Saturday, July 13, 2013
Hualien To Iilan The Hard Way: Taiwan Cycling Perfection
My good friend and riding buddy, Dom, is signing off on his life in Taiwan and moving back to New York. The reasons are his own, but it certainly isn't about the lack of any exciting cycling.
He was not going to be allowed out of the country without one last adventure through some of Taiwan's most impressive landscapes, and thus we decided to take a couple of days and ride from Hualien on Taiwan's east coast, to Iilan on Taiwan's northeastern corner.
On a map this looks like nothing for a couple days of riding, until you consider the route would take us from sea level to 2374 meters on the first day... and then leave us spending the second day skimming the 2000 meter mark before dropping us off in Iilan. We covered over 4000 meters of climbing in two days.
We picked the perfect two days for the trip as the wet weather has been sucked out of the area by a looming typhoon. Things couldn't have been better.
The trip had been on and off the calendar for a couple of months. I was the biggest threat to the trip as I had to come back from a sore knee that prevented any serious climbing... and as soon as that was clear, I lost a week to a pulled muscle in my back from stretching. There were several times I thought I would have to cancel.
My back seemed manageable, so I kept with the plan. I had recently only done a few local climbs and nothing over 100k.
My next obstacle was the Taiwan Rail Administration. I originally bought a ticket on the Zi Chiang Train with a bike car. When my wife went to double check to see if I needed to purchase an extra ticket for the bike, they misunderstood and sold my seat. Then, they had to try to get me a new seat on the train, which put my bike in car 12, and I was seated in car 2.
I was fine with this arrangement, but when I went to put my bike on the train, I asked If I could load it in with the rest of the boxes they were loading into the car 12. I was told I would have to enter through the passenger door of the car.
This was a brilliant idea as it was packed and I would be forced to stand with my bike in the hallway until Ruifang.
I finally had a seat and I could roll down to Xin Cheng outside Hualien with a group of girls from make-up camp, which is far less exciting than it sounds.
At Xin Cheng Station there were several groups of cyclists headed out for various projects. There were baseball teams, Taiwanese expat groups, single speed enthusiasts and more. Lots of people using the bike to make a statement.
Our trip was actually two and a half days. I met Dom at the station, and we decided to take it slow and easy up Taroko Gorge. This would ensure we didn't feel rushed for pictures and scenic stops. The plan was to land at Tian Xiang and launch our attack on the mountain from there.
The road through Taroko is metered to a ten minute window every two hours due to the most massive avalanche I have ever seen. We lucked out and the road was closed for lunch and we just ambled through at out own leisure without the storm of vehicles waiting to burst through.
Taoroko Gorge is an awesome spectacle of towering rock. The Central Cross Island Highway chisels its way through tunnels and along cliff sides to bridge the terrain. Taiwan's mountains have an immediacy about them. They are high, like mountains in other countries, but unlike other places, these mountains are compressed very tightly against one another making for some very severe walls and roads to navigate those walls.
We arrived in Tian Xiang with plenty of time to spare, so we thought a few beers might help us load up on carbs for the real climbing.
The second day started after breakfast at the China Youth Hostel in Tian Xiang. These mountain trips are always made fare more difficult by the lack of a good breakfast anywhere. I put three tea eggs on my plate and tried to put as much peanut butter on my toast as I possibly could. It would have to fuel me to Guan Yuan and over 2000 meters.
The second day was as fine as the first. We hit the road beneath another scar from an old avalanche and hit the opening climbs.
The road out of Tian Xiang starts out with an impressive grade for first thing in the morning, but it warms the legs up pretty quick.
We were soon high up above the valley, but still burning in the heat. A cool waterfall can be a great fountain of rejuvenating goodness.
For much of the way, the road is quite manageable. It is still climbing and takes its toll, but ever so slowly.
The next major obstacle is "The Wall"; a massive hump of a ridge with switchbacks stacked one on top of the other. There is a little store right at the base for refreshments and snacks before the climb.
From the top of "The Wall", the climb really starts to impress. The air is a bit cooler and clouds begin to catch on the peaks above.
We stopped for lunch at the restaurant near the God Tree, and then continued on our way. A little mist sprinkled down on us and the pedaling started to get much harder with the altitude beginning to come into play.
We finally rounded a corner to the gas station and our lodging at the China Youth Corps Hostel.
We woke up the next day and got to the breakfast buffet ahead of the annoying camp/club that had been staging some kind of mix between a fascist parade and a hoot nanny. Seeing the breakfast spread, it was decided it would be okay to eat a quarter of the scrambled eggs, in exchange for leaving the pork floss to the other guests. Seemed fair enough.
The worst thing was the lack of drinkable water (or anything to drink) that wasn't scalding hot. Try filling water bottles with plastic melting water....
A third sunny day was ahead as we pushed out into the chilly morning air. I was happy to have worn all the clothes I had packed.
We punched through the mountain at the tunnel and started an amazing descent toward Lishan. Before we could even whorl up our descending smiles, we were forced to stop for some construction. We passed the time letting the road worker ogle our bikes.
Finally, we were in free fall toward Lishan. It was nice to be on the other side of the ridge. I am so used to the Wuling route, I was happy for the change in scenery, which looks a lot like northern California... but more grand.
We hit Lishan; a high mountain agricultural town famous for pears, apples, and tea. It was nice to have phone reception again. It was also nice to sit down for a cup of coffee and take in the morning. We couldn't stay long as we still had well over 100km to cover on our way to Iilan.
The Highway 7甲 starts on a wonderful descent over some uneven roadways. It takes a moment to realize you are still at altitude and this is merely a round ridge between two opposing mountains.
The descending comes to an abrupt end. Suddenly it becomes another day of climbing. Each hill dissapoints in its promise to offer a badly needed descent. The altitude needle bumps 2000 meters a few times, but the descent never comes.
A headwind made things feel all the more desperate. I started to have my doubts. I started to regret the picture taking and coffee breaks.
Then it came. The most wonderous descent imaginable. As far as covering ground goes, I can't thing of a better sight. It was a slalom course to Iilan. It was a natural thrill machine. It screamed 45kph.
We blew down the mountain and through the green cabbage farms. The legs were buzzing. Dom was in excellent shape and would lose me when my power failed to materialize midway through a bump in the road. I would then race to catch up on the low sections.
This carried on for kilometer after kilometer. The speeds were incredible.
We finally lunched with some locals who were happy to admonish their buddy for touching my bike. After a good laugh we were on our way again...
Iilan was in sight and it was as pretty as ever. We made it into the city by 4:00pm and had our bikes loaded up within the hour.
It was as perfect a trip as you can find. I was honored to do one last big ride with a great friend.
This also makes for a great post before I take the show on the road to ride a little in the United States.
Vacation starts here!