pretty soon, my saviour Mrs Tan arrives in a car, driven by a man who turns out to be one of the owners of the campsite. She hands me my pouch and asks me to check the contents, saying she didn’t open it to see what’s inside.

I will always remember her as the silver lining in the dreary dark clouds of Cing Jing. If any reader of this blog intends to visit Cing Jing, I cannot recommend enough the Yang Chiow Choon campsite run by the Tans. They are real gems.

Yang Chiow Choon campsite’s tel #: 049-280 1001
(They don’t speak much English but their Filipino helper does.)

Back on the road again, pedalling with a sprightlier cadence in spite of the near-zero visibility, I can tell Wuling Pass is getting nearer. But as the elevation increases, the temperature is decreasing… its colder, with a brisk wind and slight drizzle — a potent combination to dampen any spirit.

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At the mist-covered pass, there are many people milling about. Everyone is dressed to the gills — fur-lined jackets, scarfs, balaclavas, hats, gloves, even rain-coats — but most of all, everyone is wearing long pants…duh!…except me. Who in his right mind would wear shorts on a frigid day like this, riding up Wuling?

Can’t do much about the dress code now, even if it’s 5ºC. Might as well do the Wuling Pass thing like everyone else — pose for a photo at the signboard proclaiming the spot’s elevation.

A roadie who passed me earlier is here as well, warm and snug in clean clothes. He asks to take a photo with me, which is always an honour for me with cyclists I meet on the road. The unifying power of the simple bicycle…

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A respite in the weather … the mists clear a little and I can see a bit of the famed Wuling scenery. In better spirits now that I’ve conquered the highest pass in Taiwan, I get ready to roll all the way down to Lishan but, the weather gods are not done torturing me today. It starts to rain again.

I descend anyway. Hanging around at this frigid place is not an option.

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Many times I have descended in the cold, and always, it’s very demoralising. Today is no different. My fingers are numb, my knees are numb, my face is numb in spite of a mask, and I’m shivering with cold while I negotiate the switchbacks at speed. I have to be very, very careful riding these wet roads. It helps that the traffic is light.

 

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After a long descend, I come to a junction. It’s a tiny town called Dayuling. I’m already beside myself with cold, and I see a nondescript shop ahead. I head straight for it and, stepping in, I see a few men sitting around a coal brazier. Without a word, I sit next to it, immediately feeling the comforting warmth of the heat. One of the man has an incredulous look on his face, and after finding out if I had come down from Wuling, scolds me …”Are you mad, riding down the mountain in shorts?’ Well, what can I say except give him a stupid smile.

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Putting my best (cold) foot forward…

 

I ask for a bowl of noodles but they only had the instant kind, which is fine by me. The steaming hot, salty delicious noodles at that particular moment defy description. As Browning puts it, all’s well with the world… again.

After that gratifying thawing session, I make my way towards Lishan, not very far away now. The road is narrower than the one that points down from Wuling. It’s almost deserted, save for a few cars. All around, it’s lush greenery.

Camping, even if I were to find a decent spot, is the last thing on my mind. I want a hot shower and a warm bed tonight. I check into the first decent hotel I see in Lishan, a quiet town famous for pears.

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Tomorrow will be an easy ride downhill all the way to the plains, and the last bit by bus to Taipei. I’m looking forward to joining my friends from Singapore for the next segment of my tour. Unlike my usual touring style, next week’s ride has been professionally planned by ride leader Ying Chang, the born-in-Taiwan Singaporean who considers this island his cycle-touring mecca.

 

 

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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.