My fifth day on the road was slow and contemplative. I felt no pressure to outdo the adventures of the previous day. I had no specific goal for the day, only a general feeling that I should remain in motion, though not with any sense of urgency. I packed my gear in my hotel room in Féngjiǎ Night Market 逢甲夜市 and hit the streets with a bag of dirty laundry and hunger gnawing at my insides. Despite the prevalence of student housing I did not see a laundromat as I cycled the streets adjacent to the university. Breakfast was no problem, however; I enjoyed a set meal at a curry restaurant in the market area while planning my escape from Taichung. I eventually decided to head out in the direction of Lukang 鹿港 (literally “deer harbour”), a historic port town in Changhua 彰化.
I cut loose from Fengjia and went south in the direction of Changhua City 彰化市 along the massive transit corridor lining a tributary of the Dadu River 大肚 on the western edge of Taichung’s urban core. I kept to the ground-level access roads beneath elevated highway 74 on the eastern side of the river unseen. Junkyards, warehouses, factories, and other elements of industrial blight obscured my view of the surrounding countryside. I traversed a post-apocalyptic landscape of rusted steel and exhaust beneath moody, overcast skies, a perverse smile my face. It was anything but a scenic ride but I was enjoying myself just the same.
Near the new high-speed rail station the network of highways and overpasses became a confusing tangle of concrete and asphalt. The roadways erupted from the surface to soar into the open air, leaving me guessing about which way to go. Usually this is no problem—signage in Taiwan is widespread and bilingual—but there are places where it isn’t obvious which routes are bicycle-friendly and which are only for motor vehicles. Google is no help either—the three-dimensional network of roadways at a busy interchange look like spaghetti on my smartphone. I chose wrongly and ended up taking a long detour on my way to the forlorn riverside town beyond.
I crossed the bridge leading into Changhua county and found myself riding through another bleak landscape of industry and ruin. I stopped at the roadside on a number of occasions to take a closer look at burnt-out buildings and a lot filled with stacked wooden pallets. Later on I passed a derelict gas station and stopped to check it out. Strangely, there was an attendant in the booth even though all the entrances were barricaded. My boyish curiosity satisfied, I forged on.
Eventually I made my way into Changhua City 彰化市 proper. It felt much like the other Taiwanese cities I had passed through on this trip, though I am sure there would have been much to explore had I lingered. Actually, I meant to stop at the giant Buddha statue on Baguashan but didn’t end up doing so. The lateness of the day and the darkening clouds on the horizon kept my wheels spinning.
On the way out of Changhua City 彰化市 I stopped at a shop selling sporting goods and purchased a pair of quick-drying shirts for the road. I was surprised at how reasonable the price was—just over 1,000 NT, far less than the prices I had seen for ugly, ill-fitting clothing back in Taipei. Bizarrely, even the small size was a bit big for me. (This amused me to no end as I had recently bought a form-fitting size XL t-shirt in Taipei. Usually I wear a medium.) At the checkout counter I was informed, in halting Chinese, and through a wild assortment of gesticulations, that there was a two-for-one special on for these shirts. Score!
When I left the shop I discovered that the rain clouds had caught up with me. Although it was only drizzling I could tell it was about to come down hard. Time to test out one of my new shirts! I hit the road and did my best to outpace the weather but long stop lights on the edge of town inhibited my progress. The storm moved in and the raindrops began to fall in earnest. I was making good time after reaching the open countryside but it was no use—I decided to take shelter and wait for the worst of it to pass.
I rolled into to the next 7-Eleven, ordered a coffee and a snack, and broke out my laptop to knock a few things off my list. That’s the magic of this bike trip—even though I am on the road pretty much every day I can still get online and attend to business when I need to. Tethering is unbelievably convenient—and with unlimited data access I can work from pretty much anywhere.
An hour or so later I stepped outside into the gathering gloom and packed my gear for the short sprint to Lukang. The storm had passed, though it continued to drizzle. I knew I didn’t have far to go so I wasn’t worried about getting wet. The rest of the ride passed uneventfully as twilight glowered over rural Changhua.
Night had fallen by the time I reached the outskirts of Lukang 鹿港. I rode down the main road into town and made my way to Tai 17, a hostel I had looked up on my last stopover. After having a lot of trouble finding a place to stay in Fengjia night market the previous night I decided to at least have a place in mind when heading into Lukang. I had only planned to take a look but I liked the feel of the place when I arrived and immediately handed over 500 NT or so for a bed in the dormitory. I stashed my things, had a shower, and clambered downstairs to explore Lukang after dark.
I was drawn to Lukang by the promise of historicity. Lukang’s status as the second-most important city in Qing dynasty-era Taiwan is epitomized by the proverb “一府、二鹿、三艋舺“, which refers to Tainan City 台南市, Lukang, and Monga (now the Wanhua District 萬華區 of Taipei 台北). It was once the most populous city in central Taiwan and a vital gateway for the flow of goods and people across the strait before its shallow harbour filled with silt in the late 19th century. When the railroad bypassed Lukang in favour of a more inland route the city went into decline, leaving it “a living museum of Taiwanese culture“. (More general information about Lukang can be found here, here, and here.)
When I stepped out onto the streets of Lukang I knew little more than the broad outlines of the city’s history. I could have enriched my experience by reading more about it in books or on blogs but felt compelled to simply walk around and see what might intuition would pick up on. I went walking, aimlessly, curious to see where the night would take me.
My first stop was the marketplace not far from my hostel. Here I sampled fresh spring rolls, steamed pork buns, and a variety of other treats, none of which were particularly unique to my Lukang experience. Then again, my ability to hone in on the foods unique to any specific place in Taiwan is rather limited given my paltry Chinese. I know I am missing out on interesting culinary experiences but there isn’t much I can do about that without local guidance.
Momentarily satiated, I wandered on, slipping through a network of empty alleyways surrounding Jinshan or “nine turns” lane (金盛巷), to the more modern streets beyond, and back again. I became lost in the labyrinth of night, a pilgrim in the weathered stone passageways of this old city. Although the main thoroughfares of Lukang were busy its alleyways were completely devoid of human activity. Here I was able to set my mind alight, imagining what the city might have been like, long ago.
Eventually I found the entrance to Lukang’s famous “old market street”, Putou road, which had clearly been the subject of more than a little restoration work in recent times. Even so, it was a mesmerizing experience to walk among these old homes long after the daytime crowds had dispersed.
The highlight of my night was a slow stroll through Mazu 媽祖 or Tianhou 天后 temple at the north end of town. I was initially thrown off by the presence of a convenience store beyond the paifang (Chinese-style gateway) in front of the centuries-old temple. For some reason no one seems the least bit concerned about the encroachment of commerce into spiritual spaces in Taiwan, as I learned in Hsinchu 新竹, where I discovered a beautiful old temple surrounded by a bustling night market.
Then again, the temples themselves are also places of commerce. Apart from the counter near the front of the temple selling paper money and incense, this particular temple was also riddled with vending machines stocked with Mazu-themed playthings. Gotta catch ’em all!
The rest of the temple was a joy to explore at night. With few visitors around I was able to take my time and appreciate the art and the history all around me. Of course, much of the temple has been fixed up over the years, but there are many parts that still look incredibly old, possibly as a consequence of accelerated weathering here in the subtropics. Whatever the case, I enjoyed the experience, though I had no real idea what I was looking at most of the time.
After all my nocturnal explorations I returned to the market area opposite the hostel to enjoy a great hot pot dinner with clear noodles. Hot pot is one of the staples of Taiwanese cuisine but I seldom indulge; it seems like too much trouble and many of the standard items have an artificiality about them that is not to my taste. This particular hot pot was excellent, however, and I thoroughly enjoyed pouring over recollections of my day as I dined.
Eventually I returned to the hostel to sleep. I did not rest well; every little noise roused me, even with earplugs in. The creaking of strangers turning in their beds, intermittent snoring, and the occasional washroom break kept me up until dawn. I spent countless hours wide awake, laying in darkness, my eyes open to the formless void above me, consumed by dark, troubling thoughts.
Only in the morning, after the others left the room, did I manage a few hours of quality sleep before making a late checkout. I resolved to avoid hostels, or at least to be wary of dormitory rooms for the remainder of my trip. I figured I had better improve my odds by bunking with fewer people. Proper rest is more important than saving a little money!