A Little Pause and a Big Push: Hualien to Taipei (The Northeast)

This post is part of Up and Down, All Around: Bike Touring Taiwan


Day 3: Hualien — Jiaosi

Wednesday, November 22, 2017
Distance: 17.7 mi / 28.5 km
Elevation: 544 ft / 166 m
Accommodation: Everyday Hot Springs

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If you get leather saddles like the Brooks B17, make sure they’re broken in before you jump into 8+ hour days. Believe us. On the third day of our tour, our butts felt so sore and so… tender? As such, we were excited for the day’s train ride and flat 18 miles.

We started the day by using the breakfast coupons we had received for our stay at Chi Ya B&B. (Note: The “breakfast” part of B&B is sometimes optional in Taiwan – perhaps lost in translation). I had pidanshourouzhou (皮蛋瘦肉粥, savory rice porridge with preserved duck eggs), while Emerson indulged in more danbing (蛋餅, fried egg + bacon pancakes), and a very sweet coffee.

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Back at the homestay, we packed our just-a-touch-damp items and chatted with a few Taiwanese guests about our biking plans. One lady in particular provided Emerson much needed encouragement (his butt is so sensitive) by constantly exclaiming “lihai, lihai, lihai…!” (amazing).

Riding the 1 mile to the train station was easy. Getting our stuff up and down the platform stairs was less so. Unlike previous Taiwan train station visits, we could not find any elevators at Hualien Station. Our best solution was to use two random shoulder straps Emerson had to carry our panniers separately from the bikes, as the fully-loaded rigs were just too unwieldy.

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The train arrived on time (Taiwan Railway, so punctual!) and we settled into the car #8, the bike car. We were joined by another group of bike tourers looking to avoid the notoriously dangerous Su’ao Highway. It’s known for its few turnoffs, minimal shoulders, long tunnels, and heavy cliffside traffic. It felt a little like cheating when I first read about circumventing Su’ao Highway but after more research, we were perfectly happy to take a pass on it.

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We arrived in Su’aoxin Station just in time for lunch and chatted with the other touring group while we cleared the train platform (blessedly, via elevator this time). They happened to be from New Zealand and only had the ride up to Taipei the following day left. We didn’t have time to blurt out “OMG YOU ARE FROM NEW ZEALAND WE WANT TO GO TO THERE” before we parted ways at the front of the station, but that was probably a good thing in retrospect.

We exited into dreary weather but located a delicious lunch buffet (自助餐) soon after, which fortified us for what seemed like an unending string of stoplights. The road and the weather finally opened up a bit as we neared Jiaosi and we spied the cloud-covered mountains we would be climbing the next day.

With only about 30 km to cover by bike, we arrived at our hotel near the town’s famous springs in the mid-afternoon. Emerson told me to wait outside so he could attempt the check-in process on his own. He eventually requested my assistance but only after successfully communicating to the manager that we needed space to store our bikes. To be fair, he mainly needed my help in translating “geothermic heating and cooling”.

After a hot springs shower, we strolled to the public springs in the middle of the town, which consisted of crowded lukewarm foot baths and a wide array of pools with tiny fish hungry for your dead foot skin (and 80 TWD, about 2.50 USD). We could see why there exists a blog post titled “Jiaosi, Taiwan’s worst tourist trap?”

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In the blustery and occasionally drizzly weather, we discussed our plans for next day’s big ride (which called for 4,500 ft of climbing and 45 or so miles up to Taipei). I was pretty, shall we say, hesitant about the endeavor, repeatedly asking Emerson how much we have to climb and ride and if there were alternatives. After repeatedly receiving the same answers (a lot, a lot, and yes but it’ll involve more strong headwinds), I committed to the big ride except in the event of a downpour.

We located another local specialty fried scallion pancake place (the variation here being less oily than Hualian’s version and the prominent inclusion of Yilan County’s famous scallions) as an appetizer. Eventually we entered a small restaurant for a small feast of 小籠湯包 (small soup buns), sheep noodle soup, and Taiwanese pickled vegetables.

Somehow still able to walk (and eat), we found an older gentleman who prepared us another of Jiaosi’s specialties – a dessert burrito consisting of ice cream and shavings from a large frozen block of peanut brittle…? Emerson melted along with the ice cream from how good it was.

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He’s been making the brittle and ice cream himself for 20 years! A true master of his craft.

With no worries about over-shopping on empty stomachs, we grabbed breakfast supplies for the following morning from 7-11, agreed on last contingencies for rainy and/or windy conditions the next day, and fell asleep just short of 8 pm.


Day 4: Jiaosi — Taipei

Thursday, November 23, 2017
Distance: 46.1 mi / 74.2 km
Elevation: 4132 ft / 1260 m
Accommodation: SleepBox Hostel

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If you read my previous post about confronting the FONF, you’ll know about the fog of self-doubt that envelope me before a new outdoor challenge. That’s the anxious state I rolled out of bed in around 6 am. Pulling back the curtains, we saw damp streets but no rain and little wind, meaning we were going to tackle the famous “9 turns and 18 curves” of Provincial Highway 9 that day. After a quick hotel room breakfast and thorough lubing of our bike chains, we wove through the city to the base of the climb with nowhere to go but up.

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I kept waiting for the road to become a vertical wall, telling myself not to get excited because this was still warm-up. But as Emerson practiced his Chinese by counting the number of turns completed, I began to accept that I could handle this road, quite comfortably in fact. The climb was persistent but gentle most of the way. Sections requiring more effort were over before I lost my breath. Traffic was light on this Thursday morning and consisted mostly of Taiwan’s ubiquitous blue work trucks. Conditions were pleasant as the overcast skies limited sun exposure and heat without bringing down too much moisture (at least at first). As we climbed, we felt ourselves riding up into the clouds’ suspended rain droplets. It was so enjoyable! Nothing like what I built up in my head.

We were passed by a couple of speedy road cyclists going at a Strava PR pace, but didn’t encounter any other cyclists along the way. At one nondescript turn, Emerson asked me if I was alright. I said yes and then he said, “Look!” Monkeys were clambering through the treetops and scrambling along the roadside. I was admiring them when Emerson told me he thought their low, guttural grunting was coming from me; that’s why he asked if I was alright. 😑

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After this encounter, we carried onward, taking a rest break at what we thought was the most scenic overlook, but in our typical fashion, we would discover an official lookout right up the road. We fueled up, fortuitously threw on our rain jackets, pushed our way through a tunnel, and began our first big descent of the day.

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And man, what a descent! Even as the fog gave way to actual rain, we were still able to navigate the long series of straight-aways and gradual curves without too much braking. With no headwinds to sap our speed, it was hard to believe that we had earned this much coasting with our morning efforts.

At this point we were pretty soaked, even in our rain jackets, but very grateful for our fenders keeping even more water and dirt off of us. A brief climb helped us warm up before descending into the mountain town of Pinglin, where we beelined straight for the selection of salty, warm soupy treats at 7-11. Emerson also snuck some charging from his spare battery into his rear bike light and cell phone (cuz if you don’t Strava all the way around Taiwan, did you really do it?).

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Slightly dried and thawed, we headed out for the last big climb of the day. We learned we were going through a region renowned for its tea from the teapot statues and cute tea-leaf-themed street signs (because everything’s just a little bit more delightful in Taiwan). The rhythm remained similar to the morning’s – climb through the clouds, avoid trucks, stop for photo ops. 

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DSC01623.jpgFinally, we hit the top and relished our efforts by flying down to Taipei, keeping pace with a few motor scooters. Silly grins galore!

Once we exited the mountains and entered the city outskirts, we popped into another 7-11 for a huddle as to whether to push on past Taipei or go in as planned. Still cold and wet from the morning rains, camping wasn’t all that attractive. The few towns past Taipei, Daxi and Sanxia, looked like expensive stays. As a result, we found the cheapest hostel room in Taipei near tomorrow’s route and made our Frogger-like journey into the heart of the city.

Hoping that trucks see and avoid you on mountain roads is nerve-wracking, but not nearly as bad as keeping up with the flow of Taipei rush hour traffic. We were shunted into scooter-packed lanes while buses and cars continually cut us off. We made it, eventually, right into the neighborhood of the Institute for National Policy Research where I interned before senior year of college, and located SleepBox hostel.

SleepBox Hostel very literally provides sleep boxes. We chuckled at the size and configuration of our room – bunk beds where the door hits the ladder to the top bunk with a small, single window fully open to the hallway. We decided to treat this more like indoor camping and slept in our sleeping bags on the mattresses.

After showers and a quick phone call to my family to confirm our arrival, we were off to my happy place– 三來素食館, a vegetarian buffet. The picture doesn’t quite capture all the bliss, but they come a lot closer than any words I can share. Emerson seemed to enjoy it too, though I gave him serious side-eye for grabbing what was essentially a giant sweet potato tater tot. Dessert involved hand-made mochi from an old lady managed street cart and walking around the Ximen district. We returned to our sleep box early for more route planning.

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We heard that trying to avoid the coastal city mess along the west coast was worth the effort, but involved hillier routes and fewer lodging options (many northern campgrounds were closed for the season too). We went to bed with a plan to head towards Hsinchu but then turn off into the mountains. As to the specifics, we’d hash that out along the way. I zonked out pretty quickly, while Benadryl helped Emerson overcome the light/faint noise drifting in through our window and nod off for the evening.

 

 

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