Taiwan Bicycle Tour 2013: Hsinchu and Zhubei

A park in Zhubei
A hint of culture amidst the fabricated city.

After my first day on the road I slept poorly, in fragments. I was roused in the early morning after two hours of rest to snack and have coffee before returning to bed. I did not awaken until after noon—at which point I decided to stay an extra night to catch up on work, blogging, photo post-processing, and to rest. I treated it as an opportunity to take a closer look at Zhúběi 竹北, where I was staying, and to make a side trip to explore Hsinchu City 新竹市 across the river.

Hsinchu 新竹 provides an opportunity to mention an issue that will come up now and then as I blog about my travels: romanization, the process by which the Chinese languages (and other languages with their own script) are written in the characters of the Latin alphabet. There are many competing methodologies of which pinyin is presently the most widely recognized, haven been popularized by the People’s Republic of China (AKA China).

Taiwan officially adopted Hanyu pinyin quite recently, in 2009. The city of Taipei adopted pinyin years earlier and has already changed most of its signs. Other places have adopted a variety of different strategies, either replacing signs or steadfastly refusing to switch from another romanization system for historical, cultural, or political reasons. The end result of this is that the romanization of many place names in Taiwan follows older systems such as Wade-Giles. Hsinchu is one such example; it would be romanized as Xinzhu 新竹 in Hanyu pinyin and is pronounced “shin-ju”. Knowing this, Zhubei’s name makes sense: it is a combination of the “zhu” (竹) from Xinzhu and “bei” (北), or north.

Manufactured landscapes in Zhubei
Barren ground in Zhubei.

Zhúběi 竹北 is the most contrived city I have every visited, somewhat like what I imagine China’s ghost cities might feel like, though not to that extreme. The closest point of reference I have is Detroit—but Detroit is old. Zhubei, the part of it I was in, hasn’t been around for more than a few years at most. It is a planned city built up around the new high-speed rail station. If you look up Zhubei on Google Maps it is essentially just roads and construction sites. It is like someone is playing Sim City in real life.

The artifice of Zhubei
Most of Zhubei is still being constructed.

Since Google last updated their satellite view of Zhubei many of the buildings have been completed. The result is a mosaic of empty plots and shiny new condominiums with the occasional business struggling to get off the ground. The problem is simply that people haven’t moved in yet, not in the numbers needed to support these fledgling businesses. I have read elsewhere of massive land speculation in Taiwan—something of the sort might be happening here. If I were conspiratorially minded and more informed about local conditions I might infer that developers have been making money hand over fist simply by building units in lucrative areas specifically to sell them to speculators who ultimately leave those same units empty. But really, I am just guessing here. Perhaps Zhubei just needs a few more years to fill up.

Ruins in Zhubei
A reminder of how things used to be.

Interestingly, some effort has been undertaken to preserve some of the traditional structures that must have once constituted a village in the area. While riding around the straight roads between development projects I noticed an old gate and went to investigate. Inside the walls I found a variety of traditional-looking buildings, gardens, a small rice paddy, and even some ruins. I suppose the idea is that Taiwanese children growing up in this very European-looking city continue to be exposed to some elements of traditional life?

A reminder of yesteryear in Zhubei
A rice paddy in the midst of all these developments. Just for show?

In other places it looks like hold-outs haven’t sold to developers, recalling the nail houses of mainland China. It was really jarring to find a traditional home amidst all the shiny new high rises! That being said, can you imagine having lived here for years only to one day wake up and see all this steel and concrete reaching into the sky where there was once nothing more than fields and dusty back-country roads?

Traditional home amidst endless condos
Traditional homes and cheap condominiums.

I headed west under the blistering sun and made my way across a long bridge into Hsinchu proper. On the other side of the river I returned to the Taiwan that I knew, leaving Zhubei’s artifice behind. Hsinchu reminded me of other cities I have visited in my travels though it had slightly more of a Japanese colonial era feel in some downtown areas. I roamed around a while but wasn’t in the mood to continue cycling in the repressive heat of the late afternoon. Actually, I was concerned about my ability to tolerate the sun while riding around—and at some point decided that I’d had enough to make an assessment about whether the amount on sun I had been exposed to was harmful or not.

Can’t beat the heat
Yes, it’s a hot day for a ride.

I brought my laptop in addition to my camera precisely so that I could get some work done at some point. I also had it in mind to do some shopping. I’ve been in search of proper clothing for this trip—some kind of wicking, quick-dry shirt to keep me cool under the sun. All the stuff I found in Taipei was either cheap or plastered with ugly logos. In Hsinchu I found more of the same and soon tired of the cyclical consumer experience. I parked myself in an air conditioned coffee shop, ordered a passable cappuccino, and got down to business processing photos and drafting up material for this series of blog entries.

Iffy coffee, Hsinchu
Iffy coffee. No, I did not stop there for a cup.

After coffee I made a brief pitstop at Chenghuang Temple 城隍廟, a temple completely surrounded by night market vendors. To enter the temple it is necessary to pass through a labyrinth of food stalls and open air restaurants. It is an extremely curious symbiosis of commerce and spirituality.

A temple shrouded in street food vendors
A temple immersed in street food vendors.
Temple food court
Street food within the temple complex.
The temple inside the food court
The front of the old temple at the heart of Hsinchu.

I was in a rush but I took a step inside the old temple to take a quick look. When I turned to the heavens I was arrested by the beauty of the woodwork on the ceiling. With a quick flick of the wrist I pointed my camera upward and shot what is undoubtedly the most beautiful photograph I have captured on this trip thus far.

Inside the old temple in Hsinchu
Beautiful woodwork inside the old temple in Hsinchu.

People in Taiwan generally work late hours and, as such, rush hour usually takes place after nightfall. I emerged from the temple complex, hopped on my bike, and jumped into the seething flow of motorbikes, delivery trucks, and automobiles plying the streets of Hsinchu. Riding in the organized chaos of busy traffic under the ubiquitous neon lights is an experience I won’t ever forget.

Waiting at the lights in Hsinchu
Cycling the streets of Hsinchu at night.

I prefer not to take the same route I have taken before if I can help it. And so I brashly headed east from downtown Hsinchu, intending to take a bridge across to Zhubei further up the river (and closer to my final destination). After a harrowing ride through a motorbike tunnel under the rail line I emerged in the eastern part of Hsinchu to the sight of a fairy-tale castle at the next roundabout. (This is actually the entrance to the Hsinchu Glass Museum but I didn’t know it at the time.)

A fairy-tale castle in Hsinchu
A fairy-tale castle in eastern Hsinchu.

I kept going. The land began to rise underneath me and my muscles powered my climb. Bicycle lanes fell away, the road widened, and soon I found myself on what amounted to the highway leading out of town. The intersection leading to the big bridge into Zhubei was a complete mess; I ended up waiting for minutes to position myself in just the right way to make it to the appropriate side to begin my approach. With green lights and engines roaring all around me I forced the pedals down and sailed ahead of the motorbikes, flying down the gentle gradient to the bridge beyond.

And then things went wrong. Up ahead I saw a sign for the lane I was in indicating that it was an exit for some place that wasn’t Zhubei. Motorbikes were beginning to swarm around me and I had to make a quick decision. Since I saw a bunch trundle off to the lane next to me I followed suit. After the divider the road surface began to sink and I knew I had miscalculated. This, in fact, was the exit presaged by the sign now behind me. I was going wherever it went since there was no immediate way to return and try again.

I soon found myself far below the bridge in industrial lands lit by the incandescence of dim orange bulbs. Where was I, exactly? My phone was not particularly helpful; anytime roads are overlapped they appear as one on the screen. I doubled back and followed the pillars of the bridge onramp hoping to find an access point to return to the surface. Instead I found a pack of wild dogs hungering for my flesh.

Breathing in the dust
Getting lost in the dusty lands below the bridge on the wrong side of the river.

I beat a hasty retreat and—not knowing what else to do—I turned right, following a delivery vehicle down a service road running along the inside of a flood wall like the ones in Taipei that I wrote about in my last entry. After a while I turned right again, this time following the map on my phone to reconnect with the highway where I originally began my descent to the bridge. The silhouettes of enormous machinery loomed in the darkness as the road gave way to gravel and dirt. I began to cough, breathing in the dust that had been kicked up by the last vehicle to come this way. Street lights had given way to darkness and again I found myself feeling incredibly isolated and cut off from the world. Anything could happen out here.

Lost under the bridge out of town
Trying to find my way out of the industrial lands below the bridge leading out of Hsinchu to Zhubei.

After following the dirt road for a while I passed through a gap in another flood wall and passed by the first sign of human habitation I had seen in a while: a ramshackle homestead overlooking a bunch of rice paddies. Eventually I returned to the set of service roads beneath the bridge itself—this time on the other side of the pack of wild dogs. From here the ascent was more or less predictable; I paralleled the bridge for a while and then mounted a series of switchbacks to return to where I started this needless detour.

From that point on it was smooth sailing, more or less. I crossed the bridge into Zhúběi 竹北, had dinner, and eventually got to sleep, though not before insomnia took its toll. I mentally prepared myself for the ride to Taichung the next day, a ride that I had already figured would be quite challenging given the number of different sights I planned to see along the way.

There is another story to tell about today—but I will keep this one to myself for now.