Monday, December 19, 2011

Cycling Taiwan’s East Coast: Hualien City to Taimali/Taitung City (Part 3)

Day 3: Dulan to Taimali/Taitung City
November 9, 2011
Day 8 of Taiwan Trip 2011
via Provincial Highway 11, Provincial Highway 9 and Country Road 58

Woke up at a little past six in the morning to another rainy morning, and decided to just lie back down on the bed and have a bit more nap time. The original plan was to go down to the seaside beach to watch the sunrise, but like the past two days, I did not even see the actual sun for the whole day – forget about any spectacular sunrise view…

Photo: Shop-houses in Dulan town fronting Highway 11

Joined the other roommates for breakfast at one of the few shops that are open early in the morning before heading back to the hostel, packed up for departure, and bade goodbyes to the rest, dog and cats included.. And so it was another late start again today due to the rain as was yesterday. Oh, the irony of changing into a fresh pair of clean, dry outfits only to get wet the moment I stepped out into the rain with the bike.

Photo: The resident dog of the hostel

Made a stop at the ‘Water Running Up’ attraction just a short distance away, and joined the hordes of tourists arriving on big tour buses staring at a small drain running beside the road and getting all excited. Ok, maybe I should reword that better… basically, due to the surrounding geographical features, the water appears to be flowing upwards in the drain against the basic law of gravity, but really, it is a downward slope as my bike can attest to rolling downwards effortlessly.

Passed by the controversial Meiliwan Resort on the Shanyuan beachfront later, where the locals had apparently protested unsuccessfully for years against its construction that would take away their rights to the pristine, once-public beach. The resort didn’t appear to be open yet, but the constructions looked pretty much done, so I wonder whether much can still be done…

Further south, Jialulan rest area was a big open space with wooden benches facing the sea, and some wooden artsy installations scattered around. And adding to the list of items that I disliked throughout the trip, all the vending machines at the rest stop areas were perpetually out of stocks for drinks that I’d want to buy (e.g. pocari).

Photo: Seaside at Jialulan rest area

A short distance from Jialulan rest area is Little Yehliu, so-named due to the small scale of semblance to the rock erosion features found at the more famous Yehliu Geopark near Taipei. While this place may not be as spectacular compared to its big brother, there was also much less people here compared to the overcrowding madness that is now synonymous with a typical visit to Yehliu Geopark.

Photo: Seaside at Little Yehliu

Oh, fyi, this place (Little Yehliu) charges for vehicle entrance, just so you know – bicycles not included of course. Continuing, a short distance away is the Fugang Harbor, where the ferries to Lyudao (Green Island) or Lanyu (Orchid Island) departs from. A little further away and I was heading up onto the bridge entering into Taitung City. The rain had by now turned into light drizzles that came and went away at intervals.

Apparently I had developed a (bad?) habit of not reviewing photos taken on the camera until much later, likely picked up from toying around with an old film SLR. What happened was that I had accidentally pushed the mode dial into the shutter priority mode without realizing it while stuffing the camera back into the bag. And I only realized something was wrong a few hours later, so I basically ended up with a whole bunch of super-high-key masterpieces (not!). Key lesson: pay more attention to the damn LCD display under the viewfinder!

Photo: Standing atop a random cratered rocks – Little Yehliu

Decided to first skip the Taitung Seaside Park and to come back here later in the evening when I’m back to Taitung City (which later turned out that I didn’t make it to this park at all…). Nearing Taitung City, one noticeable change was that the road appeared to have a visibly rougher surface compared to the roads travelled the past 2 days. And there were a lot of small rocks and other debris littering the sides of the roads too at around Taitung and the remaining length of Highway 11 – especially on the outer side of the white lines around road stretches without separate bike lanes.

Stopped at a road-side stall (actually one of those ubiquitous small blue lorries) selling sugar cane juice, and stocked-up on a few bottles of ice-cold (literally – they’re chilled to frozen state) sugary goodness. One mostly finds the purple-skinned sugar cane variety being used in Taiwan, compared to the green-colored variety commonly sold in Malaysia.

On learning that I was intending to head to Taimali before returning to Taitung City, the sugarcane uncle asked, why Taimali? There is nothing much that’s interesting there. And his wife chipped in, better to go to Zhiben instead, the hot springs there are very nice. So… why Taimali?

Photo: Along the way to Taimali

While searching for information for the cycling trip, I came across some references to Island Etude, a 2006 Taiwanese film, which was about a young, hearing-impaired man on a cycling trip round Taiwan island. And I remembered that I actually had a copy of this film since last year, but had yet to get around to watching it… (and yes, it is an interesting film, so definitely a recommended watch). The opening scene showed the man cycling down a stretch of road which looked pretty nice, and online film reviews pointed out the location as in Taimali. And considering Taimali is just a short distance from Taitung City, I just sort of decided, hey, I want to cycle on that very road that was featured in the film.

Past Taitung City, Highway 11 ended and merged into Highway 9 at around Zhiben area. The road that was in Island Etude’s opening scene, turned out to be part of Highway 9 between Taitung city and Taimali, rising up in the distant as one heads towards Taimali. Shortly past the junction into Taimali train station, there were plenty of shops lining both sides of the main road. Stopped at a random noodle shop for lunch, and had a bowl of noodles, some dumplings, and a bowl of soup with fish balls and orange daylily flowers that the shop owner recommended as a Taimali’s specialty.

Photo: The road rising up in the distant towards Taimali was where the opening scene in 'Island Etude' was filmed

This would be the furthest south I’d be riding, and after lunch, it was back up northwards again on the same stretch of Highway 9 that I came from earlier, and later detouring into Country Road 58 heading into Zhiben hot spring area. Noticed that many small shops along the road weren’t open, and generally the area was pretty deserted, probably because it was a weekday?

Saw a signboard for “Journey to the East" and briefly recalled reading about this particular hot spring resort in Lonely Planet’s guidebook, and decided to head there. This would probably be among the first hot spring resort one will encounter heading into the Zhiben area, as it is located before the bridge crossing to the other side of the river where most of the other large hot spring resorts here are clustered around. By the way the actual name of the resort is Toyugi Hot Spring Resort & Spa.

Day entrance fee was at NTD 300, with another NTD 50 for a swimming cap which is apparently compulsory to be worn in most pools in Taiwan where swimming suits are the dress code. And it appeared that cycling tights are also allowed to be worn into the pools in place of a proper swimming trunk, though I certainly didn’t fancy soaking in a hot spring with a thick padding at the derrière… Lockers were available inside at no extra charges, and they were large enough to accommodate a small backpack (or pannier bags).

There are multiple pools spread around a covered and uncovered outdoor area. The water here is also clear and non-smelly like those at Ruisui previously. Being a hot-spring newbie (noobs?), it took me 10-minutes of gradually soaking the legs in the hottest pool before I was comfortable enough to lower in the whole body without quickly coming back out again. Other people there, older folks and young kids alike, just went straight in comfortably. Ok…

Left the resort at close to 4.30pm to head back to Taitung city center, which took around an hour. At around the city area, the sky decided to open up again. Seek shelter at another 7-11 store for a cup of warm latte… and had to cancel the plan to meet up with hostel-mates from Dulan last night, as I was already soaked from the rain, and I still had to first look for an accommodation for the night. Finally decided to head to Taitung Travel Hostel (not to be confused with Taitung Traveller Hostel/Hotel) near to the train station which, though a bit away from the city center, I don’t think I’d be going anywhere for the night with the rain…

Photo: Single room at Taitung Travel Hostel

A single room was NTD 630 (NTD 700 with 10% discount for cyclists), with fridge, TV, and PC with net access in the room. Unfortunately, no wi-fi though…

Dinner was two packs of sandwiches that I bought and bundled into one of the pannier bags the night before at Dulan’s 7-11 and then promptly forgotten about them until I found them again this evening while rummaging for clothes. OK, so they smelt fine (and tasted fine too) and, it’s a waste to throw them away… The rest of the night was spent channel-surfing on the TV, as I’m too lazy to step out into the rain again after a hot shower and a change of dry clothes…

Total distance of the day: around 77km (estimated)

Map of Day 3 Route:

to be continued...

Monday, December 5, 2011

Cycling Taiwan’s East Coast: Hualien City to Taimali/Taitung City (Part 2)

Day 2: Ruisui to Dulan
November 8, 2011
Day 7 of Taiwan Trip 2011
via Route 193, Provincial Highway 9, Provincial Highway 30 (a.k.a. Yuchang Highway) and Provincial Highway 11

Woke up to another rainy day, and although I had planned to leave before 7am, decided to walk around first while waiting to see if the rain will let up. No such luck though, and I decided to proceed with the journey at a little past 8am.

Photo: In front of Hong Ye Hot Spring Resort

Yesterday evening’s slow uphill ride into the hot spring area was this morning rewarded with a nice effortless downhill cruise into the town center, albeit while having the drizzle turning heavier just as I was starting out for the day. Stopped for breakfast at a store along the main road paralleling the railway track, and had their signature glutinous rice dumplings and fish ball soup. Dropped by 7-11 again later for additional bottles of water and downed a large cup of Latte before continuing with the trip.

Continuing, I took the road directly in front of the 7-11 leading away from the train station, which joined up and becomes Route 193 a short distance away. This leads past the Ruisui Rafting Tourist Center before crossing the Ruisui Bridge. Had wanted to head to Ruisui’s Tropics of Cancer Monument (one of three Tropics of Cancer monuments in Taiwan) first, but decided to just skip it due to the late start, as it is along Highway 9, which is a bit out of the way if taking Route 193.

Photo: Along Route 193

The short portion of Route 193 that I rode was pleasant enough in the cooling slight drizzle, with enough road shoulders along the way for bikes to ride on. On the left side, the mountain range was close by, with wide yellowing paddy fields on the right extending into the distance, where the central mountain range lies mostly obscured by blankets of low-lying clouds. Many smaller paths branches off into the fields that were just about to turn into glorious golden yellow shades, beckoning me to take them instead of the main road…

By the way, while the paddy fields around Hualien/Taitung had not reached their peak golden colors yet in most places, when passing through Yilan on the train (further north) just days later, I noticed that many paddy fields had already been harvested, leaving behind large brown patches of soils. So if your timing is off, the views may be slightly different…

Photo: Along Route 193

Route 193 ended somewhere in Yuli, where it merged into Provincial Highway 9. Right after turning into Highway 9, there is a 7-11 store on the left, where I stopped for a light meal of fruits, chocolate bar and drink, plus stocking up on more water. Then onwards for a short section on Highway 9, before reaching the junction into Highway 30, a.k.a. Yuchang Highway. The name ‘Yuchang’ apparently came from the combinations of Yuli and Changbin, the two towns on each side that this highway connects together.

The climb up to the Yuchang tunnel feels a lot easier (and a whole lot faster, too) compared to the Ruigang Road climbs yesterday although the elevation is much higher, probably because the total elevation gains on the Ruigang Road is more. Also, this being a provincial highway route and the highway just built a few years ago, the road has wide shoulders and also, not much debris compared to Ruigang. A break from the drizzles just as I started on the Yuchang route made for a more relaxing ride.

Photo: Entrance to the Yuchang tunnel (at 26km marker)

Having the entrance of the tunnel in sight also meant the end of the only major climb for today. Heading from west to east side like I did, it is a nice downhill cruise passing through the tunnel :).

The signboard posted at the east side of the tunnel entrance stated the tunnel length as being 2.66km in length. Being a relatively new road tunnel, there is ample road shoulders inside for bikes to ride on, although towards the end of the tunnel at the east side, there were quite a lot of little rocks scattered around on the bike lane for a short section that I hope someone will clear off soon. Anyway traffic was very light and I could just take the main lane and only move aside when I heard vehicles approaching.

Photo: Exiting Yuchang Tunnel on the east side

Exiting the tunnel on the east side, the view was an immediate disappointment because… there were thick clouds all around with limited visibilities. I had imagined the joy of an effortless downhill ride with a view of the blue Pacific stretching far into the distance ahead while I get closer and closer to the blue sea – but the reality was very much different. Oh well… still, it was nice rolling down the hill in the cool mid-day air.

Close to reaching the end of Highway 30, there is a small rest area marked as Changbin Bicycle Rest Station on the information board, where lays a huge structure made from driftwoods collected from the sea nearby. With no one around, it’s time to make use of the camera’s self-timer feature. The problem with travelling alone is that one rarely gets to be in the photos taken…

Photo: At the rest stop near the end of the Yuchang Highway (a.k.a. Changbin Bicycle Rest Station)

Photo: "Casting Glances of Love with Driftwoods"

Stopped at another larger rest-stop area for the restroom and hanged around for a bit after, probably somewhere around Wushibi. Couldn’t figure out the exact location of the rest stop though as searching through Google Earth now, I just couldn’t locate anywhere with a bit of semblance – probably the rest stop was newer. Unfortunately I kinda missed out on stopping at the Wushibi rock formations area and only realized it after I had already passed it a distance away.

Photo: At a random small rest-stop along the road

Photo: At a random small rest-stop along the road

The next major stop was in Sanxiatai right before reaching Chenggong town. The bridge linking to the small rocky islet offshore resembling the long body of a dragon is certainly unique and eye-catching, yet I couldn’t help but wonder – isn’t this another case of form winning over function?

A note security-wise with regards to leaving the bike unattended – I just locked the rear wheel to the frame with the cable lock and left the bike at the motorcycle parking area together with the rear panniers while I went off to explore around. The panniers contained only my clothes and some misc. items, while the valuables were in my backpack that I carried along. The bike together with everything else was still there when I returned around an hour later. And I did the same at various other places too.

But frankly I was comfortable doing that because the bike, additionally with dirt all over, looked pretty beat-up (I mean, it looked ordinary and didn’t stand out – but it worked just fine). If I’m riding an expensive-looking bike, I would be very worried at the idea of leaving the bike out of sight unattended for long periods, as I’m not sure how safe it will be…

Photo: Sanxiatai

I probably spent a bit too long here looking around – left Sanxiatai at a little past 4pm, and skipped exploring Chenggong town/harbor nearby as it was already late and dusk would fall in around another hour’s time, and yet I still have a fair bit of distance to cover for the day that will likely take at least another two hours. Originally I had wanted to time my arrival at Chenggong Harbor at around 3pm as according to online info, that would be the time around when the boats came in to unload the day’s catches. And oh, on the way out from Sanxiatai, at one place, the road signboard was only present for the opposite direction of where I came from (went straight as there’s no sign indicating I should take a turn to get back onto Highway 11, reached a dead-end, turned back and only then saw a signboard pointing to the junction. Nope, no signboard that I can see at the other side...).

Next stop was in Donghe town, a short break for the famous ‘baozi’. Had a couple with pork meat fillings, and also the bamboo shoots and red bean varieties. I was practically surrounded by 4-5 dogs (big ones at that, not sure if they’re strays) while trying to eat my ‘baozi’ in peace (not) at the outdoor tables. Thankfully they were all well-behaved and just sat around me staring… coincidentally, one group of customers that arrived at the store while I was eating there, later turned out to be my roommates for the night in the hostel in Dulan, although I didn’t know it at that time.

It was already dark when I reached Donghe, and I was contemplating whether to just ask around for any cheap accommodation options there instead of proceeding to Dulan, which was my planned stop for the day. But considering it should be less than 15km further to reach Dulan town, which should take me less than an hour without stopping, I decided to just push on ahead. On hindsight, I probably should have just stayed over in the larger Chenggong town earlier considering the time that I left Sanxiatai, as riding in the dark means missing out on the various sights along the way…

Photo: Donghe Baozi store

Note that there is a 7-11 store just across the road from the ‘baozi’ store. Bought another large bottle of Supau to refill the near-empty water bottles.

Around a quarter of the journey towards Dulan, it started raining – or rather, pouring is a more apt word to describe it. Probably the heaviest rain encountered so far on the trip. Bear in mind that there were no street lights along the road outside of the town areas, visibility was really bad, with my small flashlight barely allowing me to see the painted road lines 1-2 meters ahead. Hate it when many car drivers from the opposite direction used high beams on their headlights, as their lights totally washed out my sight and I had to slow down to a crawl until they passed me, or risk inadvertently heading into the drain at road bends.

The heavy rain continued all the way to Dulan, and the sight of the next familiar 7-11 store sign was a relief as it was a sign that I had reached Dulan town. But for some reason I missed the signboard for the sugar factory, where the hostel I wanted to go to was located nearby, and proceeded past until the disappearing streetlights assured me that I had already overshot Dulan town area. Made a u-turn back to the 7-11 store to seek shelter from the rain, and the magical crystal ball GPS was consulted – ah… it is actually just the next junction after the one beside the 7-11. And sure enough, there’s a big signboard for the sugar factory there alright – wonder how I missed it the first time around.

Photo: Bed at hostel in Dulan

The hostel I stayed at for the night was BBH Dog Backpackers, NTD 400 for a bed in the 6-bed dorm room. Dinner was the remaining unfinished ‘baozis’ from the Donghe store earlier. Outside, the rain continued into the morning after…

Total distance of the day: around 102km (estimated)

Map of Day 2 Route: