Wednesday, March 30, 2016

"Mapping Le Tour" by Ellis Bacon

My pulse quickens when I discover a book, new or old, on The Tour de France that has eluded my attention.  If I were one of those cyclists with a heart-rate monitor, it would have registered several notches higher than usual when I learned about "Mapping Le Tour" from 2014 by the accomplished  British cycling writer Ellis Bacon.  A book focusing on Tour routes would speak directly to my heart having ridden the last twelve and knowing how each has a character of its own and is as intrinsic to its appeal as The Race itself.

There have been countless books recounting The Races, but I had yet to come upon one devoted to the intricacies of the terrain each covered and the towns they passed through and how the course was arranged. An incisive analysis of how the route has evolved over the years and what distinguished one from another and what each showcased of France along with a consideration of the thinking of those who designed each route would be a book I'd devour in one go having given much consideration to these issues as I've ridden the 2,000 miles of each year's route.

As I gave this over-sized book a quick page-through before diving into its prose, I was thrilled that a highly detailed map of each Tour filled a page.  As one who is mesmerized by maps, they instantly made this book an invaluable resource.  I was mildly disappointed though to notice that this was more of a picture book than a written book.  Bacon only devotes a half page of copy (a mere four or five paragraphs) to each Race.  The photographs are certainly magnificent with several spread out over two pages, but the minimum of discourse precluded the depth and focus I was anticipating.  Though he acknowledges The Tour is defined by the places it visits, his brief year-by-year recap is more preoccupied with miscellania such as the first Japanese rider to compete in The Tour (1926) than with examining the race course.  

It did not vary much in its first decades, clinging to the periphery of the country rather than venturing into the interior up onto the Massif Central and elsewhere as it did later.  It expanded from six stages its first two years to eleven in its third edition and thirteen in its fourth. The first dramatic change came in its eighth editon in 1910 when it tackled the Pyrenees and then the next year when it took on the Alps.  The next significant variation came in 1913 when for the first time the racers did their bidding in a counter-clockwise manner around the country.  Eventually it alternated from year to year letting the Alps go first one year then the Pyrenees the next, but for several decades there was no pattern in the direction the organizers set.

When I realized Bacon was going to let the maps pretty much speak for themselves rather than dissecting them, I began paying them closer attention.  The first thing I look at when each year's route is announced in October is the transfers from a stage finish to the next day's stage start.  For the first fifty years of The Tour transfers were not an issue.  There was a minor twenty mile transfer in 1906 after the Stage One finish in Lille to Douai, but there wasn't another until 1955.

That too was just a one-of for a short hop towards the end of The Race for a time-trial and didn't signal an immediate trend.  It was three years before the next transfer with two a year for three years until it jumped to five stages with a transfer in 1962.  The transfers were relatively short until 1960 with the first use of a train.  After the five-transfer Tour, the number backed off to just two or three the next four years until 1967 when there were none--the last time that happened.  

That race was also memorable for the death of Tom Simpson on Mont Ventoux and the end of The Race's conclusion at the Parc des Princes velodrome in Paris.  The velodrome had hosted every finish of The Race until then.  It was such an institution that Bacon suggests that people were left "teary-eyed" at the demolition of the velodrome.  It was replaced by a gigantic soccer and rugby stadium signaling their popularity over cycling.

Bacon mentions tears just one other time--perhaps the most celebrated tears in the history of The Tour, those of a young Rene Vietto in 1934 after giving up his wheel to his team leader Antonin Magne in the mountains when he himself was a threat to win The Race.  The iconic photo is so often included in Tour books, that Bacon passes on it here, just as he passed on the legendary photo of Poulidor and Anquetil leaning into each other on the Puy de Dome in 1964, choosing instead a photo of Poulidor speeding on ahead of Anquetil.

One of the darkest days in Tour history for those attempting to follow the route by bicycle, even darker than that first train transfer in 1960, came in 1971 with the first air transfer, one of six transfers that year, the most to date. That was a particularly contorted route starting out counter-clockwise from Mulhouse up to the Channel and then hopping down to Paris and resuming in a clockwise manner.  

It jumped to seven transfers in 1974 with two via ferry to England and back for one measley stage along a highway that hardly anyone came to watch.  Then began a slow increase to half the stages not resuming where they left off to seventy-five per cent of the stages requiring a hop, increasing the mileage of the distance of The Race from its start city to its finish by hundreds of miles, all in the name of increasing revenue from the host cities.

Even more crass commercialism was the advent of split stages--days with two and even three stages. That feature was introduced in 1934 with an 81-kilometer morning road stage from La Rochelle to La Roche-sur-Yon followed by an afternoon time trial of 90 kilometers to Nantes.  The greedy organizers inflicted six split stages on the peloton the next year, three individual time trials and three team time trials.  In 1936 there were five split stages including the first with three on one day.  A 65-km team time trial sandwiched between road stages of 81 and 67 kilometers.  The next year there were eight split stages with three days of three races.

The organizers mercifully desisted from split stages when The Race resumed after a seven-year hiatus from 1940 to 1946 due to the war.  But in 1954 split stages were re-introduced, though in moderation with just one or two a year until 1964 with three.  In 1978 the peloton refused to ride the morning stage that was set to start at 7:30 a.m. after a long transfer the day before that kept them up until midnight.  There were no split stages the following year, but then one or two from 1980 until 1982.  The next and final split stage occurred in 1985.  The peloton has been mercifully freed of them now for over thirty years.

Accompanying each map were the dates of each Race.  To honor the 50th edition of The Race in 1963 it ended on Bastille Day, July 14, a tradition that lasted three more years.  Seven times The Race has started on July 4, including the year of Greg LeMond's first win in 1986.  The Race has always finished or started in July, though only 44 times has it taken place entirely in the month.  It has finished in August seven times and commenced in June over fifty times.

Rarely does it confine itself entirely to France.  It ventured out of the country for the first time to Germany in 1906.  The 1992 race was its most international, visiting seven countries to honor the formation of the European Union.  The route frequently commemorates significant historical events, such as World War battles.

A close look at the maps showed L'Alpe d'Huez spelled with a capital "L" as the French prefer, in contrast to the spelling Bacon chose to go with in his copy, referring to it as merely Alpe d'Huez, declining the honorific "L" (The) even though he included "Le" in the title of his book.  He said writing this book was a "labor of love."  This book can't help but increase anyone's love of The Race.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

"The Monuments" by Peter Cossins

With Milan-Sanremo this past weekend, the first of the five annual races known as Monuments, it was appropriate that I discovered the book "The Monuments" by Peter Cossins at the local Barnes and Noble.  If this were Europe, it would have been on prominent display with all cycling fans excited about the coming month of the four spring-time Momuments, but here it was buried on the shelf of cycling books, not even turned out, as was a biography on Mark Cavendish, to attract extra attention.

I dove right in, but with some trepidation after noticing the back cover said only two riders had won all five Momuments, when it was actually three--Eddie Merckx, of course, and his fellow Belgians Rik Van Looy and Roger De Vlaeminck.  Cossins couldn't possibly have gotten that wrong.  He's been covering cycling since 1993 and served as editor of "Procycling" for three years and written books on The Tour de France and L'Alpe d'Huez.  His French is fluent enough to have translated Christopher Basson's "Clean Break" into English.  

Fortunately, that error was a false alarm and his vast and intimate knowledge of cycling history only had a handful of minor lapses--such as referring to Raymond Poulidor as "Jacques," calling The Tour de France a "22-day soap opera," (it is generally 21 stages over 23 days), saying Les Woodland was a long-time Belgian resident, (this English journalist has long resided in France near Toulouse), Lapize yelled "Assassins" at Tour officials as he crossed the summit of the Tourmalet in the 1910 Tour (it was the Aubisque).

Entire books have been written on each of these five races (Milan-Sanremo, Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix, Liege-Bastogne-Liege and Il Lombardia), so his biggest challenge was to make his coverage concise.  That didn't prevent him however from filling the book with repeated asides regarding the protagonists of these races, such as Rik Van Steenbergen starring in a porn film two years after he retired, failing to save much of his vast earnings.  He can't help but mention incidents from The Tour de France and The Giro d'Italia as well, all enriching the book though not necessarily relating to its central topic.

He writes about the races not in the order of their placement on the calendar, but rather in the order of which they were established, beginning with Liege-Bastogne-Liege in 1896 and finishing up with the Tour of Flanders in 1913.  After the history of one race up to its 2013 edition, he starts all over with the next race.  Each race had its era of Merckx, who won nineteen of them, far more than any other racer.  He doles out ancillary Merckx biography in each of the five chapters. It flows well enough, that rarely was I wondering why did he choose to include this here and not elsewhere, such as his crash at the Blois velodrome.  Any connoisseur of the sport will appreciate all the lore he manages to weave into his narrative.  It's understandable that his intense research would uncover tidbits that he couldn't help sharing.

Rather than cluttering the book with footnotes, he just mentions in his text the book or newspaper or magazine article that was his source for some fact. As one would expect, "L'Equipe" led all with over twenty-five references.  He also quotes various journalists, such as Woodland.  One could well imagine the fun he had researching these races going back reading the coverage of them.

He comments on how ardently fans supported their favorites in the early days of these races, especially the Italians at their end of the season Monument in Lombardy.  They were known to hinder and even assault rival riders. Spreading nails and tacks on the roads wasn't uncommon.  The Italians too were notorious for giving pushes.  

They so flagrantly pushed Fiorenzo Magni, three-time winner of Flanders, in the 1948 Giro that Fausto Coppi quit the race in disgust, infuriating all his fans.  Magni went on to win that Giro along with two others, but he was booed  mercilessly at the awards ceremony in Milan.  He was brought to tears and needed a police escort from the Vigorelli velodrome.  The velodrome was the site of mass tears in 1971 when police fired tear gas to bring calm to a Led Zepplin concert, another example of Cossins expanding the scope of his book beyond the Monuments.

He cites more than a dozen cases of tears.  Some are well-documented, such as Paolo Bettini crossing the finish line in tears ahead of everyone else at Lombardy in 2006 just days after the death of his brother in a car accident.  It is one of the photos included in the book.  Equally renowned are the tears of Johan Museew after winning the 2000 Paris-Roubaix two years after nearly losing his leg from an infection he picked up after crashing and breaking his leg in that year's Roubaix.

Stephen Roche confessed that the only time he cried after a race was being nipped by Moreno Argentine in the 1987 Liege-Bastogne-Liege when he thought he was going to win it. Coppi sobbed after losing the 1956 Lombardy to Magni. Louison Bobet gave a tearful interview in his hotel room after a close loss in the 1952 Flanders due to a puncture.

Cossins cites a case of suspected tears from Van Looy after winning the 1962 Paris-Roubaix, his second.  It meant a lot to him, and it appeared as if he was in tears as he finished.  He was an arch-stoic, and refused to admit to the tears.  Many thought otherwise,  as he was unusually talkative with the press afterwards, "underlining the height of his emotions."

Cossins fully recognizes the significance of tears, not only as an indicator of grief and exaltation, but also the depth of one's emotional investment.  He recounted the tears of Frank Vandenbrouke as a five-year old.  He didn't cry when a rally car crashed into him and broke his leg.  But when a doctor took a pair of scissors to his cycling shorts, he burst into tears, distraught that he was about to lose the treasured emblem that identified him as a cyclist.  The anecdote didn't have much to do with the Monuments, but it had everything to do with the stature of cycling on the other side of the pond, and that shines brightly from start to finish as the underlying thrust of the book.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Biking Taipei

If the rain hadn't persisted, I'd planned on spending my final two days in Taipei riding the superb bike paths that go on for miles and miles along the several rivers that intersect the city.  But weather systems can become snagged on the mountains of this island nation one thousand miles off the coast of China and take awhile to move on.  I wasn't to be deterred though.  With the rain mostly misty and drizzly with just occasional mild hard spells, I gave in to my longings and did some pedaling on the bike paths, knowing shelter was never too distant and that I had a warm, dry abode awaiting me at the end of the day.

I had the paths pretty much to myself.  About the only others out in the rain were a few fishermen and the many feral dogs who inhabit the strips of parkland along the rivers.  They weren't chasing dogs, so they were of no concern.  They raised their eyes to me, hoping I might be one of their patrons who bring them food scraps.  Taiwan is a country of stray dogs, but rarely do they bark or give chase.  Surprisingly, I didn't see a single carcass along the road and only an occasional pile of excrement.  They reflected the considerate and tidy behavior of the Taiwanese. 

Though the paths were wet and I needed to keep the hood of my jacket up to keep my head dry, I could merrily glide along enjoying the corridors of tranquility from the urban maelstrom all about me. I would have preferred to have been sharing a contagion of pleasure with others partaking of the path and the tennis and badminton and basketball courts and baseball diamonds, but it was just fine to be undistracted by others and simply let my thought wander.  Once again I was reminded that Taiwan is not China, not only by the level of affluence and this sense of order, but also by the lack of ping pong tables.  If this had been China the parks would have been filled with them.

Though I am invariably initially repelled by huge urban environments and want to escape as soon as possible, I am prone to taking a liking to them with time, and that has been the case with Taipei. It may be a densely populated, sprawling metropolis, but it's not choked by cars, thanks to an extensive, inexpensive bus and subway system and many people on motorbikes.  The smallest percentage of vehicles, even fewer than buses, are pedal bikes, despite plenty of bikes for rent.

The rental bikes are heavily promoted and are monogrammed with a smile and the word "Smile" in English and Mandarin.

Though the fast flying motorcycles might seem a menace, they observe an exemplary code of conduct. At major intersections they have two designated boxes set aside for them ahead of all other vehicles when waiting for a light to turn green. There is a large box behind the pedestrian crosswalk where most congregate.

In front of the crosswalk is a smaller box for motorcycles coming from the left who are turning on to the road, as on four-lane streets they are not allowed in the left lane, even if they are making a left-hand turn.

Very rarely does a motorcyclist creep ahead from behind the crosswalk to this box to get a jump on everyone else.  That box is nearly universally given respect as the domain of  those who are in the process of a left-turn.  I had to fight the temptation to sneak up to it myself, but came to enjoy sitting back and observing everyone else deferring to those coming from our left who were turning onto our road.

Another of the small Taiwanese gestures I have come to develop a fondness for and that I will miss is the two-handed presentation of my receipt whenever I buy anything.  Early on I wouldn't wait around for my receipt until all too often the cashier would chase after me to give it to me.

One of my rides on the paths took me fifteen miles along the rivers to Taipei's one hundred year old zoo.  It is nestled up against a ridge of mountains that one can be transported to from the zoo via a gondola.  Even in the rainy conditions it was well-attended by families with young children and hand-holding young folk in the early stages of a relationship.  All were remarkably well-mannered and respectful, causing no commotion or disturbance, fully obedient to the no feeding of the animals and no knocking on the window signs.  No one taunted the various primates trying to provoke a reaction or showed any impatient in being where they were.  It was a pleasure to be amongst such a civilized people.

Most popular was a pair of pandas, a gift from China, that were part of a huge complex with multiple stores selling panda products. It wasn't until 2005 that relations between the two countries had thawed enough that China made the symbolic gesture of the pandas.  Taiwan's president at the time refused the gift.  It wasn't until three years later that a new president accepted the pandas.

Not much more than a dozen zoos around the world outside of China have pandas.  There are five in North America (San Diego, Memphis, Atlanta, Washington D.C. and Toronto) and none in South America and Africa.  They subsist largely on bamboo, as this one was nibbling.

The sprawling grounds of the zoo with lush vegetation and rocky backdrops was well-represented with animals large and small from all over the world.  One section was devoted to the animals of Taiwan. I was happy to get a close-up view of the island's only primate, the Formosan Rock Macaque, who inhabit the entire country.  I had gotten an occasional glimpse of them scampering across the road or darting among the trees, but nothing of significance.  I feared they might be drawn to my tent out of curiosity,  but that never happened.  Those at the zoo on this day were huddled together trying to keep warm.

Before I began my ride back to my hostel I took a rest in the zoo's library.  It had zoological magazines from all over the world in many different languages.  I also dropped in on the National Library just a mike down the road from where I was staying.

It faced the huge square with the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial and the National Theater and National Concert Hall.

Of the twenty newspapers it carried, only one was in English--The Taipei Times.  It had a couple of stories on how the country is trying to encourage tourism.  The country's policy fluctuates on the number of mainland Chinese it allows to visit and whether in tour groups or independently.  Many come via Hong Kong with sixty flights a day making making the eighty minute hop across the Taiwan Strait.

My hostel was just a block from the city's premiere Art Movie House--SPOT. It was playing two films from Japan and a documentary, "The Moment," commemorating the fiftieth anniversary of the country's premiere film festival, the Golden Horse.  

It had had its world premiere the week before.  I couldn't have asked for a more appropriate film.   It provided not only a history of Taiwanese cinema with an emphasis on its three leading directors (Ang Lee, Hou Hsiao-Hsien and Edward Yang), but also a commentary on what was going on in the country over the years.

It included snippets from many of its award-winning films and interviews with actors and directors and also footage of significant events in the country's history.  For the first fifteen years of the festival its awards night coincided with the birthday celebration of Chiang Kai-shek, a national holiday, until even after his death.  At the fifteenth festival in 1976, the year after Chiang's death, Elizabeth Taylor became the first Hollywood star to attend the festival, not with a film, but as a presenter at the awards ceremony.

The film festival covered the period during which Taiwan was transformed from an agrarian to an industrial country.  One film from the early days of industrialization showed factory workers streaming into their factory, all on bicycles.  During the early years of the festival, there was a strong degree of censorship, what with the country under martial law.  All along directors challenged taboos.  When the United States cut diplomatic ties with Taiwan in 1979, eight years after China replaced Taiwan in the United Nations, it led to anti-American rioting.  One director said he got in trouble with his mother for taking eggs from her refrigerator, which were costly, and throwing them at Americans.

It was a significant event in the festival's history in 1996 when it allowed films from mainland China into the festival.  A year later was the "Hand-Over" of Hong Kong to China.  The film included footage of Prince Charles at that event. Hong Kong dominated the awards in the early years of the festival.  Hou Hsiao-Hsien won the best picture award in 1989 with "A City of Sadness" on the February 28, 1947 massacre of protesters, a seminal event in the country's history, simply known as "228," that is remembered with a national holiday. Ang Lee said he was brought to tears when his first film "Pushing Hands," won the best picture award in 1992.  There was no commentary from Edward Yang, as he died a few years ago, but many of the directors paid him tribute.  Some worked with him and others were students of his.

The film captured the gentle demeanor that has been my perception of so many of the people I have met here.  I'm happy I allowed more than just the couple of weeks that is all I would have needed to make an easy circuit of the 750-mike bike route around the coast line of the country and took the time for extra exploration to get to know the country and its people a little bit better.  

My lone disappointment is that, despite being so bike-friendly, there is not a bicycle route into the airport.  One can get within a mile of it, but then is blocked.  I scouted out the twenty-five mile route from Taipei to it a week ago, and was halted by a concerned employee after I pretended I didn't understand the no bicycling sign.  I feared I'd have to resort to a cab, but I learned there was a regular bus to the airport with a large cargo compartment that made pickups just two blocks from where I was staying at the nominal cost of $2.60.  

I regretted being denied the challenge of carrying a folded-up bike box under my arm for twenty-five miles, including a three-mile 800-foot climb, but taking the bus spared me the worries of the overcast skies soaking and ruining the box. Riding out to the airport would have been a triumphal finale to my time in Taiwan, but I hardly needed any more icing to my wonderful time.  It was nice to be the lone Westerner on a packed bus of Taiwanese, and it enabled me to partake of more of their goodwill--a hotel concierge helping me to lug my bike box and duffel the final half-block to the bus stop and then a young fellow passenger grabbing my duffel to load it on as I loaded the bike.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

The Cave Temples of Lion's Head Mountain

The dense foliage and sandstone caves of Lion's Head Mountain has long provided a place of retreat from the everyday world.  Over the years it has been adopted as a sacred site for Buddhists in Taiwan.  The mountain is dotted with assorted temples and pagodas from miniatures to grand edifices, many of which are sheltered by a cave.  A network of trails, some rugged and others paved, links them all. 

It was a genuine retreat for me, as inclement weather deterred all others.  I didn't encountered another soul on the trails or at any of the edifices during my two-hour meander. The solitude emphasized the mystical nature of the setting, but at a certain point I was hoping someone might come along when I wasn't certain which fork to take in the trail.  I'd gone astray often enough on the bike, I didn't need it to happen when I was expending much more energy picking up one foot after another and with the threat of the rain resuming at any moment.  

I felt lucky to being able to hike at all, as when I arrived at the Visitor Center at the trail head it had been raining for half an hour and looked as if it could continue all day. While waiting to see if the rain would abate, I was able to have a prolonged conversation with the English-speaker of the two people on duty--an enthusiastic young man who seemed to be fresh out of college.  Most of the Visitor Centers are staffed by women in their thirties or forties who don't often speak English, but there has been an occasional young man such as this one.  It was nice to see the profession attracting such competent, eager fresh blood.

After about half an hour when the conversation had turned to sports, he asked me if the shirt he was wearing meant anything to me.  It was a tan official shirt such as Park Service Rangers wear back home, unlike the casual attire of his woman colleague.  "It indicates I'm in the military," he explained.  "This is my military service.  I was lucky to get this position."  Every young man is obligated to enlist when he finishes school, whether it be high school or college or beyond.  Up until a couple years ago, one served for a year.  Now it is four months.  When the law was changed it applied to anyone born after 1994.  This young man was born in1992, so he had to do a twelve-month stint, one of the reasons he was granted such pleasant duty.

His English was impeccable, as he had spent seven years going to school in Australia.  His parents thought he could get a better education there than in Taiwan.  When he came home during summer break he couldn't stay more than two months, otherwise he would have lost his student deferment and been immediately conscripted.

He is an ardent basketball fan and envied me that I was from Chicago and was old enough to have seen Michael Jordan play.  Baseball used to be the most popular sport in Taiwan, especially since teams from the island once dominated the Little League World Series, winning the title seventeen times beginning in 1969.  Eleven Taiwanese have made it to the Bigs in the US, the first in 2002.  But basketball has overtaken baseball as the most popular sport in Taiwan, largely due to chronic and pervasive mob-related game-fixing and betting scandals.  

One can place a bet legally in Taiwan on any sporting event, including the NBA and MLB.  The public lost all interest in Taiwanese baseball when it became clear that the fixing of games was so deeply rooted that not a single action on the field could be trusted. As it is, any player with talent goes to play in Japan, and if he is truly talented, to the US.  The only time the Taiwanese can trust their players to be giving it their all is in international tournaments.  Those games the players truly care about, especially when Taiwan is playing Japan.

As we talked, the rain miraculously abated. Clouds still hung heavy and low, but I couldn't resist the lure of the temples.  There were a couple within a ten minute stroll.  I could always turn back if the rain resumed rather than making any of the several loops.  Just below the Visitor Center was a temple alongside a stream with several illuminated glassed-in Buddhas under a large overhang.

The first temple on the trail to the mountain top was much more rustic and basic, more a simple shrine than a temple.

As at most of the temples I have visited here, there were offerings of food.

There were more pavilions than temples along the trail, offering shelter for rest and reflection.

A jolly over-sized Buddha peered down upon the trail from another of the temples.

Some of the temples started out small, then grew and grew, completely camouflaging the cave that was there origin.

The trail was paved and wide enough for a car to reach these larger temples.  A spur led off to a sacred seven-trunked 400-year old camphor tree that had a 100-year old companion.  It is known as the Mother-and-Child Tree.

If this had been one of my sunny days, I would have continued my hike to the summit of the mountain and its weather station and on to the point where the trail had been blocked by a landslide, a common feature of Taiwan.  I saw many on the roads with large teams of workers dangling from ropes on cliff sides mounting metal netting trying to contain the cliff from sliding any more.  One road through the middle of the country has been closed for several years from a severe landslide.  

One has to be continually wary in the mountains when it is raining that rocks could come atumbling.  The threat of rain held off until late in the afternoon.  I was within forty miles of Taipei and just enduring its sprawl when the rain recommended.  I immediately began looking for a place to camp.  There was too much light to take advantage of several potential sites past fields into forested mountainsides.  With the rain came a strong north wind, so I wanted a site protected from the wind.  I at last found one in a field of high reeds.  I was fortunate to find it before I was too wet.  With the temperature plummeting I needed to add some layers and use my sleeping bag as a quilt while I had another wonderful night of eating and reading in my tent, the last one of these travels before a final two days in Taipei.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park

If I had been on a quest in search of the many Chiang Kai-shek statues erected all over Taiwan,  my task would have been made easy for me, as the vast majority of the statues have been gathered in Cihu Memorial Sculpture Park near the mausoleum where his body rests.  In my thousand miles of bicycling around the country, I had encountered only one of his statues, other than at his huge Memorial Hall in Taipei. It was privately owned in front of a small business.

If my travels had brought me to Taiwan twenty years ago, I would have seen such statues of him everywhere, just as I had seen statues of Ataturk in every town in Turkey and Jose Rizal in every town in the Philippines and Simon Bolivar all over Venezuela.  It was always a delight to spot the gallant pose and how it was rendered of these revered national heroes, just as it is to lay eyes upon a town's Carnegie Library as I bike through rural America.  I felt deprived not to have Chiang statues enlivening the landscape and quickening my pulse here.

But to have them assembled in one vast park gave a delight of a higher order.  It may be the kookiest sculpture park on the planet.  They are all pretty much clones of one another, but still have a degree of individuality. They are life-like enough to be on the verge of delivering a speech or marching on out of the park to regain control of the country.

They haven't been brought together so much to honor him, but rather as a place of exile, though not a one of the many plaques around the park telling where the sculptures came from give a hint of the circumstances that caused their removal.  Rather they say how kind it was for a community to donate their statue.  They'd describe the esteemed spot where he had been and how people would bow to it as they passed. Some were adored with the phrase "The Saviour of the Nation." The plaque beside the statue that once stood beside the southernmost lighthouse in Taiwan gave the story that it was being adversely affected by standing in the intense sun all day and had been brought here to save it.  

The statues began coming down in the year 2000, twenty-five years after his death, when for the first time the,party that had been in opposition to Chiang's party came to power.  It did not mandate the removal of the statues, but they provided the climate for it.  There had long been resentment to Chiang's decades of tyrannical rule and corruption (he was known as "General, Cash My Check").  Now it became fully accepted and people could no longer endure the hypocrisy of honoring him with statues.  Local movements were launched to remove their statue, just as a strong local faction prevents the erection of a statue to Margaret Thatcher in her home town.

Unlike other countries where the ebb of history had fully unveiled the ugly truth of a once revered leader, such as Stalin and Lenin and Hussein and Mao, leading to the destruction of their statues, the Taiwanese had enough civility to spare Chiang's statues from the wrecking ball.  But not even the exhibits in the Visitor Center have a negative word to say about Chiang.  As with his Memorial Hall in Taipei, there was nothing but praise heaped upon him. Both were full of photographs of him with noted world leaders--Churchill and Roosevelt in Cairo in 1943, Gandhi in India, Eisenhower in Taiwan in 1960, then Governor Reagan in Taiwan in 1970.

The bulk of the statues were arranged in thirteen circles with ten statues surrounding one in the middle.

There were also single larger statues scattered about and also several more circles under construction.

The park was framed by two long rows of over thirty busts each.

Most of the statues depicted him bareheaded and holding a cane.  In some he held a book or a hat.  The one constant was his beatific, benevolent expression.

It was nearly a mile hike past a tranquil small lake with a few swans and surrounded by thick vegetation 
to his mausoleum.  It was guarded by two solders who were changed every hour in a ceremony full of pomp.

As at his Memorial Hall in Taipei, it drew a large audience.

Chiang converted to Christianity, following his wife's conversion, later in his life.  His casket contains a Bible, and a cross of flowers stands in front of it.

Chiang's son, who assumed the presidency upon his death, has a mausoleum of his own a mile away. It too has a pair of guards.  Even though he is regarded with more favor than his father, ending martial law and opening the way for democracy, I was the lone spectator for its change of guard.

While I was eating lunch, a guy on a motorcycle asked if he could join me.  He had grown up during Chiang's rule and had no desire to see his sculpture park even though it was nearby just off the road.  As others have told me, he said, "He was a bad man."  Along with martial law, he maintained a continual curfew under the pretense that China could attack at any time. It gave the police license to arrest any one any time.  "We all know someone who was arrested and was never seen again," he said.

Chiang brought two million others with him, about one million of whom were military and their families, after failing to maintain control of China after WWII, losing out to Mao and the Communists. They increased the population of Taiwan to eight million.  My friend could trace his lineage back at least four generations on Taiwan.  When he is asked if he is Chinese when he travels the world on business for the tech company's he works for, he quickly asserts that he is Taiwanese, not Chinese.  

He and most of his fellow citizens have no desire to be reunited with China.  It has been 120 years since Japan seized Taiwan, that Taiwan has been affiliated with China.  Japan was a good ruler.  It didn't treat Taiwan as a colony, but rather as part of Japan.  It made considerable improvements to Taiwan.  The Taiwanese were happy to consider themselves Japanese and continue to have a warm feeling for Japan.  My friend was proud that his daughter works in Japan for one of its largest companies.

We talked for over an hour.  It was the longest and most enlightening conversation I've had here.  At last I found someone who could tell me what the small, partially glassed buildings were along the road. 

A pretty young woman can be seen sitting at a counter.  I've peered in looking for a bed in the back room one can see through an open door, suspecting prostitution might be legal here.  One sees slightly more substantial buildings with more provocative woman on display in Belgium and Holland practicing the trade.   But I learned that prostitution is illegal here and that these women were selling betel nut for chewing.  The large windows are so the women can see customers drive up and entice them with their beauty since they cater mostly to truck and cab drivers to keep their energy up.  She can dash out and give them what they want.  I hadn't noticed anyone chewing or spitting the betel nut, as was much more common in India, but after discovering what these places are, I began noticing red stains of spit in front of them and then along the road. They are the residue from the cups they spit into as they drive. They'd been there all along, but I had been oblivious to them.  I almost wish I hadn't had my eyes opened to them.

I know that I have barely scratched the surface of understanding this world I have been immersed in for the past three weeks, but I have still learned a lot and know that I'll learn a few more things in the few days I have left.  

Saturday, March 5, 2016

Taipei International Cycle Show

On the fourth day of the Taipei International Cycle Show I joined the throngs of common citizens allowed into this huge trade show on its final day.  Up until then only industry folk were permitted to peruse the offerings of over a thousand exhibitors from all over the world.  It was only eye candy for the public, as there is no merchandise for sale, other than by order, or any freebies other than literature and candy and maybe a water bottle or pen. It was an overwhelming task to cover it all, spread out on four floors of the Nangang Exhibtion Center on the east side of Taipei.  

Taiwanese companies, led by Giant, the largest manufacturer of bikes in the world, and Kenda, the largest manufacturer of tires, naturally dominated the event, filling one floor entirely and intermingled with the companies from overseas on the other floors as well.  Giant grows stronger and stronger.  It's nine factories in Taiwan, China and Europe produced 6.6 million bikes last year.  It manufactures bikes for other companies, but seventy per cent of its production is its own brand.  The average cost of its bikes has risen to $800.  Kenda, too, is a gorilla in the industry, turning out a quarter of a million tires a day.

Without an industry pass dangling from my neck I was largely ignored as I systematically wandered the grid of aisles.  Most of the products were standard components and accessories with just a few oddities.  One booth was largely devoted to bells.

A local pannier company had a line of bags for carrying dogs adorned with a dog bone.

A few booths had someone with a microphone giving a demonstration or a pitch of some sort, but it was all in Chinese.  A few had an Asian cyclist sitting at a table signing autographs, none of whom I recognized.  Some booths tried to attract attention with a pretty girl.

More popular though as attention-grabbers were flowers.

Catchy phrases vied for attention--"Perfection is an attitude," "Bringing bikes to life," "Structural integrity," "Active intelligence." It left me pretty much in a daze until I took the escalator to the fourth floor where the companies from overseas with familiar names were stationed.  Trek and SRAM and Sigma and Zefal, who I feel as if I know personally having accompanied me to the distant corners of the planet, each gave me an lift.  There was no Eddy at the Merckx booth, other than his photo, but it brought back fond memories of being in close proximity to him last year in Oman.  None of the bikes or parts though had me lusting for anything other than to be on my bike.  

I stuck to my mission though to see it all.  The Brompton booth was promoting a contest for the public to submit fifteen second videos of riding their folder in urban environments.  Larger than life-sized photos of Rohan Dennnis, Philipe Gilbert, Geraint Thomas and a few other stalwarts of the European peloton graced a few of the booths.

I took a couple of breaks to rest my legs and to give a scan to the daily magazine published promoting the event.  They were full of glowing good news.  Taipei had just hosted Velo-City, the world's biggest bicycle advocacy conference.  It was the first time it had been held in Asia. Taipei's 56-year old cycling fanatic mayor, Ko Wen-je, helped lure it to his city.  He had just completed a 323-mile ride from the top of the island to the bottom in 28 hours in remembrance of the 30,000 dissidents who died in an anti-government uprising on Feb. 28, 1947.  February 28 is a national holiday.  

Another story trumpeted the increasing popularity of bike-sharing programs.  Europe leads the way with 500 cities followed my Asia with 400, 100 in the United States and Canada and 25 in South America.  Giant spearheaded Taipei's program and intends to expand elsewhere.  The 82-year founder of Giant plans to retire at the end of the year after 45 years in the business so he can devote himself to such advocacy work.

I saw quite a few of Taipei's orange rental bikes in use taking advantage of the fine network of bike paths in the city.  The Danshuei River and its two tributaries, the Keelung and the Xindian, who frame the central part of the city, each are bounded by deluxe bike paths on both sides of their banks.  They go on for miles.  The riversides are wide enough in spots for parks and baseball fields.  They add great luster to this urban environment.  The central part of the city is flat enough to be laid in a grid.  There was more order and less chaos than any other Asian city I've biked.  I couldn't help but think of how much messier it had been to bike in Bangkok, Beijing, Mumbai, Delhi, Manila, Hanoi, Tokyo and others. A protected bike lane was an unimaginable luxury for Asia, and here I was sharing it with rental bikes and headed for what had been the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2010 when it supplanted Chicago's Willis Tower as the tallest until losing the honor to Dubai.

Taipei 101, named for the number of floors it has, was designed to resemble a bamboo stalk.

A few miles from Taipei 101 is a large park with the controversial Chiang Kia-shek Memorial Hall built in 1980 before a reconsideration of his career twenty years later began a period of deChiangification.  

His statues came down all over the country and things named for him were renamed, including the international airport. Efforts were even made to rename his memorial, but those were thwarted.  One wouldn't know he was reviled by many, as this four-story memorial was mobbed and it paid full tribute to the founder of Taiwan and its president for 26 years until his death in 1975.  A gift shop inside is called "Cheer for Chiang."

On the fourth floor of the monument is a Lincolnesque statue that is granted an honorary military guard.

Every hour there is an elaborate changing of the guard.

It wasn't the only changing of the guard that I witnessed in my two day's of sightseeing in Taipei.  The other was at the National Revolutionary Martyrs' Shrine honoring those who died in various 20th century rebellions on the mainland and in Taiwan.  It embraces China's history as its own, as it considers Taiwan the real China, just waiting for the opportunity to retake the mainland.  The changing on the guard there went on for a full twenty minutes as it included two pairs of guards, one at the entry of the complex and then the other at the main building a couple blocks away.  The crowd of spectators marked along with the five soldiers, some of them imitating their arms swings and struts.

As at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial, they twirled their rifles and stomped their boots in unison while maintaining a grim-faced expression.

With luck in the days to come I'll have another changing of the guard to witness at the Generalissomo's mausoleum in a small town fifty miles to the south.

I completed my tourist duties with a visit to the vast National Palace Museum and its incomparable collection of several milliniums of Chinese art--jade, bronze, porcelain, calligraphy, paintings and more.  

Janina would have been in ecstasy, except maybe over its special exhibit of artefacts from the Vatican--vestments and chalices and sundry, including the quite large red shoes of John Paul II.  One set of rooms was devoted to an extraordinary animation of the paintings of Giuseppe Castiglione, a Jesuit painter who lived in China in the 1700s.  His nature paintings were brought to life and reinterpreted on screens with chirping birds and fluttering peacocks and horses.  Much effort was also put into a 22-minute video of talking dogs and birds and other animals.  It was partially an exercise to showcase the animation abilities of the Taiwanese, but also as a tribute to Castiglione.  

The museum was mobbed on a Saturday afternoon and stayed open until eight p.m.  Most of those in attendance were in groups accompanied by a guide.  Unfortunately there was no English to eavesdrop on, though the displays were all explained in quite sensitive and well-written English, worthy of Janina's pen.

Thursday, March 3, 2016

Yangmingshan National Park

The mountains of Yangmingshan National Park look down upon Taipei, the capital of Taiwan and its largest city with over three million inhabitants. The park is less than ten miles from the city center.  One is never far from the mountains here, as they comprise 75 per cent of the country.

I briefly dipped into Taipei, in effect completing my circuit of the country, long enough to somewhat orient myself to the city and locate a hostel for the weekend, then climbed two thousand feet into the park for another night in my tent before three nights in a cell.  The kindly older couple who administer the hostel could fully understand my desire to take advantage of the balmy early spring weather to head off to the park.

My two day ride around the northern tip of the island was blessed by unseasonably warm and sunny conditions and little wind, the exact opposite of what I battled at the bottom of the island.  It made for the best cycling of the trip. It was enhanced by long stretches of fully separated bike lanes.

Signs regularly marked the way and looked out for those on bicycles.

The temples on the mountainsides looked grander and brighter in the clear, sunny conditions.

The only thing lacking was other cyclists.  I didn't encounter another in two days, partially because the official trail booklet lops off this part of the route so cyclists can complete their circuit in ten days, returning to Taipei from Yilan, where I resumed the coastal route after going inland.  The weather can be a detriment to the cycling as well, frequently wet and windy on the northern nub of the island.  There was also a fifteen mile stretch of not so pleasant cycling through Keelong, the country's second largest port, that had no bike lane and seemed to go on forever after the fifty miles of idyllic cycling that had preceded it.

It wasn't quite warm enough to attract sun-bathers to the beaches, but the rocky shorelines abounded with people fishing.

As at the bottom of the island, there was a half-mile walkway to the northern tip.  The southernmost point was marked by a monument.  Here was a lighthouse.  The ocean beyond was clogged with freighters and cargo ships.

I could have camped in the low-lying trees at the cape, but was forced by waning light to find a place to camp six miles before I reached it.  If I had known how agreeable it was, I would have pushed on.  There wasn't much to choose from in the steep mountainsides that rose above the road. I was forced back from an initial attempt by a pair of dogs.  I ended up putting my free-standing tent on the concrete fringe of a small temple carved into the mountainside.  I gathered up leaves as a little extra padding for my sleeping bag.  Cyclists are welcome at temples, so I knew I wasn't violating a taboo.

I'm finishing off my third loaf of bread. As with the other two, there has been an uneven number of slices, unlike most places. Either they don't use bread here so much to make sandwiches or preferring an odd number of slices could be another of the many superstitions that rule this country, such as the avoidance of the number four. It is associated with death as it has a similar pronunciation.  

When I was searching for the hostel I was reminded one doesn't see the number four in addresses.  The hostel address was 16 Lane 20 off Shongshan North, Section Two  I didn't know if I should be looking for Lane 20 or Lane 16, similar to the quandary of whether to put the day or the month first for dates.  I guessed wrong by going to Lane 16.  I feared the hostel might have closed and I'd have the task of trying to find another in the vast urban maelstrom of Taiwan.  

It was almost enough of a relief finding it to check in right then and there, except that it had doubled its price from the twelve dollars Lonely Planet quoted, the cheapest of the city's hostels.  Rather than the not-so-easy task of searching out the other hostels to see if they had similarly raised their prices, I was induced to commit to this one upon learning a Canadian cyclist was living in an apartment a floor above.  With luck he'll know of a bike shop where I can get a box for my bike, which the hostel proprietors didn't, and will also want to attend this weekend's bicycle trade show.  He'll be the first Westerner I'll have talked to since arriving.  The only ones I've seen were an older Australian couple at a visitor center for a beach resort asking about bus service.  Taiwan is not a tourist destination for Westerners.  It is somewhat popular though for Japanese and mainland Chinese.

I had to be creative once again in Yangmingshan finding a place to camp, as it had no sanctioned campgrounds.  It seemed that the only level spots in the park had residences on them, going back to well before the park was established, or had been turned into gardens or trails.  I had to burrow into a thicket just off the road.  It was one of my least quiet camp sites, but I had no regrets whatsoever of sleeping on the ground rather than on a mattress.

My campsite was just above one of the fifteen villas Chiang Kai-shek built for himself around the country.  It was walled in and well secluded so I had no vantage of it.  I did pass his Taipei villa just before I began the climb to the park.  

It is surrounded by vast gardens, and much as he is in disfavor for the harshness of his dictatorship and his greed, it is a popular gathering place.  Just inside the gate sits his 1968 Cadillac that many people stopped for a selfie.  The roses were just beginning to bloom, but there were many other flowers in full bloom.  Taiwan is known as the Kingdom of the Butterfly.  Hundreds of species make it their home, including one that is the only butterfly besides the Monarchs in Mexico that have a winter migrating grounds.  I am too early to see any of the vast migrations, but they are a huge attraction.  Highways even have protective canopies over them for the butterflies.