Thursday, April 24, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan Day 1 - Taipei to Jiaoxi 80km

Note bike friendly flag!

The breakfast at Rido Hotel was awesome offering a good spread of Western as well as traditional Taiwanese porridge. We gobbled them down heartily at 0730 as we really needed to fuel up for the long ride ahead of us to Jiaoxi (calling it Chelsea helps me). Ying Chang had warned us of 2 serious climbs and that got some of us really worried especially the newbies among us. Despite climbing the walls of Mae Hong Son in N Thailand just in Jan, I must confess that I had some butterflies in my stomach too.

We met up at 830am outside the hotel and rode to the National Taiwan University to meet up Joeel and Esther. Riding through the quiet Sunday streets of Taipei fully loaded in the cool morning air, I just felt so elated and happy cycling with this bunch of merry folks. We were like excited school kids going on a very interesting excursion, except this one entails one very long and hard ride. They say in life, its always better to get the difficult bits done at the start, so you can enjoy the rest and I cannot agree more.

NTU was established in 1928 when Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule and boasts of some very classic architecture. We gathered at the main gate where the stylish Lees were waiting for us. Ying Chang took this opportunity to give us a briefing and we shot a group pic. It has to be said that I have never met a more friendly security guard who pointed us to the best photo location. This country is so bike friendly!

We stopped at 7-11 to stock up for climb #1 but not before enjoying 15km of Taipei's excellent bike paths that skirted the river. It was wonderful to see the local residents play and live along the river, some cycling, some walking with their dogs, jogging and just having a great time. This together with perfect weather with just a spot of sunshine really made for a great start to our adventure.

Soon, we exited the bike paths and joined Beiyi Road or Highway 9. This route is famous for roadies  as well as high powered motorcycles & maxiscooters due to many incredible hairpins.  It being a Sunday, what was supposed to be a quiet ride became like a Grand Prix with highly modified superbikes with deafening exhausts overtaking us like we were standing still. It can be quite unnerving for some of the newbies but after a while, we got used to them. It's strange to say this but though they were fast, they seem surprisingly considerate. It was amusing to see photographers waiting at each bend, snapping away action shots of steeply leaned machines.

When the first climb began, the team started to fall into a natural grouping. Those who trained hard or are old birds in the game, went in front leaving others to follow at their own ability. It's good to know that this once again is not a race and climbs are best done at your own pace, especially long climbs. Our gathering point was a large tea pot in a spacious park that we were told was 12km or so. However, that came at just under 9km and if YC was using psychological techniques to get us up, it certainly was working very well.

Celia, Carolen and I continued on to Helen's Cafe, a very famous coffee place to wait out for the rest. This proved to be a real gem as it offered splendid views on a huge verandah, served very good hot brews and had a cuddly dog. Very appropriate considering the chilly winds up there. 

There were many cyclists taking breaks there too and our small wheeled foldies drew a lot of curious attention. A Taiwanese family got chatting with us and their daughter was an English teacher. They wanted to know where we were from and where we were going. Such friendly folks indeed.

When the last ones finally came up, we welcomed them and cheered for them. Pru who was doing this for the first time was understandably unnerved but the constant encouragement and support from dutiful Ben got her up. Legend Mike who was acting as sweeper followed diligently behind them until Ben told him to take off, as he "had a (marriage) contract" while Mike didn't. With hot piping Latte and chocolate pancakes flowing, everyone's energy got restored nicely. It was hard to leave Helen's but we had to as it was already way pass noon. Fortunately, we enjoyed some lovely descends and that was exhilarating. We stopped at a small town for a simple lunch. It was mostly veggies unfortunately. Time check - 330pm!

Climb #2 began all too soon and though it was gradual at first, it was unrelenting. At this stage, we were all wondering if we should have packed lighter. Perhaps break off the toothbrush handle into half and travelled with less clothes. I had about 13kgs on me as I was on "mule" duty for my beloved and even my faithful Expedition was creaking.  If that was not enough, it started to rain and that meant climbing in hot and sweaty raincoats. Visibility started to get bad and it was getting cold. The fun definitely faded away like the sun. Our cameras too had to be kept which explains the lack of pics on the 2nd climb.

By the time we reached the summit, it was nearly dark and the rains and winds were howling incessantly. We huddled together and took shelter of all places - the public lavatories, together with some other desperate folks. This had some semblance of the smelly tofu we had last night. Though tired, wet and miserable, our spirits were still quite high especially Siew Ling.

The group graciously wanted to wait for each other and regroup before taking on the final descend together. However, a local cleaner advised us to go asap as light was fading quickly. Reluctantly, we broke into several groups with Oreo leading the first 15km downhill charge to Jiaoxi.

I was relieved to see Papa bravely soldiering on at the rear despite a knee problem. This is one extremely determined old dog whose fortitude is second to none. It was my turn to brave the howling rains and I took my time to descend safely. It was pitch dark by then and I was glad I had my Moon 400W headlight that lighted the path. I was also glad for my Da Brim visor which kept the rain from pelting my eyes. Cil and I eventually got down to the intersection safely and we thank God for His protection.

God's protection was even more apparent over Roland's group, who was behind me.  His wife May's Dahon TR had one brake that malfunctioned unexpectedly. Needless to say, this was harrowing considering the steepness and length of the descent. It was a good thing hero Roland was with her. 

Roland described her Fred Flintstone encounter, "Alvin, her brakes were nearly bared for both. She charged into me, two bikes were together while I controlled and braked to slow down both bikes before she stopped her bike with the foot. She was shaken and refused to ride further. Calmed her, swap the bike for her to go down. A frightening experience for both!"

I later learnt that YC who sensed trouble, rode uphill to find them and they all descended safely together.

What was even more incredible were flashing lights of red and blue that stayed at their back all the way down. Most amazingly, a police car was making sure that traffic was held back so that Roland's group could descend safely under such treacherous conditions. One of our riders too got separated from the group, and sought help from the Police. They were willing to take her to the hotel! I was speechless. We later wrote to the Taiwan Police to commend them for their very kindness and consideration, proving to me once again, that Taiwan is indeed tops when it comes to supporting cyclists.

Kudos to YC and Legend Mike for taking up the rear to make sure everyone came down safely. Such was the care and concern shown in this team that made for amazing camaraderie. Esther remarked "Yes, thanks to Ying Chang C who fall back for us the slower riders and Michael Khor for sweeping us with your bright light! We are truly blessed to have you guiding us through the cold rainy night!"

We all gathered at the intersection and rode the last 4km leg to Jiaoxi DuoAi Hotel (means "more love hotel"). It was so good to see YC wife, Doreen greeting us ever so warmly at the lobby and giving us our room keys. We were cold and soaking wet but what caught us by surprise is the natural hot spring waters that flowed into the spacious spa in our room. Cil went in and didn't want to come out and I don't blame her. It was so good to soak our tired bodies in rich, hot mineral waters! Our room had 2 floors while Papa's even had a swing. This was after all, a hotel for honeymooners.

Dinner was at a Taiwanese open kitchen eatery and we ordered literally everything. We were grateful for Roland's expertise in Taiwanese food. The great thing about touring is that we can eat without guilt and eat we did.

It has been one adventure filled day and Pru was remarking that if she quitted now, she had no regrets as she had experienced everything a tour could throw at her - steep climbs, fast descents, riding in storm, in total darkness, many close shaves by speeding motorcyclists etc. A full touring adventure all crammed into one day! 

At our nightly debrief, it was remarkable that everyone was still bouncing with adrenaline. Our folks could still clown around despite being on the saddle for the whole day through rain and shine. And these were not exactly teenagers! 

Trust YC to engineer such an action pack first day of touring. What will tomorrow hold? It goes without saying that all of us slept very well that night, very well indeed in Chelsea. 

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan - Introduction

Team 1 - first breakfast in Taipei!

Ever since I did my first ride in Taiwan up Wulin in 2012, I made a promise to return again some day soon after experiencing what I think is perhaps the best country in the planet to cycle. This opportunity presented itself late last year when Ying Chang, my faithful touring buddy, who was planning to be in Taiwan for the Qing Ming festival in late March/early April, sounded the idea out. It was not difficult to fill the team as Ying Chang hails from Taiwan and is so well loved among all our friends. Turned out we had 16 folks when all the dust was settled.

The plan is to do a Spring bike tour of the East Coast of Taiwan, riding out from Taipei, to Jiaoxi, do a loop via Fulong and Jui Fen. We ride out of Jiaoxi to Yilan where we train to the beautiful coastal city of Hualien. One highlight is to do part of the incredible Taroko Gorge, where we shall lunch at a magnificent waterfall at Baiyang Trail just a whisker up from Tiensiang. Then, it will be our longest day - 110km to Yuli where we stay in a hot springs resort. Following that, an easy ride to Chishang which has amazing rice fields all around. Our last ride to Taitung, home of the world's best custard apples is an easy 50+km. We return by a 6 hr train to Taipei on a special bicycle carriage.

We were all very excited and I could not wait for Apr 6 to arrive. Mike "Hard" Khor, the Legend from KL, in fact went 2 weeks earlier to do his own cyclo tour and exploration. He brought along his own tent and cooking equipment on his trusty Surly LHT and had fun camping in parks and sleeping in churches and temples.

Though we admired his spirit, we were quite disheartened as poor him faced really wet and cold weather. Spring in Taiwan is really unpredicatable. Would we face similar conditions?

A pre-trip evening was planned in late March at Ying Chang's home to have a get together and dinner. It was great to meet everyone old and new. It also meant that our long wait was finally over, and hearing the plans only wetted our appetite for adventure to no end.

That also meant some last minute hill training in Singapore and we managed to put in at least 3. Compared that to Carolen from Perth who had trained really hard covering over 2000km, we felt really inadequate.

With my Bike Fridays packed snugly in 2 Samsonites, together with my Orb panniers carefully and thoughtfully filled, we made our way to Changi Airport on Sat Apr 5 and landed at Taoyuan International Airport. We were the last team to touch down for the day. We took the sky train to T1 where we met up with Oreo and CK. Poor CK's Dahon TR did not arrive with him from Kuala Lumpur and sometimes despite all the planning, things can still go wrong. But it did not dampen his spirit and trusted the problem into the good hands of MAS who came through later in the evening.

Our chartered van whisked us to Ying Chang's home where we assembled our bikes in the park and that provided for on street entertainment for the locals. Once that was done, we checked into the lovely bike friendly Rido Hotel for the night.

It was so nice to meet everyone in Taipei finally! We cycled to the Night Markets for dinner for street food. Some of us had our first introduction to smelly Tofu. Though we were tired, we retired excited and happy knowing that somehow, the week ahead will touch our hearts forever.