Sunday, June 24, 2007

Great Taiwan Bike Rides VII: Route 197-Southern Cross Island Highway-Liugui

First a slide show...

Dennis Flood wrote up his ride a few years. His photos are much better.

Day 1

We flew into Taidong airport on the 6:30AM flight from Taipei. We arrived at Songshan Airport at 6am, which have us plenty of time to 'pack' the bikes. For those who haven't flown with their bikes in Taiwan, this means cutting up cardboard boxes (provided by the airline) and taping the resulting pieces onto your bike so that you won't get other people's luggage dirty. You do not have to take your bike apart, and there is no extra charge. Pretty cool.

A note of warning though--not every airport in Taiwan is big enough for a plane that can take your bike this way. Kaohsiung, Chiayi, Hualien, and Taitung are all fine. Pingtung's old airport was not. Not sure about the new one.

A second word of warning is that this great service may soon be over. I suspect that the increasing popularity of biking is starting to cause problems. We had a bit of argument with the baggage handling people at Far Eastern about this although we eventually prevailed. In general EVA (Lirong) is the most helpful while Far Eastern is more and more reluctant.

We arrived in Taitung hungry and exhausted since we had only gotten a few hours of sleep the night before. So instead of getting on the road immediately, we headed across the street to the restaurant/gift shop across from the terminal and had a hearty breakfast. This included a carimoya milkshake (釋茄牛奶). The wonders of papaya milkshakes have long faded for me, but this was a delicious new surprise even if a bit expensive at NT$70.

Well fed, we hit the road at about 9:30am--just as it was starting to get intensely hot. We wanted to avoid Highway 9 (台9線) and keep to the smaller county roads in the Rift Valley, so we made for Route. 197 which runs more or less parallel to Route 9 up the Rift Valley through the foothills of the coastal mountain range on the east side of the valley.

To get to 197 from the airport, turn left on Minhang Rd. 民航路 when you reach the T instersection on the road leading out of the airport. Stay on Minhang to the left and pass the Naruwan Hotel. You will cross a bridge and then reach the junction with Highway 9. Cross Highway 9 and you will now be on Highway 11B (台11乙). It's 4.1 km from here to the junction with 197 on your left.

We started climbing on 197 in the brutal morning heat. It's another 3 or 4km to Fuyuan at an elevation of about 300 meters. Make sure you bring water because the few shops and restaurants up here are not reliably open and there is little shade.

We rode the next hilly 10 km to the Luanshan Bridge (巒山大橋), stopping off at a small local temple near Liji 利吉 for a muggy, buggy afternoon nap. Somehow we missed the Liji hot springs although it may have been too hot even for me to try them out.

After crossing the bridge to Luye (鹿野), we had a fairly dismal lunch in a cantina by the 711. The people were friendly even if their food was bad. By the time we finished, ominous looking storm clouds had gathered and we heard from a traveling salesman type that it was already raining in Guanshan, our intended destination.

Rather than pushing on, we decided to head up the hill to Longtian and knock off early. Longtian, it turns out, was a sort of Japanese settler community and has the oldest nursery school in Taitung along with lots of beautiful old trees and a generous sprinkling of buildings from the colonial era. And of course there are hotsprings, although the main hot spring hotel in town was being renovated. On their recommendation, we headed to the end of town and aftera short downhill, turned left onto Taidong Co. Rd. 33 where we found the colossal Zixi Hotel ( 紫熹山莊) built entirely out of wood. A huge clean double was NT$2,200 and we settled into enjoy clean beds and hot showers. The food was inexpensive but tasteless jiancan (microwaved stuff out of packages).

Day 2: Longtian to Lidao

Greatly refreshed, we were on the road by 5:30am the next morning. We headed back across the bridge and continued north on 197. The road climbed up sharply to about 400m over four or five km. For next 14km the road is unpaved gravel. Unfortunately, a new layer of gravel had just been put down and was therefore quite deep and loose in some spots. There were a few spills as a result, but I would guess that in a month or so, enough traffic will have gone over the road to pack things down better and make it a good but unchallenging off road ride. This side of the valley is noticeably more tropical than the west side--reminded me a lot of Palawan in parts. There is absolutely nothing out here--you will need water and food.

At Bauhuashan Monastary (寶華山慈惠堂) there is a rest spot and a road that goes down to the Baohua Bridge. We stayed on 197 (paved at this point) and enjoyed a lovely downhill stretch into the rice fields on the valley floor. After another 3 or 4km of flat, we crossed the Diangguang Bridge (電光大橋) into Guanshan.

Guanshan seemed like a big place after the solitude on the other side of the river. We had a couple of filling biandangs from the Yuanchang Biandang Shop just outside the train station. The biandangs use the fabulous local rice to create a perfect meal for starving cyclists. Bellies full it was time for a nap. The airy Sun Moon Belvedere (關山日月亭) is at the end of Minquan Rd. (民權路) on the west side of town, and we unrolled our air mat to sleep for an hour or so in afternoon heat.

When we woke up, the sky was overcast, meaning that we could ride earlier than usual (on summer days I try not to ride between 10am and 3:30pm to avoid sunstroke). We headed back into town on Minquan and had some excellent lattes at a very old-fashioned coffee shop (Royal Bakery and Cafe?) on the main drag. Deng Lijun played on the ancient boom box and there was an excellent selection of pictorial magazines from the late 1980s to complement.

We left Guanshan by riding parallel to the Route 9 on Sanmin Rd (三民路) out to 大同 where we took a left. Datong curves around and turns into Taidong County Road 5 but there is a confusing junction near Hongshi (紅石). Ask at the betel nut stand if you are not sure which way is the right way to Haiduan (海端). Haiduan is just a few km down the road and you will come out on the Southern Cross Highway (Route 20) at around km 208.

From Haiduan, it is about 35 km to Lidao at an elevation of about 1000m. The grade is pleasantly gradual all the way to Wulu, about 10km from Lidao. There is a good, inexpensive restaurant across the street from the Tianlong Hotel. Am early dinner for two was NT$300 and was far more than we could eat. If you have time, check out the suspension bridge on the other side of the parking lot hotel--one of Taiwan's highest.

After Wulu there is a long climb through a beautiful rugged canyon that will remind you of Taroko. In the past, I've always done this section in the late morning heat. It was much, much easier and more pleasant in the cool early evening as the mountainsides came alive with the roar of cicadas, chirping birds, and howling monkeys.

We arrived in Lidao (elevation 1000m) just as it got dark and stayed at the Xianfeng Hostel (賢鳳民宿) for NT$1000. Basic but very clean. Xianfeng is run by a very pleasant young teetotaling Bunong couple who are tea farmers by day. I bought a half catty (斤) of tea for NT$750--it's excellent. There are a few shops where you can stock up on snacks for the next day and Big Sister Chen's (陳大姐) as you come into town is a good place for a hearty lunch or dinner.

Day 3: Lidao to Baolai

We were on the road before 6am the next morning and we needed all that rest for the glorious but exhausting ride that faced us. From Lidao to Yakou (亞口) it's 28km and 1,700 meters to climb. The road is achingly beautiful and cool because of the altitude. You need to be well prepared on this section with sufficient food and water and ready to get wet and cold. The fog usually sets in by around 9am obscuring the magnificent views but we had relatively good luck in that the fig kept rolling in and then rolling out producing spectacular Chinese landscape types of views. We finally reached the Yakou Hotel (at around km. 150) at noon and stopped for instant noodles and a nap. The last 10km is especially difficult because of the altitude. Take it slow and steady.

At around 1:30pm we were on the road again. Somewhat disappointingly, there were two coffee trucks at the pass (elevation 2700m) but no one selling coffee. Visibility inside the tunnel was very poor even with our lights because of the thick fog streaming in from the Kaohsiung side. Coming out of the tunnel you could barely see the side of the road for the first five or six km. That was disappointing because this is one of the most spectacular sections of road in Taiwan, but you should expect this after 9am. Still, the fog lifted a few km down the road near the Cypress Valley (檜股) and there were great views of the Laonong River making its way out of the mighty canyons at the foot of the Yushan range.

Contrary to Dennis's description, the downhill from Yakou lasts for a good 50km all the way down to Taoyuan. There is a gentle climb for about 250 meters a few kilometers outside of Meishan and another climb of about 500 meters in length (not elevation) into Taoyuan itself. The rest is all glorious downhills.

We really should have stayed in Meishan, but we had hot springs on our mind, and foolishly decided to push onto Baolai some 30km away. Meishan to Baolai (c. 20km) is 90% downhill, but the last 10km from Taoyuan to Baolai was up and down through the hills in the dark. Fortunately, there was almost no traffic and lots of fireflies. I actually kind of enjoyed it, but by this point we had been riding for nearly 14 hours (including rests) for well over 100km. This meant that I was afr too tired to shop around for place to stay in Baolai, which is a rip-off tourist trap like Jiaosi or Jhiben. We ended up staying at the New Baolai Holiday Village (
新寶來溫泉渡假村). NT$3,000 for a very mediocre double room and a scanty Chinese breakfast the next morning. All of this was forgotten though as we rooted the Yankees and Wang Chien-ming onto a glorious victory over the Mets.

We did make a new discovery on the main drag--No. 36 Aiyu and Coffee Specialty Shop (36號咖啡愛玉專賣店). Now I'm not generally a fan of Taiwanese desserts and ices (although iced Tofu and the Ice Monster's mango ices are important exceptions), but the jelly fig in ice with sour plums (酸梅愛玉冰) was one of the best summer ices I've ever had. I especially liked the tangy sour plums, which were probably the best I've ever had. Refreshing and not overly sweet. The coffee is good too.

From Baolai we rode down to Liugui (六龜) on Kaohsiung County Rd. 131 (note this is mislabeled as 113 on the Sun River maps) stopping at the waterfalls on the way. We would have taken 133 on the other side, but it is closed to repair a landslide, so we were forced onto Highway 24 (台24線). It's about 12km through rolling hills down from Baolai's elevation of 500m. to Liugui's 200m or so.

We took the bus from Liugui to the Kaohsiung high speed rail station in Zuoying the next morning. Note that the first bus (c.5:45am) does not go to the high speed rail station. The second bus at 6:45am does, and you can get there in time to catch the 8:30am train to Taipei. You will need to take the bikes apart and bag them to take them on THSR. We did this in Liugui the night before and put the bagged bikes in the bus's luggae compartment. I'm not sure you could get a full size bike in there without disassembling it.

A note on getting back. I strongly recommend putting your bike on the bus at Liugui or Meishan. The ride back to Tainan via Jiasian (甲仙) or Liugui/Meinung is hot, unpleasant, and hilly. The bus from Meishan goes through Zuoying, but I'm not sure it actually stops at the HSR station.


Monday, June 11, 2007

A fantastic review of three recent books on China by Rick Perlstein over at The Nation. I haven't read The Nation in years--but this was a return to the kind of writing that thrilled me in the 80s in the public library of small Republican towns in California.

It's also encouraging to see China be taken up by a well-informed member of the left who is not a China watcher. I was disappointed by the absence of any comment on Taiwan as a democracy, but I believe that Perlstein represents a generation that has wholly rejected the old liberal fantasies about China (and nightmares about Taiwan) that have their roots in the McCarthy era. It's not just the right that is ignorant of the outside world.

Some money quotes:

This man, retired after many decades building a successful business in the Midwest, is a car nut who long ago became dismayed by, then resigned to, the slow decline of American industrial dominance. He didn't see any American cars on China's newly teeming roads; China, he pointed out, is "going to start exporting cars to the US in the next few years." He couldn't imagine America building a Three Gorges Dam. That was for the Chinas of the world--civilizations of destiny.

This capitalist sounded like the kind of pilgrim who used to visit Soviet steel mills, or cut sugar cane beside Cuban peasants, and returned singing panegyrics to a new, better world being born.

Note the lessons learned by the left about being taken in by regimes whose ideology you think you share. Good. Finally.

Those who return no better informed about this record than when they arrived include, it would appear, tourists who should know better. Nicholas Kristof dishonored the fifteenth anniversary of the massacre in 2004, Mann points out, with a column titled "The Tiananmen Victory." The democracy activists had won: "After the Chinese could watch Eddie Murphy, wear tight pink dresses and struggle over what to order at Starbucks, the revolution was finished. No middle class is content with more choices of coffees than of candidates on a ballot."

Here's one of the few places where I disagree. OK, so Kristof dishonored Tiananmen. But Kristof is probably right. Most of the leading dissidents from the Tiananmen era have made their peace with new China. The ones who haven't are the ones who can't go back. Democracy was just one of things Tiananmen was about. Most of what they wanted has come true beyond their wildest dreams.

This one's isolated from Jim Mann. Read it twice. It's important.

There haven't been any multiparty ballots for China's middle class to mark yet. And there won't be, Mann argues in an elegant formulation: The urban middle class is "a tiny proportion of the country's overall population," and in any election candidates representing their interests would be swamped by those of the peasantry; thus it is just as easy, or easier, to imagine them as "a driving force in opposition to democracy."

In Taiwan, the emergent middle classes firmly believed (or imagined) that their interests would dominate. That of course hasn't been the case, but the Taiwanese middle class wasn't afraid of anyone except the State. It's a big difference.

China has become rather like Israel: No matter the party, no matter the leader, certain de rigueur formulas must be uttered. Mann strips the hustle bare: "Every single American president since Nixon has, in one way or another, either ignored or quietly given up on the issue of Chinese democracy."

The review is a devastating critique of American foreign policy toward China from the left. It's a great start. If only they would take another look at Taiwan.