Tuesday, 10 February 2015

up and over and out

Leaving Yilan we come to switchbacks almost as soon as the city outskirts have passed.  The road seems quiet - there's an expressway that tunnels through the mountains to Taipei - just us and a few trucks who insist on going the hard way, over the top.  We plod upwards and hope the grey skies do not mean rain.  We seem to climb into the drizzle and are joined by a man and his son cycling towards Taichung.  They will be staying with family tonight in Taipei, the father tells us.  Will you be camping, he asks?  We were kind of hoping he was leading up to an invitation to join them. We'll be camping, we reply.  It's our last wild camp in Taiwan and it might be our worst.  The road has got busier and in the afternoon we are on our second climb of the day.  It's a long slow pull up into the rainy forest, trucks and buses reminding us that Taipei is not so far away.  But too far for us.   We camp on a sliver of land beside the road, in a spot that somehow avoids being fully lit up by the vehicles in the dark.  It doesn't stop raining and we pack the tent wet in the morning.
jolly cyclists in the rain

Happily our ride into Taipei is easy.  We soon reach the pass and descend into the outskirts of the city on another dreary morning.  True to form the sun tries to break through and when we get onto the bike path that runs along all of Taipei's riversides we soon find a place to put the tent up to dry.  The ride into the city centre is easy thanks to this river route and by early afternoon we are settled in our hostel.  Before tea we have got ourselves two bike boxes from a local shop and are making a shopping list of things we'll need before we fly to Okinawa.


Originally we planned to see quite a few things in Taipei, including the national collection of Chinese art brought here by the KMT.  But in the end we spend most of our time doing maintenance tasks and catching up on the internet.  We collect a little parcel sent from my mum and dad so that we can start learning Japanese.  We sift through our things and send home a bigger parcel of items.  We have a 20kg baggage limit, 20kg limit for the bikes and 10kg limit for our carry-on luggage for our flight to Japan.  The bikes must be in boxes not exceeding total dimensions of 203cm.  This latter requirement drives me to distraction because I have to strip down my bike to the frame to check it will fit.  It just doesn't quite make it but I think it will be okay.

so many rules.....

We do some sight-seeing one day, walking a bit through the downtown, but our hearts, or maybe our legs, aren't into any further exploration.  At the hostel there are a couple of Canadians to chat to. One, Cameron, is teaching English at a university in Chengdu, and we have a couple of evenings chattering away.  A couple from Singapore arrive and want to party the weekend away.  I am wishing it away, counting the days to the flight and getting the bikes rebuilt in Japan.  We swap out Gayle's old tyre and leave it behind - our last Marathon XR which has done 33,000 km and lasted 5 years.  The brakes all get overhauled, new chains fitted.  Is there anything else??


We take the scenic route to the airport, first riding out on a bike path to the coast.  It's longer than the road but there are no traffic lights and no cars and Gayle is carrying an extra-wide load - our two folded bike boxes.  The rain holds off and we arrive at about 4 o'clock with the intention of sleeping overnight in the departures hall.  Cameron is there for his flight back to Chengdu so we catch up in the food court before finally saying our farewells.
About two hours later the bikes are both boxed up.  Gayle goes off to wander and I weigh our stuff.  Both bike boxes are overweight.  It's the actual boxes that make them overweight.  Stupid.  I have to reopen the boxes and remove saddles and pedals and tools. 

Hello Kitty banned in the airport

Our flight is at 9.15am so we set the alarm for 6.30am  No-one bothers us sleeping on the floor in a corner of the departures hall.  When we get to check-in our passports are checked for Japanese visas which we don't have.  We are told we need an onward or return ticket if we plan to arrive without a visa.  We explain that we plan to take a ferry to Korea, but we don't know when.  We're half asleep and after being concerned about all our baggage it's the visa rules that are the problem.  The check-in staff say they will have to ask Japanese immigration for approval before checking us in.  So naturally we have to wait to the last.  Gayle meanwhile starts to explain about our journey and our plans.  One of the staff asks us a few questions and we start saying that we only want 90 days in Japan.  He phones Japanese immigration again and we are given the nod. We can fly to Okinawa.  If only we could cycle over the sea - it'd be much simpler.


Monday, 2 February 2015

seven elevenless

Before leaving the coast we have one last good camp on the beach with a windless dry night, the moon looming brightly above us.  Now we are heading west up the Taroko Gorge, one of Taiwan's natural highlights.  We have read about the tour buses so remain quite sanguine about sharing the narrow road with a lot of traffic. 
As we ride upwards the cliffs on both sides tower way above us.  The road cuts through the cliffs via a series of tunnels and there are turn-offs for the tourists to stop and get out and have a look at a spring or a bit of the gorge and buy a souvenir before getting back on the bus.  At a certain point, around 35 km, the buses cannot continue - the road is too narrow and twisting.  We stop for lunch in the tourist village which has some free camping, but there's still a lot of day left so we continue the climb up into the mountains.  There are plenty of cars coming down the road and a few going up, along with some brave souls on scooters.  One woman stops and runs after us to ask where we are from and where we are going.  She urges us on.  Maybe she knows more about our route than we do.  The road ges up and up and up and by sundown we are neither here nor there.  The road has been cut out of the mountainside and in some places there is a spare piece of land big enough for one or two cars.  There's nothing for it but to camp in one of these.  As we start cooking we start noticing a lot of truck traffic coming down the road.  It's as if they've all been waiting for us to camp.  Our tent is about two metres from the roadside but there's nowhere else for us to go.  Luckily we have a supply of gin and tonic to sedate ourselves.
the happy chef
Next day we have plenty of kilometres to climb before lunch, which is a quick rice and veg in a scruffy roadside cafe.  It's bliss to take a seat and have a good rest because the road has been relentlessly steep. The food is the worst we've had in Taiwan but neither of us cares - it's just a relief to find somewhere because we're not entirely sure we have enough supplies with us.  Onwards we plod in our granny gears.  At some point in the afternoon we resort to pushing.  The climb should get easier as we get closer to the top but for some reason the gradient has steepened.  We pause at a toilet block beside a tunnel entrance for a cup of tea.  It's a nice wooden affair with platforms looking out over the deep valleys below.  At least we think it is - we've been in cloud all day.  What we have noticed is the change in vegetation as we've climbed and we're now surrounded by lovely pines. While we consider our camping options a nice couple who have stopped in their car come over with an armful of snack food - mostly biscuits. Fabulous, although every biscuit is individually wrapped so by the time we have unwrapped everything it all seems a bit of a let down.  But no, those biscuits go well with a cuppa.
to our dismay the picture of these on the packet was life size
Through the tunnel we start descending, a lot.  This is wrong.  We should be climbing.  Now we understand why it has been so tough - we didn't account for climbing higher and then descending.  As dusk approaches we reach a little village with a tarmacced carpark, a petrol station and a police station.  The petrol attendant won't let us camp on the nice bit of grass next to his building.  The policeman won't let us camp on the piece of land next to the cop shop because the guard dog will bark all night.  He tells us there's a place by a stream at a bend in the road.  We find it and it's just okay.  At least tonight we have a crash barrier to separate our tent from the passing nighttime vehicles.

Sunday morning and the cloud is below us.  We wait for the sun to defrost and dry out our tent.  Who'd have thought we'd get a frozen tent in Taiwan?  After a stretch of uphill we finally reach the road junction that takes us northwards and downhill for a long long time.  The day is lovely and sunny and the air is fresh and cool as we coast through a landscape of pine forest.  By lunchtime we have reached a little tourist village perched on a ridge where we can get lunch, restock and check our messages using the wifi at the visitor centre.  Except we can't get on-line.  "Can I use the wi-fi please?" The information man asks in response "Do you know where you are going?" I wonder what his game is.  "Yes, thanks, but I'd like to get on-line if I can".  It turns out we can't.  Gayle registered to use the government tourist wi-fi service when we arrived at Taichung train station on our first day.  But it has expired after 30 days.  The man rings up the service centre.  We will have to re-register.  Sure, no problem.  At the airport.  At the airport?  We're in the middle of the mountains on bicycles.  How can we get to the airport? If only Gabor was here. "Idiots" I mutter to myself.
the road looks like it is repaired every year after typhoon season
After a good break we continue down the road and find ourselves traversing a ridge to a valley bottom before crossing a bridge and climbing steeply once again.  Oh, it's tough this road, it's tough.  And what's worse, the road is built up with small farms and houses and there's no chance of an early finish.  We have climbed to a pass and descended yet again before finding the road going up once more.  Luckily there's a little track leading up to a shelf of land above the road.  It's the first decent spot we've seen all day, which is quite unusual, but considering the terrain this road is passing through, is not surprising.  We are so happy to go to sleep out of sight from the road for a change.

Our fourth day and we still haven't come across a convenience store.  How inconvenient.  And yet we survive.  How on earth can we?  The road crosses another pass and then a huge descent begins, first on switchbacks and then quickly down to one big cabbage farm.  Fields and fields of cabbages.  Or fields and fields of nitrates waiting for the cabbages to grow.  It smells rather nasty but the cabbages look wonderful - the size of footballs.  Even the river bed is not exempt.  While the waters run dry the riverbed is being cleared with diggers, rocks stacked in rows and lines prepared for planting.  It's industrial.   We opt not to buy the heavily discounted local produce (two for a quid!) but continue pushing on, trying to take advantage of the gradient that for once is finally in our favour. 

After a good long day on the bike we are coasting into Yilan City when the darkening skies bring a downpour.  Typical.  Always at the end of the day.  We shelter under some trees and put on our waterproofs, bemoaning our look.  It could only get worse if one of us stood in some dog shit.  We both step in some dog shit.  When there's a break in the rain we make a run for it and start looking for somewhere to camp.  You know your luck has run out when at sunset all you can see is buildings and paddy fields submerged in water.  It begins torain again and we shelter in a temple for a good half hour or so, until the rain eases again.  We carry on.  It's no use.  It's now dark, raining and we have gone too far into the city to backtrack.  We decide to look for a hotel but haven't a clue where to look.  Gayle stops and asks two young women who are closing up their house plant shop.  They immediately offer to look up a cheap place on the internet and then offer to lead us to it on their scooter.  The hotel is not as cheap as we'd like but their kindness is so welcome and they lead us through torrential rain and busy streets to the hotel and make sure that everything is sorted before leaving.  The hotel is very comfy and the room is big enough to spread our stuff out to dry.  A shower never felt so good.

get it out, hang it up, put it anywhere you can