After taking it easy the day before I set out to ride south to Taichung 台中, about 100 km away. There were several sights I wanted to see on the approach to Taichung City 台中市 itself so I wasn’t entirely sure I would make it all the way there with daylight to spare. In fact, I was quite sure I would not—I had been up late again, wrestling with insomnia, and was not ready to go until the early afternoon.
I prepared for the big ride by putting air in my tires. A cyclist friend of mine emailed me and told me to gas up every day to avoid pinch flats. This did not go so well the first time—I let all the air out of the front tire and couldn’t figure out how to pump it up again. I have no prior experience with presta valves and couldn’t sort it out.
At first I thought that perhaps the shop I rented the bike from had given me the wrong pump. It didn’t seem to fit the valve at all. Actually, the problem was simply that the pump has a reversible gasket that was configured for fatter schrader valves. With a little help from the internet I sorted things out, filled my tires, and was ready to go. I went to Merry for breakfast, gorged myself, and hit the road.
I headed out of Zhubei 竹北 by way of the nearest bridge—the same bridge I got lost under the night before. Crossing over into Hsinchu City 新竹市 was painless and I made good time cutting through to the highway paralleling the west coast of Taiwan 台灣.
It was a hot ride in the subtropical sun. I started this trip by riding in the late afternoon. Now I’m starting out in the early afternoon. I figure I will eventually work up to riding throughout the day—but given my propensity for heatstroke I am not in any rush to find out.
Every day I ride under the sun follows a similar pattern. I ride for a while, taking care to rehydrate regularly, and I stop under overpasses or other shade structures any time I feel the need. I also make frequent stops at roadside convenience stores for a dose of air conditioning.
Riding through Hsinchu 新竹 was dull but not entirely uninteresting. No one who rides around Taiwan has good things to say about the west coast but I have ways of keeping myself amused. It helps that I actually enjoy taking photos of heavy industry and dilapidated buildings. The few times I grew really bored I simply cut loose from the highway and explored whatever was nearby. By doing so I ran across junkyards, abandoned buildings, fishing villages, rice paddies, and other features of the rural Taiwan.
Eventually I made my way to the Hsinchu coastal bike path. I probably could have taken it from further up the coast but I haven’t done my research. I knew it was around but didn’t really pay much attention to where it began or ended. That’s been my style on this trip: I don’t plan my route, I just go wherever my intuition and the wind takes me. (With a little help from the maps on my phone, of course!)
I saw no one else riding the coastal bike path in the heat of the late afternoon. It was an empty, serene place, just me and the sea, wind turbines spinning languidly overhead. I enjoyed the ocean breeze and made good progress down the coast.
The coastal bike path ends near an old lighthouse made to look like a windmill. Actually, I am not sure it was ever a lighthouse; it doesn’t seem to be the right height and there was no machinery of any kind on the second floor. I suspect it is simply a landmark, a resting place for passing cyclists.
Several recreational cyclists were in fact resting inside, taking shelter from the relentless sun. An enterprising old Taiwanese couple had setup a small table and were selling cold drinks out of a cooler that I was happy to purchase. I prefer giving my business to individuals rather than convenience store chains when I can.
After taking a short rest in the “lighthouse” I got back on my bike and carried on. The path swept through a coastal forest for a short distance and ended on a country road facing a farm of some sorts. I took a photograph of the funny looking birds in the yard and went around the bend in the road to explore. Turns out it was just an access road to an industrial-scale pig farm of some kind. The stench was unbearable so I turned back and headed back to the highway.
I soon encountered another hazard of riding in Taiwan: smoke. It is common for people living in rural areas to burn trash and vegetation, sometimes quite close to the road. I am quite sure it is awful to breathe this stuff in so I do my best to pass through as quickly as I can. I have been wondering if I should pick up one of those fashionable face masks that many people wear in Taiwan but I really wouldn’t know what to look for.
While resting on the side of the highway near Houlong another long distance cyclist passed me by. I can tell by the clothing and the posture—he knew what he was doing and where he was going. I didn’t manage to get up to speed in time to do more than wave—he took a turn off the highway and disappeared before I was rolling again.
I have not interacted with many people on the road so far. I drop in on convenience stores and engage in the usual exchanges that govern consumerism. Sometimes I wave at people in rural areas to elicit a reaction. I will wink at schoolchildren and share a secret laugh with wide-eyed toddlers.
Heading into Houlong for a late lunch I came across an abandoned building with many different units. I did not want to waste too much time but I couldn’t resist exploring a few. It was a concrete paradise, all dull angles and ingrained history. The local people had taken to dumping garbage in some units whereas others were home to the original furnishings that once adorned these dwelling places.
Down in Houlong proper I stopped for dumplings and corn soup. I recharged my batteries, washed up, and hit the road again, heading south through Miaoli county.
Again I found myself racing the setting sun. I was less than halfway as the sun began its journey below the horizon. As on my first day, most of my ride would be done in darkness.
Leaving the coastal plains of Hsinchu for the hills of Miaoli was a refreshing change. I headed south and east, hanging a right onto “Lung Gang” lane (obviously an old style romanization), ascending the high ridge line above Miaoli city. I had expected there to be little in the way of settlement along this winding mountain road. Instead, it seems to have been developed into some kind of upscale community overlooking the city. Big homes towered over most of my ascent and luxury cars passed me as I struggled to gain altitude.
Based on my experience riding down from the high plains of Taoyuan to Xinpu 新埔 two nights previously I figured that I would make excellent time coming down from the hills of Miaoli. This is partly why I cut through the hills instead of going around through the city—I really enjoyed the descent that night. It also struck me as a good way to avoid city traffic. Plus I am inclined to get off the beaten trail and explore Taiwan. Riding on the main roads gets boring some of the time. Climbing into the mountains and breathing in the fresh air is worth the extra effort.
Eventually I rejoined a major road leading down into Tongluo, somewhere in the middle of Miaoli county. I kept to the highway on the outside of town and swept by it without fanfare. Soon I found myself riding through a mountain valley on the way to Sanyi 三義. I entertained the idea of booking a hotel in Sanyi and calling it a night; by now it was getting close to 10 pm.
Halfway between Tongluo and Sanyi I stopped at the side of the road for a short break. I had a black sesame mochi in my pouch and I pulled it out to polish it off. Looking around I saw nothing more than rice paddies and distant lights. The crescent moon hovered in the sky, the pinprick of stars pierced the night, and the jagged outline of mountains ringed the horizon. There was no sound apart from the gurgle of water pumps and the faint click-clack of the traffic light mechanism cycling through its program now and then. I slugged back some water and contemplated my surroundings, letting my mind empty out.
A woman walked out of the darkness, startling me. She was startled as well—perhaps she was not expecting to meet a foreigner out here in the middle of nowhere—but greeted me warmly. I soon learned, through broken English and descriptive gesticulations, that she was a firefighter out patrolling this part of the countryside. She gestured at a scooter nearby—presumably electric, since I did not hear her approach—and I understood that she had stopped to chat and find out if I required any assistance. I was fine but we got to talking anyway. Turns out that Jay, as she introduced herself, had also done a round-the-island bike trip! She pulled out her iPhone and flipped through photos, showing me some of the places she had been with her cycling partner. Interestingly, she had also chosen the same point of origin: Liberty Square. I told her of my plans to head on to Taichung but she warned me against going so far. “Stay in Sanyi”, she told me.
Soon we bid each other adieu, two strangers once more. I realized belatedly that I would have liked to have given her the address to my blog so that she could read about my travels—but by the time I thought of it the moment had passed. We were both putting distance between us and that chance meeting in the darkness by the roadside in Miaoli county.
I stopped in Sanyi, a woodcarving town, for beef noodle, one of my favorite Taiwanese dishes, and one of the few that I can reliably order wherever I go. Not sure what’s cooking? Just order beef noodle—it’s almost always available and almost always good.
I pondered my plan of action. Push on or find a room? Sanyi looked to be a cute little mountain town but I was feeling energized and ready to ride. I readied myself and hit the road again, intending to push on to Houli, or perhaps Fengyuan 豐原, both within Taichung 台中.
Thus began a great descent into darkness. The road outside of Sanyi opened up into a six lane asphalt wonderland. Very little traffic passed me as I loosened my grip on the brakes and let gravity take hold. It was an incredible, exhilarating ride down the well to the massive bridge crossing into Taichung proper.
On the other side I stopped at a convenience store for a rest and then gathered myself up again. Getting into Houli meant climbing a steep hill to the high plains above. It wasn’t so bad—my leg muscles had a good rest during the immense descent out of Sanyi.
When I reached Houli I realized that I may as well press on to Fengyuan 豐原, the best place to start the next day’s adventures. I pressed on and soon arrived at my destination. I headed for the train station and looked for a cheap hotel. This is a travel hack I picked up from reading other blogs in Taiwan. It worked like a charm—I easily found a room within my budget and was able to lug my loaded bike up the stairs to my room for safekeeping and peace of mind.
After washing up I hit the town for dinner. I dropped in on a night market near the train station and shot a few photos just as it was closing. There was also a big temple that I briefly stepped into—but to be honest I was feeling totally bushed. I found some food, dug in, and soon made my way back to the hotel.
Budget hotels in Taiwan are sufficient but tend to look a bit shady and run down. This hotel was no exception—just look at those hallways! I didn’t really mind though. After such a long ride I was just happy to have a place to shower and lay down—even if the bed was as hard as a rock. I am actually used to hard beds by now—but this particular hotel introduced me to something new, namely pillows that are also hard as a rock!
Today’s ride was bigger than my first day out. I put about 90 km behind me riding from Zhubei to Fengyuan. It felt good to make that kind of progress—and I really enjoyed riding through afternoon into evening and then into the darkness of night. I slept with a secret grin on my face, dreaming of a haunted amusement park in the hills above Taichung.