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!

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