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Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Cross Island Adventure

Taiwan's Central Cross Island Highway:
Biking East Asia's Highest Mountain Range

This weekend 3/6-3/7 I am planning to go on a trip deep into Taiwan's Central Mountain Range with a great group of guys. As I prepare for this next adventure I just wanted to look back at our last one together.

Last October a group of us decided to ride Taiwan's notorious Cross Island Highway for a weekend. We spent weeks planning and worrying about the weather and road conditions. A succession of torrential rains and typhoons had rendered southern Taiwan a disaster area and Taiwan's mountain roads are known to be unstable due to the silty clay that makes up much of the island, an artifact of Taiwan having been pushed up from the sea floor where the Continental, Pacific and Philippine plates collide. The violence of Taiwan's birth is masked by the beauty of its mountains.

The week prior to our trip the National Weather Bureau issued a Typhoon alert expecting another typhoon to hit Hualien that weekend. It looked like our trip would be called off. As the typhoon neared Taiwan it stopped and stalled. The trip was cancelled at noon. By 5:00pm the typhoon was heading back out to sea and so I quickly made the HSR to Taipei where I caught a connector with a bike car to Hualien. I arrived at the hostel after 11:00pm and hit the hay.

Riding into the mountains

Too early in the morning we left the hostel and began our journey into Taroko. I was carrying a light pack with way too much gear. I had planned for a change of dry clothes and warm biking clothes expecting to be cold and wet up on the mountain. It was all light, bike specific stuff... just took a lot of space. At breakfast I realized that I had left my money at the hostel and when I called they couldn't find it. I was pretty sure where it was so I am expecting it was taken as a tip. The same place tried to kick a group of us out of a room we reserved and paid for in June of 2000 because a bigger group had arrived. They conveniently "lost" my reservation when I asked to see it. Bastards!

Taroko Gorge


We quickly made it up Taroko Gorge and navigated our way through a massive land slide that had taken the entire face from a hill. It finally dawned on me that all the dust covering every rock, building, tree and flower, was from that slide.

We worked our way up to the higher reaches of the mountains and occasionally stopped to hydrate and look at the indigenous fauna.

What?! You don't like the Beatles?

Taiwan Pride!

The winding road into the mountains

I had an unfortunate accident with a road grate and had been off the bike for 5 weeks while it was getting fixed, so the climb was pretty tiring. I was running on the 34 tooth ring and up near the 25-26 tooth cogs for most of the day. 27 was my highest so spinning my way through was not an option.
When you are looking down things are looking up

After splitting up due to the differences in speed each member could endure, we all met up at about 5:00pm to do the final leg together. Michael F. went ahead to the hostel at Yun Shan. It soon got dark up on the mountain, which was actually quite peaceful and calm. I would ride up ahead for a while and periodically proclaim a hostel around the next bend. As my eyes adjusted to the darkness, I looked into the bushes and caught two glowing eyes looking at me reflected by my bike light. My heart jumped for a second. Monkeys? Deer? Boar? My mind raced for animals. The presumably extinct clouded leopard? Then the eyes parted ways and I realized the entire mountain was filled with fireflies. We finally made it to the hostel and not everyone was the Good Humor Ice Cream man.

The morning ascent up the Highway 8

The next morning the five of us gathered around the table to fuel up for the coming ride. The group decided to split up with one going low through Li Shan and Michael Cannon and myself going high over Wuling. Wuling is near the peak of Ho Huan mountain and falls just sort of 11,000ft. As we were gathered around the table with our collective 75 years of experience living in Asia, we all discovered that none of us had acquired the taste for rou song, a type of dried, shredded pork that is often added to porridge and other foods.

Fruit For Thought

The climb over Ho Huan Mountain is a bedecked in one breathtaking alpine landscape after the other. Over 10,000 ft. the oxygen deficit becomes noticeable and the need to... ahem! stop and take pictures becomes ever greater.

Michael and I assailed the climb with grit and made it to a rest stop for water and calories. I think I found some instant noodles to eat dry. I was glad my internal battle over tires was won by the 25c slicks and not the fat CX tires. Anythign to take rotating weight off for that puppy.

We were making great progress at 8kph (eh!) and the adrenaline hit as the peak slipped into sight. Another factor was the intense heat. We had expected alpine chill, but the temperature rose over 80 degrees F.
Michael Cannon starts the final push

The peak!

My ascent

We hit the summit at about 12:00pm and kicked back to watch the tourists in their cars mill about and scoff a little about all the assholes who drove their cars up to the summit to ride around as if they rode the whole thing. Going from 300ft above sea level to 11,000 ft. was just a fantastic feeling. Groups of riders were coming up the other side on expensive road machines. They park further down the mountain and use the last stretch to the summit as their hill climbing workout.

My favorite shot

The clouds from the west were catching on the peaks creating abstract blotches of sunlight on the ridge line. We decided to bomb the hill. It is a pretty hairy descent as the cars coming up are never paying attention and I can think of one time where I moved to the side to let some card pass... only to have a car skid in my direction because he had been traveling too fast for the conditions. Michael Cannon was gone. He hit that hill at speed and never looked back. I was more cautious and wanted a few more pictures. The temperature dropped and I was soon in full warmers and hat.

Posing at the top

About halfway down I got word from the other group that the expedition had fallen apart. I caught up with Michael Cannon and after waiting until 3:00pm for conformation, we decided to book on back to Taichung. Suddenly we had a mission again and cruised down the mountain. We hit every green light from Puli to Wufeng. Seriously. EVERY green light!!! We kept the speed above 2o mph (32 kph) for most of the trip to Caotun, which was great from our wasted legs. Michael suffered three flats on the way back and after each the ability to restart to ever longer. A final Snickers bar did the trick and we were back in Taichung by 7:00pm.

Wuling at 3275 Meters

An epic ride with some real great people. I can't wait for the next one.

Michael F., Michael T., Chris, Michael C. and me

*I would like to credit Michael Cannon for the great pictures of me riding and the construction worker in the tunnel. Michael Cannon has to be one of the best saddle-top photographers I have ever seen. He seems to find the right shots to capture.


  1. Give me a shout on future rides. I'll try to make one. Good post Andrew. It's a call for all of us weekend warriors to get off our tired butts.

  2. Patrick,

    Will do! With a family and a thesis going on, I couldn't blame you for missing saddle time. :)

    I will surely try to keep you posted on future riding events. In the future I'll try to post group rides here, so check back periodically.

    I hope everything is going well with you. How is your project?

    My goals for this blog are really to:

    a) Supply riders with information on routes.

    b) Use the bicycle as the locus for a deeper conversation regarding Taiwan's culture(s), history, politics and life.

    c) Better coordinate between riders.

    d) Discuss some of the little tech issues that come up with bicycles. As I start catching up with myself (right now I am trying to just get going), I will be a little more in depth.

    I hope, anyways, to make this space a little more than just "I went here".

    Keep checking back and I can't wait to ride with you.

    Ride safe!


  3. Drew,

    Thank you for the write up and kudos. I've missed that Central Cross ride. It was a good ride.

    I'm still trying to get my new ride fitted out and free time away from home lined.



  4. @Michael C.

    We missed you this weekend. I commented to michael at one point that you would have really loved those descents.