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!

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