Taiwan Bicycle Tour 2013: Fengyuan to Taichung

Crossing the great divide
A beautiful river valley in Taichung.

I woke in a rundown hotel room not far from the train station in Fēngyuán 豐原. Sunlight trickled in through discolored drapes to fill the space with a murky glow. My muscles were knotted and my lower back ached, a consequence of sleeping on the rock-hard mattress and a tough, lumpy pillow after yesterday’s long ride. The passage of night left me feeling a vague sense of unease, almost as if there were something not quite right about the world I returned to. I lingered in bed, letting the moment pass.

Shaking off the discomfort, I gathered up my belongings, packed the panniers on my bicycle, and hauled everything down musty red-carpeted stairs to the lobby below. I passed the key back to the old woman behind the counter and took to the street in search of breakfast. My goals for the day: cycle the Houfeng and Dongfeng bikeways, explore an abandoned theme park in the hills above Taichung City 台中市, and make it to Féngjiǎ Night Market 逢甲夜市 to meet a friend by nightfall.

In the late morning haze Fengyuan appeared different than it had the night before. I took a few moments to regain my bearings, pattern matching places and things I had first seen under cover of neon-lit darkness. My sense of spatial awareness gradually returned as I scanned for a decent place to eat.

By now I should be adept at feeding myself in Taiwan but I have grown weary of turnip cakes and dan bing 蛋餅 every morning. Rather than settle for the usual breakfast fare I thrust myself through the draped entrance of a wood-paneled ramen house. A big hearty bowl of miso ramen sounded like a good way to start the day. Too bad it wasn’t any good! Perhaps I was spoiled living in Vancouver last winter but I typically find ramen in Taiwan to be of substandard quality. I finished up and hit the streets again.

I cycled northward, exiting Fengyuan the same way I had entered. Eventually I turned right onto a winding country road, angling off to the northeastern outskirts of the city under cloud-covered skies, a weather state matching the ambiguity of my mood. As I headed into the countryside tile-encrusted apartment blocks gave way to sheet metal machine shops, low-rise concrete homes, sprawling gardens, and small farms.

Houfeng bikeway
Cloudy skies over Houfeng bikeway.

Eventually I arrived at the entrance to the the Houfeng and Dongfeng bikeways. Apart from the expected bicycle rental and repair shops there were many other things to see near the beginning of the bikeways. The path was lined with restaurants and cafes, public art projects, and historical plaques. Never have I seen so much effort invested into a bicycle path! I forged onward feeling very impressed with how much care and consideration had gone into making it a pleasurable and stimulating ride.

Houfeng bikeway bridge
An old railway bridge converted into a bike path.
Elemental forces at work
A lone figure stands out there on the rocks.

I cycled along the shorter Houfeng bikeway and soon found myself on a beautiful old railroad bridge spanning the scenic Dajia River 大甲溪. I had been looking forward to riding through the old railway tunnel on the other side but it was closed for whatever reason. A sign was posted but I could not read it. I snapped a parting photo through the metal grate and, with mild disappointment, turned back, retracing my path to where the bikeways merged not far from highway 4.

Houfeng bikeway tunnel
One end of the Houfeng bikeway tunnel.
Struts and shadows on Dongfeng bikeway
A gorgeous ride down Dongfeng bikeway.

Next I set out on the Dongfeng bikeway or “green corridor”, a longer path that stretches from Fengyuan in the west through Shígāng 石岡 to Dongshi in the east. It was a beautiful ride that grew even more ostentatious when the gloomy skies began to clear. Along the way I took a short side trip to see Shigang dam, an impressive feat of engineering set against a beautiful backdrop.

Capturing a moment in time that will never be repeated
Looking over the edge at Shigang dam.
Shigang dam postcard
Shigang dam, vintage postcard style.
921 earthquake damage
A small section of railway tracks damaged by the 921 earthquake.
Blue train on the side of the Dongfeng bikeway
An old blue train on the side of the bike path in Shigang.
Where trains used to run
Where trains used to run. Doufeng bikeway.

In Shígāng 石岡 I crossed yet another “lover’s bridge” and formally exited the Dongfeng bikeway. I have previously encountered similarly named bridges elsewhere in my travels here but none so garish as this one—it was boldly decorated with cupid motifs and little hearts. Taiwanese culture is absolutely obsessed with the concept of romantic love. Reminders are everywhere—love is impossible to escape. I pondered the subject as I reached the inflection point of the bridge and began my descent.

Turn a regular bridge into a lover’s bridge for instant tourist appeal.
Turn a regular bridge into yet another lover’s bridge for instant tourist appeal. Notice the cupids on the fencing?
Fine coffee at the foot of lover’s bridge in Shigang
Where I stopped for coffee in Shigang. The fancy glass apparatus is common in tourist areas.

At the foot of the bridge I paused to take a look at my map and noticed a fancy-looking coffee cart. There really isn’t any limit to the amount of coffee I can consume so I stopped for an Americano (美式咖啡 or “měishì kāfēi”, literally “American-style coffee”) and a routine roadside conversation with the proprietor. Where are you from? Can you speak Chinese? Are you here for work or study? How long have you been here? Where do you live? Do you have a girlfriend? Always the same line of inquiry. At some point it occurred to me that it will always be this way. I could stay here for years, marry into the culture, and people will still ask me these same questions. Once a foreigner always a foreigner!

Roadside scene in the hills above Shigang
Out on the open road in the hills near Xinshe.
An orange brick house in Danan village
An orange brick house in Danan village. Looks old.
Vibrant crates in the hills above Taichung
A vibrant collection of crates by the roadside in Xinshe.

With my break over I cut south into the hills and climbed to the high plains of Xīnshè 新社. I passed small towns and villages, military installations, and many agricultural projects before beginning a massive descent down highway 129 into Běitún 北屯.

Most of the altitude I gained over the course of the day disappeared as I slid down the gravity well at a breakneck pace. I put the potential energy I built up over the course of the day to good use, leaning into the curves and feeling the wind on my face. Never before have I troubled myself to do any serious climbing with a bicycle—I am more of a city rider than anything—but I have begun to love it. Climbing can be tough work but a big descent like this one makes it all tremendously worthwhile. I roared down the highway, blissful and free.

Coming down out of the hills in Taichung
The descent into Dakeng.
Riverside structure in Dakeng
An old building on the riverside in Dakeng.
Luxury homes in the hills above Taichung
Luxury homes in the hills above Dakeng.

After the bend in the river valley I arrived at the entrance to Katolis World, an amusement park abandoned after sustaining severe damage in the catastrophic 921 earthquake. Faded murals and signs for the park remain on the roadside retaining wall even though the park’s ruins were demolished years ago. I stopped at the side of the road to climb the stairs to the entrance just to look around. There wasn’t much to see so I went down and started riding again, not wanting to waste any more time. Daylight was fading and I had much to do.

Last vestiges of Katolis World
Last vestiges of Katolis World. I have arrived too late.

I have been asked how I know about so many abandoned places in Taiwan. The answer is simple: I do my homework. There is a fair amount of information out there on the open web. I use Google Maps and Wikimapia to search for candidate sites. And I always read the comments to check whether a ruin has been demolished or not—there’s no sense in going out of my way to explore an empty field!

As it so happens, three of the most prominent Taiwanese ruins circulating in the English language blogosphere—the Sanzhi UFO houses, the Keelung “ghost town” (an abandoned apartment complex on the outskirts of Keelung; the city itself is thriving), and Katolis World—have all been razed to the ground. What most people don’t realize is that all three are not exactly one-of-a-kind—there are other UFO houses, decaying apartment blocks, and derelict amusement parks near to the internet-famous originals.

This brings me to today’s primary mission: exploring Encore Garden, an abandoned amusement park not far from the former site of Katolis World. In fact, I learned about it while reading up on Katolis World—which is why I say it pays to do your homework! With the clues provided by this blog and some Google Maps sleuthing I identified a likely target up in the hills above the main highway. Google’s street view cameras certainly get around these days—I was able to make a visual confirmation of the entrance to the park from the roadside. Apart from that I knew very little about what I was getting myself into at Encore Garden—there is almost no other information available on the English language web.

Roadside sausage stand
Roadside sausage stand in Beitun.

Back on the road I headed south on highway 129 to a small settlement on the eastern periphery of Taichung’s urban sprawl, presumably Běitún 北屯 town itself, though I did not notice a sign on the way in. As I reached the end of my descent from Dakeng I turned left and started climbing again. The usual assortment of metal-shuttered businesses, roadside shrines, tiled high-rises, traditional homes, and dilapidated structures gave way to widely spaced luxury home developments and gated communities. I could not imagine living all the way out here—but I suppose it isn’t that far from the conveniences of Taichung by automobile.

Eventually I made my way up a big hill and the entrance to Encore Garden came into sight. I was filled with excitement—and I was not to be disappointed.

The entrance to Encore Garden
The entrance to Encore Garden, an abandoned amusement park in the hills above Taichung.

In the interest of brevity, I have published my exploration of Encore Garden separately. Please take a moment to read it before returning to continue the story of my day.

We once dreamed of the stars
We once dreamed of the stars.

Back on the road I quickly built up speed as I slipped down the gravity well once more. I pedaled in a dreamlike trance, overcome with silent wonder and inspiration. Something inside me had changed in some imperceptible yet meaningful way. I also felt close to this foreign land, more in touch with its underlying animus after exploring one of its secrets. With deep satisfaction I chased the dying sun to its resting place in the west.

A building torn apart
A building torn apart. The piece that is still standing is home to an active business of some kind.

I came down out of the hills and crossed through the center of Taichung, Taiwan’s third-largest city, to Xītún 西屯, my final destination for the day. Rather than cut through the dense heart of this big city I cruised along its periphery, riding the outer ring roads westward in the gathering twilight.

It was rush hour and the roads were absolutely jammed. Blue delivery trucks, yellow taxis, and other automobiles jostled for position with teeming swarms of motorbikes. Any space that opened up in the flow of traffic was immediately filled by opportunistic motorbike riders intent on shaving seconds off their commute. I rode aggressively, carving out space on the road even as I choked on exhaust and squinted in the demonic glare of a thousand taillights. For the next half hour I navigated corridors of gleaming metal ever moving, injury or even death only milliseconds away, my confidence never wavering.

Fengjia night market
Fengjia night market, Taichung city.

When I arrived in the vicinity of Fengjia night market I had no time to look around and take in the sights. I was already a bit late to meet Ariel, a Taiwanese blogger I had been corresponding with in the weeks prior to setting out on this trip. My immediate goal was to find an affordable hotel, shower and change, and meet her near the gates of the university—and fast.

Finding a hotel was a major fiasco. I expected it to be easy to find a cheap room since the night market is such a huge tourist attraction. The problem: intense competition for street-level real estate. The only hotels visible from the street were posh—and way over my budget. The cheap hotels were hidden. I looked up a few on Google Maps and went hunting but had absolutely no luck finding the entrances to these places. The streets were too busy, too filled with shops and stalls and people. It was pure chaos—and there were no signs of the hotels that supposedly existed somewhere in the high-rise towers looming over the market streets.

Eventually I struck up a conversation with a vendor and passed him my phone. His face scrunched up in puzzlement as he examined the name and address of the hotel that should have been right where we were standing. He did not seem familiar with it but kindly called up the owner and conversed in Chinese. With what scraps of each other’s languages we knew he was able to ask and I was able to indicate that I was looking for one room for one person for one night with a budget of around 600 or 700 NT. The call ended and we waited for the owner to materialize.

Wandering through Fengjia night market
This is the street I stayed on. There is a hotel around here somewhere!

The hotel entrance turned out to be an open door tucked away at the back of an alcove right across from the vendor’s stall. I had actually wandered by it several times—but there was nothing about that mundane portal that suggested “hotel” in any way, shape, or form. There was no sign, nothing to indicate a place of business, just a security guard passing the time watching television behind a tile counter in a cramped, dimly-lit lobby. I had actually written it off as a residence—which it probably was, apart from the two floors that I soon learned had been converted into a no frills budget hotel.

I ended up paying 900 NT, more than I wanted to spend, but wasn’t about to waste any more time shopping around. The room was actually quite nice—with a huge mural of the Empire State Building and the Manhattan skyline splayed across one wall. Yes, it was a New York-themed hotel in the middle of one of Taiwan’s biggest night market. Even the keychain fit the theme—it was emblazoned with “I ♥ NY”!

After showering and changing I hit the streets and met up with Ariel. We hit it off immediately and had a great time wandering around the night market, eating Korean bibimbap and sampling all kinds of junk food. While we queued other Taiwanese people spoke amongst themselves trying to size us up. I was obviously not from around here but they weren’t able to place her—Japanese, perhaps? Because she was with me, a foreigner, they assumed she was also a tourist, not a native! Ariel relayed the substance of these conversations to me with great amusement.

Ariel and I spent a lot of our time together talking about cultural differences between east and west. She had just returned to Taiwan after studying in New York City for many years. In that time she had become—for lack of a better term—westernized, and was finding it difficult to reintegrate into Taiwanese society. Reverse culture shock is commonly experienced by Taiwanese people who live abroad and then return. It is, of course, a common issue for all long-term travellers, but I suspect that Taiwanese have a harder time of it than most.

Gleaming in the neon light
Scooter parking at Fengjia night market.

Eventually we parted ways. Ariel hopped on her scooter and disappeared into traffic. I smiled as I wandered back to my hidden hotel amidst the neon-lit crowds. It had been such a pleasure to connect with someone after a day in the wild. I self-consciously realized I must have babbled like a rescued castaway at times. It isn’t often that I have the opportunity to engage with someone on such a level.

Playing games in Fengjia night market
The games people play.

Back at the hotel I started to process some photos and draft up some notes about the events of the day but I couldn’t sit still. My system had been pumped full of adrenaline for most of the day and I had far too much energy to burn. I gathered up my things and went down to the streets again—this time with no specific goal in mind.

Any more items on this menu and this business will need to expan
Any more items on this menu and this business will need to expand to another building!

I walked for hours. I took a few photos but mostly I just walked. I reflected on everything that had happened that day. I thought back to all that has transpired since moving to Taiwan and pondered my reasons for leaving home. I allowed my thoughts to wander to the unspeakable darkness that still haunts me… but it became too much to bear. I redirected my attention to the moveable feast of the bustling night market. I know that constant sensory stimulation will save me from my sorrow. In the west we are all distracting ourselves to death but here in the east I am distracting myself to live.

Inside a mall in Fengjia
Inside a mall in Fengjia night market.

Time passed. The crowd began to thin out. Cleaners swept up the trash and shops closed with the rattle of metal shutters falling to the ground. I watched with admiration as night market vendors began the laborious process of dismantling their stalls, a Sisyphean process of undoing that must be repeated day after day. I have tremendous respect for the industry of the common people of Asia.

Overlashed in Fengjia
Many Taiwanese girls are obsessed with fake eyelashes.

Still I wandered, on and on. I went nowhere in particular. Mostly I circled around the same places I had already seen two or three time. I watched the lights go out, one by one. And then I alone wandered the darkened streets where there had been tens of thousands only hours before.

For whatever reason I was still greedy for experience. I stubbornly refused to return to my room. I wanted to squeeze everything I could out of this day… but the night market had come apart. Storefronts were shuttered, stalls had been returned to their resting places, neatly ensconced in alleyways beneath blue tarps. There was nothing else for me to do out here. It was time to call it a night. I ambled off in the direction of my hotel.

All hail the mighty octopus
All hail the mighty octopus!

In my room I opened a celebratory Kirin beer and called a friend back home on Skype. Partway through drinking the beer I felt sluggish and nauseated. I set the beer aside, wrapped up the conversation, and shut down my computer. I felt sick to my stomach. I must have had too much sun for half a beer to have such an effect. Or perhaps I have simply experienced too much in one day and couldn’t handle anything more.

I finally let go of whatever had been keeping me up and accepted that this splendid day had to end. I put everything away and collapsed into the amazingly cloud-like bed, easily the most comfortable place I have slept in all of Taiwan. I set my mind adrift and let me consciousness fade. Soon I fell into a dreamless slumber, deeply satisfied and completely at peace with the world.