Monthly Archives: March 2019

On biking

It’s been three days since I made it back from the first multi-day biking trip I’ve ever been on. The first night when I got back, I couldn’t stop seeing things in terms of biking. While walking down the street, I automatically assessed the traffic at a stop light to figure out how to leave enough room between us and the cars parked nearby. When we got to our usual restaurant, I noticed the bandannas the kitchen workers were wearing, because we wore bandannas to keep the sweat out of our eyes on the road too. But less than twenty-four hours later, normal life started to close over my head, in the form of meals with family, walking the dog, and going to work. My legs are still pretty sore, though. Before I forget everything, now’s the time to write down what I learned from this experience that’s been important to me.

The purely practical

I learned some purely practical things on this trip, including bike signals. These seem to vary from country to country, but when you have about 50 people in a long train that can take five minutes to fifteen minutes to pass, it’s useful to have some way of signaling to each other, as long as you have the time/ space to take your hands off the brakes. An open-palmed hand above your head means to slow down, and a closed fist means we’re coming to a stop. Waving your right hand up and down below waist height means to slow down as well. Placing your right hand behind your back and pointing to your left also means there’s an obstacle on the right that you need to go out in to the next lane to avoid. Adopting these made me feel like a biker more than anything else! Also something that made me feel like a biker: applying Vaseline. I don’t need to go into detail on this, but when you push down with one leg and then another, your thighs rub against your bike seat every time. When you go out for an hour-long bike ride, you repeat that motion a few thousand times. When you go out for a day-long bike ride, you repeat that motion hundreds of thousands of times. After less than two days on the road, you probably need Vaseline. Friends who run marathons and other events have testified to the same use. So yes, Vaseline is a must!

Another practical thing I learned was that nice bikes are important. I’ve ridden all over Taipei on a YouBike, a fairly heavy-duty cruiser with a wide seat. I’ve had a single fixed-gear bike that I commuted in Chicago with, and a three-gear bike that I also rode around Durham with. This 27-gear Giant Rapid was the first touring road bike I’d ever really spent time with, and it is a featherlight beauty that is so streamlined that riding it felt like floating on air. People regularly posed for photos on the trip while holding their bike over their heads, because it was so easy to lift. The bike must have weighed only 5-7 kg (10- 15 pounds) in total, which made it so easy to go fast and go up steep hills. We just went to the lowest gear, and it cost next to nothing to push and go up those 10% grade hills. It makes me want to get a serious bike here, and spend time going out into the mountains on the weekends and riding with friends. That peace, that feeling of meditation while you’re focused on riding your bike was so amazing on this trip. I’m looking forward to that again at some point.

The frame of mind

Steve and I spent a while talking about all my habits on the road. There was such a simple, predictable structure that I missed to those nine days. Every morning, I got up at 6 am, give or take 10 minutes. For clothes, I could only switch between two sets of biking bibs and two jerseys. It simplified life a lot to have so few choices for clothing! Then I’d go down to breakfast, stretch, and prepare to wheel our bikes out. Every day, we had the simple, clear goal of just biking to our next destination, whether the weather was beautiful or miserable. When we got there, I handwashed all my worn clothing before I could go down to dinner, and then afterwards, I uploaded photos to social media and wrote an entry before bed around 10 pm. Having this very productive, simple routine was amazing, when we applied ourselves to it. In our daily life, Steve and I are going to try to keep some of those habits that give your life more structure and take off some stress of choice. We hope to eat better, get up earlier, and exercise more reliably. For now, we have the flexibility to determine that for ourselves and keep to it, so we’ll do our best.

Three days later, it feels a little bit like I haven’t gone on this trip at all. It’s easy to forget while riding cars and trains that last week, I spent hours going only as fast as my legs could move me. Sitting in a cab again felt like black magic. I want to hold on to these truths and feelings I learned on the road. Chief among those is probably perseverance. At work and in my daily life, I psych myself out all the time thinking about the insurmountable tasks that lie ahead. 910 km can seem like one too, but together, we whittled away at that 10-15 km at a time and took breaks in between to recharge and encourage each other every day. What mattered was a steady pace, not tiring ourselves out, and keeping going no matter what weather the world threw at us. I stand by what I said earlier on this trip: you don’t need superhuman strength to bike around the island. Beyond a basic standard of fitness, you need to believe in yourself and keep going.

It was also a great reminder that I am responsible for only myself. I have been operating as one-half of a couple for a long time now, and I also do a lot of work that enables other people in my professional life. Doing this one thing for myself felt empowering and reminded me that I am strong. I had wished very hard that Steve could come on this trip too, but ultimately, I was glad I took this time for myself. I’ve been taught to be modest, but I did a really incredible thing, and I’m really proud of myself. It feels freeing to even say that.

The people are A+++

Because I decided to go on this bike trip by myself, I was hoping I’d make new friends. I didn’t expect just how many people would speak English, and how easy it would be to fall in with a whole table of fun friends, many of whom also came by themselves. We took selfies with each other when we stopped at lights, followed each other on the trail to keep pace, and made sure to put rice in each other’s bowls at lunch and dinner. It made all the difference having a bike family on the road. A Singaporean friend told me one day that it’s always like this: you go on these trips which are exhausting and hard on the body, but each time you do, it’s different, and you meet fun people, and doing it together is what keeps you coming back. Now not only do I hope to do another one around the island, I want to visit my new bike friends in California and the UK and maybe do more trips with them in the future. As Debi said, “Those who ride in rain and grime together are forever friends!” This one’s for you, new bike family. I would say yes to another trip because of people like you.

We are all bikers; you just don’t know it yet

Finally, one of the weirdest things I’ve learned now is that I’m a biker. No, really. Apparently, I’m a biker because I own multiple jerseys and multiple pairs of funny bike shorts that are all padded around the bottom. I went on a multiple-day bike trip and started using Vaseline. I got really into the habit of switching gears at the sighting of the smallest hill. I don’t think of myself as a biker, but no one I ever talk to again about this trip will believe that I’m not a biker, given everything I’ve done and been through.

But can a nine-day trip really make you a biker? If I wasn’t sure I was a biker, other riders weren’t either. I met someone who told me he’d just started biking three years ago – as in, got on a bicycle and learned how to ride it. I also met people who had started training a few weeks before the ride just like me, and had never done any “serious biking”. Maybe there aren’t any real “bikers”, and maybe we’re all bikers. This started out as a funny identity label that I didn’t think I could claim, and now I think is maybe some elaborate form of imposter syndrome. If it looks like a biker and bikes like a biker… maybe I really am a biker.

Maybe we’re all bikers inside. After all, I’m still the same person I was before – I just applied my ability to persevere somewhere else and bought some fancy clothes. If it means that I’m a biker, does that mean anyone could be a biker? In conclusion, I choose to believe that we are all bikers. Some of us just don’t know it yet.

I should close by saying that I unequivocally loved this trip, appreciated everything I learned, enjoyed the excellent service provided by Giant Bicycles, and recommend it to everyone for the exercise but also the personal journey. After all our biking, it was funny to end up arriving at Songshan Station from the east, and face the same place we started. To me, it felt like a little microcosm of the journey of going around the island. In doing so, we realize that we’re capable of going so far and coming back to ourselves. And for the first time, this quote made some sense to me.

“We shall not cease from exploration, and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive where we started and know the place for the first time.” – T. S. Eliot

The end of the road (for now)

It’s beyond weird but comforting and warm to write this final entry while sitting cross-legged on my own living room sofa, drinking a cup of hot tea next to my dog. We have stayed in eight different hotels for eight nights on this trip, and I’m now sufficiently disoriented to find myself back in my own place. However, what is the same is that my wrists still ache a bit. My legs are wobbly and exhausted, and I feel like going right to bed because I know I’ll have to get back up at 6 am. (Though that will probably just be to go to the gym and then go to work, only another 15 minutes away, not 150 kilometers away!)

Day 9/9: Jiaoxi to Taipei (87 km)

For our last day, the skies continued to pour down. We wove out of the small hot springs town of Jiaoxi on our bikes and took Route 2 along the ocean. The east coast of Taiwan is magnificent from north to south, and I’m glad everyone else got to see the pounding surf and rocks of the northern part which are less dramatic but no less beautiful than the cliffs and vistas of the southern. In order to keep our energy up and warmth, the guides supplied us with hot water and coffee mixes so we could drink a bit while we were stopped. We then took the Caoling Tunnel, a biking and walking tunnel, to the other side, crossing from Yilan County into New Taipei City. Then it came time for some fun hills, which are home to the former mining towns like Ruifeng, Houtong, Shifen, and Pingxi. It was my last climb, so I took the time to really admire the mountains and the wisps of clouds that gathered in them while I caught my breath and shook out my legs. Though we’re traveling in a group of more than 50 people, it’s still easy to find your own solitude on this trip. Just be as slow to climb the mountains as I am! Finally, we went through another tunnel and got to lunch at Shifen, which is well known for its sky lanterns. After having a warm lunch of hot pot (again!), we walked around a bit and bought some souvenirs. The Giant guides actually bought some sky lanterns so everyone could write on them and send it off. I did my part in reporting to the crowd on how it’s a huge environmental hazard in Taiwan, so I abstained from it. Instead, I bought some magnets as a present, and enjoyed a fried chocolate ice cream cake! Delicious.

Finally, it was time to get back on the bike. I have to add that like every day since it had started raining, it was a miserable mess. Our feet and legs were soaked through and covered with road grime, our jerseys and shirts and jackets were inevitably soaked through with sweat if not rain, and we often were wearing a bright yellow one-use plastic poncho which needed to be knotted up at the waist so it wasn’t going to get caught on the seat every time we mounted and dismounted, but nevertheless blew out like a parachute when we biked, most certainly costing us some extra speed. So. Just in case you think we’re having fun at this point.

The guides informed us that we were going to have one last climb – as a souvenir or something, perhaps? It was a 1-km uphill climb with a steep gradation that basically felt like something of a final exam in climbing hills and shifting gears and pacing yourself. So naturally, everyone scrambled for it. It was the funniest thing to hear everyone huffing and puffing at the same time. A good amount of people just dismounted and walked the bike up halfway. It was to be fair, quite steep, and wound back and forth several times before we got up the hill entirely! It was agony, but despite a few stops for water, I succeeded in staying on the bike, so I can proudly say I biked the entire way on this trip. Finally, we got to the top of the hill, and started our descent. There was about 35 km in total before we got into Songshan Station, where we had started the tour, and it was frustrating but also tiring by turns. It had stopped raining, but we were still pretty miserable!

When we got to the end, it was a combination of feeling surreal, like we had circumnavigated the world by leaving in one direction and somehow came back going the same direction. It felt like a lot longer than 9 days since we had been in Taipei. On the other hand, it also felt like a bit of a sad let-down, because there weren’t many family and friends waiting for people. We just left our bikes and scurried off to go use the bathroom. I also thought I would overwhelmed by emotion and just tear up with the effort of everything we’d done, but that didn’t happen either. On the other other hand, they had a fun little certificate and medal-giving ceremony. Everyone received a certificate and medal, but with the certificate facing down. Since I think it’s all alphabetically put together (just from my N=2 sample size inquiry), it’s a bit hard to pass them all out. However, the idea is that when you turn over the certificate, you can go find that person, present it to them, and put the medal over their head! (From the event organizer’s perspective, it was a fun way for them to solve the logistically frustrating issue of locating each person one at a time while keeping everyone else entertained!) I laughed so hard when mine was presented to me – it was Debi, who had hung out with me the most during our trip. She was so cheerful and fun to talk to the entire time. I was definitely honored to receive my certificate from her. For my part, I also had someone I knew – Kelvin, one of the Californians, had actually started sticking right behind me when it came to climbing hills and such for the last few days. I teased him about it, and was very amused when it came my turn to present him with his certificate and medal. It was lots of fun to make this trip happen in a group, and we were lucky to meet such fun people to share this time with!

Finally, Steve, who had come while the certificate-giving ceremony was happening, helped me get the luggage in a taxi, and we came home. It was great to finally get a shower and into dry, warm clothes that were different ones from what I’d been wearing on the trip. It was also great to eat some ramen at a regular place. I got such a greeting from Stella that she could barely stand still – she was whimpering and jumping up and down so much!

I think that’s all for today, but I want to take some time in the next two or three days to think about what this trip has meant to me, and hopefully sum it up somehow in terms of everything I’ve learned and what it’s changed for me. I’ll be back soon.

Perhaps one day, it will be pleasing to remember even these things

Day 8 definitely merits the above quote from the Aeneid, known in the original as “Forsan et haec olim meminisse iuvabit.” I’ve been looking for one to use this on, and I thought it was going to be one of those sun-baking days, but today definitely takes the cake so far. This quote is a good reminder that even the worst of times will be pleasing to look back on one day. And biking in the rain and mud is definitely something it’s going to take some time and perspective to look at with an unbiased eye! Here’s to Day 8.

Day 8/9: Ruisui to Jiaoxi (84 km?)

Today was a rainy, sodden mess that took me forever to get out of my clothes and shoes. I’ll be wearing some of the grime from the East Rift Valley forever, it feels. When we started off in Ruisui this morning, it was in the fine drizzle. I was wearing a dry short-sleeve jersey with long arm coverings and Steve’s rain-resistant jacket over it all. But by the end of our first 20 km, it wasn’t rain-resistant anymore. In fact, it’s not a breathable jacket, so between the rain and the sweat, everything was soaked by our first stop. I was horrified, but fortunately, we had some spare clothing tucked away in our bag. I switched to another shirt, and put on a yellow rain poncho, and kept that for the remainder of the morning.

Riding in the rain is basically the most unpleasant thing. If you’ve got sunglasses, it fogs things up and makes it hard to see. If you don’t have guards on the rear wheel, it throws up mud and grit that gets into your gears and your back and even your helmet. When trucks and large vans pass by, they emit a fine mist behind them of nasty stuff that you inevitably breathe in unless you’ve got a wet headscarf over your mouth which is its own form of torture. And the rain is usually accompanied by wind. In this case, it was a healthy headwind that was taking at least 7 if not 10 kmph off my speed. I was severely irked. By the time we stopped for our second stop, everyone’s shins and knees looked like they had been sprayed with concrete. We actually took a fun picture of all of those muddy, dirty shoes. I washed them tonight, of course, but now have some real doubt about whether they’ll make it in the future. At the rest stops, they wouldn’t even let us have a proper rest, because if you cooled down too much, it would be dangerous, and we were likely to catch a cold. To round it all up, we were trying to catch a train. We made it the epic 73 km or so to Hualien Station with only about 15 minutes to spare.

On the train, we had gotten a whole train car to ourselves. On one side, we put all our bikes. On the other side, the mainland Chinese bunch elbowed us out of most of the seats, so we took a seat on the floor (not that our muddy, dirty butts minded very much), and enjoyed our lunchboxes of charcoal-roasted chicken and veggies very thoroughly. It took about 90 minutes for us to go from Hualien to Yilan. This trip was because the Su’ao Tunnel is the only road connecting these two cities, and it’s notoriously difficult and dangerous, even for proper vehicles, not like our bikes. So they didn’t chance it, and just had us train it, which was a different way of seeing the eastern shore. Finally, we got off in Yilan, and had a leisurely 10 km bike ride to the hotel where we were staying in Jiaoxi.

Tonight was our third night of hot springs and last. It was also our last dinner together as a group. We’ve generally sat together every meal: the three Californians and their Canadian cousin, Debi, the Scottish lady from Beijing, a husband and wife from LA, and two Taiwanese ladies who came separately but room together, and of course, me. I proposed hot pot, which is NO surprise to anyone who knows me, and we found a really great place just two doors down from the hotel. They let us bring in beer and liquor, and we enjoyed a fun night having dinner together. We talked about things we’d seen on the road today (a snake!!!), incidents that had happened (one of the girls biked straight into a tree, and it was captured on video), and how old everyone was. It turns out I’m the youngest in the group (though several women look way younger), and I also took a picture on the train with the oldest person in the group – a 72 year old man from Houston. He took the pic with me, and then laughed about how his younger son is older than me (I should hope so). We then walked around Jiaoxi buying a few presents for family and friends, ended up spotting some Singaporean friends from the road in a massage center, and generally enjoyed our last night out.

Tomorrow, we have 90 something km to still tackle. The grapevine says at least 5 km of uphills (though not all at once). We’re expecting some more drizzle and rain (which I am super dreading now), and we expect to be back in Taipei between 4 and 5 pm, tentatively. I’m really, really eager to see everyone at home, though it will be amazing enough to have finally made the trip. I’m going to be glad to not live out of this suitcase any longer, and will be sad to say goodbye to these new friends. And of course, to go back to work the day after!

Sun and rain in the East Rift Valley

Day 7/9: Zhiben to Ruisui (117 km)

Today, we probably experienced every single form of weather Taiwan had to offer. The morning was as fresh and balmy as I had hoped. In the valley, we headed out to the chirping of birds. We biked along some lovely paths that afforded us views of the green rice paddies but also the amazing hillsides above where many farmsteads lay. We were making our way into the East Rift Valley, with the Central Mountain Range on our left and the Seaside Mountain Range on our right. We ended up covering our faces from the dust as the morning fog burned off, and the sun came out in full force. This morning, we were taking this very long hill and incline when I turned to speak to two women whom we were biking with, to comment on it. When one of them exclaimed that indeed, it was a hill after all (some people don’t notice!), the other one, Stephanie, turned her head, and perhaps slowed her speed at the same time. Unfortunately, she was right in front of me, and my front wheel collided with her rear wheel. What ensued was probably the most slow-motion falls I’ve ever seen. I sustained a bruise on the inside of my right knee, a tiny scrape on my left knee, a longer scrape on my left elbow, and some slightly blistered palms on both hands. Everyone was around us in a flash, and I saw the Giant van who had just passed us screech to a halt, and our lead driver jumped out and raced toward me. It was all very considerate, and I was fortunate in that I ended up being perfectly fine minus those small injuries. Our driver also made sure my front and back wheel were in good shape before he gave it back to me and allowed me to ride it again. A bit of a scare, but no harm.

Later on in the morning, we arrived at Ruihe Station. This was a tiny station which had the distinction of being a bye-station. If you wanted to get on the local train here, you had to wave to it before it arrived, and it would pick you up. It was more or less unmanned, except for one old man who was proudly standing over the cultural exhibit inside the railway station. He also informed us while waving a timetable in our face that a Puyuma (Taroko Express) train was about to come past, so we waited for it and took photos while it sped by. It was a very, very fast train, and especially the mainlanders who are from Canada were very impressed. When we stopped for lunch, it was in the small town of Chishang, which is well known for their wooden lunchboxes. It’s a delicious lunch biandang wrapped in a box that’s made out of thin wood slats, and includes just about one of every savory meaty delicacy that usually comes in a lunchbox. We enjoyed our lunchboxes by the side of a small lake, and then were set free for the next 45 minutes. I ended up lying on the grassy lake bank and watching the clouds twist and turn, took a little catnap. It was the perfect thing to counteract the lunchbox. Especially useful today since there was no coffee to get!

In the afternoon, the wind turned slightly. The sun went behind cloudcover, and people remarked that it felt like a storm coming. It was a relief at first. I biked a little bit faster and with better cheer, now that we weren’t being baked completely. I also dropped my headscarf from my face because it made it harder to breathe. After our second rest stop of the afternoon, the drizzle and mist began. Half of our clothes were already soaked in sweat, so I thought it wouldn’t matter, but by the time we were halfway through that leg of the trip (approximately 17 km), the rain had really been coming down strongly, and making it hard to see. I kept having to wipe my face, and even worse, the wheels kicked up a lot of mud that came right up our backs to even splatter the back of my helmet. We donned plastic, one-use raincoats at the next stop, but I found the idea kind of ridiculous. We also looked a sight to behold.

The second accident of the day actually happened because of the rain. One of the Californians I had been hanging out with was using his phone to take a picture of the rice paddies we were biking past with his right hand. With his left hand, he gripped his bike handle. The riders had been close together, and when the rider in front of him braked a bit unexpectedly, his hand squeezed impulsively on the left bike handle, which happens to be the brake for the front wheel. He went over the wheel and got some fairly nasty scrapes for his trouble on his knuckles and knees. Even more incredibly, he apparently got a photo of himself mid-flight because he had been about to press the button using his left thumb, and pressed it in mid-flight, capturing his face and the face of the rider behind him. It was good to laugh about it all over dinner because he turned out totally fine too, but a reminder of just how quickly accidents can happen on this road. He ended up sitting in the van until our final rest stop and coincidentally missed the worst of the storm. Lucky him. Then he came out and biked the last 10 km with us to the hotel. Finally, wet and bedraggled, we made it into our hotel for the evening.

One thing I have wanted to talk about is my evening routine. This is the kind of unglamorous but very useful thing you should know if you want to go on a long bike tour like this. When we get in, I generally head to the bathroom right away. After unpacking the essential bag of toiletries, I go straight to the bathroom and put all the clothes that I want to wash in the sink. In today’s case, it was literally everything I had been wearing: my jersey and bike shorts, leg coverings, socks, sports bra, and headscarf. I pour some shampoo over it all, fill the sink with water, and let it sit while I go have my shower. After I shower and wash my hair, it’s time to rinse and wring things out. It was especially tough today because there was a lot of persistent dots of mud and goo that had made its way into my clothing. I applied extra amounts of shampoo, rubbed it in, and scrubbed it well before wringing. This is where it comes in handy to be traveling alone. In most rooms, I have been able to use two large towels to roll my wet clothing in and then wring it out. Then I hang them up to dry. Finally, with my arms weak and rubbery, I make sure I look presentable, and then head downstairs for dinner. We usually get one hour before dinnertime, and this is what I spend it on! Other people tend to use the washing machine with more of their clothes, but rather than trying to beat other people to those facilities, I like doing it on my own. As I mentioned, it’s not glamorous, but I feel like doing this straight off has been very useful on this trip so far. I have two pairs of bike bibs (like bike overalls) that I’ve been changing on and off on this trip, so even if a pair didn’t dry, I could and often planned to wear the other pair.

One last note before I go to bed: another thing that I’ve noticed on this trip are the animals in Taiwan. There have been innumerable dogs and quite a few cats. Most dogs are just sentries for a business or home, on a long chain or rope leash that connects them to the door or yard entrance. Some look well taken care of. Some have little doghouses that look nearly identical to the roadside shrines at intersections to the god of the land. Some are flea-bitten and limping. It nearly broke my heart to see today this one dog that had liquid black eyes and was nearly in the middle of the road. He had one forepaw that didn’t work well, and one rear paw that looked like it was just one toe. I had the overwhelming compulsion to sweep him up into our van and take him home, but a few things stopped me: one was that the Giant tour guides would almost certainly say no; two was that he was wearing a collar and otherwise looked like his coat was shiny and had been washed sometime in the recent past. He probably had a family; three was that he was also running away from me, because he was afraid of strangers. It was just typical of the animals we’ve seen around, though. Most of them are working animals and bark at us when we go past. They’re not petted furry family members. The most ridiculous leash I’ve seen so far on this trip is actually a dog who was leashed, and the leash was connected to a zip line that hung horizontally across the yard above people’s heads. So it actually gave him a huge range of motion! The cats are all over the place. We met two very mangy-looking cats at one 7-11 who looked like they regularly fought the neighborhood rivals, but they were desperate for affection, and a few people pitied them enough to pet them, even though they had to wash their hands afterwards. And that’s not counting all the dead birds we’ve seen by the roadside, the truckloads of pigs being brought to market, and huge ponds full of white geese and tiny yellow goslings. They are a sober reminder of where our food actually comes from, and that outside the cities, parts of Taiwan are quite different.

So overall, quite an interesting day with lots of observations and learnings. We wrapped it up with a lovely group dinner where we brought quite a few beers at the 7-11 to share, and also a quick dip in the hot springs. Tomorrow, we bike nearly 70 km to the Hualien train station, and take a train to Yilan to avoid the Suhua Tunnel. It’s nearly the end of our trip, and it’s hard to believe!

Impossible is just a word

Okay, so this title sounds like I’ve just been sponsored by Nike, but that didn’t happen. (Though, Nike, if you’re looking at this entry… call my people.) It’s just something I deeply experienced today after going through each impossible-feeling-sounding-thinking thing and coming out on the other side. We climbed 40% flat land and 60% mountain roads, but my trembling knees and elbows insist it was more than that.

Day 6/9: Hengchun to Zhiben (112 km)

This morning, we had breakfast and gathered outside in Hengchun, shortly after sunrise. I had slept for more like 8.5 hours, and had a dream where I had to hurry back to Taipei overnight for some reason, and then was trying to make it back. I was really anxious not to miss the day’s climbing, even though I knew it would be hard. I was in the middle of trying to find transport when the morning call rang my phone, and woke me up. My first thought was pure gratitude that it was just a dream, and I was already in Kenting!

When we first biked out, it was glorious. The sun wasn’t too warm yet, and we biked north for the first time on a small road, splitting apart from the main road to meander through green and gold fields. If we had gone through mango country earlier as we headed south through Pingtung, this here was onion country. It was in the middle of the harvest, and rows of onions lay in the dirt, freshly dug up, as far as the eye could see. I saw several roadside signs advertising Hengchun Onions at the amazing price of 4 bags for 100 NT. Each bag had to have at least 15-20 onions in it. It could’ve fed us for half the year. In Taipei, onions go for 10-15 NT each. We waved to laborers in the fields who were kilted up as we were with long arm coverings and hats against the sun, and many waved back. As we climbed into the hills, we started getting a lovely view of the valley we were leaving behind, and it was breathtaking. It was the kind of scenery I had wanted and hoped to see on this trip. There was much more of it, but it was a struggle to concentrate on that, since the climbing and biking got much, much harder.

After 20 km, Our first stop was Mudan Reservoir, where we all took a deep breath and went to the bathroom. It seemed nice from where we were, but I got the chance to admire it from further on up. The next leg was 14 km, the beginning two a straight ascent. Within 500 meters, I had hit a wall. I ended up stopping every 500 meters to drink a few sips of water and shake my arms out. When I got back on, it was definitely easier, and I had more energy, which completely dissipated by the time I got 500 meters further. On the third stop, I realized I had been overtaken by the last rider, and the tail rider from Giant, who is a shy young woman with a yellow jersey, smiled at me and said, “加油!” That scared me enough to amp it up a little bit and re-overtake the last rider. The thought of being exactly the 50th rider to get my ass up to the next rest stop kept me about 1 km ahead of her for the rest of the hour. I realized later that if I was actually as generous of spirit as I wanted to be, I would bike with her and cheer her on together, but for me, biking on hills is such a tricky thing that keeping to my own rhythm once I found it was of paramount importance. Breaking it to follow someone else’s would be very difficult, so I not-so-virtuously just kept ahead of the last rider, and rolled in about 15 minutes later than everyone else.

We only had 15 minutes to recover, and then it was off to the next 14 km, after which we would reach Shouka, which marked the intersection of our road with the Cross-Island Highway. This highway in the south was the only one that served through traffic, so it would be full of big trucks and all sorts of cars. This climb wasn’t as bad, because it was a lot of on-and-off climbs, and I definitely didn’t roll in next to last. Still, there was a lot of time when it was just me by myself on the road, sweating in silence, and climbing steadily. Here in the south, we are truly in the tropics. It feels like actual jungles around us, with large green ferns, the calls of birds, and air so moist you can taste it. There were homesteads in the middle of all of this, and when I went past, there were dogs guarding the house who weren’t even aware that I was there because I went by so silently. It was funny to creep up on a few, who heard me change gears and whirled around to start barking belatedly. After Shouka, the climate changed again. First, we flew down the hill for an amazing 12 km of downhill. My top speed was about 41 kmph, but I’m sure I could’ve gone faster than that – I was basically squeezing my brakes before every turn.

We stopped soon afterwards for lunch, which was delicious as usual, and I ended up grabbing my usual coffee as well from the 7-11 across the road. It was a good move, because the afternoon was pretty brutal. We had three segments with three stops, and each of them had a significant hill. We were finally heading north into Taitung, but the problem was that we were sharing the picturesque, steep roads next to the pounding surf with all those huge trucks again too! And there was construction. On the first climb out of lunch, we ended up all climbing about 80% of the way up this incredibly steep highway bridge that took us seemingly hundreds of feet into the air about 10 feet away from the beach below. And we waited there for close to 10 minutes while the traffic went the other way. Then they closed off the lane, had our cars go, and then let us through finally. When we descended on the other side, I felt like I had just parachuted into this wonderland. It was amazingly gorgeous everywhere we looked, from the steep, wooded hills to our left, to the dark blue ocean and grey sand to our right, to even the view in front of us, the highway weaving off into the distance, and the many hills that make up the east coast, each a different faded tone of blue and grey. I enjoyed it, but I was also in agony and my thighs were burning. I had to figure out a way of pedaling that wasn’t going to expend all my energy, so I’ve been angling my feet differently when I push down, and switching it up every few cycles so different muscles get a rest, if that makes sense. I complained to Debi at a stop that I had no stamina, but I think that’s a hard argument now that we’ve finished Day 6 of nearly 100 km days. Still, I burn out pretty quick when I push hard to climb those hills, even at a low gear. I’m getting better at gear-shifting, but they told us that tomorrow’s much of the same!

It took us a while, but we finally made it into Zhiben, a famed hot spring town just south of Taitung. After checking into our hotel and spa, our faithful guides warned us not to sit in the hot springs for too long – 10 or 15 minutes was his suggestion – because our muscles have been trained hard from the last five days. To sit too long in the hot springs would mean that we would relax completely, and undo all that work, so tomorrow would be more agony. Well, we all took that advice with a grain of salt. I just finished an hour of on-and-off luxuriating in the hot and cold springs. We spent some time in the indoor ones before figuring out there were open-air hot springs that showed us the clear, full moon and the twinkling stars. After a long hard day, there’s just nothing more amazing than stargazing while lying in the hot spring, sitting on warm rocks, and feeling the breeze on your skin. I had to remind myself that I was almost too relaxed now, and needed to get back to my room!

Today’s definitely been a day of overcoming challenges. Sometimes, it was a matter of taking a break when I thought I couldn’t do it and then getting back to it. Sometimes, it was experimentation with a different style of pedaling. Sometimes, it was a bit of liquid courage (mostly coffee, not the alcoholic kind). Most times, it was just putting my feet down again and again and not looking too hard at where the finish line was. I am awed by what my body has been able to accomplish, because there were so many times I looked at 24 km down the road, and internally despaired. Or if I was here by myself, biking with panniers or just a friend or two, it would be so simple to stop at any old 7-11 or roadside fruit stall and take a break and then another, to call an audible when it got darker and stay somewhere else. But our guides hustled us on, exhorting us to make it to the next scheduled stop 12 km on, and reminded us that because the sun set over the mountains pretty early on the east side of the island, we didn’t have the time to linger. I’ve been learning that impossible is just a word, and in a very good way. What you think is impossible is just usually something different.

With that realization in mind, I’m going to bed. Our next stop is going to be Ruisui, just south of Hualien. It seems incredible, but we’re already done with Day 6. Our trip is two-thirds over!

The ocean at the end of the road

My wrists are almost too weak and tired to type. I wish I could dictate this entry as I do so many of my chat messages now, not because I trust voice-to-text, but because my speed of typing (usually pretty fast) is now too slow to catch up with… my brain, which actually isn’t moving all that fast either. After flying by at 30 kmph, I am now at a complete standstill. Let’s get on with it.

Day 5/9: Kaohsiung to Hengchun (102 km)

I haven’t wanted to go to sleep this badly on this trip so far, but today’s done a real number on me. I unexpectedly met up with my friend Jake last night at the hotel, so after finishing my entry and talking to Steve, I got to bed right before 11 pm last night, and ended up with a square 7 hours, but that’s not quite enough anymore. Blargh. We woke up at 6 am as usual, and after an excellent breakfast buffet as always, headed out of Kaohsiung.

Though it was foggy and somewhat smoggy in the city, the early morning light still felt nice as we wove slowly through the city. We took a waterfront path next to the light rail which Steve and I know quite well from our time in the city. We took in the 85 Sky Tower (Tuntex Tower) from below, and biked past all the newly constructed Cultural Exhibition Center and such in the city. It took more than an hour to go just about 10 km, because we were still in Kaohsiung. When we started out of the city, we started flying down the middle of the road for 20 km at a stretch. After a rest stop for some delicious shaved ice and at another temple, we found ourselves in Pingtung County. All of a sudden, there were mango groves around us, large stretches of short trees whose fruits were painstakingly covered with plastic bags to protect them as they ripened. Though my face was mostly covered by my blue headscarf, I could smell hints of mango as we rode by. By the time we stopped for lunch, people were sufficiently tantalized by all the roadside stalls that they were pretty much ready to demand mango. We ended up having a truly magnificent meal of clay-pot roasted chicken and many, many delicious veggie and meat dishes, finishing with a delicate mushroom soup with goji berries. Other folks went in search of mango, but I ended up going for coffee, which has become a lunchtime ritual. It helps me stay awake on the bike in the two hours or so after we eat lunch, which sounds really ridiculous, but yes, I need help to stay awake while I’m furiously pumping away my legs on a highway. It’s just the truth.

After lunch, we were going to hit three hills between there and Hengchun, which is pretty much near Kenting, the bottom tip of the island. I nearly died on those three hills, pushing myself up and down and cursing. See, I had done better on the hill on the second day than I had on the first, and as a result, while biking through those flat stretches the past two days, I had come up with a Grand Unified Theory of biking on hills. I had concluded that I had figured out hills, because all we had to do was to switch about four or five gears down, and keep biking at the same speed as much as possible, but that was mostly BS, apparently. The theory falls apart when you need to go from a medium gear down to a small gear. This bike has 27 gears, and you can switch between three front gears that you then pedal on, turning the front of the chain. Those are the big differentiators, with a large, medium, and small gear. The back gear has nine different gears, and usually, I only need to switch four or five back gears down in order to make a hill, but these rolling mountains were a bit much for me. But if the back gears stay the same while the front gears change, then you make a pretty big change all of a sudden, not like the very gradual small changes when you switch the back gears.

People in their seventies kept passing me, and while I’m sure that was great for their ego, I felt like I was being destroyed. My speedometer might have said 13 kmph, but you know, anyone can walk at 6 kmph already! Other people also even kept stopping to take pictures of the gorgeous sea scenery, a glittering ocean that stretched into the Taiwan Strait, and all I could do was huff and puff and stay on. When we finally got to the rest stop, it proved to be a lengthy one. They had us lay out our bikes so they could check them up, tune them a bit, put more air into the tires, etc. etc. I just laid back after eating two slices of watermelon and gazed up at the trees above us. It took us a good half an hour to get moving after that because everyone was pretty pooped. Finally, we rode the last 10 km to our hotel, the Grand Bay Resort in Hengchun.

We had a good dinner where people shared out some Suntory they got from the 7-11, and we were treated to some impromptu karaoke by the staff. Now because we’re in a very small town with nearly nothing to do, I can finally for the first time rest before 10 pm! So I’m finishing my entry early and getting ready to wind down.

One of the last things I wanted to note is that despite all the whining, I really am very glad I’m doing this trip, and I think that’s probably obvious. Why is a bit more complex to articulate, but it’s worth it. I recently started reading The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, which is apparently a really popular book though it sounds like it’s only for ambitious MBA-types. This book advocates that in order for people to make centered, balanced, principled decisions about what to do with their lives, they can create their personal mission statement according to their own beliefs, values, and ideals. It’s more of a process than just a one-time brainstorming, so I’m taking my time with it. However, even after thinking about it, it’s clear that I’m kind of simple when it comes to my principles. I believe that everyone has potential and value. What follows from that is that I hope I can help people develop that potential and value, which I do a lot in my daily job, and I want to develop my own potential and value as much as possible. This trip is pushing the boundaries of what I think I can do physically, and especially because it’s uncomfortable to climb these hills, I know I’m doing it.

Another statement I want to put into my mission statement is “Give what you cannot keep to gain that which you cannot lose.” And roughly speaking, youth and energy are a fleeting state in a person’s life. I’m already realizing I am less flexible, less impetuous than I used to be, and even have a few small injuries to my body that will never completely heal during my lifetime. But the feeling of accomplishment and understanding of what I am capable of doing are things nobody can take away from me once I’ve got it.

When we biked out of Kaohsiung this morning, I looked up at the 85 Sky Tower, and for the first time, felt something in my chest, and I started getting really a little emotional about this whole trip. Being in a place like Kaohsiung which I’ve visited quite a few times before, having walked where I’m now biking before, I am realizing that I’m really going to be able to do it. To bike places I had only gone on trains before, and finish this trip and come back to Taipei. I stopped getting too emotional because as I reminded myself, I’m not done with this trip yet by a long shot!! But we’re halfway through, and half-done is well begun.

The long road to the south

Today was a long one, but we all made it! I’m limp with exhaustion and relief. I don’t have much else to say, so straight into it.

Day 4/9: Chiayi to Kaohsiung (127 km)

Today was the hottest and longest day on the trip so far. I hesitate to say anything with out putting “so far” behind it, because I’m encountering so many new things each day and learning so much that it’s probably a bad idea to make my stand on any particular impression. But it was certainly hot. It was a high of 28 degrees Celsius, and in the middle of our longer stretches (22 or 24 km), the guides forced us to stop at a certain time and take a few gulps of water before moving on. Many people ended up taking off their jackets and long-sleeved jerseys to get some relief from the heat, but other people including me stayed resolutely hidden underneath all the long coverings, with only our fingertips showing. If Southeast Asia has taught me anything, it’s that being covered up is counter-intuitively much, much cooler. I’ve been wearing sunblock everywhere, so I don’t have any exciting tan patterns yet, but it’s clear that overall, I’m getting a little more tan despite all these efforts. That’s perfectly fine – I just would prefer not to be perfectly bronzed by the time we get back to Taipei.

I think some people I told were impressed that I was going on this trip. It is a very long trip of nine days. It is certainly also a long distance of 910 km or just over 565 miles. But by the second day, I was thinking that pretty much most people I know who are physically active can do this. Why? Because even kids can bike. The physics of biking are that if you expend some effort to get up to a certain speed, it takes then less effort to stay at that speed. It’s way easy than jogging around, which never gets easier at any point. You have to keep moving actively or stop. But speaking of jogging, I think that if you can or have run a 5K (around 3 miles), then you can do this bike trip. The most difficult thing about the trip is persistence, which is much harder to access. When you face down an entire nine hours of biking throughout the day, you get intimidated. When you’re at your second rest stop after lunch and starting to feel all that rice you had, you are craving a nap. When you’ve been going through unending rice paddies or, worse, hit the third red light in less than 500 meters, you get frustrated and bored. It’s just like any other “difficult” thing. You just have to keep pedaling and keep going, and after nine days of biking, you’ve done it.

The important thing is that Giant has found a good way to counteract this. When you feel all these pressures, you may feel inclined to easily give in, but the truth is that you can’t, because you’re surrounded by all these people, the majority of whom are twice your age, who are killing it without complaining. That really makes it impossible for you to give in, short of an actual injury to your body. Add that to the fact that nobody here in Asia wants to lose face, and you’ve got a whole bunch of people racing each other to the next rest break. No one wants to be the last one in, sweating and slowly biking your way to the top of the hill, while everyone else eats a banana and watches you. From a nicer perspective, we can support each other. We update each other at stop lights about how many km are left, and exhort each other to keep going and keep pedaling. The group really makes a real difference, and I’m glad that I could do this trip with so many new friends.

I really want to go to bed soon, but I have to give a shout out thus far to our guides. Giant has done an amazing job making this event happen. Every morning, a staff member guides us through our warm-ups and stretches while other staff members load the vans with our luggage. Then they brief us on exactly how many km we’re going through, how many hills and bridges we can expect, and remind us to stay single-file and to stay spaced out. When we set out, there are four people with us, one at the front and one at the end, with two in the middle, riding along the whole way. When we make a turn, there’s always someone standing there blowing the whistle in short bursts and directing us. When we stop at a rest area, the van’s already there with the back door up, snacks ready, and the music blaring. They refill the water as soon as it gets low, and next to the snacks, provide small bottles of sunscreen that are refilled so people can put on more. We even found today after people got sunburnt that they carry aloe vera gel. When your tire gets a hole, these guys patch it together right away. When it’s time to pull into the hotel, there’s someone guiding us down the parking lot ramp to the basement where they are directing us to the right corner to pile our bikes together, and then they guide us again through cool-down exercises before instructing us to come down for dinner an hour later. I know plenty of people do the round-the-island tour without a support van and these folks, but they are so experienced and take care of us so well that I feel free to enjoy the road and not worry about where I have to go. Consider this a ringing endorsement (so far) of Giant Bicycles as a travel agency!

Tomorrow, we’re headed for Hengchun, which is located near the southernmost point of the island. So it’ll be Day 5 when we will reach the bottom of the island, and then turn to start our trip back north. I’m excited to see the East Coast, but not as excited about the mountains. I’ll write more tomorrow about my theory about hills and physics too! Until then.

Observations on the countryside

Day 3/9 on this crazy road trip around the island is a wrap, and for once, I am sitting at the desk in my fancy hotel room well ahead of schedule. I’ve got a little bit of peace and quiet to write my entry and reflect on the day before I go to bed around 9:30 pm. It only took me two days to get this far!

Day 3/9: Lukang to Chiayi (77 km)

Today was an easy day. I can definitely say that now, propping my feet up and flexing it to relieve the soreness, which I know could have been worse. We got up a whole half hour later – at 6:30 am, and had a leisurely breakfast before biking out of Lukang at 8 am. We rolled into Chiayi around 4:30 pm, after having some very leisurely breaks and lunches in the middle indeed. The guides told us today was deliberately meant as a day to help us calibrate our bodies and get used to the road before they threw some more challenges at us.

Some things come into sharper relief with more time to ruminate over it on the road. Even though three days is over, it feels like this trip is stretching out even longer than before. I am starting to appreciate what it really means to be biking consistently for 9 days. The aches in my pelvic bone where my butt meets the seat are a dull constant companion, though I can usually distract myself from it. Now that we’ve entered the south, the sun has also come out more consistently, and my skin is taking on a definitely bronze cast. I’ve pulled my neck scarf over my head now and look like I’m auditioning for Blue Man Group, and I’ve been assured I will STILL be tanned when I finish this trip. We live our lives indoors, staring at screens or walking inside air-conditioned, lit up spaces. It is different to be exposed to the elements all the time, marking the appearances of the sun, the waves of drizzle that come and go. We’re entirely kitted up now with arm and leg coverings, which are usually only worn by roadside aunties who sweep the parks for a living or work in the fields. I never understood those coverings and broad sunhats with flaps that cover the neck and face until now, because it never seemed to be an issue – you’re just outside, and the sun is nice and warm. But day after day, it takes a toll on your body, so you stay covered up as much as possible so that at night, when you come back out, no one can tell you spend all your time outside.

It ended up being a good thing that I put on the blue neckscarf today to hide my face from the elements, because the elements also contain air pollution. The south of Taiwan has much heavier air pollution, and we spent most of the time on the road next to large trucks which sounded terrifying barreling down the road a meter or two away. They threw up a lot of dust, of course, that mostly got filtered out through the neck scarf, thankfully. We also biked right past many refuse yards or recycling yards. The poorer parts of Taiwan is also where you see more recycling business or trash businesses. We saw a landfill yesterday as well as a trash incineration power plant, actually. So the smell is much stronger and more overpowering. In these small towns, the road looks polished enough, and the buildings that line the front only look a bit shorter and slightly more faded than the ones I’ve seen in New Taipei City. But you also hear the roosters crowing from right inside those buildings as well, and behind the house is the rice paddy.

Out in the countryside or in the small towns, locals set up an astonishing array of little shops or stalls, sometimes right out of the trunk of their four-door sedan, sometimes in one of Taiwan’s ubiquitous blue pick-up trucks. We saw one selling stones from Hualien and Taitung (according to the sign), with about a dozen or so large stones, some beautiful looking geodes and other rugged, distinguished pieces of granite, set in wooden stands on the ground or on the back of the truck. The owner was seated in the driver’s seat, smoking a cigarette and reading the newspaper. Another blue truck had the most amazing array of clocks and bells, with little captain’s wheels and gold bells hanging from the roof of his truck. It looked like something straight out of a Neil Gaiman novel, and I wished I could have taken a photo of it, or even better, spoken to the owner. The most hilarious was probably the one I saw this afternoon. One man in an otherwise unremarkable Toyota Camry was speaking to another man while rummaging in his trunk, and we could see while going by that it had several wire cages full of brightly colored yellow and green parakeets. I guess the avian black market is lucrative enough here!

We’re a fairly large group of 50 people, and though we’re still mistaking each other for someone else that we had met, fairly clear personalities have already started to emerge within the group. I’m mostly sticking at mealtimes with some very affable Americans (most from LA) and a handful of Taiwanese who live in Taipei and are by themselves here alone. There’s also a handful of Singaporeans who hang out by themselves, bike in a group, and all brought their own bikes, but they’re friendly enough. Then there’s about 14 people who are all mainland Chinese who now live in Canada. They’re kind of fun to talk to because they act just like my parents, but I also heard one of them tell the guides in a very forward way, “You said you’d fix my speedometer yesterday. Why’s it still wrong?” You can take the Chinese out of the mainland, but… The rest are a group of older Taiwanese who probably bike or hike Yangmingshan for fun in the mornings – they are way too mobile and in way too good humor all the time. I should be so lucky to be like them at that age. . Anyway, there are two or three people my age, but most people seem to be in their mid-40s to mid-50s, with a good minority of 10 or so in their late 60s or early 70s (mostly the Taiwanese). It’s very impressive, and basically leaves me with no excuse! If they can do it, I certainly can.

I have to keep that attitude in mind as we move on tomorrow to Kaohsiung. This is one of the longest legs we’ll make on the trip, a total of 130 km. While there might be one hill or two, it’ll mostly be flat terrain, possibly even more starts and stops as we wind through Tainan and arrive in Kaohsiung, Taiwan’s second largest city. I’m looking forward to the chance to see again a city that I know relatively well, and of course, the pleasure of saying that I made it riding 130 km in one day. On to Day 4!

Biking along the west coast

We made it to day two! It’s been another long day, but if the guides are to be believed, harder days lie ahead. I’m sure that’s a shocker for all involved. I’ll do my best to sum up Day 2, but honestly, everything’s been such a blur, and I’ve noticed and seen too many new things to all be recorded.

Day 2/9: Hsinchu to Lukang (102 km)

I slept (though not enough by my standards) until 6 am this morning, which was when we received our morning call. It was a slow trek to get everything packed and downstairs, so it’s a good thing I showered the night before. Our breakfast was exemplary as usual, as we’ve seen at pretty much every hotel in Taiwan. And then we were off! Super early Sunday morning, there was pretty much no traffic heading out of Hsinchu, and we coasted on out casually.

Today, we made seven or eight stops in total. Some were after about 7 or 8 km (usually after a bit of a climb), but some were kind of far in-between, like after 22 km. At each stop, riders are urged to make sure to address any issues about their bike right away so the mechanics on the team can take a look and tune it up for you. Then you head to the bathroom, fill up your water, and grab some snacks. Their food game is on point, and it’s a good thing, because we’re all eating a lot more than we usually do, and expending up to 4000-6000 calories a day. There are about three or four kinds of fruit, bananas, nectarines, oranges, and maybe something else too. Then there’s three to four different kinds of Taiwanese biscuits and cookies with chocolate or cheese or preserved veggies. There are packets of Pocari Sweat that you can dump into your water bottle, and then fill up with water. For those who don’t want to have Pocari, they also offer some straight-up salt, which helps your body hydrate better. At lunch and dinner, we’ve been feted with some amazing amounts of fish, tofu, pork – typical Taiwanese fare. One of the Canadians I met has opted for vegetarian, and they’ve brought out some excellent dishes just for her, including these lightly battered and fried mushrooms with Taiwanese basil. I can’t complain about any of the food.

Shortly after we came out of Hsinchu today, we made it to the coast. We spent a leisurely morning biking down the coast, gazing at the wetlands on the west coast. Steve and I have visited the Gaomei Wetlands near Taichung, and this was quite similar. The muddy ground sprinkled with short bushes and grasses stretch out for what seems like a hundred meters, dotted here and there by white herons and other birds standing in the mud. Off in the distance, we could see large windmills of the modern variety – tall and three-bladed clawing at the sky – which slowly moved by as we biked south. It was a perfect morning, weather in the sixties, and an overcast sky. Eventually that gave way as we turned inland to more rice paddies, stretching out. Yesterday’s rice paddies were smaller affairs, constrained by the twisting and turning roads and hills that we went through. Today was almost entirely flat. We crossed several very high broad bridges that looked over some narrow channels of water, watching the sun glitter on the creeks and rivers below.

We made two interesting stops today. The first was at 台鹽 Taiyen Company, which makes a popular brand of alkaline ion water here as well as other foods and beverages containin salt. They even had a “Museum of Salt” at their headquarters here. For our snack at this rest stop, the Giant guides brought out salty popsicles in many different flavors. I managed to get one of the last almond flavored popsicles, which was sweet and savory, tasting like the almond milk teas that they make here in Taiwan. It was a fun treat! The second stop was right after lunch at headquarters for Giant Bicycles. It was there we learned that we had among us the former CEO of Giant Bicycles, who is now retired and enjoys going around the island with his wife. He and she were respectively on their eleventh and eighth trips around the island. How’s that for impressive? #lifegoals We also got to see some of the cool prototypes they had on display, even though it was a Sunday, and the factory wasn’t open.

Today was a big day, because for many people including me, it was our first day of riding more than 100 km. Yesterday, we made 92 km, and today 110 km. It is pretty empowering to see these numbers that would have made me wince just last week. We now all have a much better sense of our bodies and our strength and how much we can accomplish in a day. When they announced at our last stop it was only another 12 km until our hotel, a cheer rose up because everyone saw that as being pretty light work of less than an hour! Tomorrow is going to be relatively light too – an easy, flat 83 km to Chiayi. But the day after that will be significantly more challenging – 130 km from Chiayi to Kaohsiung. And we haven’t even really started climbing the mountains. That will be Day 5 and 6 in Pingtung and to Zhiben (near Taitung).

Tonight, we stopped in Lukang, a small town near the coast which is just outside of Changhua. After dinner at our hotel, I went with some people from our lunch group (a woman from SF, her cousin from Toronto, and a couple from LA) to a nearby massage place. I got a 30-minute full body massage that focused on my lower body for just 399 NT (~13 USD). It was a lovely experience, and I now have many of the kinks in my spine worked out as well as some of the knots in my quads and hamstrings. It was such a good idea I’m thinking we should do it again tomorrow night!

For tomorrow, I want to remember to write about my new philosophy about climbing hills (and physics), our Giant tour guides, and accommodations in more detail! Maybe when I’m not scrambling to finish everything before getting to bed, but that’s not going to be tonight.

Around the island!

We’re returning to this blog with some exciting news. Connie, at least, is on the road again. Literally! This week, I am fulfilling a long-held dream of biking around the island nation of Taiwan. It’s spring break, and the weather is perfect – mid teens Celsius, nothing above 70 degrees. Steve’s going to take some more convincing that a 9-day bike trip with more than 100 kilometers a day is what he really wants to do, but even though I’ve never done a multiple-day bike trip before, I jumped in head first as I do with so much. You decide whether that’s a good thing or not.

Day 1/9: Taipei to Hsinchu (91 km)

This morning, I woke up right before 6 am, and we brought me in full riding gear and my luggage to Songshan train station. I arrived just after 7 am to greet 49 fellow riders and our crew, the Giant Bicycles Travel Agency. Giant is a Taiwanese company that is known the world over for their excellent bikes, and in Taiwan, they also run a travel agency which brings bike riding and touring trips to an art. We’re going around the island counter clock-wise, and in nine days, will rack up more than 950 kilometers. Meep.

So it’s been a long day, because I’m typing this at 10 pm. I feel less tired than I should be (especially in my legs), but I think that’s mostly because it’ll kick in all the next day. At times, I felt incredibly happy because I was flying along in the wind, reaching speeds of up to 35 or 40 km an hour, but when we reached the two hills that we climbed today, I felt like I wanted to die. So there have been ups and downs, literally though not accordingly. We made multiple rest-stops, one after the first hill where we met a local park dog who wagged his tail very hard when he saw our white van. Our driver told us that he’s excited to see the group every single week. After all, Giant runs this tour starting pretty much every single Saturday. I felt so humbled thinking about all the people who have gone around the island, and some of the folks on our tour have done it multiple times before. It makes me feel like I’m part of something bigger and makes it feel not as hard as it could be.

We took roads to Dadaocheng where we met the river, and biked on river paths until we got to Sanxia. The riverside paths were nice, but the roads were not as scary as I felt, because we have so many people with us – the drivers are on high alert the whole time they’re going past. For lunch we stopped at a fish restaurant, which kept live fish in concrete tanks near the parking lot, and they served us fish soup, fried fish, broiled fish, and fish fillets, and I’m sure I’m missing something else. There was exactly one dish of cabbages. Sounds like a pescatarian-specific meal? The fellow rider I got to know best (and sat next to during lunch) was Debbie, a Scottish lady with an accent so heavy that I initially thought she was from Eastern Europe or something of the sort. But no, she just grew up in Glasgow, and is now living in Beijing these days. I also met a trio of adult siblings from California by way of Hong Kong, a Canadian from Toronto who bubbled over with good cheer, as well as a couple from Los Angeles who were intending originally to go on a scooter trip around the island. And our table was rounded out by two Taiwanese people who mostly watched the entire lunchtime proceedings with bemusement as they had accidentally sat with the English table. That was pretty funny.

When Steve asked how the trip was going, I told him it was going to be easier and harder than I imagined. The reason why it’s easier is that Erin was right: when you have the right bike, you can go faster than 25 km/ an hour with no issue on flat ground. She gave me a lot of advice beforehand, and this is proving to be true! We’re on the rental bike Giant Rapid, which has 27 gears and probably only weighs 4 kg overall. It’s incredibly light. On the other hand, hills and mountains are pretty dreadful. I have never been forced to go up a gradual incline for as long as 7 km, and I’m sure it’s not going to be the hardest hill we encounter. Both times I was climbing hills, my chain actually slipped off, and I got some grease in my nails and hands trying to put that back together. I also end up at the back of the pack, and it’s still a work-in-progress to understand how all of this gear shifting and stuff works.

When we came flying down the second hill, we went past a number of beautiful rice paddies. The same slope that we were flying down made it naturally easy to irrigate these paddies, with the water from the higher ones flowing into the lower ones. I have no idea what time it is in the rice growing season here, but it looked green and fertile and very bucolic. The countryside was great, because there was very little going on. Our last stop, we had about 17 km before we got to our hotel in Hsinchu, and it took more than an hour because we struggled with lights and traffic the whole way. When we were heading out of Taipei, a woman on a scooter actually told the lady sitting sitting next to me at a stoplight that it was much safer to be riding on the riverside and that we should not do the roads. I wish I could see that woman’s face when we get on the freeway in the next few days! Not to end on a super sad note, but we saw a cat that had been hit by a car. Someone actually moved it off the road right before we went past, which I appreciate, but it was sad. RIght after that, we passed seemingly dozens of pet stores, juxtaposing scenery filled with brightly colored signs, lights, and food. It made me feel like it’s all too easy to become a casualty of the roadside yourself.

Enough thoughts. It’s time to get to bed. Morning call is at 6 am, and we will be off to Chiayi before I know it. More missives from the road to come.

P.S. I forgot to add that when I arrived in Hsinchu, Steve informed me I had forgotten my glasses in Taipei, so I had the singular pleasure of shopping for new frames and getting a new prescription and buying new glasses from Lohas Glasses in Hsinchu. Let’s put that in the unexpected expenses column, shall we? (On the bright side, they are cute, have red arms, and were my first pair of new glasses in like 6 years. Also, they were completed in half an hour.)