My ride from Donggang 東港 to Kenting 墾丁 was a blast! I started my day in Kaohsiung City 高雄市 but my bicycle was already in Donggang 東港. I left it there the night before when it started raining on my way back from the lovely little island of Liuqiu 琉球. That meant I had to take public transit for about two hours before hitting the road for real.
After a small but expensive Western-style breakfast near Kaohsiung Arena 高雄巨蛋1 I went underground to Xiaogang MRT to catch the bus, route 9117, back to Donggang, with all my stuff. Since it was a holiday I had booked a hotel in Kenting 墾丁, about 80 kilometers down the road. I also arranged to meet a friend of mine down there later in the evening. So much for going with the flow: on this particular day I had a specific destination and a schedule to stick to!
While packing up that morning I could not find my bicycle shorts. Thinking back, I realized I must have forgotten them in the washroom of the Donggang ferry terminal when I changed back into civilian clothes the previous day. I felt like a bit of an idiot but wasn’t overly worried. Taiwan 台灣 is a very forgiving place and I tend not get too stressed out about things I cannot control. I figured it would work out one way or another.
After the long bus ride south I disembarked into the swampy late summer heat and sprung into action. My first task was to retrieve my ride. I had locked it to a fence not far from the bus stop and was relieved to see it again—with a bag of garbage hanging from the handlebars, oddly enough. Trash cans are a rarity in Taiwan but people are generally good about taking their garbage with them. Was it an omen?
When I went to unshackle my bike the lock came apart in my hands. Either I hadn’t locked it right—which would be unusual, for me—or it was a particularly crappy lock2. And then it dawned on me: I had left a 15,000 NT rental bicycle leaning on a fence along a main road in a small town in southern Taiwan overnight—and even though people had obviously walked by and evidently touched my bicycle it was still there, exactly where I left it. What dumb luck!
Feeling rather foolish I rode over to the ferry terminal, dropped the kickstand, and went inside. I had rehearsed what I might say to the staff to make myself understood but it wasn’t necessary—my bike shorts were hanging exactly where I left them in one of the washroom stalls. I got changed, embarrassed about how badly I had botched just about everything the previous day, but also fortunate that everything had gone so smoothly. I suppose that on some level I had been probing just how spontaneous I could be on this trip. Even without any adverse consequences I resolved to do a better job of planning in the days ahead.
Riding south through rural Pingtung 屏東 I kept to highway 1 until it turned into highway 26 way down in Fenggang. I did not have as much time to spare for side trips as I would have liked on this leg of my voyage, a consequence of leaving late in the afternoon and having a friend to meet in Kenting 墾丁, but still managed to have a number of interesting adventures worth sharing.
As the day wore on I made steady progress through the industrial and agricultural sprawl of the lower Pingtung Plain 屏東平原, watching the distant mountains on the far horizon grow with every passing minute. A little south of Jialu the plain narrowed to a thin sliver where it met the foothills of the Central Mountain Range and the Hengchun Peninsula, where I would be riding for the next two days while doing my best to outrun a typhoon.
Yes, a typhoon! The prospect of battling extreme weather on the roads of Taiwan 台灣 filled me with a mix of excitement and dread. I must admit that I am something of a weather geek. Always have been, but my level of interest certainly grew while studying climatology (among other things) under an IPCC contributor in university. Since moving to Taiwan I have avidly followed the Central Weather Bureau, Wunderground’s severe weather forecast and somewhat more technical blogs like this one for fun. By this time I had already survived typhoons Soulik3 and Trami so I figured I had some idea what to expect. (Spoiler: I was dead wrong.)
I first caught wind of the storm that would become Super Typhoon Usagi the night before. By midday, just before setting out for Kenting, Usagi had been upgraded to a category 1 typhoon and was likely to land a direct hit on the southern tip of Taiwan—exactly where I was riding—in two or three days time. I kept a close eye on the public advisories from that point forward, pulling up the latest info anytime I made a pit stop on the way down south.
Beyond the grotesque factories and gaudy betel nut booths of the western plains I entered into a new country: the Taiwan of glossy tourist brochures. The smog-choked sprawl gave way to long stretches of coastal highway with beautiful vistas unfolding in every direction, all lit by the golden light of late afternoon. The air was clear and pristine for a change and everything was infused with a warm glow.
The low hills to my left gradually began to grow steeper and more imposing as I put miles behind me. To my right a small strip of grass and a guard rail was often the only thing separating me from a rocky beach and the glimmering waters of the South China Sea. At times it seemed like there was a pure distillation of elemental forces taking shape all around me: sky and ocean, mountain and shore. I was hypnotized by the motion of the landscape, frozen in time as the world wheeled beneath me. In these long, drawn-out moment of meditative clarity it was difficult to imagine what magnificent violence was gathering not far offshore.
When I reached Fangshan 枋山 I made a brief detour, cutting through town by way of a modest páifāng 牌坊 (a traditional Chinese-style archway) to see what there was to see. It looked much like any other town at a glance so I did not tarry. Fangshan is somewhat notable for being the southernmost railway station in all Taiwan. From here the South-Link Line curves inward, toward the mountainous interior, eventually reaching the eastern coast at Dawu 大武, where I would be battling gale-force winds two days hence.
Not long after Fangshan 枋山 I encountered one of the nicest 7-Elevens I have seen anywhere in Taiwan, a country that is absolutely in love with convenience stores. And no wonder—convenience stores in Taiwan are the very definition of the word. Pretty much every major chain store is open 24 hours a day and reliably offers the same goods and services as any other location. 7-Eleven in particular has a machine that lets you call a taxi, buy concert or train tickets, print and fax, and probably a million other things4. At the counter you can ship (and receive!) packages and pay bills, something you’ll often see people doing if you stick around long enough.
Of course, convenience stores in Taiwan also have food and drink, from the usual unhealthy snacks and instant noodles to fresh salads, biàndang 便當 (Taiwanese lunch boxes), and hot food like Japanese-style oden (guāndōngzhǔ 關東煮 in Chinese) and the ubiquitous tea egg. Not long after I moved to Taiwan many convenience store chains began offering soft-serve ice cream, a delightful treat. Depending on the size and layout of the shop you might find an actual dining area with tables and chairs, stools lined up along a bar at the window, or a small patio under an awning outside. Washrooms are common, wireless is universal, there’s an ATM in every shop, and you can buy alcohol at any time of day or night. Probably the only thing missing is power outlets or a charge station for electronics.
After grabbing a small snack and a drink I wandered out into the parking lot. It was still incredibly muggy but a light breeze coming off the ocean offered some respite. Captivated by the view, I stopped to shoot a few photos of the setting sun before hitting the road again.
With dusk approaching I saw a cyclist up ahead—a first for this trip. I had seen cyclists, of course, but they had always been going the other way, waving and smiling as cyclists in Taiwan always do. It always seemed like there was a real sense of camaraderie out on the road wherever I went but I hadn’t really tested it at all. I wondered what might happen were there an opportunity to strike up an actual conversation. Maybe nothing, for I hadn’t yet developed a good grasp of conversational Chinese. I couldn’t do much more than order familiar foods at a restaurant but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying to communicate—if I could catch up, that is!
I had done no training for my bicycle trip around the island. Actually, I hadn’t been exercising at all, having injured myself while attempting to surf out in Waiao at the beginning of August. Prior to that I had been working out fairly regularly at a serious gym in Da'an District 大安區 and riding along the riverside in Taipei 台北 for exercise. I had to abandoned this routine when I sustained my injury and quickly put on some weight, a consequence of eating something close to the typical carb-heavy Taiwanese diet. I was feeling a bit out of shape when I left Taipei to embark upon this trip—but by now I had been on the road for about ten days and was feeling up to a challenge.
In any case, having a goal put some fire into my pedal strokes. I meant to meet this mysterious stranger, whoever they were, and the very fact that they were already in view suggested that I could make it happen. I pushed myself, casting doubt aside, and kept to a steady pace. Over the course of the next ten minutes or so I slowly crept up on the rider ahead of me in the gathering gloom. I began to notice details about their appearance: definitely male, likely Asian, with a bulky backpack full of gear and no panniers. I couldn’t tell much more—at no point did he look back at me.
When I was close enough for conversation I rang my bell, so as to not cause alarm, and shouted a greeting in Chinese. A young man, his jet black hair cut short, turned around with an expression of surprise written on his face. Slowing to meet me, we began to chat, haltingly, between deep breaths. He introduced himself as Gerald and demonstrated a decent grasp of conversational English, projecting strength and determination as he spoke. He revealed himself to be Chinese, not Taiwanese, and informed me he was out for his second huándǎo 環島 (round-the-island tour). His bicycle, which he had brought with him across the strait, was also a Giant, albeit a much nicer model than the one I was riding.
Having dispensed with the pleasantries, Gerald, with a glint in his eye, challenged me to keep up with him as we rode to the next town. I had already given just about everything I had just to catch up to him the first time so it was tough as nails to keep to that same pace. Half an hour into the hardest riding I had done on this trip I began to run out of steam. Gerald was competitive but also encouraging. Seeing that I was tired he circled around me, spry as a fox on two wheels, and, riding next to me with a devilish grin on his dark face, placed a hand on my back to give me a forceful push. That push threw me off balance and I had to pump my legs hard to straighten out, recover, and continue onward. It was unnerving. I wasn’t used to anyone crossing into my personal space like that but knew Gerald meant it to be a friendly gesture.
Eventually we made it to a 7-Eleven on the outskirts of Checheng 車城5 after racing down most of the peninsula. I was totally exhausted and immediately downed an orange juice and some electrolyte water before regaining my composure. My muscles ached like crazy—especially my wrists, which for whatever reason had sustained a lot of punishment over the course of the last week—and I felt a touch of heatstroke creeping in.
Back outside Gerald and I continued our conversation from before. I attempted to draw him out about cross-strait relations and was surprised to learn that as a Chinese national he was only allowed to be in Taiwan for two weeks at a time. This might explain the rush—while the round-the-island tour can be done in about ten days it doesn’t leave very much time to explore!
At one point Gerald mentioned that he was touring with a Taiwanese friend of his by the name of Chris6. I hadn’t seen any evidence of anyone else on the road with us. Turns out that Gerald had gotten ahead of his friend—and I must have inserted myself between the two of them when I set out from the fancy 7-Eleven. Gerald had messaged his friend on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app7, informing him of our whereabouts, and told me we should be expecting him soon. Before long Chris cycled out of the inky darkness that had tumbled down from the sky. He stepped off his bike with wobbly legs and greeted us both.
I regret that I did not have much of a chance to get to know Chris at all. I could not tell whether his English was limited or if he was tired or just shy, as many Taiwanese people tend to be. Probably a combination of all three. At any rate, Gerald carried the conversation, gesturing wildly and speaking with enthusiasm about whatever it was we were discussing while Chris looked on with a blank look on his face. I was curious about their friendship—how they had met, how they interacted—but there simply wasn’t an opportunity to divine any grand insights8. Gerald certainly seemed to play the part of a brash mainlander whereas Chris had a tendency to fade into the background. This isn’t necessarily much of a fair assessment, however, as our time together was far too short.
Eventually it was time to part ways. Gerald invited me to join them the rest of the way down south but I knew for my sake that I was better off going at my own pace. There was no sense in burning myself out when I had so many challenges to face in the coming days and, anyhow, I figured our paths would cross again—we were all going in the same direction, after all. We spoke briefly about the possibility of a typhoon striking Kenting but they didn’t seem overly concerned. I wished them the best of luck and they disappeared into the dark night. I never saw either of them again.
Stepping back into the air conditioned embrace of the convenience store I rested awhile longer before saddling up once more. With my strength restored I cycled south along highway 26 through the broad valley that opened up after Chēchéng 車城. Night had fallen and there was almost nothing to see but the moon rising over the shadowy outline of the distant mountains. The road curved around the airport and after riding about 8 kilometers I arrived at the outskirts of Hengchun 恆春, the gateway to Kenting National Park and the setting for Cape No. 7, a record-breaking Taiwanese film that has drawn countless tourists to this small historic town.
I knew absolutely nothing of Hengchun at the time—it simply wasn’t on my radar despite all the Taiwan-centric blogs I had been keeping up with9. At the crossroads at the edge of town I consulted a map and considered my options. I was in a bit of a hurry to meet my friend but saw that it wasn’t much of a detour to cut through town. I crossed the highway and headed down Shěngběi Road 省北路.
Within minutes I found myself at the foot of Hengchun’s impressive western gate, a remnant of the old city wall built in the late 1870s during Qing dynasty rule in response to a Japanese incursion10. I had seen several fortifications around Taiwan but none so extensive. Not only that, but this gate was still in use by both pedestrians and motorists!11 I hopped off my bicycle and waited for a break in traffic to take a picture. Scooters zipped to and fro and at one point a car gingerly pulled through the archway, its headlights illuminating the jagged contours of the brickwork within.
In a quiet moment, when all the traffic had passed and I was finally alone, I looked up to watch wispy clouds ripple across the moon’s halo. There was something ominous about how quickly those clouds moved. Were these the first outer bands of the incoming typhoon?
I put my concerns aside and gazed skyward, moonstruck. Tomorrow would be the peak of the Mid-Autumn Festival and the halfway point in my journey. I would be turning northward to continue along the eastern coast—to face my fears and confront the tempest. My thoughts returned to the almost full moon. I had been with her every night for nearly two weeks, watching her swell in the sky, ripening, an expectant mother from which the future would be born. Every night I looked up and saw the moon transform—she became brighter, more resplendent, edging closer to becoming. She was changing—and so was I.
As a lifelong city-dweller I have not spent many extended periods of time in the great outdoors. I have managed to escape for the occasional weekend camping getaway and take whatever opportunity comes my way to stargaze—but this was different. I was no longer merely sneaking a peek now and then, darting back inside after momentarily satisfying my curiosity. I was out on on the land night after night, far removed from the concerns of the civilized world, present in every moment. I cycled for hours on end across the moonlit landscape of the desolate western plains of Taiwan, silently observing the slow precession of the heavens, the orbital clockwork of the astral plane. By cycling along these alien shores I was beginning to perceive the passage of time in a new way. I was becoming more closely attuned to the rhythms of the universe.
Eventually I snapped out of my reverie and undertook passage through the western gate, emerging into Hengchun Old Town. My curiosity piqued, I went for a short spin around the old city blocks. It looked to be a charming, romantic place, but most storefronts were already shuttered for the night. I resolved to return some day—to see Hengchun by day and learn more about its history. And with that I exited by way of the southern gate, the moon over my shoulder, my constant companion.
South of Hengchun I encountered an unusual sight: a haunted house by the roadside. Mystified, I pulled over to take a closer look. How does a place like this stay in business? Then again, Kenting has a reputation for being the place where Taiwanese people let loose. Maybe a corny roadside attraction like this does well enough to stay afloat? In any case, I puzzled out the name of this place: Èlíngguǐbǎo 惡靈鬼堡. I couldn’t find an English name but Google informs me that “Evil Spirit Ghost Castle” might serve as a reasonable approximation. Have a look inside if you dare.
The rest of the ride to Kenting took much longer than I figured it would. Distances can be deceiving without fixed scale bars on a map. When I finally crested the last of the low hills at the southern end of Hengchun valley I halfway expected to see the neon lights of the main street through town but still had a ways to go—about 4 or 5 kilometers more. Mabel, who I had been staying with in Kaohsiung 高雄, was already there, but I figured she was probably spending time with some friends she told me she was meeting there, so I wasn’t overly concerned about being a little late.
At last I arrived in Kenting 墾丁. I was feeling completely drained but very satisfied about my ride that day. The southernmost tip of the island was within easy reach and the night was still young. Mabel was waiting for me, alone, just outside my hotel for the night, a strange building overtop a Family Mart at the western end of town. We entered the lobby, which was connected to the convenience store by a swinging glass door, and admired the huge hunks of sculpted driftwood that decorated the space. Throwing down my bicycle helmet, I checked in, trying to keep beads of sweat from dripping onto the countertop. With business out of the way we climbed up a set of stairs, me with my bicycle over my shoulder, as it was safer to keep in my room rather than down on the wild streets of Kenting. My room that night was adorned with nautical kitsch—frayed hemp ropes, old wooden steering wheels, mock anchors, and the like. Satisfied with the accommodation (a steal at 900 NT), I took a shower, changed, and went downstairs with Mabel to explore Kenting.
Kenting is Taiwan’s answer to mid-sized beachside resort towns like Playa Del Carmen or Ao Nang. There is no equivalent to Cancun or Pattaya in Taiwan—Kenting is about as big as it gets, and it’s not very big at all. The problem is probably linked to Taiwan’s remarkable lack of good beaches. For an island of its size and location it is almost uniquely cursed in this regard. Kenting has perhaps the best beaches on the island—and good weather year-round. For this reason Taiwanese flock to Kenting on holidays, especially for Spring Scream, and to get away from the miserable winter rain up north whenever they can.
Since it was a holiday the streets were filled with a mix of different people: boisterous high school and university kids, entire families on vacation, and an odd assortment of westerners, many of whom were young men decked out in Chang Beer muscle shirts and the like, probably wondering where the action was. The main thoroughfare featured a motley collection of quirky restaurants, boutique hotels, massage parlours, tiki bars, souvenir shops, and yes, even ladyboy shows, something I have seen nowhere else on the island. Kenting may be a bit racy by Taiwanese standards but Thailand it is not.
The night market in Kenting was the tackiest I had seen anywhere in Taiwan—but I say this with affection. Many vendors put on a big show, grilling meat skewers in a theatrical fashion, for instance, with big bursts of flame while terrible commercial dance music blasted out of cheap, tinny speakers. The line-ups for anything famous on social media were excessively long, the prices unusually high, and there’s tons of novelty snacks—things you would never consider eating were you not a little liquored up and letting loose. There were even a few pop-up bars setup among the night market stalls, a rare sight in Taiwan.
I have a perverse fascination with the carnival atmosphere of Taiwan’s many tourist ghettos and night markets. Kenting satisfies this fascination on many levels, filling me with a mix of amusement and repulsion. I sometimes speak of Taiwan as an incredible disaster tourism destination but it is also a great place to visit if you have a healthy appreciation for the absurd.
At any rate, if your expectations are properly calibrated Kenting might end up being a lot of fun—just don’t hope for anything world-class (and be prepared to pay for the privilege). Then again, you can just as easily stay outside of town in any number of resorts, hotels, vacation rental homes, or bed-and-breakfast joints. There’s plenty of awesome stuff to see around Kenting—it’s only the town itself that might disappoint foreign visitors12.
Mabel and I wandered through the night market, perusing the options and snacking on whatever looked delicious. As before, she was an invaluable guide to local culture and never tired of answering my many questions. I would see a stall like the one above—serving some kind of custard, or dànnǎi 蛋奶, as I now know—and ask, what’s the deal with “QQ”? I learned that QQ usually means chewy, what we in the English-speaking world might call al dente.
Texture or mouthfeel is far more important in Taiwanese cuisine (and most other culturally Chinese cuisines) than in most western cuisines. Taiwanese people will eat things that have hardly any taste at all simply because it has an interesting or appealing texture. Large intestine, for instance, is prized more for its texture than its taste, which is usually just the taste of whatever sauce it was cooked in. The same might be true for grilled squid and octopus tentacle (though I’ve never asked anyone directly). And of course there’s the tapioca balls in bubble tea—a perfect example of how Taiwanese people highly value chewiness.
Mabel seemed a bit cold that night, our third time meeting at night markets in southern Taiwan, but I was still too preoccupied to give it much thought. Had I really pondered it I likely would have realized what was going on: despite plainly stating I wasn’t interested in anything more than friendship she was holding out for more. I suppose that since I was moving on the next day she may have felt like I was slipping away from her, which would explain why things were starting to go a bit pear-shaped.
From my perspective I was just being my usual, friendly self. Having set some boundaries early on I naively assumed we were cool—and that she was mature enough to enjoy some time with me without it leading anywhere romantically. I certainly appreciated her company. She spoke fluent English and it was such a pleasure to engage in meaningful conversation after days of virtual silence on the road. In hindsight, and with the benefit of some outside input, I suppose I had been giving her false hope. I can’t say I feel like I did anything wrong, mind you, but I have had to search for answers.
Now, this is no more a relationship blog than it is a food blog, but I would like to get this sub-plot out of the way so I can focus on more exciting stuff in the next installment. For this reason I am going to break causality and briefly describe the events of the following morning. I could skip this part of the story entirely but it is my aim with this project to share a faithful account of my grand tour of Taiwan—warts and all, with no more embellishments than are necessary.
So there we were, mowing down breakfast in Kenting sometime before noon the next day, right before I set out for parts unknown. Mabel had grown sullen, speaking without vitality, and by then the reality of the situation was undeniable. You may recall that she had previously mentioned meeting friends in Kenting in a vague, off-hand way. Over breakfast I began to doubt those friends even existed—and though I would rather not admit it, perhaps she just wanted a reason to accompany me down to Kenting. Without wanting to broach the subject we turned to our respective smartphones. In my case I was looking up weather information to better forecast the typhoon and can’t imagine what she might have been doing. After an awkward period of silence it was time for me to depart and, with gentlemanly warmth, I expressed my appreciation for our time together, and wished her well in the days ahead.
Merely an hour or so later, on my first rest stop down near the cape, I consulted my phone and saw she had posted an expletive-laden tantrum to social media, angrily denouncing someone for not being interested in her. I was immediately filled with a sense of disappointment. Was it really so hard for men and women to be no more than friends in this country? I could not muster up any regrets about what had happened—or, rather, what hadn’t happened, since she was apparently upset about me not playing the role of bad foreigner. Besides, I had more important things on my mind, like trying to stay alive…
Anyhow, to get back to the flow of the story and wrap up this entry, Mabel and I wandered the night market from end to end before heading down a side street in search of a decent place to eat. We ended up having a rather disappointing meal at an “Arabic” restaurant with a nice patio. Taiwan tend to put an, ahem, original spin on most foreign cuisines so I really wasn’t sure what it was we were eating. Later I retired to the hotel to catch some shut-eye, still checking the weather obsessively.
By midnight Usagi had begun its rapid slide toward super typhoon status, strengthening to a category 2 storm with sustained winds of 160 kilometers per hour. As I drifted off to sleep I was gripped by doubt—was I really going ahead with this? The storm wasn’t due to hit for a couple of days. Enough time to make it up and over the mountains and down to Taitung 台東 in one piece, right?
- Arena in Chinese is Jùdàn 巨蛋, literally “giant egg”. ↩
- The rental shop saw fit to provision me with panniers, spare tubes, lights, and a repair kit, but no lock. I purchased one on the spot for 200 NT (~CAD$7) despite their assurances that one would not be needed. I wasn’t about to risk losing an expensive bike that wasn’t mine even with the state of bicycle security in Taiwan. ↩
- I did more than survive Soulik—I spun my first set in Taipei in the midst of it! ↩
- Operating these machines require a certain level of Chinese proficiency—or a little help from the staff—as there are no English translations available. ↩
- Checheng 車城 (“car city”) in Pingtung 屏東 is easily confused with Checheng 車埕 (“car yard”) in Nantou 南投. If you look closely you’ll see that the second character differs. ↩
- For this series I have swapped most names for comparable substitutes i.e. same-sounding English names for English names. It is fairly standard for Chinese-speaking people to introduce themselves with an English name when speaking with westerners. ↩
- Just about everyone in Taiwan uses Line, a Japanese app. ↩
- This is a good setup for a Taiwanese road trip film. Several exist already, among them Anywhere Somewhere Nowhere 到不了的地方 and the eponymous Huandao. ↩
- A distinct nothern bias is easily discerned in the English-language Taiwan blogosphere. Most of the people writing in English are expats and most expats live in and around Taipei 台北. As a result we tend to hear more about all the interesting things up north and correspondingly less about attractions down south. ↩
- Hengchun 恆春 has a fascinating history and an interesting role to play in the dreams and aspirations of imperial Japan. If you’re curious, start with the Mudan Incident and check out this excellent post by Taiwan In Cycles. I fail to elaborate on this in the text as I was completely ignorant of it when I first visited Hengchun. ↩
- Most old city gates in Taiwan end up isolated in a traffic circle or some such thing. To find one still in use is quite rare. ↩
- Michael Turton published an excellent cycling travelogue of Hengchun and Kenting that should give you some ideas. I wish I had known about it prior to setting out! ↩