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.

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