Yesterday’s rugby practice. It’s been raining since New Year’s, give or a take a few sunny days here and there. Mudbath, anyone?
Somewhere about halfway down Taiwan’s East Rift Valley, I realized that I was on my fourth cup of coffee in half that number of hours, and still had a long day of riding ahead of me. Like most travelers in this country, I was in awe of 7-11, a literal land of milk and honey (and caffeine) found in just about every tiny village located up and down Taiwan. Seven, as it’s known in both English and Chinese, offers water, coffee, snackage, bathrooms, wifi and anything else I might possibly need while roadtripping around the island.
This past weekend was the Chinese Qingming Festival, a public four-day holiday. I decided to head down south for a few days and drive some of my favorite roads. Buying train tickets during a holiday weekend is never easy, but I somehow ended up getting a seat for the exact train I wanted. 11:30pm on Saturday may not seem the most ideal time, but it let me hit up rugby practice and have dinner with a friend that day before I headed to Taipei Main Station to catch my train. As it was a slow train, I had a solid 6 hours of sleep aboard before pulling into Taitung Station just before 6am the following morning.
I walked to a rental shop across the road from the station, flashed my Taiwan license, and had a scooter for the next two days just like that. I’ve been to Taitung several times in the past, and it’s a great place for a vacation. For the largest city on Taiwan’s southeastern coast, it’s pretty small and completely laid-back, but you definitely need wheels to get around. I grabbed coffee and zoomed over to one of Taitung’s seaside parks where I spent an hour staring at the Pacific and face-timing the twin.
After that it was a straight shot up Highway 11 to Hualien, a good 170 kilometers or so. The 11 is a beautiful road, as it runs right next to the ocean and passes through countless small towns, many of them aboriginal. The perfect route for a day of exploring and relaxing. I’ve ridden the length of Highway 11 on a bicycle before, but that trip was in the fall. It was nice to ride the road in the springtime – and on a scooter!
About sixty kilometers up from Taitung City I reached Sanxiantai, a national scenic area full of unique rock formations and an even more unique eight-arched bridge heading out to the Terrace of the Three Immortals. The bridge looks like ocean waves or a sea dragon’s back, depending on your perspective. I spent a good two hours hiking around the island and hanging out on the rocks.
I reached Hualien City around 2 in the afternoon, after a leisurely drive along the coast. Highway 11 is set with the Pacific on one side and huge mountain ranges on the other, but in many places there are fields of crops between the road and the mountain – and sometimes between the road and the ocean, too. I saw pineapples, sunflowers, and dragon fruit, but most of the fields were rice. Every so often a graveyard appeared in the most prime locations, and because this was Tomb Sweeping weekend there were hundreds of people in each cemetery to clean the graves and pay respect to their ancestors.
When I arrived in Hualien I went straight to the beach, but within an hour the sun had disappeared and the sky became pitch black. I left to hit up my favorite wonton shop and check into my hostel. I felt a little bad crawling into bed at 7pm instead of going out, but I’ve been to Hualien a million times and I was tired. Besides, waking up at 4am the next morning meant I got halfway down Highway 9 before the sun came up
Highway 9 runs from Hualien City down Taiwan’s East Rift Valley and back out to the coast in Taitung City before continuing south. I only needed to make it about 180 kilometers between Hualien and Taitung, and by 6am I found myself in a 7-11 along the highway on my fourth cup of coffee.
An hour later I’d made it all the way to Chishang, a tiny little village in Taidong County famed for its stunning rice fields and delicious lunch boxes. Last time I was in Chishang was autumn, and the rice fields were golden yellow; now they were green and growing. I grabbed breakfast and strolled around town for an hour – also skyped with the family from the middle of a rice field.
After that it was a straight shot down Highway 9 to downtown Taidong. I went straight to the train station to buy a ticket and lucked out in a big way – I thought I’d get stuck with a standing ticket at midnight, but somehow I landed a seat on the 2pm train back to Taipei. And it was the fast train, so I’d be back in Taipei by 6pm! I called up my friend Julia who was also in Taidong, and we met up and chilled at the beach for a couple of hours. Then I returned my bike to the shop, hit up 7-11 for another coffee and slept all the way back to Taipei.
Here are a few pictures from my daily commute in Taipei. The flow of traffic here is different than most other places in the world. Motorbikes wend their way between cars, jockeying for position in specially marked boxes at the head of the traffic queue. At every stoplight a swarm of scooters forms ahead of cars, trucks, and buses, and the sound of revving engines grows louder as the light counts down to green. Then a stream of motorbikes shoots down the road until they catch up to traffic and the next red light.
With some 15 million bikes for a country densely populated with 23 million people, this sort of craziness is a common sight.
Also crazy of late: my life. These past couple months have been a consistent routine of 50-hour workweeks, interrupted by church, language exchange, community group, rugby practice, volunteering, and friends. Being busy is a good way to ward off homesickness, though recently I find myself becoming more and more anxious for that next long haul back to the states. Just three months to go, now!
And they’ll be a busy three months, for sure. Graduation season is upon us already, in terms of workload, though the actual event isn’t for several months – these are the days when I seriously question my career path. I have replaced my passport and bank cards, and the process to get my Taiwan ID and health insurance is underway. I’ll go to Hong Kong for four days soon to replace my Chinese visa.
My rugby team is also meant to travel south to Kaohsiung for a sevens tournament the end of April, and then we have a tournament in Okinawa the second week of May. We also have a game against Hong Kong the last weekend in May. So lots of travel and competition coming up, including… drumroll… dragon boat. Practice has begun, which means I’m extra tired and sore every weekend.
I am trying hard to catch up on posts from past trips and adventure, so stay tuned for a flood of blog posts. Fingers crossed.
Been raining for weeks, and the field is a bit murky. In other news, it snowed in Taipei City today. Just a few flakes, but still actually snowed for the first time in anyone’s living memory. We could see our breath in the air, and are now in the middle of the coldest snap in over ten years. There is no heat in apartments here. That is all.
To be fair to Taiwan, many of these are leftover from my time in China. But, ok, let’s be honest. A good amount of translation fails happen in this country, too, and they’re always good for a laugh. Five plus years in Asia, and my Chinese reading is solid enough that I can understand some of the “logic” behind off translations, and knowing the intended meaning often makes these signs even funnier. My other Chinglish posts are found here (1) and here (2). Enjoy!
After a long morning on the rugby field I came home and crashed, hoping to catch up on some much-needed sleep. Unluckily, it’s only been an hour and I’ve just been awakened by the neighborhood announcements, broadcast at top volume via ancient speakers hung strategically on buildings up and down the alleys. The same tinny old guy’s voice reviews what of importance has occurred that week, when the next god parade will be, occasional changes to the garbage truck schedule, who has died and will be shutting down traffic with their funeral, and such other consequential news. There is, alas, a speaker not too far from my window, so I hear everything that’s going on around good old Longmen Lu.
This afternoon he spent his entire installment urging the public to get out and vote, before wishing them peace and happiness and, though I may have interpreted this wrong, noting that Taiwan is a great country whose people are able to choose a leader who will guide them as a united nation in the face of outside pressure. Betraying some pretty solidly DPP leanings there, pal, though it seems most of the country will be voting in favor of the Beijing-wary Democratic Progressive Party as opposed to the old-school Kuomintang that’s been in power for most of Taiwan’s history.
Today is finally the day of Taiwan’s presidential election, as well as voting for parliament seats and various lower legislative seats, all of which conclude months of political rallies and parades and grandstanding. I can’t count the number of times I’ve gotten stuck behind a brigade of motorcycles flying campaign banners and shouting support for their candidate through a megaphone. Gung ho locals are also wont to block traffic by cordoning off entire blocks for political rallies, which go long and loud into the night. Every morning for the past month, the street corners are controlled by local-level politicians standing on crates and waving and bowing at passersby while their lackeys run into stopped traffic to distribute flyers and tissue packs overlaid with the political hopeful’s photo.
I’ll be glad when the election season ballyhoo dies down a bit, though sadly there will always remain the possibility of being wakened from a rare nap by the neighborhood report system. Halfway through January now, crazily enough, and busy as ever. My friends and I welcomed the New Year together with half of Taipei at the fireworks show from 101. More importantly we were blessed with a three day weekend and beautiful weather on New Year’s Day.
It’s been raining almost every day for a month now, though funnily enough the past two Saturdays have been clear and sunny – perfect rugby days. I’ve been playing for a while now, for the only international expat team in Taipei. We practice twice a week, often with the guys’ team, though more lately we’ve been having ladies-only practices. We don’t play as many matches as the men, since there are no other ladies’ teams on this little island and we must either go abroad to compete or host teams in Taiwan from elsewhere in Asia.
I’ve learnt an awful lot about the sport, one I not too long ago knew nothing about since, let’s face it, rugby isn’t exactly all the rage where I’m from. It’s a hugely physical game, and I’ve become much stronger over the last half-year – also seem to have permanently bruised legs, knees, and elbows, though there’s only been one bruised cheekbone thus far, thank goodness. I’m quite enjoying myself, as it’s good to be challenged in practice, and I’ve made a whole new set of friends in the bargain.
And now for the weird Taiwan story of the month – a teacher at work has apparently been possessed by a ghost. She’s been on leave for almost two months now because after medical professionals could find nothing wrong with her, temple professionals suggested that she was possessed by an evil spirit – and this is the kicker hahahaha – because she kicked over a gravestone when she was young. Why this spirit is now coming to haunt her years later remains a mystery, but presumably some sort of exorcism is in the works.
Every Taiwanese I’ve met believes in ghosts to one degree or another, even if they won’t straight up give a reason why. Much of the local culture and habits take into consideration the spirits of the dead and how they might affect one’s daily and future life. Almost every child I teach wears an amulet of some sort to both ward off evil ghosts and to help them with their daily tasks. One of my students told me that he had recovered from an illness “because this,” and he pulled a small Mazu charm from around his neck. A lot of people hang amulets off their cars and scooters, too.
Clearly, such beliefs influence rational thinking, as in the case of this teacher’s inexplicable stomach ailment. Among the funnier stories I’ve heard is of an expat who came home to footprints in his house leading to the outside balcony and stopping at the wall, with no set of return prints. The cops were called and, with little to go on, offered a stunning assessment of the situation: it was a ghost. We, as foreigners unaccustomed to these beliefs, laugh and joke about such stories but to many Taiwanese they are very real and ought to be taken as cautions.
And my Chinese success story of the week – I was booking a flight with my Taiwanese card, which requires me to enter a pin sent to my phone before the charges will be approved. I entered the wrong pin by accident and the entire transaction froze. I really needed that flight, so I called my bank’s customer service line and discovered that no one in the department spoke any English. Now, it’s hard enough to have a conversation in Mandarin when you’re staring someone in the face and can also follow their body language and facial cues. But phone Chinese? Next to impossible. I’m proud to report that although I’m certain I understood only about half the conversation and have absolutely no recollection of what I said to describe my issue, ten minutes later my card was functioning again, I received a new pin, and my flight was booked. Go me!
And that leads to the last bit of news. Chinese New Year is fast approaching, and I’ve decided to jet away this year. It will be my first CNY in six years to be spent outside China or Taiwan. I’ll still get my lunar new year, though, since Vietnam subscribes to the Chinese lunar calendar and the Tet holiday falls on the same day. I plan to fly to Laos for four days first, and then fly over to Hanoi in time to celebrate New Year’s. I’ve got nine days to cruise around Vietnam (pretty sure I’m sticking to Hanoi, Halong, Hue, and Hoi An this time around), and then I’ll fly from DaNang to Cambodia for five days. Then a quick stop in Malaysia and back to Taipei. The dates lined up perfectly for CNY this year, and all of Taiwan gets nine days straight. With that amount of vacation, it made sense to tack on another two weeks and have a decent backpacking trip. Prayers appreciated, as many a dodgy night bus and sketchy regional airline are about to be experienced.
Check a road trip along Taiwan’s highest drivable pass off the bucket list. The Central Cross-Island Highway is one of just three roads that connect Taiwan’s west coast with the east, and it’s easily one of the most stunning drives in this country – through deep valleys, around hairpin turns, and ever higher into magnificent mountain ranges all the way to the island’s highest road point, and then back down a long winding road straight to the Pacific Ocean where tall cliffs meet the turquoise sea.
For the recent 10/10 holiday (ok, fine, a solid two months ago now) my local friends helped me chart a route from Taipei halfway down the west coast to Taichung and then across the island through Puli and over Hehuanshan to Hualien and back up the east coast to Taipei. I had three days to complete the journey, some 600 kilometers along my planned route plus a few places I wanted to stop along the way, so I booked a couple of YMCA beds, took my bike for a tune-up, and hit the road.
It was pouring when I left early Friday morning, and I froze my tail off all the way over to Taoyuan and down to Hsinchu where I stopped for a coffee and to thaw my fingers. It wasn’t that cold temperature-wise but in Taiwan cool, rainy days have a way of going straight to the bone. By the time I hit Miaoli, the rain had stopped and the sun shone on me all the way to Taichung, where I stopped to gas up for the first time since leaving Taipei. Oh, and I also pulled into some farmer’s field along the road to divest myself of extra layers. After a half hour driving in circles around Fengyuan District, I finally found my way out of Taichung (the same city, coincidentally, that Julia and I spent forever trying to get out of on our bicycles last winter). Most people will agree that the stretch from Taoyuan to Taichung is one of the most boring areas of Taiwan, and while I saw nothing of particular note, it always interests me to drive through small cities and villages and watch locals going about their daily lives.
From Taichung I got on national highway 136 through the mountains to Puli in Nantou County. The 136 is a gorgeous, desolate road that goes through a range of mountains and past several tiny townships until it dead-ends into Route 14. As I sped along the highway I only saw a few other riders, and I was able to stop a few times to take in the views and tour a small village – really just a massive, gorgeous temple surrounded by a few homes.
Once on Highway 14, it was easy mountain riding, and it was just four in the afternoon by the time I arrived on the outskirts of Puli Township, the largest city on Route 14 between Taichung and Hualien. Puli is a just big downtown area in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by mountains on all sides, without even a train station. The roads out of town lead deep into the mountains and their myriad rural townships, or either east or west to the coasts. I cruised around town for a bit, scored some of the best xiaolongbao I’ve ever eaten, and then headed out into the mountains to see a monastery at sunset.
I took Route 14 out of Puli Saturday morning, and almost immediately the road began to climb higher, offering stunning views of the sunny valleys below. I was now on the Central Cross-Island Highway, and had no way off this road until I hit Taroko National Park. The 14 runs directly across central Taiwan and connects only with Highway 8 down to the stunning East Coast. There are also no 7-11s past a certain point, a horror that no traveler is prepared for in this country. I stopped for an hour-long coffee break at about 1500 meters, near a tourist hotspot called Cingjing Farms that boasted a view of mountains rolling on forever.
After Cingjing there was no more traffic, and it was a straight shot up Hehuanshan to Wuling Pass, the highest drivable point in Taiwan. Straight here means countless twists and turns as the road climbed higher and higher all the way up to 3,275 meters. The higher I drove, the foggier and colder it became. I can’t quite describe how quiet it was up there, with almost no traffic and the fog hugging me close. Peaceful, but desolate. I eventually cleared all forest cover and drove along a road that cut through rock and mountain fields.
Somewhere along the way I stopped to put on everything I had brought with me, as it was much colder than I’d bargained for, and once I arrived at Wuling I was out in the open amidst waving grass and punishing gusts of wind. Mt. Hehuan’s east peak stood right beside me, with the highway running over its neck and down its back en route to the east coast. I lasted maybe ten minutes up there before descending a few hundred meters to an old lodge. It was no less cold here, but I hiked for a couple hours and that helped.
I had to go a bit past Wuling Pass to reach my accommodations for the night, a YMCA located just before the sleepy hamlet of Dayuling. There was no one within a hundred kilometers who spoke a word of English, and my brain was as tired as my body, so check-in was one of my rougher exchanges. It was only about 5pm, but I was exhausted, so I told the helpful worker that I would skip dinner and go straight to bed. He asked if I would like breakfast the next morning but as I planned to hit the road well before sunrise, I declined. A half hour later, after a long, hot shower, I was just turning in when this worker came into the dorm room. “Yixin? (my Chinese name) I brought some mantou for you to eat tomorrow morning.” I was once again the recipient of wonderful Taiwanese hospitality and kindness, even if it took my tired mind a solid minute to realize who he was talking to.
I was on the road by 5am Sunday morning and backtracked along Route 14 a bit to catch a stunning sunrise, the sort paints the whole sky with fire. Since I was close again, I dropped by Wuling Pass one more time, before turning around and riding east. Highway 14 turned into Highway 8 and from here it was all downhill – road-wise, certainly not in terms of scenery. It was foggy, cold, and damp, though, and by the time I reached Tianxiang at the head of Taroko Park I was chilled to the bone. I watched some 60km of elevation signage all the way down hoping to warm up as I got near to sea level again.
I felt a little bad flying through Taroko Gorge, as this stunning wonder deserves a lot more attention than the two quick pullovers I gave it, but I’ve been twice before and I was content to stare at the riverbed cut through marble from my bike as as I tore along. I stayed cold through the forty minute drive from Taroko to Hualien City, where I detoured straight to the door of my favorite restaurant for a bowl of wonton soup. I love Hualien and would have liked to stay longer, but I was bent on making Taipei before dark and had a long drive ahead of me. Two friends had told me it is too tiring to attempt driving from Wuling to Taipei in a day, but I thought I could make it, and now that I was warm again I was gung ho to give it my best shot. I gassed up, made a quick pit stop at one of Taiwan’s most magnificent beaches, and blasted onto the Suhua Highway, northbound for Taipei.
Suhua is a stunning drive, in more ways than one. It’s one of the most beautiful roads in Taiwan and one of my personal favorites, where climbs are rewarded by stunning views off cliffs of the turquoise Pacific. This is also the road I cycled exactly one year prior, and I spent most of the journey wondering exactly how this road had been built along sheer coastal cliff such as this and how exactly I had made it up and over these mountains under my own pedaling power. I was more than grateful to be riding my motorbike this time around.
The rest of Sunday was simply driving, driving, and more driving. I liked seeing all the places that I’d stopped a year ago; this drive brought back so many good and bad memories! One of the things I like most about riding a motorbike around Taiwan is being able to stop when and wherever I wish – if I see a sight or some good food, or just need a break, I can pull over for a rest. I passed Su-ao, the end of the coast highway, and then continued on to Yilan, where I split off onto Beiyi Highway, a really fun road with sharp turns that whip you around in a 180 over and over again.
The final stretch was the backroads that snake their way through the mountains surrounding Taipei. I drive these roads all the time, as they’re easy weekend drives, and I love the passing through the many small townships and seeing rural life and such beautiful nature. I made it back to Taipei by 5pm, just as dark was falling, albeit it on the complete opposite side of the city from where my apartment is. Still, 12 hours all the way from Hehuanshan to Taipei, with multiple stops for food and photography along the way. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself. Can’t wait for my next road trip.