This post is part of Up and Down, All Around: Bike Touring Taiwan
Friday, November 24, 2017
Distance: 48.3 mi / 77.7 km
Elevation: 3585 ft / 1093 m
Accommodation: Wan Yue B&B
“Would you rather face 6 hours of relentless climbing or 1 hour in rush hour traffic?”
Our answer was obvious as we were swept along by the coursing scooter river of Taipei’s morning rush hour. To make matters worse, Google kept taking us to bridges and overpasses that restricted two-wheel traffic, forcing us to make nail-biting U-turns and power up on-ramps. As of this writing, Google Maps doesn’t provide bicycling directions in Taiwan so during our trip, we had to split the difference between driving directions (more direct but took us on freeways) and walking directions (safer but wove us through easy-to-miss backroads and alleyways). Once we finally made it out of Taipei’s city center, we desperately turned off onto a designated bikeway not knowing where it led to.
Daxi’s historic main street maintains many of its original edifices and brick road. It’s well-known for its firm tofu and most of the street’s shops sold some variation of it. Not having much time, I chose a small restaurant featuring banner images of something I couldn’t identify or read for lunch. Auspiciously again, it turned out to be delicious bowls of steamed rice paste with seasoned meat at the bottom and topped with stewed tofu (really much better than how I’ve described it).
After Daxi, we easily got on the smooth and rolling Provincial Highway 3, our chosen path into the mountains. A little ways into it, we saw a sign for the Shimen Reservoir, one of Taiwan’s many engineering marvels, and decided to check it out. It took us to the top of a massive yet beautiful dam surrounded by lush mountains. Pictures were deemed necessary for the view and strong winds gifted us supermodel hair.
Back on PH 3, we enjoyed extended tailwinds finally. At one of our roadside pit stops (because convenience stores were sparse along the route), we committed to heading towards a campsite in Neiwan. Time flew by as we rolled through quiet mountain towns and forests and before we knew it, we had turned off PH 3 and were dodging tour buses while climbing into Neiwan. Right before descending into town, I made us stop to take in the views at an abandoned looking pedestrian suspension bridge (my favorite type of bridge).
Finding the campground was a bit of a challenge. After some Google Maps stop-and-go, we found it shuttered for the season. We later learned from my aunt that many campsites in northern Taiwan were closed due to (1) it being the rainier, colder off-season, (2) damages inflicted by the previous year’s typhoon, or (3) recent police crackdown on illegitimate businesses. It explained why we were striking out at most of the campgrounds we contacted in the past few days.
But because meticulous planning is our/Emerson’s style, we had a backup plan lined up. We walked down Neiwan’s short yet bustling main street looking for Wan-Yue B&B. I expected a front desk or lobby but instead, I found myself knocking on the front garage of the friendly owners’ home and booking a room that way. We stashed our bikes across from their giant pet eel’s tank and hauled our stuff next door where the actual homestay was located. After quick showers and hanging up our residually wet clothes, we wondered back outside to discover that the crowds we wove through on our way into Neiwan had basically vanished. Half of the stalls had already closed and the remaining ones were making moves to follow suit. It was 6:30pm.
But that proved fortuitous because with all the people gone, we scored on a fire sale of zhongzis (banana-leaf-wrapped sticky rice balls)! We cleaned out the shop, foreseeing the need for breakfast and snacks due to the next day’s early and remote start. However, our appetites remained unsatiated and desiring something hot and soupy for dinner. Of the few shops still open, a tiny restaurant called us in with its bright purple storefront and gave us exactly what we were after– steaming bowls of delicious beef noodle soup, wonton soup, and foraged greens.
Bellies full and happy, we retired back to our comfy room to set out our route and accommodation options for the next day. A quite evening in the mountains made us forget the harrowing city traffic the day began with.
Friday, November 24, 2017
Distance: 77.8 mi / 125.2 km
Elevation: 5504 ft / 1678 m
Accommodation: Casa de mi Tia
“Would you rather ride in strong headwinds or a downpour?”
Considering the bit of climbing needed to get out of Neiwan, we kept our raincoats off despite the drizzle when we left Wan-Yue around 7:30am.
Within 10 minutes of riding…
“This is ridiculous,” I sputtered.
“I can’t believe this,” I think Emerson replied through his soggy beard.
Despite the full on rain and the puddles forming in our shoes, we had fun splashing up and down hills for the next few hours. It was a little ridiculous but not miserable, falling into that strange category of fun that’s hard to explain. At around 10am, we arrived at Nanzhuang where we sought rejuvenating warm things and found them in the form of delicious pan-fried youbings and wontons from a farm truck and the best xianchaocha (hot herbal jelly drink) I’ve ever had from a granny also selling breakfast corn dogs.
Notably, a few cyclists heading the other way asked to take selfies with Emerson, further boosting his morale after the food. More helpfully, they informed us that the rain and clouds would clear up once we passed Dahu.
They were right. The heavy raindrops kept shrinking until they turned into mist that eventually cleared into overcast skies. At this point, no longer needing to worry about how soaked we were, we were able to shift our attention to the rolling, punchy tropical terrain before us.
We found ourselves riding through a series of fruit-producing regions, each one creatively displaying pride for its local crop. Orange county greeted us first, with themed street-signs and murals. Once we crossed a bridge featuring a cartoon orange and strawberry holding hands under a giant 愛 (it’s the character for love), we entered strawberry-ville as indicated by the strawberry hot water tanks, bus stops, and garage doors. This was followed by the smaller banana-town and pomelo hamlet.
At the end of our tropical smoothie ride sat the day’s peak above Taichung. We stopped at the small outdoor cafe there to discuss what to do for the evening. With light starting to fade, we leaned towards heading to a nearby campground but nixed that plan when we learned it was going to be much more expansive than we planned for. Instead, we talked to my aunt and arranged to stay with her in the city. This decision would add over 10 miles to our day but it was more reasonable to us than pay 4 days worth of meals (by Taiwan standards) to sleep on the ground outside. We captured a few expansive views above a river plain before starting the loooooong, gradual descent into the city.
The downhill slope partially helped to overcome the fact that stoplights in Taiwan are not staggered; all the lights on a street change to the same color at once. For cyclists, it means more stops than might otherwise be encountered. For motorized vehicles, it means go as fast as you can on green to pass through as many lights as possible. Overall though, the downhill was a welcome assist at the end of a long day.
By the time we hit the true outskirts of the city, it was the brink of night, traffic was picking up, and our ease of navigation (just follow Highway 3!) had evaporated. It became as harrowing as the prior’s day journey out of Taipei. When we finally turned into my aunt’s quiet neighborhood, we celebrated and I felt my fingers and jaw unclench and blood returning to them. We stashed our bikes in the car park, got cleaned up, and were whisked out the door for a dinner with the family at a xiaolongbao (small buns with meat and soup inside) place. We showed our gratitude for their hospitality by polishing off 10-12 dishes of baos, soups, veggies, and rice.
Stuffed and tired, we settled into my aunt’s guest room. We were a little bummed thinking we missed out on the camping experience but surprise! It came to us! Faint buzzing in and out of our ears had us both up at 2 am clapping and slapping around the room. After a burst of effort, we settled back into bed too tired to bother anymore. I’ve always been treated like an all-you-can-eat buffet by mosquitos (18 bites on my face during my first overnight camping experience in first grade) so I was aware of the risk I was taking sleeping there with my face exposed. But after riding the farthest we’ve ever gone in a single day, I didn’t have much energy to care and slept like a baby.