Sunday, July 13, 2014

Spring Ride in Taiwan Day 4 - A taste of Taroko National Park 80km

Pic Roland Lee

Pic Roland Lee

If the question, "Mirror mirror on the wall, which is the prettiest place of them all in Taiwan?" is asked, Taroko Gorge will certainly be right up there among the many other amazing places that Taiwan has to offer. In Aboriginal language, Taroko means beautiful and magnificent. With marbled cliffs, deep gorges carved out by flowing blue streams and lush green forest, Taroko is sheer magic and certainly deserves it name. 

Some of us had the privilege of crossing this beautiful national park from West to East in 2012, scaling the mighty Wulin @ 3275m that left me injured for 3 months. Therefore, it was a real joy and honour to be able to ride through this awesome park once again.

It was a pity that KL Mike felt a bit under the weather and spend the day convalescing at Kanazawa House. But he had already crossed this journey some 2 weeks ago on his own, fully loaded with camping gear and panniers in very bad weather. Guess even the all weather interceptor needs some down time, some time. For the rest of us, we made our way by van early in the morning to the train station. Our destination was Xinchen, the gateway to Taroko. It was strange to board the train without our bikes for the first time as bikes were not permitted somehow on this particular train.

Hence, YC and Oreo rode in a truck loaded with our bikes and met us there. While waiting for them, we had a breakfast of Taiwanese treats in a local coffee shop until our bikes arrived. We were not the only ones that were "snacking" as the local sand flies enjoyed us literally. Fortunately, it was very kind of Joeel and Esther to rescue me from these pesky bugs with their superb repellent.

It was an easy 5km ride to the park entrance through lots of shade and greenery. Traffic was almost non existent and it was special to ride with just the sound of our wheels spinning, and the cool wind against our face. This was to be a 23 km climb to Tianxiang through magnificent scenery and my heart was beating excitedly. This road across the central range of Taiwan was the brain child of Chiang Kai Shek and was built by soldiers in 1956. Though it took only 4 lightning years to complete, 450 lives were lost sadly!

We got together at the Taroko Gateway to take a group pic before beginning our climb up. Traffic was pretty busy so it was a tad tricky gathering in the middle of a busy junction. But we did it.

Pic Roland Lee

Surprisingly, the gradient was very manageable and even the newbies were coping very well. But those of us who have done the route from Puli know that stage 1 to Tianxiang is the easy bit. After that, serious climbing of up to 15% begins but that is not the agenda for today thankfully. As expected, the group began to stretch longer than the Great Wall of China due to different abilities.

But this was not a race, and most important was for everyone to enjoy themselves safely, and soak in the breathtaking views of the river, valleys and mountains. We did not really feel the climbs as we stopped often to take pics, lots of pics. It was like an amazing kaleidoscope of colors before our eyes and our mouths were left agape permanently. Taroko is truly a masterpiece piece of natural artwork by our Creator and Papa, Cil and I broke out in fitting praise to Him who gives us all good things and more!

We regrouped at Swallow Grotto or Yanzikou which is a very popular stopover for tourist groups. Fortunately, we were there early before the hordes came and that called for a celebration jump!

There are signs requiring us to wear hard hats due to rocks falling ever so often but we had our bike helmets and that counted. What impresses us here are the steep gorges that are constantly cut by the flowing emerald blue waters resulting in indescribable works of art. The rock face also makes it a natural and safe home for many swallows.

As we continued our way to Tiansiang, it started to drizzle slightly but that was welcome as it certainly helped cool our hot "engines". We were glad that it was uphill and not downhill as slippery roads and fast descends can be hair raising and dangerous.

Here, the climbs seem to be a bit steeper and when it comes to climbs, I always have the highest respect for my dear brother and buddy, Papa Mike. No matter what happens or how steep the incline, he will ALWAYS make it.

When we finally arrived at Tianxiang, I was surprised that we got up there in pretty good time and feeling fresh but rather famish. We were looking forward to having a well deserved sit down lunch at a nice restaurant after all the climbing but, YC wanted none of that. He had strict instructions to buy a bento takeaway and continue cycling on - destination Bai Yang Waterfalls just 600m after Tianxiang. He promised we won't regret it. Like obedient sheep, we just followed instructions despite the obvious disappointment written all over our faces. I mean - a humble Bento after all that workout? You got to be kidding me!

This little secret waterfall turned out to be the perfect place to have our lunch! It was quite tricky to get to as the inconspicuous left turn off was easy to miss and poor Oreo actually did not see it, but continued up the highway battling steep climbs. It took a motorcycle to catch up with him to tell him to turn back. The adventure took us through a very dark tunnel before another 2km or so of gravel and dirt roads. 

I was really pleased to see the whole team finally arrive at the waterfall observation wooden deck. It was fun crossing the swinging suspension bridge and some of us did it a few times for the fun for it. Poor Ben who has acrophobia, understandably did not join in the rocking and rolling.

The magnificent views surrounding us at Bai Ying Waterfalls more than made up for our simple Bento.  All of us were chomping away with happy hearts and just feeling exhilarated. YC was right.

A special surprise awaited us further 1km down the track - a walk through a dark and wet cave. This was no ordinary cave but one that has a stream running through it and water drizzling from its roof.

We put on our raincoats, carried our bike headlights and gamely entered the dripping cave hoping for the best. This was the perfect test of our brand new Giant raincoats!  Glad to report it passed the wet test with flying colors! But because I forgot to put on the shower cap on my Da Brim, I got an au natural hair wash for free.

It was soon time to turn back for the greatest and most exciting downhill ride for this trip. 24km of gravity assisted high speed riding back to Xinchen train station. There are not many pics for the descend as we were all flying too fast to fire our cameras. We were averaging 40-50km/h and some of us managed to hit a top of 60+ km/h! This is the best shot I could manage holding the camera with one hand and the handle bar with the other, half wobbling.

We hit the Taroko Gateway in no time and rewarded ourselves with freshly squeezed super sweet orange juice. The poor lady serving us was so stressed trying her best to prepare so many cups at one go, and it did not help that we were in a bit of a hurry as we had a train to catch.

With the clock ticking, it soon became apparent that the possibility of missing the train back to Hualien was a reality. Hence, it was everyone for himself as we pedaled our way furiously to Xinchen. Team Bike Friday consisting of Cil and myself went into drafting mode where we were maintaining 30-32km/h, catching up and overtaking everyone in sight. When we passed Carolen on her KHS, she joined in our speeding team and we reached the station in no time. While waiting for the rest, the last group got lost! This got us all so worried and they apparently missed the turn off to the train station. By God's grace, they showed up just 9 mins before the train departed and we all boarded safely. That was a close shave and truly, never a dull moment on this trip.

When we got to Hualien, some of the bikes needed fixing and we all trooped happily to the bike shop. Needless to say, we went into shopping mode and cleaned out the bike buffs which was on sale. It was then a quick stop at the night markets for a snack before we rode back to Kanazawa House.

Dinner was a very nice Taiwanese hotpot of meat and fresh veggies, which was a fitting end to an absolutely splendid day. We spend the evening recounting the highlights of our day, still reeling from the beauty, majesty and magnificence of Taroko. For those first timers, it was an unforgettable taste that required a re-visit soon. And I suspect, will be done sooner than later.

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