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!