Monday, May 27, 2019

LTF E-Adventure Day 4 - A Divine Extraction. Wulin to Hualien. 100km

Guo Ge's very thoughtful gifts for us - Taiwanese cookies! Xie xie ni.

Like the narrative of Good Friday, our adventure today began with the worse news ever and ended with the best news one can hope for! Like the torture and crucifixion of Jesus Christ on the Cross on Maundy Thursday, our plans to descend Hualien to enjoy 70km of high speed descend through the spectacular Taroko National Park, from 3000m to sea level, literally got nailed due to the 6.1 earthquake yesterday. Highway 8 was closed to traffic due to landslides and falling rocks. The promise of it being open today brought cold comfort as I laid awake at 5 am with the sound of heavy rain pelting the windows and roof of my hotel room.

How do I get the team down safely? Plan B, taking Highway 7 NE to Yilan 140km did not sound like a good option in this weather as the mountainous descends would be very slippery and dangerous. What other options, if any were available?

As I prayed and thought hard about it, I was prompted to consider Plan C - C for chartered transport. I immediately Googled transportation rental serves in Taiwan, taxis, buses, etc but to no avail. I remembered last year we had a wonderful van driver Brother Lim in Heng Chun who went over and above to help us find a lost rider. However, Heng Chun was 400+km away and even if he would be willing to drive that distance, who in the right mind would want to risk life and limb to drive 70km up through fresh earthquake zone when things were still unstable? One rock crashing down could badly damage a vehicle or could possibly bring it down the steep mountainside. The situation looked grim.

At 6am, I contacted 3 friends from Singapore who had good contacts in Taiwan and perhaps it being too early, only one responded. My buddy Matt Chia knew a certain Guo Ge (Big Brother Guo). He immediately contacted GG and amazingly, GG agreed to take up this risky assignment. We couldn't believe this piece of good news and we knew God has somehow heard our prayers. Joy and celebration erupted at Camp LTF! But why would he do it? We found that out later...

The quote was for 2 vans - one for we 8 cyclists and the other for the 8 bicycles at 16000 NT in total. This was not cheap at S$700 but we were happy to pay any amount to get extracted out of this zone. On hindsight, it worked out to be only $93 per person for a 100km ride down to Hualien including our bicycle and it was worth every cent - less than $1 for 1km!

With the wifi connection very bad and spotty, it was hard to contact GG but the persistence of Gary and Siew Wan paid off. They managed to receive the instructions from GG amid several calls that were cut-off and we were to wait for him at hotel lobby, eta about 1pm. The good news was that the landslides were being cleared and expected road opening was 12pm IF all went well.

Meanwhile, policy stated we had to vacate our rooms at 10am and our request for late check-out was rejected due to it being peak season. The reception staff at Song Syue Lodge seemed stressed and inundated with all sorts of requests from guests like us from this unexpected emergency. Understandably, their customer service vaporized and fell short.

We whirled away time by going to Café 3158 some 300m away for coffee and wonderful that they served piping steamed meat buns which were delicious. The weather was wet, cold and foggy and we all could not imagine descending in such dreadful conditions. Visibility was poor and we were not the only ones who felt this way. Many of the roadies staying at our hotel had their trip cancelled and their motherships were all activated to bring them down safely.

As we waited for Guo Ge to arrive, we hung around the lobby feeling a bit restless but relieved. It was very thoughtful of Guo Ge to inform us of his progress as he journeyed his way up the mountain and even sent photos. The weather had gotten worse and it was pouring cats and dogs, with the temp hovering around 9c. The crowded lobby was soon quiet as guests left one by one until we were the only ones around.

Siew Wan finally got a call at 1230pm to say our rescuers had arrived and we asked the reception to open the front gates to allow the 2 vans in. For some reason, the grouchy recep staff were not happy with this request and kept them waiting 10-15 mins outside. The reason given was that there were too many vehicles in the compound and the need for them to clear out first. Very understandable except there was only one car picking up their stranded guests!

When our 2 vans finally pulled in, we were elated. First order of the day was to give Guo Ge a huge welcome and a heartfelt thank you. He and his buddy drove 4 hours from Hualien to rescue us and our gratitude meter overflowed. Gary, Siew Wan and KC have met him before on a previous trip and it was like a reunion of sorts. Guo Ge is in his late 50s and has a big physique. He spoke with a booming and commanding voice. On first impression, one would think he is a feared Sergeant Major in the army but Guo Ge is actually a retired journalist and a very kind, generous and fatherly figure. 

He organised us with military precision. Van #1 – to be loaded in with the bicycles and he brought packing materials and straps, obviously very experienced in bicycle handling. Guo Ge was at first wondering if we could use just one van but we reminded him that these were not foldies, but 8 full size bicycles that can be cumbersome at times.  Van #2 – was for us troops and we climbed into his van obediently. 

Just earlier on at daybreak I had no idea how to get everyone down safely and was feeling slightly anxious and heavy hearted. But here we were seated comfortably in Guo Ge’s spacious van making out way down safely in the highest spirits. I’ve learned that when faced with adversities of any sorts in life, going to God in prayer never disappoints because our Heavenly Father loves us and is ever so faithful. The good book in Ps 91:15 reminds us of God's wonderful promise when we call upon Him in the name of Jesus.

He will call upon Me and I will answer him, I will be with him in trouble, I will rescue him and honour him. 

A certain Arthur Jackson said it so eloquently – Hard times call for prayer and praise to the One who controls all things.

As we made our way down the mountain, we were so glad we didn’t attempt to cycle as I don’t think we could even last 10 mins in the cold and rain. Furthermore, the menancing hairpins were also barely visible at times with the fog. Our jaws dropped as we drove passed the freshly cleared landslide and rocks. This was when the magnitude of this natural disaster sunk in.

If we were to cycle down and got hit by these rocks, some as big as a car, we would surely be finished. We were informed that it hailed just less than an hour after we left the lodge. Indeed, timing is everything in life and for me, it is so assuring to know that God makes all things beautiful in His time.

If the weather outside the van was grim and gloomy, inside the van was sunshine and blue skies as we joked, sang and laughed. For most part I sat in front between Guo Ge and Alice, both Taiwanese, and had an intensive Chinese lesson where I learned much not just about the language, but the history, culture and social norms of Taiwan. It was a great privilege too to know Guo Ge better – his youth, his career and his family. Appreciated Alice’s translation and glad she could put her English to good use. Those few hours were indeed very special and truly memorable.

An hour into the journey, Guo Ge pulled into a service station even though we did not need its amenities. The reason was that they had delicious rice dumplings and Guo Ge insisted we must try them. He repeated that this was his treat and truly, his warmth and friendship to us really touched our hearts and stomachs. 

We stopped at Tian Xiang for a break and this is the Gateway into the Taroko National Park if one is to enter from the East. The weather though wet and cloudy had improved as we descended from 3000m. The 711 was raided for ice creams and drinks and we continued our journey until we passed the famous Archway where the Highway 8 ended and joined with the coastal highway.

As we entered our destination, the city of Hualien, Guo Ge had lined up another special treat for us - pre-ordered special Taiwanese pancakes with egg. There was a long line of people at the store but we didn’t have to wait. This delicacy required a certain way to eat it as there was a soft egg inside and we had to eat and suck that up. We managed delightfully.

When we finally pulled into Forest B & B, a most beautiful English style resort, we felt grateful and relieved to have arrived safely and comfortably thanks to Guo Ge and his friend. They helped us unload our bicycles and our gear and enquired about our dinner plans. We have heard that Guo Ge ran an upmarket Japanese restaurant and the least we could do is to give him the business.  Excellent hospitality was once again offered – he insisted on picking us up later after we rested and washed.

Forest B & B proved very impressive. It was clean, spacious, colourful and could very well be mistaken for an English manor with a modern twist. 

We all loved our rooms which all had different themes and it has spacious green grounds. Our host a young lady with a squeaky voice was very welcoming and settled us in warmly.

That night, we really celebrated with a grand Japanese feast at Guo Ge's restaurant. His wife came along to pick us up and ensured we were thoroughly spoiled. What surprised us was after dinner, they came with gifts of special Taiwanese biscuits for us to bring back to our families. 

As we retired for the night, my thoughts turn to the promise of Good Friday when Jesus died willingly on the Cross for our sins so that we can be forgiven and enjoy a new relationship with our Creator. As his children, we can rest under the wings of his protection. The divine extraction we experienced is truly a great testimony of God's goodness that we will remember for the rest of our lives.


Update - I learned a few days later after this drama why Guo Ge decided to go risk his life and did this dangerous task. Apparently, the night we were stuck up there in Wulin, he had a dream. So when Matt Chia contacted him at 7am, it was something that was not unexpected. He knew this assignment was his to do. Co-incidence or God-incident?

Last night I had a dream from Mazu (Chinese Sea Goddess) and early this morning, I received an emergency call for help up in Hehuan Shan. A group of Sporean cyclist friends were supposed to cycle down but due to the earthquake and the rain, they needed urgent help. To be honest, making the trip up under such treacherous conditions is a frightening task. However as they are good friends from Singapore, I had to rescue them.


God's love for us is real and generous... I like to share this beautiful song in tribute to His great love for us on the Good Friday of 2019. May God bless Taiwan and her wonderful people. And may you be encouraged too by the song. It's in Chinese but the translation is below...

有一天 Someday 有一天 你若覺得失去勇氣 Someday, if you feel that you loss the courage.有一天 你若真的想放棄 Someday, if you really want to give up.有一天 你若感覺沒人愛你 Someday, if you feel that nobody loves you. 有一天 好像走到谷底 Someday, if you feel very upset.那一天 你要振作你的心情 You must bestir yourself at that day.那一天 你要珍惜你自己 You must cherish yourself at that day.那一天 不要忘記有人愛你 You must not forget that there is still someone loves you at that day.那一天 不要輕易說放棄 You should not say to give up easily at that day. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~這個世界真有一位上帝 There is really a god in the world. 衪愛你 衪願意幫助你 He loves you and is willing to help you. 茫茫人海 雖然寂寞 Although you are lonely in the crowded world. 衪愛能溫暖一切冷漠 His love can turn the indifference to kindness. 這個世界真有一位上帝 There is really a god in the world.衪的雙手 渴望緊緊擁抱你 His both hands are eager to hold you tightly.漫漫長夜 陪你走過 He will accompany with you to pass through the lonely long night. 衪愛你 伴你一生之久 He loves you and will accompany with you forever.

Thursday, May 23, 2019

LTF E-Adventure Day 3 - CJ to Wulin. Stairway to Heaven. 25 tough km.

He's got the POWER! 

If ever there is a stairway or a road to heaven, this 25km stretch from CJ to Wulin probably comes closest. It is a challenging climb from 1768m (Ailiga Resort) to 3275m to the peak and many cyclists come from all over the world to attempt this scenic route. This is the highest road in Taiwan and what makes the Hehuanshan Road across the Wulin Pass challenging is the ever unpredictable weather where it is said 70% of the time, it is wet, cold, foggy, windy or stormy.

Our good friend the renown tourer Mike Khor wrote about his encounter in 2014 in his blog, Wheelospher…

It’s cold. Stepping out, it’s worse. The chill of the cold mountain wind is biting. But I have to hit the road. There’s no sun. Only cloudy overcast skies. On the road, visibility is limited to less than a hundred metres. The scenery is all but enveloped by heavy mist. I’m resigned to another cold, miserable, uninspiring ride; made worse going uphill. The only thing I’m looking forward to is the crossing of Wuling Pass at 3,275m.

Pic - Mike Khor Wheelosopher

Hence, you can imagine the joy and gratitude when we woke up to the most magnificent deep blue sky with the bright sun as a promise of a most glorious day ahead! At 17c, we were all smiles. Many may say such weather is sheer luck but for us who know He who made the Heavens and the Earth, and He who even the storms obey, we know better.

We were in no rush to leave and we all enjoyed an amazing breakfast in the highest spirits. I was beginning to appreciate the usual Taiwanese rice porridge taken with over a dozen dishes. The token toast with butter and jam was available too for the Westerners but I didn't bother. For people like me who suffer from attitude sickness, our resident Doc, Papa Mike prescribed some magic pill (not Viagra although that would work too) so that we would all enjoy a good climb as the altitude hits 3000m. We all dutifully followed his orders and enjoyed a pill popping ceremony before we started.

Siew Leng feeling "energised" as she began to pop Papa's magic pill!

Our strategy to the Wulin Pass was simple. First stop was to the highest 711 in Taiwan at 2050m,just 5km away. Then another 7km to Nantou Country Police Station to recharge our batteries, where hopefully we will be given permission to do so. Then, it is another 13km to the top. Easy peasy!

As we were still dilly dallying around especially the youngest member of our team who needed a bit more sleep, Gary and Siew Wan decided to have an early start as they wanted to take it easy. A quick prayer of blessing and off they went, happy as a lark.

One thing that the good Doc failed to tell us was the drug's side effect - frequent toilet stops. No wonder and when we reached 711, barely 5km up, we were all bursting. Unfortunately, the one at 711 happened to be out of order! But this didn't stop some of the boys who snuck off to a quiet spot to do the deed. Many of us also stocked up on energy gel, chocolates, extra drinks etc to make sure we were properly fuelled as this is the last food point available. If you are doing this climb, you have been warned.

I told the girls that toilet heaven was available at the Police Station some 7-8km away and they wasted no time in zooming up those steep hills. Truth be told, I wondered how on earth we did it with regular bikes, cranking on granny gear which in many circumstances, is not any faster than pushing up. Here is a video I shot in 2012 to illustrate that...

But with our Ebikes on Sport mode, the steepest gradients were flattened. All of a sudden, we developed bionic legs like the 6 Million Dollar Man TV series. This was easy to get used to and the question inevitably came - how are we going back to regular bikes after this? At first we were shocked to see our Ebike featuring only one chain ring but now we know better, the Yamaha motor at the crank made granny gear or whatever gear redundant. This system is a game changer esp for Wulin climbs.

The Cuifeng Police Station is unmistakable with its unique structure esp the turret. It was a nice 1-2km downhill to the station and it was great to be flying. Gary and SW had arrived before us and asked the kind policeman if they could recharge their batteries and more importantly, use the toilets.

PC Chen who was warm, fatherly and kind,  said of course we could come in and charge our batteries - all 8 of us and he cleared a space for us in his office to do that. Despite just 11-12 km, most of us had depleted more than 60-70% of our battery, so it was great to be able to charge them up!

As it was going to be a wait for 1 hr or so, he invited us to sit around the table and started to brew fresh Chinese tea for everyone. We pulled out our supplies and we enjoyed the warmest of conversations. He asked about Spore and we asked about his family and his work at this most beautiful part of the world. As expected, life as a Policeman here can be rather peaceful and quiet as nothing much happens here as it is so sparsely populated and the truth is, Taiwanese are generally very civil and nice people.

Looking at his dog, what a life he must be enjoying up here in this slice of solitude heaven! PC Chen advised us about the ever changing weather and told us to take the utmost care while cycling.

We have experienced so many incidents of kindness, consideration and help from the Taiwanese Police on previous tours and PC Chen's amazing assistance to us is no different. We felt really touched and it compelled us to write a Letter of Appreciation and Commendation to the Police HQ.

It was hard to leave PC Chen but we had to and the arrival of other guests into the Police Station signalled that. 13 amazing km laid ahead of us. As we climbed higher towards the peak, the scenery became even more magnificent. We took our time to the top and stopped numerous times to just soak in what was before us!

There are 2 must stops as we near the top. The first one is the Taroko National Park huge signage which is about 1.5km to the peak. There is a carpark here and many cycling female models in tight lycra would take a van up to here and then cycle the rest of the way up with a camera man shooting away. Now you know their secret at how they manage to look so good despite climbing the gruelling Wulin pass.

Team LTF gathered here for the memorial shot, all of us except for Frank. He had scooted off to the blue yonder and was nowhere in sight. As there were quite a few tourists before us, we had to wait our turn but we were in no hurry as it was barely 2pm despite leaving at 10-sih.  On normal bikes, we left at 8am and made it here at nearly 5pm!

The last km or so to the Wulin Pass is beautiful as the scenery behind us was awesome. At this stage, my battery was on its last bar, 10% remaining and it is frightful at how much power was consumed to bring us up here.

Frank was there waiting for us at the 2nd must-stop, the Wulin Pass Lookout. We were all so thrilled to make it. Yes, we had E-assistance but it still took effort to make it up here.  Siew Leng was so moved that she teared and she didn't know why. Perhaps it was just the majesty of the surrounding landscape or that our plans all worked out even better than we expected or that she felt the presence of God and his love and protection.

It was not easy to make our way up as there were hordes of tourists before us but a bit of patience did the trick.  We had heaps of time as our check in at Songsyue Lodge was not until 3pm, one hour from then. Up there, I presented our very special LTF E-Adventure Decals specially designed by Alice to each of our team on the successful mission of making it to the top in one piece.

It is good to know that behind the famous sign is the same signage so no need to queue if you are gong there at the Pass. 

Our last act at the Wulin Pass was to add to the countless of decals from bike clubs and people from all over the world who have made it here and left their mark on a pillar box. This is LTF's second attempt as last year, our team led by Claudine of Asia Cycling Network did it on regular bicycles.

After the peak, it was downhill all the way and just about 1.5km was the turnoff. Left to our Lodge and right to descend on Highway 8. At this corner, there is a public toilet and a café. Many of us were starving and the only place to eat was at this Café 3168. They served only coffee and a dismal few snacks. But as the saying goes, beggars cannot be choosers. 

Songsyue Lodge is the only place to stay up here and we were grateful that although it is beginning to age, we had a warm bed to stay as that night, temp was going to fall to 5c. Our rooms had wonderful views and was comfortable enough. Dinner and breakfast was part of the package.

Some of us went to catch a shower and a snooze while 5 of us gathered at 430pm for a short hike to see the beautiful flowers on the hills at he side of our hotel. Many of the guests are avid hikers and indeed, the scenic artistry of the Hehuan Region is well known.

Climbing those steep hills left me gasping as the air at this altitude was thin. But the walk was cool and invigorating and we had fun taking too many photos and admiring the beautiful flowers.

Upon returning to the reception, I learnt that Highway 8 to Hualien has been closed due to 6.1 earthquake that hit the area about 2pm, just 3 hours ago. Landslides had blocked off access and it was very dangerous as the area was still unstable. My first reaction was of shock and surprise. We never anticipated this and to think that when that happened, we were on the "right" side of the mountain. We heard nothing nor felt nothing but was merrily making our way up. The thought that we could have been struck by falling rocks sent a shiver up my spine.

The earthquake occurred near Hualien and rattled the city. 2 hikers were injured from falling rocks and sad that one passed away later. For us, it meant that Highway 8 was closed and there was no way for us to get to Hualien except via the 140km NE way to Yilan.

I broke the grim news to the team at dinner and everyone ate with a heavy heart. We were glad we were all safe for now but how are we to descend to Hualien? Even if the road was opened, would we want to risk going down especially if the terrain was still unstable. With such news, I don't even remember much about the dinner even though we were hungry.

Pic fm local Taiwan newspaper

Staying another night was also not an option as the hotel was fully booked. A quick consult with Ying Chang revealed that we could try going down via Highway 7, north east direction to Yilan but this was a long 150km ride and another 100 plus km train ride if we can make the train.

Adding to the woe was that weather forecast for tomorrow's descend was thunderstorms, hail, fog and 5c cold morning. To bring new cyclists down steep declines in bad weather did not sound like a smart thing to do. 

In times like this, we have no choice but to turn to our Heavenly Father who controls all things including the weather and who loves us deeply.  One of our team later wrote to me, "Are you saying if we face problems just like storms, God will help us?" 

Sleep did not come easy for me this Good Friday eve as I tossed and turned, wondering and praying how to get the Team safely down. We needed a miracle and we asked all our family, friends and church to keep us in prayer. Strangely, I finally fell asleep with a great peace in my heart.

It was going to be a Good Friday that we shall never forget!