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!