This post is part of Up and Down, All Around: Bike Touring Taiwan
Sunday, November 26, 2017
Distance: 62.6 mi / 100.7 km
Elevation: 1538 ft / 469 m
Accommodation: Maison de Chine
If you read the previous chapter of our tour, then it shouldn’t be a surprise that I woke up to find my face… unfortunate. Looking into the mirror, I easily counted 10 mosquito bites and one lazy eye from the swelling. Having lured most of the mosquitos in the room, I allowed Emerson to escape with only 2 or 3 bites on his ankle.
Being a great host, my aunt had breakfast of soybean milk and shaobings (toasted sesame flatbread) ready for us. After graciously scarfing those down, we hit the road a little later than expected.
Again, we confronted the stop-and-go process of trying to escape a major city, though the Sunday morning traffic was much lighter than what we had experienced on our way out of Taipei. It’s probably a good rule of thumb to allow an hour to get out of any major city, no matter how short the distance. We eventually found our way to Highway 19, choosing that over Highway 1 based on my cousin’s recommendation as he had frequently traveled between Taichung to Tainan for university. 19 featured large factories and agricultural processing plants, so it was quieter than 1 but also more pungent.
While we were taking a quick break for water at a nondescript, relatively quiet intersection, a jolly Australian rolled up alongside us to chat. In the heat, we thought he was a hallucination at first— Where did he come from? Why was he so jolly in this muggy hotness? Does he party like an Australian? He cheerily told us he got a little lost. We also learned that he had been bike touring since August, first riding the entire length of Japan from north to south, then across Korea from east to west, and now around the entirety of Taiwan. As he merrily told us about his adventures, Emerson and I both snuck longing glances at his broken-in Brooks saddle with its worn leather and two, well-formed butt divots. It looked so luxurious! We wished each other well and he disappeared as quickly as he had appeared.
We resumed riding with the intention of paying my great-aunt a short visit in Chiayi City before heading to camp at a Dutch-themed “leisure farm”, the common translated term for campground. However, I took us off our route to get us away from the factory aromas but that led to one wrong turn and then another. We eventually reconnected with Highway 1 but I could tell Emerson was worn down by the wasted time baking in the heat.
Given our unintended detour this morning, the few hours of daylight left, and the considerable distance we still had to cover, we decided to forgo the Dutch leisure farm that evening and just stay in Chiayi. I called my family with our updated plan and my grandpa asked if we wanted to stay at a “homestay” his friend managed near my great-aunt’s home. I asked him how much it would cost and he said we would get the friend and family rate. Sensing that Emerson was starting to get stressed out about not having a place set for the evening, I told my grandpa that sounded great.
We took a sightseeing break at the Chiayi Performing Arts center. There, Emerson and I had our first “real talk” of the trip. He told me our stop-and-go navigation and last minute plan changes were considerably stressful for him and I countered that I enjoy getting lost and spontaneously discovering new experiences. We spent a fair amount of time discussing our differences, building empathy for each other’s needs blah-blah-blah-relationship-blah, and eventually resolved them by agreeing to set more intermediary destinations between which we can still get a little lost.
As Chiayi is a relatively small city compared to Taipei, Taichung, or even Hualien, we made our way into the city center quite easily. Soon enough, I surprised my great-aunt while she was knitting outside her home! She excitedly gave us a big Taiwanese welcome by feeding us an entire bright-fuschia dragonfruit, three oranges, and cups of peanut-sesame milk within minutes of our arrival. While I didn’t spend much time with her growing up, she gave me some of my fondest childhood memories. She is also the only person who could placate my fiery grandma when one of her grandchildren misbehaved. My great-aunt’s patient, loving, and caring demeanor had only grown stronger since the last time I saw her and her perseverance shone through as she told me about new complications she and her husband faced due to aging. It meant a lot to me to see her on our trip.
After farewells, we looked for the “homestay” of my grandpa’s friend. As we approached the address we had been given, a large hotel loomed into view. We walked past it a few times, skeptical because this place was fancy… definitely was not a humble homestay and definitely not looking like a bargain. We finally went in after I chatted with the doorman (ha!) and confirmed that this was the place.
The manager himself came out to greet our self-conscious, dusty selves. Between being given drink vouchers and shown to our penthouse suite (it had two showers), I learned the manager considered my grandpa his godfather and that the friend and family rate for us was free. The experience was quite different from a Dutch leisure farm.
Chiayi’s Wenhua night market is famous for its food offerings. We prepared for our visit by reading 9 things you must try at the Wenhua night market. Armed with a list of what to look for and biking-in-the-hot-dusty-sun-all-day appetite, we walked there and began strategically sampling up and down the market’s stalls.
Ooooof! It was all so good! The duck meat wraps were by far our favorite, and after circling through the entire market, we turned to each other and simultaneously asked, “should we…go back?” We somehow restrained ourselves from consuming a second order right then and there, instead packing a wrap each for the next day’s lunch.
After 7 days of riding, a list of things we wanted to make our days easier naturally formed. We scored some of those items at the night market too. Emerson bought a phone bike mount to help mitigate some of the stop-and-go navigation that was stressing him out and I picked up a portable battery for charging my Suunto/camera/phone while riding. We didn’t find any eBikes there though. 😈
We rolled our bellies back to the hotel, past popup karaoke and tango crowds, and did a bit of advance planning for the next several days. Emerson mentioned something about a Totoro Bus Stop but I could barely jump on the bed to celebrate due to how tired and full I was. We zonked out soon enough, happy that a day that involved mosquito-induced insomnia, real talk, and frustrating wrong turns had ended so well.
Monday, November 27, 2017
Distance: 79.5 mi / 128 km
Elevation: 2421 ft / 738 m
Accommodation: Ponponwu Hostel
Do you remember the nervous anticipation you felt as a kid on Christmas morning? You’re hoping for what’s on your wish list but you know you’re just as likely to get an underwear set. That’s how I feel about hotel breakfasts as an adult. Will there be fresh, scrambled eggs or just a few individually wrapped, heavily-preserved pastries? Or will it surpass all expectations and make you feel a giddy swell of disbelief like when I received Inferno, the firetruck Transformer, in kindergarten. In the case of our Chiayi hotel’s breakfast, it was the latter. Rows and rows of hot plates serving different breakfast from around the world awaited us in the ballroom. Pancakes, congee, egg muffins, squid salad, you name it! Emerson and I took carbo-loading very seriously that morning.
Okay, back to the biking. Getting out of Chiayi was easy especially since Emerson had readily accessible directions thanks to his new cell phone bike mount. Once out of the city, he confidently navigated us through postcard quality country scenery along back roads, rice fields, and temples. We were heading for the Totoro Bus Stop! Yes! That’s right! Emerson found a landmark for it while perusing today’s routes on Google Maps yesterday evening. It was in the small county of Dannei outside of Tainan. How small? Well, I measure how busy or quaint a Taiwanese town is by how many convenience stores the town has. A busy town will likely see at least one on every block while a quieter village might only have one. Where the Totoro Bus Stop was located, there was only one 7-11.
We arrived after a few hours of picturesque riding to a little T-intersection where a giant Totoro mural greeted us. I melted in glee! We (mostly me) took a few pics, and were about to head out when Emerson called for a sunblock break. While he did that, I decided to walk into the alleyway next to Totoro and where I discovered a maze of more delightful murals all done by a local artist named Kevin. Each turn revealed a new joyful piece of art.
Afterwards, we stopped at the lone 7-11 for our leftover duck wraps (ugh, want) and then started churning south again. For a long stretch, we followed underneath overhead train tracks. Nothing really notable here except we leapfrogged with a local group of Taiwanese cyclists also touring the island. Unlike us, they were covered head to toe in spandex. I’m not sure how old they were but I know they were friendly! In general, the scenery after Totoro was pretty meh, flat and lined with factories and warehouses. It was not the most pretty view along the way, but that’s what Taiwan is – an island of incredible scenery and big cities that is also heavily industrialized
Because we stopped so long in Dannei, we didn’t have time to visit Tainan which is perhaps my biggest regret of our Taiwan tour. As the capital of Taiwan back when the island was a Japanese colony, Tainan has great historical significance, distinct architecture, and of course, it own famous eats. All the more reason for us to bike around Taiwan again in the future!
Entering Kaohsiung was a lot like Taichung in that the approach began with fish ponds and small farm plots. As we got closer to the city center, the buildings got bigger and closer together. Traffic was less congested than Taichung and the ride became pretty pleasant once we rerouted to the Love River bike path. We arrived at Ponponwo right as my Suunto hit 80 miles! A new record!
So based on my understanding of Chinese (which is questionable), pon means something like sturdy or structure (I usually heard it used to describe my grandma’s perm) and wu means house or room. Repeating pon twice makes it cute, like adding a -ita or -ito suffix in Spanish. That’s basically what Ponponwu hostel offered, a set of structurally sound, cutely decorated tents and huts inside the third floor of a mid-rise building in downtown Kaohsiung above a 7-11. Night sky paintings adorned the walls and peaceful nature sounds played in the background. Emerson and I chose to stay inside a normal, 2-person tent, excited to finally be camping even if it involved a mattress and freshly laundered sheets.
At the night market, we replenished all the calories we had expended that day and then some. There was no standout item like the prior night’s duck wraps, but everything we ate was again delicious – fish belly soup, big sausage wrapping little sausage, chuar. Emerson was fixated on trying sugarcane juice but was unmoved by it. We returned to our campground (ha!) and fell asleep very quietly in our tent. Our longest day (distance-wise) of our tour was also the one that highlighted Taiwan’s curiously delightful culture!