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Sunday, March 7, 2010

The Tea Country of Nantou

The Lads On The Loose In Nantou:

Daybreak over Si tou

This past weekend we packed our bags for a rare multi-day ride. With everyone's commitments and projects going on it is often difficult to string together the logistics to make a trip worthwhile. We had initially planned another route for the weekend, but that fell through, so we chose a route into the highlands of Lugu. Lugu is a famous spot for nature tourism and also as one of Taiwan's largest producers of high-grade oolong teas. Lots of clouded hills and big nature.

Our gang was an assortment of the usual rabble of murderers and cutthroats; Michael T. Michael F. and Chris M. all of whom I have ridden with before. Then there was a new face, Eli A. The Wild Card.

It was two days of hard riding and the kind of road conversation you might get when you combine five guys with a roughly combined seventy-five years of life in E. Asia and an intense interest in Taiwanese cultures, politics, history and life. The recipe for a good time.

Leaving Jiji

Michael and I decided to haul ass down to the town of Jiji immediately after work, which meant a three hour ride in the dark. Despite sounding a bit daunting, a night ride in Taiwan is actually quite relaxing. There is less traffic and the air has a crispness that is missing in the daytime. Rather than taking the Highway 16 right past Jiji's front gate, we took the hilly scenic route in, which is wonderful if you enjoy "green tunnels" in the blackness of night. We picked the first hostel we could find so we could fuel up for the next day. I wish we had looked around a bit more as we ended up paying way too much for far too little. The towels were no bigger than a snot rag and couldn't cover the head of a goose. To add insult to injury, the decor looked like something out of Lien Chan's study... complete with a large portrait of the late dictator Chiang Ching-kuo.

Sunrise on Shuili

When morning came we left Jiji, which was, I might argue, completely destroyed during the 921 earthquake and seemingly rebuilt by government subsidized tourism companies. When I first visited Jiji a dozen or so years ago, it was to see the old agriculture railway that served as a major artery for the flow of produce draining out of the rich valleys of central Taiwan to be further processed and later sent to Japan; an economy which carved out the regions identity and linked it, for the first time, to a much larger global network of trade. Now it seems Jiji has been reinvented with a whole new identity directly rooted in the idea and practice of tourism itself.

Never ride through a market

We arrived in the old town of Shui Li early enough to enjoy our morning while we waited for the rest of the gang to arrive. We just spent our time playing online and sitting out on the street looking at faces. This is a rare treat as we are usually in the saddle and off to points unknown before 7:00am. Shui li is really an interesting town that was once a major logging camp during the 18th through early 20th centuries. Highland indigenes, Hoanya plains indigenes, Hakka and Hoklo speakers all converged on the area for work, trade and commerce. At one point the flow of timber became so great the practice of logging in the area was curtailed in some areas by imperial decree due to the impact it had on the irrigation networks down river. Despite popular belief, the Qing administrations paid a great deal of attention to managing Taiwan's disparate ethnic and economic interests; so much so that Taiwan's Qing ruled territories were governed unlike any other regions within the empire. This fact was not lost of Taiwanese, who understood their particularity as an island frontier.

Sitou Tourist Central

The 10:30am train brought the other boys and their bikes and we were soon deep in the hills of Lugu. We ate one hill after another before a nice lunch of trout along the Nantou Local Highway 151. We crested the hill near Lugu Township and launched down a steep grade to the other side. We ended up passing my friend's tea farm, but we needed to press on to get a room before they were all taken. The final climb was a pretty rough ride and we were all feeling it. By dusk we were off our bikes and reclining on the patio of our hostel discussing politics and modernity with a bottle of pretty ok wine courtesy of Chris. We were joined by the owner who I will blog on here.

Mountains of Lugu

The next morning we hit the road bright and early for a trip up to the Family Mart for a little coffee and snacks for the road. The main tourist drag in Si tou/ Xi tou/ Hsi tou is nice for a Taiwanese tourist strip, but oh so kitsch. When one too many men carrying little dogs around in dog purses came through, we realized we had overstayed our welcome and beat it back down the hill for a little Mei Er Mei breakfast. A good rule of thumb for mountain riding is to buy one sandwich for now and throw another in the pack. Eli found this useful. Eat before you get hungry because once you bonk... there's no coming back.

Murderers and Cutthroats

The road from Si tou to Sanlinxi has twelve switchbacks that have been marked with zodiac animals. The pig turn leads to the horse turn... to the ox turn and so on.... The weather bureau had rain in the forecast and the clouds were already pushing up against the mountain. When I travel I never really have enough things to warrant racks and panniers, so I just use a light pack with light clothes. The prospect of rain always adds a bunch of weight to that pack and so I can't wait till I ride without the prospect of rain. During our ride up the 151 it seemed that every dad in a minivan thought he was driving to qualify on the F-1 circuit and it made things a little dangerous. At one point we saw three vehicles driving abreast trying to pass each other on a blind turn.
The Papal Restroom

Looking out over the forest it was an amazing mix of greens and browns. The locals say they still get Formosan black bears that come down off the mountains and rummage through the fields.
Michael at Sanlinxi

As we turned along the back of the mountain it was just a great bank of fog. We spotted the Nantou Local Highway 49 to Zhu Shan that would be our rapid escape from the foggy peak. Though, the tea farmers say the cooler temperatures and moisture from the fog is what makes Taiwan's tea so special. Taiwan has the highest peaks in East Asia that catch the moisture evaporating off the sea and lock the mountains in thick fog.

Forcing a smile (I am getting better at it)

There's a bike in the woods

The subtropical jungle gives way to second and third growth cedar. Although there are still a few old growth stands left on the mountain, most of the trees have been logged. After the Japanese located the indigenous peoples through their Anthropological missions, they were able to assign them territory and thus open up large tracts of land for exploitation. Taiwan produced huge amounts of timber for the Japanese Empire and the Japanese developed a forestry program to manage Taiwan's timber resources. Under the ROC colonial project much of the forest land was stripped of timber and by the 1960's much of the timber operations had been suspended.

Among the tall timbers

Through the fog

Michael F. and Eli arrived at the top and we were soon barreling down a poorly maintained mountain road just big enough for two lawnmowers to pass within an eyelash. If I had been aware we would be taking this type of road I would have selected a different set of tires. It is like choosing the right tool for the job. I have the bike for it, but unless I put on the fatter tires when I need them I am putting myself at a disadvantage. Still... the 25c Contis did well enough, but I was constantly afraid of losing traction. Another issue was braking. I love my disc brakes for that kind of descent. It is still not easy on the lower arms, but I felt in control enough to handle the long descents.
The road to Zhushan

The forest gave way to the tea farms which are perched on the near vertical hillsides. I am sure the views are spectacular and the fog made sure my imagination would imagine the best views I have never seen.

Tea farms of Lugu

The tea from Lugu is really amazing. As a bit of a tea connoisseur I have a few particular farms I prefer from Lugu. Although Taiwan's Oolong teas are world famous for their quality, Tea is only a recent addition to Taiwanese mass culture and the Taiwanese gift economy. Oolong teas were first cultivated as a cash crop in the mid to late 19th century beginning in the north amid the various enterprises of the Banchiao Lin family. All tea comes from essentially the same plant with the difference in taste coming from a variety of factors including: processing, maturity, environment and age. Tea was extremely labor intensive and therefore few Taiwanese sought to add tea to their list of crops. Because of the high cost in processing, tea became known as "Green Gold" as it was considered extremely valuable. Most Taiwanese, until very recently, were satisfied with plain water. That helps explain why tea is often given as a gift. Today, much of the tea is machine picked as young people don't want to labor in the fields. Machine picked tea is not the best quality, but isn't bad. For the hand picked hand rolled teas, foreign labor has been brought in to replace the old women who traditionally picked the tea, but can no longer work in the fields. This new development has created a problem in that the foreign workers need to be trained in a short period of time to produce top shelf teas.

There's Green Gold in them there hills

The way out

From the tea fields we cut through the "Sea of bamboo", which is a bit eerie in the mist. Finally after a serious high speed chase on a beautiful road out of the wilds, we wound up in Zhushan where we could all eat again and fuel up for our return.

Crouching Tiger Hidden Salsa

Chris, Michael T. and myself blasted home along the Highway 3. I was keeping steady at about 20-23mph all the way to Wufeng and beyond. We said our goodbyes to Chris at Nantou and then Michael and I parted in Dali. In all our maximum altitude was 1700 meters. I traveled approximately 130 miles over the course of the weekend and managed to have a great time with great people. Michael F. pointed us upward and onward, Eli made a splendid debut, Chris pressed on with might and courage, Michael T. won most improved and did some excellent cycling. I felt like I was riding stronger as well. Sometimes I don't always ride with people with the fanciest gear or the nicest bikes, but the quality of the companionship is always second to none.

The approximate route


  1. Looks like a great ride! Wish I could have joined you. I'll have to try HWY 49 one of these days.

  2. It was really a great ride. There will surely be a next time.

  3. Great post! Do you know how many miles we rode in the time I was present?


  4. @ Eli

    I think it was around 50-55 miles. Michael T. and I put in a lot of miles on the commute to and from Shui Li. Not to take anything off the accomplishment.... Up hill miles are far harder to string together than flat miles. :D

    You did really great. I was so impressed with your poise in handling such a tough challenge.

  5. I won't complain about 50-55 miles. That's for sure, up is definitely harder than down. A century of completely flat terrain I guess wouldn't be all that difficult.

    I definitely feels great to have conquered that ride, even if I had to walk a bit in places. Fun too.

  6. Once you build up to it a century isn't too bad at all. As long as you keep eating and drinking.

    FUN!!! That's the name of the game. If you aren't having any fun then you're doing it wrong and there's no point. Don't feel bad about walking at all. Everyone has been there. It takes time and practice to build up, so no worries. I look back at some hills that gave me trouble two years ago and I can't believe it.

    I have one shameful hill in particular that reminds me of this each time I see it. One of these days I'll show you.

  7. Hey...great site. I just came across it today. I'd love to be able to contact you to find out more about your experiences cycling over there. Feel free to contact me:

  8. Great post. What a fantastic time that was! Again next month!

  9. Great post and nice photos. Where was the picture of the torii (traditional Shinto shrine gate) taken? It looks too good to be an original.

  10. The torii was in Xi tou in the tourist section. While it might be too good to be an original, what I find really interesting is how some of there areas represent their local and "authentic" culture through the memes of the Japanese era. I will blog more on that one later with a sweet little ride.