I had no idea that I loved biking until I moved here. Now, I am actually excited to bike to work everyday! However, when Rita proposed that we go on a three day bike tour of the eastern part of Taiwan, I was a little nervous. What was she committing to as my friend? Would she hate me if my bum hurt and I cried a lot? Would I be able to pay a taxi to drive me to the train station if I couldn’t make it? Regardless of these worries, I, of course, said YES! I have been missing nature, and it sounded like a wonderful way to see the island. Also, we were told the East Coast is very flat compared to the rest of the island. We soon learned that the comparison did not mean flat in the way we Mekong Delta dwellers understand it, but being reunited with mountains was totally worth the pedaling work. We arrived in Taiwan late Saturday evening, and we checked ourselves into a hotel near the main train station in Taipei so that we could catch a 6am train to Haulien, a town on the East coast. In Haulien, we dropped off our hiking and camping gear at a hotel where we would stay on Tuesday night after we completed our bike tour and took the train back. Then we went to Giant to pick up the bikes that Rita had reserved for us. Because I didn’t really know what I was doing, I packed my saddlebags in a quarter of the time that it took Rita to carefully load hers and hook up her computer. So, off I went on what would be the first of many shopping trips at 7-11. Neither of us had any clue what a huge role this convenience store would play in our journey, but for the next 6 days, all but one meal a day would come from its omnipresent storefronts. We may have eaten more dried fruit, nuts, Doritos, and candy than we would like to acknowledge. Fuel of champions apparently. We talked to the nice workers at Giant and Rita had done previous research, but I had very little idea what we were about to do. I had been told we were going to bike about 180 km south to get to Taitung and take a train back. Our plan, initially, was to divide the milage pretty evenly across the days and keep a nice leisurely pace with lots of stops. I learned in Giant that there were many roads that would eventually lead to Taitung. The 2 big highways were 11 which ran along the coast pretty much the whole way, and 9 which ran pretty parallel to 11, but on the other side of a large mountain range that sometimes veered pretty far inland. We were also told that many people liked to start on a small country road (197) that ran somewhere in between the two highways and offered many chances to cross over to either side. Rita, for some reason, let me choose the course for day one. I liked the idea of taking 197 since it would have less traffic (remember I am new to biking and sometimes a little cautious around motored, moving things) and give us nice views of the mountains. Then, we knew we wanted to cross over to 9 and make it to Ruisui Hot Springs to spend the night. Rita did warn me that this would add some extra milage to our trip and require us to cross the mountain range the next day to make it to the beach. I said we should do it anyway. I make good choices. 197 was stunning. Because we didn’t even hit the road until 10:30, it was getting a bit dusky (the clouds didn’t help with lighting) by the time we reached Ruisui, and we were pretty beat. One of the reasons that 197 was so beautiful and offered such great views of the mountains is that it was pretty much in the mountains. Regardless, it was a wonderful first day of biking. We clocked in at 85km, though we both had to push our bikes up the hill to get to the hot springs hotel that our guidebook recommended. It turns out that we probably wouldn’t recommend the hotel. Though we are sure that some of the other hotels we passed were nicer and close to different hot springs, by the time we arrived, it was starting to rain pretty seriously, and we were too tired to go further. So, we did what sensible people would do – we checked in and put on our bathing suits so we could stretch and heal in the hot springs. Though the pools were not scenic, the hot water worked wonders on our sore muscles. After we got out and showered, it was raining seriously, and we decided not to venture back into town to eat. So, the owner of the hotel, who calls himself Popeye, offered to cook us dinner. He flung open the freezer and showed us what he had and then went about preparing us a feast. My favorite dish was some kind of spinach and egg combo. We are both fairly certain that Popeye had nothing to do with the actual cooking, but he loved taking credit for what he dictated to others. He asked if he could sit with us while we ate, and he chatted the whole time about politics, war, music, etc. He even served us tea after dinner. This I did see him make himself. Aside from Popeye, one fabulous part of the experience was that I pulled back my covers to get into bed and discovered a lanyard. It felt sort of like winning a prize. This reminded Rita to scold me for wearing a lanyard every day to work; I guess Bowie habits die hard even though even the teachers are too cool for IDs and keys in my new school. She made me leave it behind – at least it didn’t add any weight to my saddlebags. Day 1 in pictures:
We woke up on Day 2 to wet bikes since the garage of the hotel was under a slatted wooden deck. After breakfast, we finished reloading our saddlebags – I was a little more thoughtful about placement and balance on day 2. Then, the worst part of the day was getting our bikes down the hill that the hotel sat on. The path was very slick from all the rain, and I don’t like descents that steep to begin with. After trying multiple times to talk myself into going down, I decided to walk. The fact that this was the worst part of the day is awesome. I got it over with early, and then I moved on. Or, maybe the second worst part of the day, the unforgiving sun, was next on the docket. Unlike Sunday where we had lots of cloud cover, Monday was bright and hot in those morning hours. We set out around 8:30. By 8:45, I had sweat off all my sunscreen and was literally dripping. By 9:00 we were biking straight up a mountain to get into Yuli, the next town south on the 9, and I could wring out my clothing. Luckily my favorite rule of biking – what goes up must come down – held true and soon we got a good downhill stretch to get some wind moving around us. Downhill didn’t last long, and soon we were going back up. After a bit, I demanded that we stop at a 7-11 where I downed a Pocari Sweat (sort of like Gatorade) and ate a bag of Doritos. Sitting in the air-conditioned store for awhile and reapplying sunscreen made me feel slightly human again. We did a little more research and learned that we would be crossing over the mountains at on highway 130 (recommended at Giant and on many blogs). Then, once we were on 11, there were 3 towns big enough to offer some accommodations. The furtherest town sounded like the coolest one, but Rita said we were under no obligation to get the whole way there since it was only 20-30km from our final destination and we could stop there for lunch the next day. At this point, I was so sweaty that I didn’t know how I would make it to the closest town let alone the furtherest.
Luckily, at some point before we reached 130, some cloud cover started to form. It was still mostly in the mountains and we were biking parallel to them. For relief from the sun, I was almost glad to cross over. We started up 130, and it was steep. A blog I had read while sitting in 7-11 warned me of this, but said the views at the top were worth it and that there were at least 20 minutes of downhill as a reward. This of course meant more than 20 minutes for me because nobody goes down hills slower than me. Remember how many sets of brake pads and rotors Rexi has gone through? Well, I might ride the brakes on bikes too. Oops. At one point during the uphill, we turned a corner and saw an even steeper uphill, and I told Rita that I wasn’t going to make it. I would have to push my bike up for sure. She suggested that we hop off right then and walk the flat part that had a bit of shoulder on the road and told me it would be safer and easier if I just biked up the hill. I did learn that Rita hates flat road, so this advice may have stemmed from that, but it worked. We walked a minute or two and then biked up the impossibly steep hill. We stopped at the top (not the top of the whole mountain range – just that little top) to take some photos. Good times. Then, we biked up some more and took more photos at another top. This continued for awhile. Luckily, it was beautiful at every turn. In fact, it was so beautiful that I had to tell Rita that we needed to cut our photo stops in half or we would never get anywhere.
After what felt like an eternity of biking uphill and getting a few little rain spritzes, we reached a 2+km tunnel that we had read about on a blog. That lady biker promised that it was all downhill after the tunnels, and she was right. We did stop to play in the tunnels, but when we came out the other side, we were cruising! So awesome! I no longer feared downhill; I was loving it. I could have gone down all day. Again there was unexpected beauty at every curve, and eventually, we could see the ocean! We had done it!
Biking down 11 was much easier for me. While it wasn’t exactly flat, it wasn’t too hilly either. We could pretty much cruise. We stopped took some more backroads to stay close to the ocean, but stayed pretty close to 11 most of the afternoon and early evening. Eventually, we reached the middle town that was a possibility for staying. We took a long rest at its lovely bridges where we finished the last of our water and a lot of our dried fruit and nuts. We debated staying there but decided if we just went another 20k (it ended up only being about 15!), we could sleep in the next day and really enjoy Doulan, which the guide book promised was a great town. So, we did it! We stopped to fill up our water, and then we just kept riding. It was surprisingly easy. Our total distance for the day was 105km, and I felt so proud. I never would have said it was possible, but in fact, it was downright enjoyable. Sure, those mountains were hard, but the beauty, the good company, and my newfound love of biking more than made up for the temporary discomfort. I would say that this is the day that made me a biking convert. I might love it as much as hiking!
We did manage to sleep in on Tuesday morning – sort of. Doulan was definitely a pretty relaxed town though we didn’t quite see the thriving art scene mentioned in our guidebook. The owner of the hostel that we stayed in was a surfer, and he had stand-up paddle boards for rent which Rita thought she would do before we headed out on bikes, but when we woke up and went downstairs, nobody was working. The owner had gone surfing, and even though there was a delicious looking breakfast menu posted, there was nobody to cook or serve us. So, we wandered around town and found some coffee and Mother’s Day cards to send (hope mine makes it in time – if not, Happy Mother’s Day, Mama Fetterolf!). After going to the post office, we returned to the hostel, but still nobody was at work. So, we showered and packed, and by the time we were loading our bikes, the surfing owner return for us to check out. Then we rode to the beach and read for a bit before striking out to find brunch on our way to Taitung. We knew that there wasn’t much to do in Taitung from the guide book, and Rita’s research revealed that there were 2 good cafes on the way. We ended up not finding either but lucked out when Rita spotted one of our favorite places of the whole vacation! We lazed around the delightful beachside cafe for a couple of hours and then rode to Taitung and did a few forest trails in that area before heading to Giant by 5pm for bike drop-off. Then we changed and caught a train back to Haulien. It is official, I am a cycle touring convert! Can’t wait for the next brave soul ready to pedal beside me!