Day seven of my bicycle trip around Taiwan began with deep disappointment and ended in delight. I woke up in my hotel room on the main road leading into Budai 布袋 without a working smartphone. I tried to boot up but it was caught in a loop, resetting itself over and over again. Without a clock in the room I had no idea what time it was but figured there was no rush. There were at least three ferries plying the route to Penghu 澎湖. Surely one of those ferries would sail in the afternoon.
Down in the lobby I loaded my panniers and eased out into daylight. I made my way south, stopping at a mobile phone shop to see if anyone knew what buttons to hold in what sequence to trigger a hard reset, a procedure that I had performed before but now eluded me. No one knew. On I went, over the small bridge I had crossed the night before, blindly in search of the ferry dock, which I did not end up finding.
With no better idea of what to do I stopped at the visitor’s center for directions. Nobody spoke English but the staff were very kind and helpful. I used a computer to look up the code for a hard reset and began the process of wiping my phone. I also learned from reading a schedule that the last ferry had already sailed—and it was only ten in the morning.
Crestfallen, I hit the streets to mull over my next move. The thought of cycling around Penghu had kept me motivated throughout the long, mostly boring ride to Budai. Now I had to make a decision: stick around for an extra day or head south in the direction of Tainan 台南. It was a tough call. I was certainly looking forward to visiting Penghu but didn’t particularly relish the prospect of staying in Budai for another day.
Eventually I let go of my attachment to Penghu and decided to forge on rather than lay idle. I rationalized my decision by reminding myself that I can always visit Penghu by plane some other time—and renting a bicycle once I am there shouldn’t be difficult.
I stopped at a breakfast shop for a double order of bacon dànbǐng 培根蛋餅. Over breakfast I installed the most essential apps for my journey and consulted a paper map I had picked up at the visitor center. When my meal was done I changed into my bike shorts, feeling much less self-conscious about my appearance than I had when I started the trip. (Bike shorts are rather revealing.) And, in any case, I had reached a part of Taiwan where my appearance drew curious looks regardless of what I was wearing.
As I went to leave I noticed dozens of people pouring out of the temple immediately across the street from the breakfast shop. The dead heat of noon was shattered by firecrackers and revelers surged forward to burn stacks of paper money. A woman held a small statue aloft and a man got down on one knee, shouting and making broad, sweeping gestures. It was, altogether, quite a surprising sight, one that I couldn’t make any sense of at the time. Later I was informed I had likely witnessed a birthday celebration for one of the gods. The statue I saw was an idol, an embodied aspect of the deity itself, presiding over the event1.
I left Budai along backcountry roads feeling utterly out of my element—and enjoying the sensation. Months of living in Taipei 台北 had me feeling fairly comfortable about being immersed in a completely alien society. Taipei is a big international city—and I have been living in Da'an District 大安區, the expat district, where east meets west more than anywhere else in the country. There, more than just about any other place in Taiwan, the cultural differences are somewhat muted.
The same cannot be said for southern Taiwan. Out here I am the alien. I can barely communicate with most people I interact with and I seldom understand much of what I see. If it weren’t for my “trusty tricorder” (a catch phrase inspired by the genuinely amazing capabilities of modern smartphones) I might find it slightly difficult to get around. I wasn’t worried, however, even when I woke up with a dysfunctional phone. I feel very resourceful—and Taiwan, even in the south, is a safe and easy place to travel.
I made steady progress heading south out of Budai under the blistering, heartless sun, my ever-present nemesis. I was riding through the flat, blighted, almost featureless landscape that I had only dimly perceived the night before. There was not much more to see by day, just an endless series of salt fields and fish farms2. Now and then I came upon extraordinary piles of oyster shells. Soon almost every settlement I passed was bordered by the molluscan mountains.
The blazing sun slowed my progress through the flatlands leading out of Chiayi 嘉義. It was just after noon and I was really feeling the heat. On this trip I haven’t left much earlier than 2 pm or so, partly to avoid the risk of heatstroke. Even riding in the late afternoon had pushed my limits on more than one occasion, and here I was, only a week into my journey. I had stocked up on water prior to leaving Budai but I was going through my supply rather fast as I struggled to remain hydrated. It must have been just shy of 40 degrees Celsius out there on the open road.
I kept moving, watching for signs of civilization on the horizon, and saw nothing for miles: no utility poles, manmade structures, trees, or much of anything at all. There were places where I cast the only shadow across the blighted, motionless landscape. Such pristine desolation. I pressed on.
Eventually I crossed into Tainan 台南 proper and stopped at Beimen 北門, a small town on the far side of the river, for a short break. Not long thereafter I took a short detour south of town to the Jingzaijiao Tile-Paved Salt Field 井仔腳瓦盤鹽田, a tourist attraction that had caught my eye over breakfast. My smartphone was still acting strangely so I wasn’t relying on it for navigation but had no trouble finding the place. Taiwan’s road signage is excellent, as previously mentioned, and the way was clearly marked with brown-coloured signs. After cruising under the elevated west coast highway I found a small set of traditional buildings, several plaques with historic information in Chinese and English, and a disconcertingly vast parking lot filled with mammoth tour buses.
Jingzaijiao is nearly two centuries old but I didn’t stay nearly long enough to appreciate its history. The swarming tourist groups immediately got on my nerves and, at a glance, it didn’t seem like there was much to see anyhow. I hopped off my bike and quickly shot some photos of the salt fields and surrounding buildings before heading back the way I came.
Amusingly, while stopping to shoot a photo, a group of teenaged girls shouted at me, “Hello!” They giggled and ran off before I could respond. This would become a theme for the remainder of my time in southern Taiwan. White-skinned foreigners are a novelty in these parts.
I kept to the coast, curious about several features I had seen on satellite maps. My first stop was the Qingkunshen Fan-Shaped Salt Field 青鯤鯓扇形鹽田, built in 1975 and decommissioned in 2002. It wasn’t much to look at, and I had no appreciation of its history at that time3. Supposedly it needs to be seen from a plane, though I don’t know why anyone would go to the trouble.
Qingkungshen 青鯤鯓, the neighbouring fishing village that gives its name to the salt field, was much more interesting. Despite having plenty of room to sprawl the entire village is a densely packed jumble of buildings and narrow streets. I saw many people shucking oysters in the shade. They greeted me with toothy smiles and warm words I didn’t know but nevertheless understood. And at the very back of the settlement, just beyond the big temple and the central plaza, I saw a most peculiar sight: an artificial mountain! It acts as a backdrop to an impressive statue of the goddess Mazu but the mountain itself is what set my mind ablaze. It was the most surprising thing to find in an obscure fishing village out here on the flatlands of rural Tainan 台南.
I have previously noted that Taiwan is crazy about bicycles. Almost too crazy. Bicycle lanes are not restricted to the city; you can find them even in the most remote locations, far from any settlement. Many bike lanes in rural Taiwan are simply demarcated by a strip of paint on the road, others are dedicated lanes segregated from motor vehicle traffic. I encountered several divided lanes deep in salt pan country despite there being almost no traffic whatsoever. I didn’t see a single cyclist all day, in fact. What use is a dedicated bike lane in the middle of nowhere?
Many of these lanes aren’t maintained either. I cycled along one divided lane for the novelty of the experience but soon had to cut across the grass as the lane had become overgrown with spiny plants. Later, where there was no overgrowth, I passed several fishermen who had backed their trucks across the lane to fish the channel beyond. Obviously these lanes are hardly used, if at all. Taxpayer money well spent, right?
Speaking of which, I received an email from family back home asking whether the roads in Taiwan are paved. Yes, the roads of Taiwan are paved. If anything, Taiwan suffers from having far too many roads. There are massive highways even in areas where there aren’t any people to use them! Frankly, the quality of roads in Taiwan is much better than back home, even in remote areas. I would imagine the reasons for this are multiplex: Taiwan went through boom times in the 1990s, labour is relatively cheap, and corruption often takes the form of kickbacks for construction projects. Not having winter doesn’t hurt either—freeze-thaw cycles dramatically increase the cost of road maintenance.
The rest of the ride to downtown Tainan 台南 was largely uneventful. I bypassed the Taiwan Salt Museum, having had my fill of tourist attractions, and passed through Annan 安南 without stopping. I was vaguely interested in some attractions listed on the paper map I had picked up but it was getting late and I was exhausted. I hadn’t been riding for long but the sun had sapped me of my strength and I was feeling dehydrated no matter how much water I slugged back.
I made it to Sicao Bridge 四草大桥 as the sun crossed the horizon. It is a popular place to watch the sunset: dozens of cars had stopped and a small horde of photographers had erected tripods to capture the last wishes of the dying sun. I stopped to do my part to contribute to the global production of needless imagery and carried on.
Night fell quickly as I cut through Anping 安平, the heart of old Taiwan. I didn’t stop to look around and form any impressions—I headed directly to City Hut 1828, the hostel I had booked on a whim from a rest stop en route.
I really lucked out in the hostel lottery: 450 NT for a bed in a three bed “dorm” with no other guests. Not only that but the hostel itself was really nice—perhaps the nicest hostel I have ever been to. Most hostels appeal to the young backpacker crowd with a funky, eclectic aesthetic, but this place seemed to have been designed for urban professionals. Everything was neat and clean and well-designed. The hostel occupies a renovated heritage building. Whoever was in charge had done a fantastic job. I liked it so much that I decided to stay an extra night to rest, explore Tainan 台南, and to catch up on work, blogging, photography, and letters.
Besides, I was beat. After showering I discovered that I had received a wicked sunburn despite taking appropriate precautions. My face was fine but the rest of me was fried to a crisp, particularly my legs. I had also inadvertently given myself a “Koh Phangan tattoo” by walking backwards into the scalding hot tailpipe of a parked motorbike at some point. Finally, I was riddled with insect bites that hadn’t quite healed from previous days, several of them scorched by the tailpipe burn. An extra day in Tainan seemed like a splendid idea—and I had intended to stay in Penghu 澎湖 for a few days anyhow.
You know, I didn’t feel so bad about missing Penghu by the end of the day. I was excited to explore Tainan and happy that bad timing hadn’t spoiled my mood. At this point in my trip I was starting to really get into the rhythm of the journey. My apprehensions and fears were slowly being left behind and I felt a growing sense of satisfaction and accomplishment with every passing day.
With a smile on my face I stepped out into the hot September night for an inexpensive Japanese dinner. Afterwards I explored the contours of old Tainan 台南 on bicycle. I had no specific route in mind; I simply rode from place to place, cutting into crooked, branching alleyways and slipping back onto main thoroughfares with carefree abandon.
Tainan 台南 has a distinctly bohemian vibe. Quaint eateries and sidewalk cafes are often found lining the cobblestone alleyways next to old temples and historic landmarks. The big roads still shine with neon intensity but there are surprising depths to be found by sleuthing through the back corridors of this, the oldest Taiwanese city. It reminds me of Malacca, another historic port town with Dutch influences, mainly because of the shared colonial history.
Late at night, as I was riding back to the hostel, I passed a group of teenaged schoolchildren who, after noticing me, proclaimed between fits of laughter, “Welcome to Taiwan!” I shouted back, “Thanks!” But then I returned to more ambivalent thoughts, realizing that no matter how much time I spend in this lovely nation I will always be treated like a newcomer. I thought back to a story I read in the paper about a foreign-born university professor who received an award after decades of living in Taiwan. He was still described as a “foreigner” despite having lived in Taiwan for more than half of his life. Once a foreigner, always a foreigner. That being said, I genuinely appreciated the warmth and hospitality I began to encounter in the south, even if it is somewhat provincial and occasionally misguided.
I had a great sleep that night and woke up feeling refreshed. I showered, got dressed, and took my laptop to a cafe down the laneway to get some work done. I bounced from cafe to cafe, sampling different menus. Curiously, I was always directed to a seat in the window of whatever cafe I patronized. I thought nothing of it until I realized that my presence occasionally provoked a reaction on the other side of the windowpane, particularly when I was at a somewhat fancy cafe named Pictureseque. Believe it or not, passing children often reacted with excitement when they noticed me sitting there, pulling on the shirtsleeves of their elders and pointing at me as if I were some kind of sideshow oddity. I played peek-a-boo with a few passing children, making silly faces and causing gasps of surprise and delight. On several occasions this break in the flow of pedestrian traffic caused curious adults to consult the menu outside the entrance and a few families stepped in for a refreshment. Was I good for business? Is that why I was seated in the window? I marveled at the novelty of the thought before casting it aside. That’s preposterous, I thought.
In the afternoon a heavy rainstorm kept me to the sheltered awnings of major streets. I was glad I wasn’t riding much; the rain was coming down quite hard. The storm passed by nightfall and I hit the streets again, eager to see more of Tainan.
At one point I heard from Mabel, a Taiwanese friend of mine from Kaohsiung 高雄 whom I had met at a party in Taipei 台北 several weeks before. She knew I was in Tainan and decided to take the train up with her best friend, a young gay man, to meet me at Huayuan 花園 night market in the northern part of town.
I headed north with plenty of time to spare. Along the way I passed a Giant bicycle shop and stopped to have my front brakes checked. The cable had stretched or something else had gone wrong and the housing no longer sat snugly in the appropriate receptacle. I communicated this to the mechanic at the shop in gestures and basic English and he set to work replacing the cable.
As I waited for the job to be finished the sky opened up and rain came down in torrential sheets. I waited under a concrete awning for the deluge to stop but eventually realized it wasn’t going to let up. Eventually I wheeled out into the pouring rain, figuring that the night market—which wasn’t far from the bicycle shop—was sure to be covered.
I was wrong. Huayuan is basically just a big parking lot filled with stalls—and most of it was flooded when I arrived. I met up with my new friends and we made the most of it, getting totally soaked in the process. If you’ve been to a night market you know the drill. I am always reminded of a phrase I learned in Malaysia: “jalan jalan cari makan” (walk, walk, look, and eat). That’s essentially what we did, chatting the whole way.
Huayuan night market wasn’t anything special, nor was it bad4. More than anything, it reminded me of night markets I had visited in Thailand, specifically one in Lat Krabang, not far from Suvarnabhumi Airport. The food wasn’t great but my appetite was huge so absolutely everything appealed to me. Eat all the things! My Taiwanese friends also introduced me to a few items that I never would have thought to sample, namely deep-fried scallops, which I hadn’t noticed before.
At one point we were perched on plastic chairs at an orange fold-up table when Mabel asked me if I knew how to use chopsticks. I looked at her and said, “Better than you!” Without realizing it she had been holding her chopsticks backwards, with the fat end resting on her plate. We had a good laugh about that.
Eventually we parted ways, though not before my friend offered me a place to stay in Kaohsiung 高雄 the next day. I said sure, why not? And with that I cycled back out into the rainy night, riding back to my hostel to dry myself out.
As I went to sleep in the empty dorm I reflected on my impressions of Tainan 台南. It is the first city outside of Taipei 台北 that really called to me. Despite only having one full day to explore I knew, without questioning, that I would return, and perhaps even stay awhile. And with that I drifted off into peaceful dreams, ready for the short ride down to Kaohsiung 高雄 the next day.
- Read the Wikipedia entry for Chinese folk religion if your curiosity is piqued. ↩
- I suspect most of this land out here on the western edge of the Chianan Plain is reclaimed from the South China Sea. ↩
- I returned to Qingkunshen and wrote a full post about the place. ↩
- I returned later on and decided that it’s actually one of the best night markets in Taiwan. The rain had really put a damper on things. ↩