Sunday, February 28, 2016

Taroko National Park

Off to the side of the welcoming desk at the sprawling visitor center of the Taroko National Park a screen on the wall played a video of things to see in the park, highlighted by the dramatic beauty of the gorge that led into it.  It also warned of falling rocks and landslides, showing several cascading down the cliff sides. It encouraged visitors to take advantage of the free rental of a helmet. 

There was no warning though, in the video nor on any signs at the center or on the road, at least in English, that just six miles into the park a recent landslide had damaged the road, and that due to repair efforts it was only open three times during the day for 60 or 90 minutes at 6:30 a.m., noon and 5:00 p.m. Not knowing about these time restraints, I lingered at the visitor center leisurely taking a look at its many exhibits describing the geology of the park, it's original inhabitants and the monumental task of constructing a road through the eleven-mile gorge and then on up over a ten thousand foot pass.  The road wasn't completed until the1950s and resulted in the deaths of over four hundred workers.  

I also took time to charge my iPad knowing I could be without electricity for a couple of days and took advantage of its WIFI to give Janina a call.  With the fourteen hour time difference I caught her at 8:40 p.m. back in Chicago just as she was getting on the Metra for her commute home.  She had gone up to Milwaukee for the day at the invitation of its Art Institute in hopes she would write about its just opened exhibit.  She had a hard time talking on the train, so I said I'd call her back in 45 minutes when she got home.  I didn't mind the delay at all.  I was happy to rest my legs and read and continue charging.  

I was quite enjoying the travel book I'd brought along, "A Cook's Tour" by Anthony Bourdain, the best-selling chef of "Kitchen Confidential."  He traveled the world for a year sampling exotic cuisine--haggis, durian, the deadly fugu fish of Japan, the live heart of a cobra and more.  I was so enjoying his wild escapades and semi-crazed prose, I checked to see if any of his other books were available electronically from the Chicago Public Library.  Two of them were and thanks to the marvel of the internet I was able to instantly check them out and have them ready to read on my iPad--a veritable miracle.

Though we have talked every couple of days thanks to another of the unfathomable miracles of the Internet, we still had much catching up to do, including her upcoming door-to-door canvasing for Bernie. When the noon hour struck, I thought it best to bid farewell and begin my long climb through Taroko not knowing that right then at noon, six miles up the road, a blockade was being lifted for a brief sixty minutes.  It was a climb all the way.  If I had ridden hard and not paused to gasp at the wonder of the towering marble walls of the gorge that narrowed to just a few feet at certain points, I could have continued on through the canyon before it was blocked.  It truly was spectacular and deserved all its accolades.

It was 1:30 when I was startled to being halted by a flimsy cord blocking the road just beyond the Swallow Grotto that I had taken a detour to see on the original road that had been replaced by a long tunnel.  If there hadn't been a woman in a reflective vest standing nearby, I would have been tempted to raise it up and continue riding.  The only explanation was a sign just beyond the cord with a bunch of Chinese that meant nothing to me and some numbers in a pattern that suggested that might be when the road would be open.  The woman guarding the gate spoke no English.  She held up four fingers and a thumb when I approached her.  I was hoping she meant the road would be open in five minutes, but unfortunately it meant at five o'clock.

No one else was waiting.  I plopped down to see what would happen.  Every few minutes a car or motor cycle would show up and then turn around and leave.  It wasn't until 3:30 that cars and motorcycles started lining up.  I was happy to continue reading my book in all this splendor, especially knowing once I finished I had more Bourdain to dive into.  For the first time around four someone spoke to me in English.  It was a husband and wife who lived nearby and were driving over to the other side of the island up and over the Wuling Pass. 

They were fully fluent and had just returned from a visit to Texas.  They wanted to know about my travels.  I pulled out a map and showed them my route.  They could tell me about the road ahead, where I'd find food and camping, and they also told me that I didn't have to cross Wuling Pass in the direction I was going.  That was good news and bad.  Reaching that high point would be an accomplishment, but a 47-mile climb to the turn-off would be accomplishment enough.  I could still continue on an extra six miles and then double back if the scenery was enticing.

They told me I'd be able to get the eggs hard-boiled in tea that every convenience store has at a gas station five miles up the road.  The woman said they had some extra food in their car and went to retrieve it.  She returned with a huge bag of provisions--two sweet potatoes, two ears of corn, small bags of cashews and peanut brittle, an apple, a jar of bean curd, a five pack of instant rice and corn, and some sweets. They had a four-hour drive ahead of them and gave me all their nibbles.  It was quite a gesture.

They knew enough to have arrived early to be near the front of the long line of cars when the cord across the road was dropped.  There was a much longer line of traffic coming from the opposite direction waiting a mile up the road.  The road was only a lane-wide in spots through tunnels and along narrow stretches.  There were no traffic signals or officials regulating traffic, so the road was quickly clogged and backed up at the bottlenecks.  Fortunately it was just wide enough for me to keep going.  Before long everything behind me was blocked and the cars coming towards me were at a standstill.

It was less than an hour until dark.  After four miles there were a pair of small campgrounds down near the river, one with cold showers for $6 and one with just water for free.  In the warmer months they fill quickly.  This time of year there were only four tents clustered together in the free campground, filling only about a third of its space.  I was warmed up enough from forty minutes of climbing, I was able to duck my head under the campsite faucet and give myself a wash.  

The other campers were four couples who had come on motorcycles and didn't speak English.  After an hour in my tent, two of the women came by and offered me a sausage on a stick.  The rushing river drowned out their conversation.  It wasn't so bad to be in an actual campground for the first time in Taiwan, except that it was a long walk to the toilet, rather than the nearest tree when I'm wild camping.

I was up early the next day.  I was at 1,400 feet elevation and had 7,000 feet to climb in 37 miles to the intersection where I had the option of continuing to climb for 2,000 feet to Wuling Pass or turn and begin a descent back to the coastal route I had been following.  With the road blocked for much of the day, I pretty much had the road all to myself, heightening the pleasure of the ride and adding to its luster as one of the best rides in the world. Even after I left the gorge early in the morning, the road remained narrow and carved out of rocky cliff sides.

There were partial tunnels and legitimate tunnels unlit and just one-lane wide.

At the lower elevation the vegetation was tropical.

As I climbed it became alpine. At 5,400 feet, about the elevation of Denver, I entered a Cloud Forest Zone, where it was cool enough for the moist air blown off the ocean to form clouds and mist.  Visibility ranged from limited when the road was swallowed by mist, to being unlimited when the road rose above the clouds.

I was averaging not quite six miles per hour.  When the grade was steep, I was reduced to less than five miles per hour, but when the road leveled off for brief spells, I could spurt up to twelve.  I stopped to read and eat every thousand feet gained.  When I stopped I'd have to put on my vest and windbreaker.  It looked like I'd reach the fork in the road with less than an hour of light.  At over 8,000 feet it was going to be a cold night.  There had been snow at that elevation two weeks ago, though none remained.  I knew about the cold before I came and brought my winter down sleeping bag.  This would be the first night I'd have to zip it up and use it as more than a partial blanket. 

As I closed in one the summit I stopped to exchange my cycling gloves with real gloves.  Despite the exertion I needed to keep on my vest and windbreaker as I climbed.  Three miles before the fork I came to a gas station.  It didn't have eggs, but it did have sticky rice my first expense of the day.  With the clouds diminishing the views and the cold setting it, I opted to begin descending when I reached the fork rather than continuing to climb.  I'd have a better chance to find a place to camp as well.  There hadn't been very many wide spots with the road generally carved into a cliff side.  

I had been fortunate to have been delayed the day before and having an optimum campsite.  If I hadn't been idled for over three hours, I would have been fifteen miles up the road with no place to camp, though it would have made Wuling more feasible.  It worked out just fine, almost as if I had a Guardian Angel looking out for me, especially when I came upon a meadow up on a ridge after descending for three miles until just before dark.  I had glorious high peaks all around me and absolute silence--an even more superlative campsite than the night before. I awoke to frost on my tent.  I needed my tights for the cold descent, the first I'd worn them since my first day.  

Friday, February 26, 2016

Hualien, Taiwan

An occasional town or business on the Around Taiwan Bike Route adds cheer to the passing cyclists with some manner of bike art. It's not as prolific nor as prodigious as on The Tour de France route, but some is comparable. Taiwan is in its infancy as a celebrant of the bicycle, so what there is can be celebrated as a good start.  One small town placed orange-painted bikes decorated with baskets of flowers along the road for several blocks.

The intersection for a side trip was marked by a pair of porkers on bikes.  Since it was a climb, they were appropriately red-polka-dotted, though the red dots were not as pronounced as they would have been in France.

Another town advertised the two products it was known for--pineapples and snails.

I hadn't noticed any such art on the western industrial side of the island.  There could have been some, but I was too preoccupied with focusing on the road with the steady traffic that I couldn't gaze upon as the eastern side has allowed. As I've passed through towns on the eastern side, I can steal more than a glance at shops along the road and have a chance of determining what they are selling.  My Chinese isn't adequate to reading the names of shops.  Few augment their Chinese with writing I can decipher. I can't look ahead and spot grocery stores, other than the two most common convenience stores--Seven-11 and Family Mart.  

I was in the country four days before I found my first supermarket.  One of the reasons is that they've been choked out by the convenience stores, similar to Japan.  There are more than 15,000 of them saturating the country, about one per 1,500 people.  But as I've pedaled up the eastern side I see at least one genuine food store a day, thanks to my ability to look more closely at the stores.  Their prices are only marginally cheaper than the convenience stores, but they do sell a much wider array of goods.  I can buy mackerel or sardines to add to my noodles and have plenty of cookies to choose from.  It was a happy day when I found peanut butter and also a loaf of bread that wasn't white.  While I limited my peanut butter intake, I made up for it by drinking peanut milk.  It wasn't as tasty as chocolate milk, but it was cheaper and had more calories.

I had been rationing the peanut butter I brought so I'd have enough for my fifty-mile climb from sea level to 10,000 feet.  That could take more than a day and I wanted more than Ramon for my fuel.  I'll begin the climb on Day Ten of these travels after more than six hundred miles to the bottom of the island and then two-thirds of the way back to the top.  The question that weighs upon me is, will I have gained strength during those previous nine days, or will I have tired myself out.  I have decreased my mileage the last couple of days before the climb, but I have had to exert myself more than the longer days down the west side, as I've been pushing into a wind.

To diminish the wind I chose to ride the interior route through the Rift Valley rather than following the coast line.  The Valley route is the recommended route for cyclists as it entails less climbing as well, though one must first climb up to the valley floor at about six hundred feet.  There was still some wind, but mountain ridges to the left and right provided some shield.  I was surrounded by all manner of luscious vegetation--wild and domesticated. The mountainsides were thickly forested and the valley floor fully cultivated. Mother Earth was thriving in all its glory on this side of the island, providing sustenance to the ecosystem.  It had been choked and smothered on the west side.  It made for the most pleasurable of cycling.

Rice was the dominant crop.  The region is known as the rice-basket of Taiwan.

But the rice paddies were augmented with corn and sugar cane and bananas and pineapple and orchards of various fruits, including papaya.

The small plots of land made finding a place to camp more challenging than I anticipated.  One night I pitched my tent behind an abandoned house.  Another I burrowed into thick vegetation between a cemetery and a rice paddy.

Only one of the several police stations that served as rest stops on my eastern swing had WIFI, though the adjoining fire station at one could provided it.

I've been feasting on a variety off dumplings from small roadside cafes.  I can only guess what they might contain before biting into them, but not a one has disagreed with me.  More often than not I'm happy to take several to go after sampling them.  I do know that sticky rice is generally wrapped in a leaf of some sort.  That brings back fond memories of Thailand, where it would frequently be stuffed in a tube of bamboo.

I've been eating extra preparing for the big climb.  It will be a challenge, but not as severe as climbing the World's Most Dangerous Road in Bolivia.  That started at 5,000 feet and peaked out at over 15,000 and was unpaved.  The only way this could be worse is if there are extended grades of more than fifteen per cent.  At least I'll be in no hurry and the scenery promises to be spectacular, as it is considered Taiwan's premier tourist attraction.  It would be a UNESCO World Heritage Site, except Taiwan is not acknowledged by the UN.  The most peril may come from the tour buses.  The road is so narrow in spots that those coming in opposite directions can't always pass one another.  One has to retreat to a wide spot in the road.  It can cause massive traffic back-ups, that hopefully I'll be immune to.

Wednesday, February 24, 2016


It's not the typhoon season, that doesn't come until July, but the blustery winds that greeted me as I approached the tip of the island and then hounded me as I headed up its eastern shore served up gusts that had me worried that a premature typhoon might be hatching.  The erratic blasts of wind had me swerving all over the road.  I was happy for all the weight I was carrying, ballast that somewhat stabilized me.  The winds were accompanied by a mist that pelted me with equal fury.  The stunted trees on the surrounding hillsides indicated there was nothing unusual about this weather.

I was at least able to make the half-mile hike to the monument at the bottom of the island before the air became strafed with moisture.  It was on a brick-lined path under a canopy of trees that offered protection from the wind.

The monument sat in the midst of a rocky shoreline that was too dangerous to walk.  It was the end of the trail and a bottleneck for all those who had made the hike.

There wasn't a person without a camera in hand.

There were several other viewing points along the coastal road packed with bus loads of tourists.  At one a gentleman offered me a handful of strawberries.  It wasn't my first offering.  The day before when I was riding with Jeana, an official who was patrolling the bicycle route stopped and gave each of us a cold bottle of energy drink.  

The coastal viewpoints were all with Kenting National Park, the first established in Taiwan in 1984 by Chiang Kai-Shek's son, who assumed the presidency three years after his father's death in 1975. The park is laced with a large number of resorts and beaches and a town full of all manner of businesses.  It was hopping with tourists though on this sultry day the beaches were empty.

The pockets of wilderness apart from its coastal strip didn't have much access.  Signs at some trail heads said a permit was required to enter.  Violators would be fined $270.  It wasn't the first warning of punishment I'd been subjected to.  The visa application I filled out before passing through customs warned that drug traffickers would be put to death.  Though martial law was lifted in 1987, some of its vestiges remain.

The nasty weather had me looking for a forest that could provide some protection from the wind to pitch my tent.  It wasn't until I had left the park that I came upon a bamboo forest less than an hour before dark.  I had to clear an array of fallen reeds to create a big enough patch in the thick forest.  They were cross-crossed in every direction like a bunch of tinker toys.  They created a pile almost as high as my tent, providing an extra shield of protection.  The wind didn't diminish and the towering bamboo shoots creaked against one another all night.  With so much dead debris all around, I felt lucky I survived the night without any crashing down upon me.

Though the wind remained fierce and had me at a virtual standstill on occasion as I wound along the rugged coastline, there was at least no moisture in the air.  There was no need for a bike lane on this road, as there had been on west side of the island, as I had the road almost all to myself. 

After a spell the road turned inland and I was somewhat shielded from the wind as I made a long climb to over 1,500 feet, the highest point on the circumference bike route of the island.  The road was narrow, but had little traffic.  It was the polar opposite of my previous five days cycling down the west side of island.  That had been over 300 miles of urban cycling.  This was the rural cycling I am always in search of.  It was green, green, green and largely uninhabited.  Only three per cent of Taiwan's population live on the rugged eastern side of the island, the side that the first Europeans saw, Portuguese sailors in 1544, giving it the name Formosa, meaning "Beautiful Island."

The road finally turned down at the junction of highways 9 and 199 at the Shouka Bike Service Stop, a shrine of a sort for cyclists.

It's walls were covered with graffiti and decals of cyclists.

I hadn't seen another cyclist all day until I began the descent and passed a handful making the climb.  Though it always gives an extra measure of satisfaction to be off biking where few touring cyclists venture, such as last year in Oman, and the year before in the Philippines, it is also most satisfying to be on a well-travelled cycling route.  There is a lingering residue of euphoria from the many cyclists who have ridden the route. It is the trip of a lifetime for many.  I knew Jeana was in a state of exaltation, thrilled to be doing what she was doing, and joining the club of friends who had preceded her.  It is an accomplishment that will stick with anyone who does it for the rest of their lives.  Every time they proudly recall their fine times on the road sends out a jolt of energy to the route.

It is wonderful too that the powers-that-be so strongly endorse the route.  There are signs all along the route marking the way.  They are regularly embedded in the road.

There are also frequent road signs.

And signs, too, indicating official rest stops.

The Taiwan Cycling Association gives out certificates to those who complete the route.  One just has to carry a GPS tracking device that it provides.  I don't need a certificate, but if I did, I'd be concerned about carrying the tracking device, as my unlikely camp sites might trigger some concern, and a law enforcement official might come looking for me.

Monday, February 22, 2016

Fangshan, Taiwan

It wasn't until my fifth night of camping on my Round Taiwan Odyssey after over 350 miles of pedaling that I was able to pitch my tent on a beach, or at least in the seclusion of some trees right alongside a sandy expanse.  I'm circling an island.  I ought to have shoreline camping every night.  Alas no.  Curiously, the western leg of the Round Taiwan route doesn't hug the coast, but chooses roads inland, until the route closes in on the southern tip of the island and has no choice in the matter.

The choice of going interior wasn't of scenic consideration, as it has been one long non-stop slog through urban sprawl, but rather choosing roads with a bike lane and the right amenities. I've felt as if I've been riding Ogden Avenue out of Chicago all this time.  It has been unrelenting concrete of one form or another.  I'd given up wondering, "When does the countryside start?"  At least the physical act of the endeavor has been pleasant on a wide bike lane with little change in altitude and generally a light tailwind and cool temperatures.  

I'm still awaiting some countryside, but at least the route has become dotted with rice paddies and citrus and banana orchards.  And now that I'm within forty miles of land's end, the island narrows down enough that there's just one road between the coast and the interior mountain ridge, neither of which have been within sight until now.  The combination of mountains and coastline to gaze upon lifts the spirits considerably after days through a corridor of concrete.

My spirits had already been lifted when I gained a traveling companion for several hours.  I was gazing intently at the sign counting down the seconds until a red light turned green when I heard the voice of a young woman meekly ask, "Where are you going?"  There is always a cluster of riders on motor scooters at the lights, so I no longer pay them any attention.  This was a rare person though on a bicycle.

When I told her "Kenting" at the bottom of the island, she said, "Me too."  I glanced at her bike and noticed she had panniers, indicating she was on the journey I was.  If she had pulled ahead of me I would have seen the license plate-sized sign a friend had made her announcing "My bikeriding journey around Taiwan."

She was all bundled up, like all those on scooters, despite the 70 degree temperature.  I was in shorts and had my sleeves rolled up. For me it was balmy, warm enough to take a dip in the ocean at my campsite.   She was wearing tights and had a bandana around her neck that she pulled up over her nose as she rode to avoid breathing in the fumes.  It was a nice contrast to the surgical masks many wear.

"Are you camping?" I asked.

"No, I'm staying at hostels."

She was inspired to do the ride because so many of her friends had.  She knew nothing about the movie "Island Etude" about such an adventure that is given credit for sparking this craze.  She immediately pulled out her phone and typed it in, then said she'd have to watch it when she returned home.  She was a runner, not a biker, and was riding a bike she had rented from Giant.  But having run a marathon, she was fit and could endure.  She was riding at my pace, so we tagged along together for the rest of the day.

Our first break came an hour later at one of the police station service centers on the route.  I have come to look forward to them as they have been my only source for WIFI so far.  McDonald's, unlike elsewhere, does not offer it, nor have I decoded the local designation that restaurants or businesses might have advertising that they provide it.  Besides WIFI, the police stations provide cold water and have a pump.  So far though, none have come with an English speaker.  It has been rare to find one anywhere, so it was a great gift to have come upon one to ride with.

She proved her authenticity as a local when her food of choice at a convenience store we stopped at later was a baked sweet potato.  The Family Mart chain, in contrast to the more common Seven-11s, offers them.  The sweet potato is such a favorite of the Taiwanese that they distinguish themselves from the mainland Chinese by saying, "I am a real Yam."  I am partial to the Family Mart as well, even though Seven-11 was a strong backer of cycling back in the '80s and even sponsored the first American team in The Tour de France, as it doesn't charge as much for its hot dog buns.  I was startled that I was charged an extra thirty cents for my first 90 cent hot dog, as I didn't realize that the bun wasn't included in the price of the hot dog sitting in an enclosed grill such as one sees at gas station mini-marts back home.  Both stores though have a cauldron of hard-booked eggs simmering in  tea turning them brown for thirty cents. I eat several a day, adding them to the Ramon noodles the stores all offer along with boiling water to cook them.

One of the first questions I asked Jeana as we were riding along was if she ate many eggs.  It was a word I couldn't make her understand.  She has to resort to her phone from time to time to find the English word that isn't in her vocabulary.  I was sorry to bid her farewell when it grew dark.  She had to ride another fifteen miles to the town with the next hostel.  With luck we'll meet up down the road.  

Sunday, February 21, 2016


Taiwan has been on my radar as a place to bicycle for several years, ever since I read "Fifty Places to Bike Before You Die."  One of the rides mentioned was through Taiwan's Taroko Gorge and over the Wuling Pass, a climb from sea level to over ten thousand feet.  Then the more recently published book, "The Cyclist's Bucket List" of seventy-five rides, also mentioned that climb, along with a ride around the country's Sun Moon Lake.

With two of the Bucket Lists rides the small island of Taiwan gained an even stronger lure as a place to bicycle. A little research revealed even more reason to bike Taiwan.  Thanks to the 2006 Taiwanese  movie "Island Etude" about a young man with a guitar who biked around the island, it has become a popular local undertaking.  The executives of Giant, the world's largest manufacturers of bicycles based in Taiwan, did the ride and have become strong advocates of bike touring.  Its string of shops around the island rents fully-equipped touring bikes that can be returned to any store.

The information desk at Taipei's airport had a 64-page pamphlet on the route around the island and other recommended rides, including Sun Moon Lake, but not the highly demanding climb through Taroko Gorge.  My flight arrived in the early evening, too dark to begin riding.  I had been in transit for over twenty-four hours with a nine-hour lay-over in Istanbul.  I was exhausted and ready to throw down my sleeping bag in a quiet corner at the airport, but first I was eager to read what this brochure had to offer.  

It had highly detailed maps listing sites to see along the way and convenience stores and also police stations that serve as rest stops and provide service.  It also dispensed a wide range of advice. Some might have been inspired by Confucius: "If you want to succeed, you need to be determined," and on tackling a tough climb, "If you keep a positive attitude and believe you can do it, then you'll soon be at the top."  On a more practical nature, it advised, "Massage your legs before sleep, so you will feel better the next day," and "Highway 1 has heavy traffic, so it's important that you are aware of what's going on at all times."    

It advised to eat well and to avoid greasy food.  It warned that one's focus shouldn't be on trying to lose weight, but later on endorses riding as "a great way to get your body looking nice," adding, "one shouldn't have trouble losing a couple of kilograms." It said nothing about maintaining one's tire pressure, but made the outlandish suggestion of lowering one's tire pressure by ten psi before descents to get "a better grip."

I couldn't stop reading and finished the entire booklet before burrowing into my sleeping bag off by a vacant children's play area.  Though the booklet emphasized the challenge of biking around Taiwan, it also mentioned the "fun" of it several times.  I was sensitive to the word "fun" as it was used an inordinate number of times in the "Lonely Planet" guidebook I had been reading during my transit, much more than in any other guidebook I have read, implying that it was part of the Taiwanese culture.  A water park is called Formosa Fun Coast.  My first impression of the Taiwanese came in the waiting area in Istanbul for my flight to Taipei.  It was nearly all Taiwanese and they were surprisingly light-hearted and talkative, a marked contrast to the usual quiet and reserved airport etiquette.  These seemed like a lively, fun-loving people.

The children's play area I had chosen as my bedroom for my first night in Taiwan was one of several nice amenities at this busy, first-class airport that provided a nice welcome to the the country.  Another was a small pavilion at the arrivals area offering assistance to guest workers.  Despite a population of 25 million, Taiwan has to import workers, partially because there are not enough people willing to do factory work to maintain its economy, the 21st largest in the world. Twenty per cent of the two thousand workers at the Giant factory are from Thailand and Vietnam. 

After a solid sleep I was awoken by someone opening a shop near where I was sleeping. The sky was just beginning to lighten.  I was eager to begin biking before the morning rush of traffic.  The airport was twenty-five miles outside of Taipei along the west coast.  It is recommended to bike down the industrial west coast and back up the less settled and rugged east coast.  I could avoid going into the urban morass and begin my circuit of the country right there. But there was no escaping the urban sprawl and industrial blight that covers much of the flat coastal region.  The interior is very mountainous with more than 150 mountains of over 9,000 feet, making Taiwan the most mountainous island.  But the country is still quite densely populated, second to only Bangladesh.  

It was cold and dank, not even sixty degrees, but my heart was singing as I pedaled out of the airport wearing tights and four layers on my torso. I was soon on a road with a bike lane that was also meant for scooters.  

Taiwan is more a land of scooters than bicycles.  Bicycles are a recreational vehicle, not so much for getting around. One sees masses of parked scooters not bicycles.

But better a scooter than an automobile.  It somewhat thinned the traffic on the roads, making the urban riding more bearable than if all those scooters were automobiles.  I have encountered hardly any cyclists though other than a daily dose of two or three Taiwanese touring cyclists, none of whom have spoken English, affirming that touring here is taking hold.

With a tailwind and flat terrain I pushed 92 miles down the coast on my first day past an unrelenting succession of buildings.  There was an occasional patch of wild that gave me hope of finding a place to camp, but no break from the urban mayhem of more than a speck that could allow me to take a deep breath and calm my senses.  It wasn't as stinging of a slap in the face as China had been with its chaotic fast growth that went on for days until I headed into the interior of the country.  This was more like Japan with some semblance of order, though riding on the right side of the road rather than the left.  In Japan it went on for three hundred miles north from Tokyo until I neared Hokkaido.  Taiwan has a length of only 245 miles, so it couldn't go on that long.  

I finally gained a reprieve on day three when I ventured into the interior and climbed up to Sun Moon Lake, 2,500 feet high and surrounded by thickly forested mountains. Businesses lined the road all the way there, but the twenty-one mile circuit of the lake was almost like being in a wilderness. I didn't see much of the lake, partially because it was blocked by trees, but also because a thick cloud cover descended upon it shortly after I arrived.  I was lucky to get a glimpse of it at all.

There are no beaches on the lake and swimming is prohibited other than in the Annual Across the Lake Swim held in September.  The road was constantly undulating, fluctuating a couple hundred feet at a time.  It was more demanding than leisurely. The lake earned its name from its configuration--its eastern part resembles the disk of the sun, while the west side looks like the crescent moon.  The temperature plunged from the 70s to the 50s when the clouds descended.  I was happy to descend back to the coastal plain.  I remained in my shorts, but added a vest and windbreaker for the descent.  Those on scooters were all bundled in heavy jackets.  There were a few other cyclists around the lake, but none with panniers taking a detour from their island circumference as I was doing.

I had thought I might want to linger at the lake and have an easy time of finding a place to camp, but not under these conditions.  I've still managed to wild camp each night so far without too much strain. Night one was near a quarry beside an abandoned and collapsed house.

My second night was in a private forest of a dozen trees and night three in a bamboo forest beside a river.

I have a national park to look forward to at the bottom of the island, though I may have monkeys to contend with as I pass the Tropic of Cancer. 

Tuesday, February 9, 2016

The Cycling Anthologies

There is such an interest in books on bicycle racing in the UK that a group of cycling journalists have put together six collections of their essays on the sport over the past four years and published them in book form as "Anthologies."   Ellis Bacon and Lionel Birnie, two veterans of the trade, have overseen the project, recruiting a handful of their fellow journalists, mostly British, along with a couple of Americans and an Australian, to contribute longer and more personal commentaries than the magazine articles they generally write.

So far I've been able to get my hands on the first two volumes. Scanning their table of contents I recognized the names of all fourteen writers of each book. I knew solid, informed reporting awaited me, that would be entertaining and enlightening.  The majority of the writers, nine of whom contributed to both, had written books that were among my favorites on the sport--Richard Moore, Daniel Friebe, Jeremy Whittle, Edward Pickering, Alasdair and William Fotheringham, Samuel Abt, Rubert Guinness and Ned Boulting.  I knew them well enough to recognize they had chosen subjects that were meaningful to them, rather than something an editor assigned them--Pickering on Thomas Voeckler and Tour de France winners, Guinness on Australian cyclists, William Fotheringham on Cyrille Guimond.

Moore wrote a piece on the first of his several books about his Scottish childhood hero, the elusive and enigmatic Robert Millar.  The other Scottish Millar, David, was enlisted to write an essay reflecting on his career as it neared its end.  It made a fine companion piece to his first book, "Racing Through the Dark," commenting on the pervasiveness of drugs in the peloton and his friendship with Michael Barry.  Both these first two volumes included a piece by a member of the peloton.  Millar appeared in Volume One and Daniel Lloyd Volume Two.

The second Volume celebrated the one hundredth edition of The Tour de France.  Lloyd recounted his domestique duties riding the 2010 Tour for Cervelo and Carlos Sartre. The thirteen journalists who comprised the rest of the volume had notched more than two hundred Tours in their collective belts--the retired "New York Times" writer Samuel Abt the most with 32.  Three of them write about their first Tour--Guinness in 1987, Whittle in 1994 and Birnie in 1998.  Both Whittle and Lloyd comment that there are often more interesting stories at the back of the peloton than the front with racers battling to survive.

Whittle sagely elevates The Tour experience to taking holy orders.  It is no mere job. He's allowed to go on for 34 pages in "Bin Bag of My Dreams," the longest piece of either book, in Volume One.  His stream of conscious memories includes coming upon a touring cyclist late in the evening riding The Tour route who might have been me. Whoever it was, Whittle wishes it was him.

Brendan Gallagher's "Its All About the Car" likewise abounds with personal detail as he describes following The Tour with one's colleagues in the cramped quarters of a car.  As did Whittle, he recognizes that The Tour is no mere sporting event.  One of the daily rites, that I also try to observe, during The Tour is to "religiously" read "L'Equipe" each morning. 

Klaus Bellon Gaitan describes the great fervor that Colombians have for The Tour dating to the 1983 edition when a team of Colombians participated in it for the first time.  The country was so thrilled that every single stage was broadcast in its entirety in Colombia, a first for anywhere in the world, even France, where the coverage is generally restricted to the final two hours of a stage, except in the mountains.  It's announcers were often driven to tears of ecstasy at the heroics of the Colombians. When Luis Herrera became the first Colombian to win a stage in 1984, "The Colombia masses, transistor radios in hand, wept."  In 1992, it was a Colombian team director who was driven to tears, when only two of the team's nine riders, one of whom wasn't even Colombian, finished the race.  It was the beginning of the EPO era and the Colombians lost their natural edge in the mountains. Everyone could now climb much faster than they could before and could ride harder on the flats, where the diminutive Colombians were at a disadvantage and wore down.

Volume Two abounds with references to tears, in contrast to only one mention in the first edition--Aussie Anna Meares after losing to Brit Victoria Pendleton at the 2012 World Championships in Melbourne before the Olympics, where she avenged herself.  Besides the flow of tears from Colombians, the Tour de France edition recounts the tears of a host of others--winners and losers.  Tears welled in the eyes of Nicholas Roche as the Irish national anthem was played while he proudly stood at the top of the podium in Paris after winning the 1987 Race.  His fellow Irish cyclist Sean Kelly gave way to tears earlier in The Race when he was forced to abandon after a crash.  

Guimard was brought to tears when he was forced to quit the 1972 Tour from tendinitis in his knees with just three stages remaining while he held the Green Jersey and was in second place overall.   Whittle admits to waking up in tears over a bad dream.  David Millar was near tears when the daughter of Tom Simpson gave him a stone from near his monument on Mont Ventoux.  The tears from the Festina doping scandal in 1998 are mentioned as well as those of Alexander Vinokourov in 2007 when he finished a mountain stage well back due to injuries from a crash that had "blood weeping from both of his knees" knocking him out of contention.  The weeping from his eyes and knees further endeared him to the public before he tested positive for doping later in The Race.

With the years of experience and great passion of all these authoritative writers and the in depth knowledge of its two editors, I knew these books, unlike "P is for Peloton" and many other books written by neophytes, could be trusted to be error free.  But I was taken aback that Bacon in his piece on luck in the sport in Volume One wrote that Eugene Christophe was disqualified for accepting help from a seven-year old boy who operated a bellows as he repaired a broken fork in the 1913 Tour.  This is one of the most legendary events in Tour history and Bacon got it wrong and his fellow editor Birnie failed to correct it.

There is a plaque on the house where the event took place at the foot of the Tourmalet.  It was actually reenacted fifty years later with Christophe and the boy who operated the bellows.  But Christophe was not kicked out of The Race for accepting help, but rather given a token ten-minute penalty, later reduced to three minutes. He lost over four hours anyway, having to hike down the mountain carrying his bike and then performing the repair in a blacksmith's shop, so the penalty hardly mattered.  Every history of The Tour writes of this incident.  Some get the time penalty wrong, but few get it as wrong as Bacon did.

Otherwise I am happy to report I detected no other gaffes, not even from Abt, the American who came late to the sport and whose many books are notoriously marred with mistakes, from getting the number of Monuments wrong to misplacing Herni Desgrange's Monument. These Anthologies belong on the bookshelf of any devotee of the sport.  It is heartening to know that many others feel the same and that they are being compiled at a rate of more than one per year.  I am eager to get on to the next four and all those that come after.