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Tuesday, January 2, 2018

Chiayi 166: The Road with a View(嘉166)


For the first day of the new year everyone seemed to have the itch to do something different, but how that itch would be scratched was the question. With a long weekend there were far too many options, but by mid-week I had decided to try the Chiayi Route 166, which rises along the slope of Alishan's western ridge to the Ruili tea district. The Chiayi 166 splits the distance between the 36 bends of the 162A  and the stunning 159A; both exquisite routes in their own right. Judging my the location, destination and look of the map, the 166 was ripe for a ride and I couldn't believe it hadn't registered in my mind any time prior. Was I ever right about this one.


I was joined by Michael (who offers his write-up HERE) and Iris, two adventurous souls who both enjoy exploring Taiwan's roads as much as I do. We met at Taichung Station and took an early morning train down to Chiabei where we were delayed by an unnecessary hold up with breakfast and a necessary coffee stop. After almost an hour of mucking around Chiabei we hit the Chiayi Route 109 to greet the Chiayi 166 in the foothills of Chiayi.

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The Chiayi Route 166 climbs the same section of Alishan as the famed Alishan rail line and at a few locations the road crosses the tracks of the popular tourist train. I imagine with a bike bag it is totally possible to bike up and take the train down... but I can't imagine skipping that screaming descent.


As we crept closer to the mountain I couldn't help but recall parts of a dozen or more similar roads. I guess if you ride enough you feel roads in similar ways. We passed old Earth God shrines, honeybees and orchards in punchy oscillations through the hills drawing closer to the main attraction.

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The climb started to itch upward--gently at first, but steady. The lower half of the climbs kept everything at a moderate grade just on the inside of comfort. I have hardly been on the bike for over six weeks dealing with urgent family business and the immediate cold I caught upon returning to Taiwan during the cold snap from two weeks back. Still, my legs seemed to still be under me after kicking through 10k of climbing.


The climbing is steady and scribbles a meandering line up the slope. The climb flops over the ridge multiple times alternating between the northern and southern flank. There is rarely a segment without an astonishing view.

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The early morning mist on Alishan never completely burned off (Yes, this was indeed the famous Alishan fog and not central Taiwan's infamous pollution) and therefore the views were a little more opaque than desired, but it was still simply marvelous.

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IMG_6540Around the 59km marker the road started to simply hug the side of the mountain opposite the Chiayi 120. This is where the ramps became a little more serious and our little subtropical jaunt transformed into something more like a high mountain climb. We traced every contour of the mountain all the way up.

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Vehicle traffic was a bit heavier than I would have liked, but it was totally worth it.

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At about 700m the the first tea farms started to come into bloom. Much of this side of Alishan had been logged by the 1960s and turned into agricultural land. The tall cedars replaced with farm houses and the loose slopes cleared for tea fields and high mountain orchards.

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As we hit a series of switchbacks with about 8km to the summit, the final act of the climb revealed itself marked by two small tunnels high above a deep valley. From this point onward the road just sort of crumples over itself before vaulting the final ridge to the summit.

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Just beyond the peak, the road descends through two tunnels that act as a portal between two different world. The passage marks the border between the subtropical mountain walls and forests that blend a casual gradient into the foothills and the dusty plain to Taiwan's rugged Central Mountain Range. The  spaces that open up reveal a world carved between endless peaks and deep river passages. This is where tiny, oceanic Taiwan becomes a continent.

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We slung our bicycles between a sea of tea farms, bamboo and betel nut. I kept thinking how glad I was to have picked up a bag of gummy bears down at coffee, because food was not forthcoming. We had finally arrived among permanent homes and farms, but it seems people in the mountains don't eat. Not even a grocery store.

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Then, just about a kilometer before the turn off toward the Shuisheliao Station, we came upon a small local restaurant that had some sticky rice dumplings for enough oomph to drag us down the road.

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We turned onto the road to Shuisheliao Station, which looked promising, but was mainly locked in bamboo and forest with regular bumps amid flats to negotiate on tired legs.

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At Shuisheliao I caught up with the Alishan tourist train and did my best to take some quick pictures before having too many pictures taken of me. As we arrived at the station the weather looked like it was turning, like it almost might rain. If fact, it was only the charm of Alishan making itself known. Alishan is notorious for low clouds and thick fog. This was our taste of the old Alishan ambiance.


This is where we had the idea to take the Ruiguang Industry Rd.


On paper the idea seemed like a beautiful way to make the return interesting. On paper it would be a leisurely descent to the 159A and then a downhill home. On paper.

In reality, the initial descent was so steep and covered with fine clay, my wheels slid almost immediately as I eased off my brakes to meet the descent. At that point I needed to simply go fast until I could find some traction with which to stop.

The road was a shattered mosaic of cement and dried slurry that had been shaped into the form of a road. The entire path was littered with everything bad waiting to happen on a grade so uncomfortably steep you couldn't brake... and you couldn't not brake. It was excruciating on the hands as we read the road conditions in braille and tried to stay on the mountain without breaking our skulls.

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We eventually landed on the 159A at exactly the spot where the final, and most unforgiving climb of the ascent off the mountain begins. It was another while of slow, tortured climbing in the fog before we finally rocketed off the mountain and into Chiayi City. We suffered through the rollers on the way into town before calling it a day at the train station where we took a cab to the HSR station (which is unnecessarily far from town) for a quicker ride home.

The Chiayi Route 166 is an excellent road to add to anyone's repertoire of Alishan routes. It is scenic, well maintained and it connects to the 162, 169 and other routes that can be designed to fit any level of challenge on Alishan. The Chiayi Route 166 is highly recommended. The Ruiguang Industry Road should only be recommended to your fiercest rivals.