On the sixth day of my round-the-island bicycle trip I set out across the Chianan plain, a desolate expanse of countryside littered with rice paddies, fish farms, salt pans, the occasional factory or industrial plant, and small, unremarkable settlements. My destination was Budai 布袋, a fishing town in Chiayi 嘉義, where I planned to catch a ferry to Penghu, a group of picturesque islands in the Taiwan Strait, the following day.
I woke up very late, a consequence of poor sleep the night before. I gathered up my things, stumbled out into the streets of Lukang 鹿港, and picked at a dry oyster omelette just outside Mazu temple. By day the temple was a bustling hive of activity; the tourists were out in full force, as were the small food and souvenir stalls servicing them, and the streets had a completely different feel.
With the blistering sun hanging high in the sky I opted to take shelter in Hitea Cafe, a coffee shop in a historic old home on the main road through town. I figured that I may as well attempt to remedy my absence of energy and enthusiasm for the coming ride with a heady dose of caffeine while also waiting for the worst of the daytime heat to pass. I occupied myself by working on photography and catching up on email but did not feel particularly productive. I was completely drained—and a procession of passable cappuccinos did little to change matters.
I was excused from work by the appearance of a young Hongkongese woman I had met the night before. She was exploring Taiwan by rail just as I was exploring by bicycle. She had also given herself a month to see what there was to see. As chance would have it we would later run into each other on the opposite side of the island in Taroko Gorge, but that’s a story for another day.
Eventually I decided that I had better get going. I changed into my cycling clothes, bid adieu to the kindly owners of the cafe, and hit the road, only taking the time to stop at Longshan Temple in the southern part of Lukang before cutting loose to the open roads south of town.
I entered the open countryside at about four in the afternoon, a foolishly late departure for what was supposed to be the longest ride of my trip thus far. With only a few hours of daylight left I knew I would be riding at night. This concerned me less than the line of thunderstorms passing across the distant horizon. I expected no shelter on the road and preferred not to contend with a bad storm. I can’t say I was stoked for the ride to Budai but the prospect of visiting Penghu kept my wheels turning.
Outside of Lukang I was lazy about checking my maps and followed what I assumed were roads leading to the southwest. Surprisingly, my usually preternatural sense of direction abandoned me and I soon found myself slightly off course, lost in a maze of endless backcountry roads to the southeast of town. Once I realized my error I consulted my smartphone to get back on track. Along the way the skies seemed to lighten somewhat, the threat of thunderstorms passing with the deepening of afternoon.
The Changhua 彰化 countryside simply empties out after Lukang. It is an entirely manmade landscape, flat and almost featureless, adorned with tranquil rice paddies and agricultural fields, festering irrigation channels filled with mosquito larvae, wooden utility poles jutting out of the ground at odd angles, and rugged asphalt roads. Tile-encrusted homesteads are few and far between, as are trees. Occasionally I would pass small brick structures at the roadside, often positioned next to ramps granting access to rice paddies below the roadside. Many of these structures—presumably storage sheds or a place to rest under the noonday sun—had toppled over after years of neglect, leaving sad little piles of rubble behind.
Now and then I passed unattended scooters on the roadside. At first I assumed they were derelicts, abandoned there for reasons unknown, but then I realized their owners were probably out in the fields. Sure enough, when I spied a scooter I would often see someone at work nearby. Farmers and other outdoor laborers out here typically wear a distinctive bamboo hat (斗笠) over a patterned shawl with long sleeves and long pants for protection from the sun no matter what the hour.
At one point I came upon an entire team of backcountry street cleaners armed with straw brooms and billowing plastic garbage bags, their faces turned away from me. They were so intent on sweeping and picking up trash that none of them noticed my passing. In the dusky haze of deepest afternoon I was no more than a pale ghost in their midst, completely out of place. And in another moment I was out of sight, lost over horizon.
I continued my journey to the southwest, riding across the Chianan plain in the long shadow of another dying day. I did not need to exert myself much on these flat roads, which was just as well, for the exhaustion that had delayed my departure continued to plague me. With nothing to do but ride I was left to my thoughts. My mood darkened as twilight settled in, enriching the hues of the intemperate sky and washing out the landscape around me. I quickened my pace, looking forward to a break in the monotony.
Approximately 20 kilometers outside of Lukang I passed through Erlin. It looked much like any other small city in Taiwan: betel nut stands on the outskirts of town bristling with flashing lights, haggard old women with downturned expressions at the counter in the window, busily preparing for the after work rush; light industry and scrapyards cloistered behind weathered and rusty metal sheeting, inscrutable activities taking place in the spaces beyond; motorbike shops cluttered with spare parts, dismembered machines, and time-worn tools on pegboard walls; immediately outside, idle mechanics reclining on cheap plastic chairs, lit cigarettes pinched between greasy fingers; ornate temples festooned with blood red lanterns and dragon sculptures with glowing electric eyes, the musky smell of incense wafting into the stillborn evening air; night markets in the midst of self-assembly, stall owners hosing down oil-stained pavement before pushing wheeled carts to their allotted spaces; compact open air kitchens with steel countertops and glass cases bearing baskets of tea eggs, duck meat, and stewed organs; dumpling, fried chicken, and bubble tea franchises, the same options island-wide; the ever-present convenience stores, each promising immediate gratification and a modicum of consumerist bliss; police stations, government buildings, and public schools emblazoned with embossed gold lettering in both Chinese and English; an endless variety of tiled, steel-caged, low-rise concrete apartment blocks with small businesses nestled beneath overhangs at ground level; and the tightly packed streets themselves, channelling the chaotic flow of traffic, lined by vendors and food stalls, endless rows of parked scooters, abandoned bicycles, and sluggish pedestrians. Erlin, despite its small size, still had a big city feel to it.
School had just let out so there were big groups of students walking from place to place. I saw many different varieties of garish uniforms common to Taiwan: electric blue tracksuits with yellow trim and big zippered pockets, loose-fitting throwbacks to mid-1990s tennis wear in vibrant neon, bland white dress shirts with student numbers embroidered above the breast, long pleated skirts in dull, institutional grey and faded pink. Many students had already reached the air conditioned oasis of one of Erlin’s many convenience stores, stopping for small cartons of milk tea or asparagus juice, an after school treat.
Outside of Erlin I followed highway 146, straight as an arrow, into Dacheng, an even more unremarkable town in the southwestern extremity of Changhua county. By now night had fallen in earnest, washing any trace of colour from the sky. I paused to snap a photograph of a preposterously named department store before continuing south.
My next challenge was to cross the longest river in Taiwan, the mighty Zhoushui River 濁水溪 (literally “muddy water”), into Yunlin 雲林 county. There weren’t many places to cross this far to the west. Since leaving Erlin I had been heading toward the westernmost crossing, a nondescript bridge fittingly named Xibindaqiao 西濱大橋, literally “west coast big bridge”. If that didn’t work out I would have to head inland to another bridge more than 10 km upriver.
I broke free from the dark country roads leading out of Dacheng and turned on to highway 17, itself a part of highway 61, the west coast expressway. I was wary of riding on the highway but there was no other choice. Much to my relief there was no traffic whatsoever—and the wide lanes were illuminated by the sodium glow of tall street lights. I cruised south to the foot of the bridge and noticed that the lights ran out as the roadway began its ascent into the sky.
After the ascent there was no lighting on the bridge whatsoever. I would have to cross in utter darkness. I wore no reflective gear and had only a small tail light. Even so, I did not hesitate—the bridge upriver was probably no better. I watched the countryside below me fade to black as I gained altitude. The very last thing I remember of Changhua county is the image of a forlorn betel nut stand on the industrial access road lining the right bank of the Zhoushui River, its neon lights beaming out across the vast nothingness that lay in every direction.
While crossing the bridge I did my best to keep to the shoulder to avoid an argument with passing motor vehicles that I was unlikely to win. This was not always feasible as the shoulder was cluttered with gravel and other debris. I kept to the edge of the outermost lane where passing vehicles had already swept the road surface clean, wary of broken glass and the possibility of a flat.
I doubt I was passed by more than ten vehicles as I made the 4 kilometer crossing. One of those vehicles was a monster, however. Halfway across the bridge I felt a distant rumble, a rumble that grew into a roar as its owner shook the bridge. It was not the sound of a car or truck—it was something much larger, though a glance over my shoulder did not help with identification. It moved slowly, only marginally faster than I was pedalling, and it took an exceedingly long time to catch up with my progress. As it neared I prudently decided to stop on the shoulder to let it pass. On it went, a blue steel behemoth with an odd assortment of wheels and appendages, running lights flaring out in all directions, chugging away like some kind of alien tunnel boring machine.
I paused to look around after the beastly apparition passed. By now my eyes had adjusted to the darkness and I was able to make out more of my surroundings. I was somewhere in the middle of the bridge linking north and south Taiwan, high above the black waters of the silent, unseen river below. I could dimly make out the concrete railings on either side of me were I to shine a light but nothing else was visible in my immediate vicinity. The sky above me was a blank canvas; the stars weren’t out and the moon was nowhere to be seen. Small gauzy clusters of city lights dotted the distant horizon to up ahead and to my left—but there weren’t many of them. The only notable settlement in this part of the country is Mailiao, the town on the southern side of the river, directly ahead. To the right of the lights of Mailiao I noticed something unusual: a smoldering ruby red glow on the formless backdrop of the night sky, glowering with malevolence like the Eye of Sauron.
What I was looking at was the No. 6 Naphtha Plant 台塑六輕 of Formosa Plastics Corp., though I did not know it at the time. I had done a little advance research with satellite maps and had noticed—as anyone would—a city-sized industrial enterprise on the coast of northwestern Yunlin county. I knew to watch for it as I crossed but I did not bother to look up what it was. Only during the crossing of the Zhoushui River was my curiosity piqued enough to consider detouring to scope things out.
The red glow on the horizon intensified as I continued along the long bridge into Yunlin 雲林. As I neared the turn-off to the plant I could faintly discern jets of flame shooting into the distant night sky. It was a captivating sight to behold out here in the middle of nowhere. Excitement won out over tiredness; I just had to go take a look.
I disembarked from highway 61 and turned onto one of two roads connecting the naphtha plant with the outside world. Big transport trucks plied these roads in surprising numbers given the lateness of the hour. Industry never sleeps, I suppose. I kept to the divided access road as I made my way west to the sea.
Fireworks exploded in my path as I neared the gateway to an industrial complex along the way. Shocked out of my reverie, I braked hard and waited for the show to end. Bemused, I sidled by the open door to the warehouse lot and made eye contact with a bunch of tanned workers, grinning maniacally. Most were seated in plastic chairs around a makeshift table littered with half-empty beer bottles and overflowing ash trays, two were standing closer to the entrance, evidently meaning to setup another round. I went on my way, smiling wildly, and paused only to capture the second display on film.
Eventually I crested a low hill and the entrance to the Formosa plastics plant came into focus. It looked like nothing I had ever seen before: an infernal city belching smoke and fire into the night. Vibrant orange and blue flames erupted from towering buildings beyond high security walls, illuminating the scene with a deep umber glow. From my vantage point I could see a sprawling checkpoint at the main entrance, mediating the steady flow of transport trucks entering and leaving the plant, laden with cargo unknown. It smelled like sin, exactly as you would expect.
Mesmerized, I let the minutes pass in contemplation. It occurred to me then that this artificial island on the Yunlin county coastline might be the Taiwanese equivalent of the Alberta tar sands. (And, indeed, air pollution from the plant is causing many health problems for people living nearby.) What had I gotten myself into? To be honest, I had not considered the security situation prior to cycling over—but of course public access to the plant would be restricted. This mission was starting to look like a major letdown.
I loosened my grip on the brakes, a grim expression on my face, and let gravity ease me down the slight incline to the intersection up ahead. I drifted into a parking lot, taking care to remain in the shadows. Shift workers were coming and going but no one noticed the foreign interloper in their midst. A plan began to form in my mind. That grim expression gave way to a secret, knowing smile. I was up to no good.
I cut across a sidewalk and headed north along a wide road. To my right I saw a modern-looking apartment tower, evidently built to house workers who had no interest in a long commute. Beyond, a false forest—likely planted to improve the optics of the project. To my left the high wall continued unbroken, and my view of the plant was further impeded by a long line of tall trees. After another 3 kilometers I reached the turn in the road that I hoped would provide access to the far side of the plant—and a view unimpeded.
I cycled as far as I could but came to a stop when I saw another checkpoint barring the road up ahead. The view out here on the northern side of the island was marginally better—no one had bothered to plant trees on the side of the plant facing the ocean at least—but there still wasn’t much to see. I doubled-back and consulted my map. It looked like there was another road running along the outer shoreline. With nothing better to do I went to go investigate.
Leaving the main road behind I entered the unkempt borderlands between the plastics plant and the ocean beyond. I climbed a short flight of stairs, loaded bicycle slung over my shoulder, and walked down a concrete embankment next to some kind of reservoir. A utility building loomed in the darkness, purpose unknown. Looking up I noticed a wind turbine, its blades at rest, standing like a silent sentinel out here on this forlorn shore. Beyond, the road I had seen on the satellite map looked like nothing more than a dusty pathway choked with brambles and overgrowth. I followed it for a minute but turned back before long, defeated.
5 kilometers down the road I was back at the main entrance. I was out of ideas and didn’t want to push it. I liked the idea of infiltrating the plant but wasn’t about to do anything downright stupid. I had a date with a ferry the next day, after all.
Just before leaving I decided to ride a bit south of the main entrance. Here, I knew, the road ended at another checkpoint, but before that I noticed another entrance with no human guards present. The view here wasn’t bad either. I parked, turned around, and laid eyes on a tall post with a ringed steel ladder welded to it. Without thinking I launched myself up the ladder, shot a few photos, and raced back to my bike. I wasn’t about to leave without at least one half-decent photo of this incredible place!
On my way down I had a good laugh when I noticed a sign in Chinese and in English prohibiting anyone from taking photographs. A bit late for that now, I thought. Hopping back on my bicycle I made my way to the exit along a shadowed sidewalk opposite the plant. It is a good thing I defaulted to stealth for a security vehicle came racing in the opposite direction, perhaps in search of me. I wasn’t worried—I still hadn’t played my “crazy foreigner card” since moving here, and at worst all I was doing was taking some photos before continuing on my way. No one caught up with me though. The exit was nearby and I was quick to make my escape, leaving only traces on their security camera tapes.
Another 10 kilometeres down the road, somewhere south of Mailiao, I heard the faint sound of music drifting over the barren fields. Stopping to investigate, I witnessed a small party in full swing. A couple were singing karaoke on a gaudy neon stage next to a European-style country manor. About a dozen tables were setup in front, evidently for a banquet of some kind. Perhaps this was a wedding? Whatever it was, I didn’t stay long enough to find out. I did not wish to be seen, quite frankly. With so many kilometers to go I did not want to get wrapped up in Taiwanese hospitality, and who knows what might have happened had they noticed the foreigner at the gate out here in the middle of nowhere!
I pressed on, soon turning the corner into the Wugang neighbourhood of Taixi, the least known of the four “cardinal cities” of Taiwan. (Side note: Taipei 台北, Tainan 台南, Taitung, and Taichung 台中 are all major cities. Their names roughly translate to Taiwanese city of the north, south, east, and middle, respectively. Taixi is the city of the west.) Here I encountered a second open air stage, this time spanning the roadway. This was not mere karaoke, though there was singing involved. The woman on stage with microphone in hand was wearing little more than a black feather boa, drawing admiring looks from the working class men seated in the shadows on the other side of the street. With no other way through I passed in front of the stage, pumping my fist in the air as I went, and was soon lost to the night once more.
The rest of the ride was a deadly bore. It was about 40 km from Taixi to Budai, most of it completely empty. I rejoined highway 17 and followed it most of the way, cutting over to the larger, more modern highway 61 when I had to. It wasn’t at all dangerous to ride the expressway at night—there were almost no other drivers on the road whatsoever. Farms and aquaculture ponds lined the roadside most of the way, occasionally accompanied by unremarkable tile homes or low-lying sheds. I don’t even recall seeing a convenience store, though I must have at some point. Just about the only thing to leap above the horizon was the body of highway 61 itself, which meandered back and forth across the flat terrain like a drunken serpent, and the bridges I had to cross along the way, all of which mirrored my experience crossing the Zhoushui river coming into Yunlin county. It was a downright desolate ride through a nearly featureless countryside. I now understood why so many people advised against riding along the western coast while on the round-the-island bike tour. I felt completely isolated from the rest of humanity, perhaps more than at any other time in my life.
I made it to the outskirts of Budai 布袋 sometime around 10 at night. I have no words for how much exhaustion I felt. The streets were empty—everyone must have been in bed already. Only betel nut stands and a pair of convenience stores remained open along the main road coming into Budai. I crossed a small bridge and cycled by a fish market on the far side, hoping to find a hotel not far from the ferry port. The streets on the port side of the bridge were laid out in a grid—uncommon for Taiwan—and lined with white tile apartment blocks, all with darkened windows.
Eventually I turned a corner and saw what looked to be a big hotel up ahead, not far from the ferry dock. I stopped out front, jumped off my bike, and did my best to make myself presentable, unstrapping my helmet and combing my fingers through my hair. I brandished my helmet—mostly to help whoever was on the other side situate me in sociocultural space—and strode into the lobby, looking forward to a good night’s rest at any cost.
Inside I placed the helmet on the front desk and did my best to communicate my needs, first by holding my hands in a gesture of prayer to one side of my head—the international gesture for sleep—and then by pretending to eat from a bowl of rice. This pantomimed performance was met by expressions of regret: “mei you” (don’t have). It took a little effort but I was eventually made to understand that the restaurant had just closed and there were no rooms available. However, this being Taiwan, the clerks looked up the number for a nearby hotel, called to make a reservation, and gave me directions. Off I went!
I stopped for supplies on the way over to the second hotel. From my experience in Fengyuan I knew that budget hotels routinely shuttered and locked their doors at night. Since I hadn’t even had lunch I was ravenous—so I picked up one of those seaweed triangle things, a package of biscuits, and some water, a suitable meal for this prisoner of circumstance.
Back on the main drag I pulled up to the second hotel. I entered the musty, dimly lit lobby, and saw no sign of human life. I knocked on the counter and heard a stirring in the dark room beyond. Evidently the proprietress had dozed while I made my way over. Collecting herself, she named a price higher than I wanted to pay, indicated with outstretched fingers, but I didn’t haggle—I felt my lateness was somewhat rude, as was my lack of command of the Chinese language. After handing over a 1,000 NT note and receiving 300 NT in change I vaulted up the steps grasping the big plasticized key handle with my room number on it.
My lodging for the night was predictably rundown but I didn’t care. I showered and washed my riding clothes, setting them on a chair to dry overnight. Then I wolfed down some food, plugged in my phone to recharge, and broke open my laptop to make some notes. For posterity’s sake, I began my entry thusly: “What a fucking day!”
I went to sleep feeling deeply satisfied. I had conquered exhaustion, tapped reserves of strength, and travelled a great distance to ready myself for the journey to Penghu the next day. I went to set my alarm but my phone was acting funny. My ride tracking application had crashed earlier and the OS had been flaky ever since. I shut it down, thinking nothing of it. Although I didn’t know the schedule I knew of at least three ferries leaving for Penghu from Budai. Surely there would be an afternoon ferry if I happened to sleep in…