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Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Alishan Adventures Part I: Biking Behind The Mountain


"This was a big weekend for me in so many ways. My birthday was Sunday and we also selected a date for a cesarian as my daughter has decided she likes sitting upright in the breech position. 
At 37 with a baby on the way, I really needed a big ride to remind myself why I love the long rides before I enter the unknowns of parenthood and long rides become a luxury. Youth's last stand."
The quote above comes from a blog post I wrote about a year ago to the day after completing a single-day ride over Alishan; a ride I was sure to mention as often as possible over this past weekend. My birthday is actually today, and I am now thirty-eight and not thirty-seven. I am not nearly as strong a rider as I was last year. I get fewer training rides in each week. I may never get to the point again where I can do another Taichung-Alishan-Taichung ride in a single day and I may bring up that epic ride each time I want to sit up in my saddle and talk about the shadows of youth creeping away across the hot tarmac.

I also have an amazing and beautiful little girl waiting for me at home after every ride with a smile on her face-- an image that means more to me than any mountain climbed in however many days.

It is that same smile that, now, makes a two day adventure over those same mountains almost unbearable... almost.


A few weeks ago we put out an open invitation to ride a two-day trip over the lesser used northern slope of Alishan. The route covers 200km from Taichung to Chiayi, and traverses some of central Taiwan's most incredible scenery. We chose to ride the Highway 3 to Zhushan, before branching off on the Route 149乙 toward Caoling and the eye popping 149甲/169 combo to the old train stop at Fencihu.

This would be my third attempt on this route; the first time was enough to leave an indelible scar of ohmygodfuckingwow seared into my opioid receptors following an topographically induced endorphin overdose. Although I had done this all before, the roads covered provide such a barrage of surprise and spectacle that any chance to retrace my steps is always worth rolling out of bed into a damp November morning.

As Saturday approached I felt we should leave nothing to chance and asked all interested riders to commit to the ride. One week before launch we had 13 riders slated to join me on a ride that I knew would be remembered for a lifetime. I was buzzing from the excitement of watching other riders struck dumb over pedaling a bicycle through the vast, rugged expanse of wilderness chiseled from Taiwan's Central Mountain Range. Cycling in Taiwan, it is possible to both grin and grimace simultaneously. This is one such ride.

Rather than leave anything to chance I tried to book rooms for 13 riders in Caoling. It should have been easy. Nobody really goes to Caoling. It is an out of the way town with a few trails and a waterfall good for a day trip.

Nobody goes to Caoling except for dozens upon dozens of tourist motor coaches packed with bewildered and bemused Chinese tourists who have no clue where they are going, other than that they will be touring Taiwan. The buses, like a rolling train of multicolored sausage links stream into a town that should otherwise be deserted. Caoling was booked solid through December. The political tactic of pumping tourists around Taiwan like ballast to keep the political fortunes of the ruling party afloat was in full effect at Caoling-- a cycle of patronage and dependency.

Without rooms in Caoling I quickly searched for another hostel in the area and came up with a little place in the Tsou village of Laiji.

I had seen the red boar sign of the on previous trips, so I knew it would be reachable in a day and land us right at the foot of the climb on day two. The best news was... they had vacancies. I reserved rooms for 13 riders with meals and enough beer for a party of thirsty cyclists. Nothing says beer like a day in the saddle.


In the week leading up to the ride the weather turned sour. Thirteen became eight. I was disappointed, but still happy with the turnout. By Saturday morning's roll out, we were down to only five. I had to keep calling the hostel to let them know how badly our plans had changed and to free up rooms for anyone else. I felt bad for the poor hostel owners who thought they had a big weekend in the works only to have five ragged cyclists show up at their doorstep. The first leg of our trip I would drift off into daydreams of having to sheepishly apologize to the hostel owners for getting their hopes up. Still, five was surely better than nothing.

Thinking about the road ahead.

The first leg was only 100k, so we decided on an 8:00am start. I still had no clear idea who would be showing up. First came Dom, a rider who has been quietly and methodically training himself to become a faster and better cyclist. Dom regularly has more in the tank than I do these days. We then met Michael Turton, an accidental hero among Taichung's amateur cyclists for his will of steel and determination. Michael was waiting with Andy, a regular recreational rider and longtime expat from the UK. I have ridden with each of these guys before and I couldn't ask for better company.

We pulled up at the 7-11 in Zhushan to wait for an hour until Jeff M. could catch up with us. Jeff had gotten a late start from Taipei and was doing his best to dodge stop lights all the way down the Highway 3 to join us.

In hindsight it was a fortuitous delay as the day's rain showers fell as we sat inside with warm coffee and snacks.

I really wasn't sure how the weekend would turn out as the spray from the roads stuck to my windbreaker and we were trapped in a cloudy layer of perpetual dampness.

Michael looking hopeful

Andy rides against a rebellious stomach.

Jeff's casual demeanor makes the sloppy conditions seem bearable for the long haul. 

Dom looking cheerful.

Disappearing into the fog.

We spun a measured pace into a bank of fog that hung like skirts around the lower reaches of the mountains. Waves of mist swept past my face as I pushed up the first of the ramps that would define the first day of riding. The effort of a good climb kept everyone warm and in good spirits. The lack of scenery through the shifting sheets of fog made frequent photo stops unnecessary.

Ghosts of Trees.

Rounding a bend I looked out over the cliffside into a seascape of cloud cover. The ebb and flow of the   grey and white vapor resembled ocean waves crashing over the rocky cliffs of a mythic shoreline. I have to admit to letting my imagination become tangled in the hypnotic and mesmerizing rise and fall of the shifting shapes formed in the valleys of the Caoling River. If the other riders hadn't been with me I could have easily wasted my morning staring into the foggy abyss.

Ocean of Clouds

As I put my weight into pedaling around the southern edge of a mountain ridge, I looked up from my concentration to see the clouds giving way to some blue sky. There was hope in the air.


Hold on to Your Eagle   (Photo by Michael Turton)

In the distance sat the lower reaches of Alishan and the entire production involved with powering a bicycle to the other side. There was still a lot of biking to go before we got that far, but it was nice to look out over the dark, waterlogged mountains toward a destination.

IMG_0672 IMG_0704

The different colors of layered ridge lines fell into the horizon like glass transparencies stacked one upon the other in a staged backdrop to some other drama beside the one unfolding behind each turn of the crank.


The final push to Caoling involves a forward assault on the dirty, windswept cliffside at the end of a long trench consisting of brittle clay and a light layer of bright green-yellow grass that keeps a delicate hold against the laws of gravity.

There are a few manmade structures perched like swallows nests along the hillside, but for the most part it is as dead an end as they come. The entire upper sections of roadway are scarred by Taiwan's weather and geography, as well as by man's own desire to force a roadway to exist on a slope where a road has no logical place to be. The entire scene resembles the carnage of a battlefield in a fight between humans and nature-- boulders, dust, derelict homes, barriers, cones, ruts and construction equipment litter the final kilometer of roadway before the long tunnel into Caoling.

Dome Shoots The Summit

The climb starts to really takes its toll near the top in its hurry to level off. We took a break near a tourist toilet stop to refresh and let our legs come back to us.


Andy B. was having some stomach trouble while I was still recovering from an asthma attack and the ensuing trail of destruction a week of prescription pills can level against a human body. We all had our own lists of ouches, owies and other maladies that could have kept us from moving forward, but in good cheer we edged closer to calling it a day in Laiji.

My Own Pace (Photo by Domenic Alonge)


Passing through the tunnel to Caoling is like falling through a galactic wormhole. You feel as though you've been transported across time and space to an entirely different place or reality. There is a quietness that hangs over the valley, interrupted by the occasional diesel blast from another tour bus choking on a downshift as it drops into Caoling.

Before the rush to make Caoling a political dependency of Chinese tourism patronage schemes, the area had been known for little more than forestry products of timber and camphor. The area once served as a refuge for the rebels who followed Lin Shuang-wen's rebellion against the Qing government in 1788. The rugged hills and dense forests made dangerous work for Qing forces to penetrate and flush out the remaining rebels. Later the area was managed by the Japanese imperial government for timber and tea. A push-car railway once serviced the area. Now, the township officials are eager to create recreational activities to occupy the large numbers of tourists headed their way by the busload.



Once our little party had assembled above Caoling we bombed the hill, cashing in our afternoon of elevation gain on a descent that seemed like it was over in just a few minutes. We landed on the rocky riverbed at the gates of the Alishan National Scenic Area. In the first few years after the massive 921 earthquake in 1999, the valley filled with water, creating a large reservoir. All too quickly another quake drained the basin dry.


With 15km left on our first day of riding we were looking forward to stopping for the night. Not everyone was convinced that Laiji would be an acceptable place to bed down. Taiwan is not known for its consistency of acceptable lodging for a bicycle adventure. All too often a tired rider is met with cold showers and little to eat beyond a bowl of fried noodles and a fruit plate. On our last two day trip through this area we stayed in Caoling at the biggest hotel. We had to beg the kitchen staff to cook something a little more robust. Breakfast was even more depressing. We were forced to power up Alishan on a fuel of rice porridge and the peanuts from the condiment tray. It was a caloric disaster. Audible tensions were mounting as our Laiji hostel failed to appear behind each rolling hill.


I knew the hostel was expecting us and we were running a little behind schedule. They had promised dinner and set the timetable for 6:00pm. I didn't want to miss whatever they might lay out for us. I increased my pace and finally stopped at Laiji Village there the sight of a large red boar sign told me I had arrived. It seems the entire village has incorporated into the LanZhi Hostel enterprise by providing a variety of services for visitors. Each business seems connected to the next in a web of convenience and therefore there are lots of red boar signs in the area, much like the Taiwan Touch Your Heart tourism campaign. The boar icon lets visitors know that Laiji is there for visitors.

I waited by the road and received some unhappy phone calls. Dom had flatted and it was getting dark. After a while Jeff and Michael came rolling up, relieved to put a day of riding behind them. We waited for Dom and Andy to show up, but there was no sign of either of them. Before long we were standing beneath the mellow glow of a far off light, surrounded by total darkness. Everyone was tired, hungry, damp, and a bit anxious to begin the recovery process before our big climb in the morning. Nutrition and rest are key to a quick recovery, and we were getting neither standing on the side of the road dodging the occasional cement truck.

Finally we could make out the bluish white headlights of our friends bobbing figure-eights up the road. When everyone had arrived we started walking our bikes up the hill to the village.

The village failed to materialize behind the darkened bend. I knew it was there, but I feared being bludgeoned to death with a frame pump if Laiji didn't show up in short order.

I eased my ass, sore from the extra weight of a backpack, onto the saddle and my legs creaked into motion up the hill. After a few minutes a shout fro a doorway and a few people filtered into the street. They heard we were coming and then someone shouted that there were foreigners in the village.

The laidback atmosphere of this little Tsou village was briefly interrupted by a the jarring flash of a camera as we all stood in the road like stunned deer. We were told we would be posted on "FB" (Face Book).

The hostel owner was there in his beat-up Jeep Cherokee to guide us to the hostel, which he assured us was "very close... just seven minutes." We grudgingly followed him over the hill as we left the lights and life of the town and slipped back into total darkness with little more than the gritty sound of dirty gear teeth grinding between sprockets and chain links in the black of night.

Although I couldn't see anyone, I could feel the weight of anger and disappointment at my decision to stay in Laiji and not the town a couple kilometers down the road.

We followed the tail lights of the Jeep and I hoped the hostel hadn't used a Laiji address for a place on a hilltop way out of town. And sure enough, the tail lights climbed up a hill. I was half expecting a mutiny.

"It is really quite far. We are all pretty tired.", I mentioned to our guide in the parked Jeep, implying that he might find a way to give us a lift.

"It is just up ahead. A few more minutes." came his easy response. A person in a car has no clue what it feels like on a bicycle. It is far too easy for a driver to miscalculate estimates of time and distance. I rounded a final corner and there below sat another little town bathed in the warm glow of yellow streetlights. The glowing aura of the Presbyterian church, which is the center of town life in Laiji, brought us to our hostel like a beacon. We arrived at the Lanhou Hostel none too soon.

I was a little disoriented as we were led to a large covered reception area. A fire was blazing in an outdoor fireplace. It appeared the hostel had been constructed for much larger events with a bar, banquet tables, service desks and other amenities that were not in use at the time. It was a bit of a shock, really. I hadn't expected much more than a concrete box with drafty rooms.

We settled in and were given our own rooms for the night as they had plenty of space. Each room was comfortable, with hot showers and giant, industrial rolls of toilet paper in the bathrooms. All the things you might really want on a brief stop halfway through a good bike trip.

The dinner spread was exactly what we needed to replace lost calories. We were presented with chicken, beef soup, broccoli, tomatoes, cabbage, and fatty cubes of grilled boar. Normally I don't need chunks of pure fat, but for energy there is nothing better. We washed everything down with beers, hit the local grocery and called it a night.


The story continues: Biking Alishan Part II: Biking Gods Smile