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.