Road Trips in Taiwan

Man and Machine

I've done a few of these now. When I first came to Taiwan it was one of my great pleasures to power out of town on my mighty two-stroke and discover what lay beyond the concrete jungle that comprises much of of the western region.

Richard and Jo

Left: Two smelly foreigners and scruffly little dog

My first trip was Chinese New Year 2000 with with my flatmate, Jo, a volatile mixture of vodka and Scottishness, and a little dog who's name now escapes me.

It was an epic journey. We crossed the Southern Cross Island Highway (Nan Heng) to Taitung, booted it up to Hualien for a night before returning to Taitung, down South to Kenting and back up to Tainan, all in five days. Living in a tent for most of it, we got to know each other's foibles pretty well though I think it was a bit unfair of her to say that my socks were any smellier than hers! Jo has since moved on and was last sighted in Australia, where she apparently settled down with a Geordie, so one imagines they will have some interesting offspring.

Road Trip Number Two:

Chinese New Year 2001, this time I took off on my own. A late start compounded by getting lost on the way to Chiayi, I'm thinking a few well placed road signs around the place probably wouldn't hurt! Made it to Alishan and spent a night in the mountains. The resort area proved a bit much for me so I headed further along to find a campsite and settled on some abandoned road worker huts. The sunrise at Alishan is quite beautiful though Taiwanese are a bit over the top in their praise of it. Seeing it at some point in your life seems to be some sort of rite of passing.

Day Two: Leaving Alishan I saw my first wild monkey. I cocked an eye at it and it cocked an eye at me and there we were - cockeyed. There are bears in the mountains too but they've mostly been killed and eaten. It's an unfortunate reality that the feet of the poor old Formosan Brown Bear are a highly regarded delicacy, despite the fact that their consumption is also highly illegal.

Sun Moon Lake:

Sun Moon Lake (Ri Yue Tan), located in Nantou County was one of the areas worst hit by the 9/21 earthquake. 9/21 refers to the date (21/9/1999) on which the earthquake struck and reflects the Chinese fascination with numbers and dates. The earthquake was quite devastating, resulting in almost 3,000 deaths. I remember it well, I had only been on the island for a month! The lake itself gained some notoriety after some guy from Taichung tried to get rid of the grizly evidence there after chopping up his former girlfriend and her two daughters. I did a loop of the lake after again missing the turnoff, before finally heading to Puli.

Sun Moon Lake murders

Towards Puli is the Formosa Aboriginal Culture Village. I though I'd check it out. It's actually a theme park but it's quite well laid out. Up the back are 9 villages each representing one of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes. The aborigines represent less than 2% of Taiwan's population and mostly live in the mountains or rural areas. They have largely been marginalised by Chinese society but more recently aboriginal culture has become very popular. Verily there are born again aboriginals popping up all over the place, particularly in the political sphere. Their languages and culture are distantly related to Maori and Pacific island people. They are a friendly bunch and prone to drinking a beer or three.

Aboriginal culture amusement park

Below the aboriginal exhibits is the Amusement Park. Some of those rides are pretty scary! The first one I went on was the U.F.O. They strap you in to a type of carousel with about 40 other people, which slowly rotates up a huge pole until at the top you sit there for about 15 seconds contemplating your existence and the view overlooking the amusement park before they drop you. I felt a bit sick after that one. In fact on the way down I became convinced that I my number was up and I was indeed going to die. To hell with bungy jumping, that is baD news. So I headed for the next ride which was one of those roller coaster rides which swings you around in all directions. The whole time I'm thinking, being Taiwan they probably haven't checked any of this stuff since the last earthquake......

And on to Puli where disaster struck. I stopped to buy some bin-lang (betel-nuts) and some gloves and at some point I lost my wallet. So there I am, stuck in Puli with half a tank of gas and sod-all cash. Bugger! One of the pitfalls of travelling alone. So I found the police station, the local cops spoke practically no English and with my rather pitiful ability in Chinese it was pretty hard going. In the end I called a friend in Tainan and to cut a long story short they were able to contact someone in Puli who could lend me the money. Whew, lucky break.

betel nut

Betel-nut

Fairly common across S.E. Asia and known locally as Taiwanese chewing gum. "Bin-lang" is a mild stimulant which used excessively leads to red or black stained teeth and can result in cancer of the mouth. It's definitely a blue collar type of indulgence and many of the locals consider it to be fairly low class. However, It's useful on motorcycle trips for keeping you warm. You also get a chance to talk to the sexy girls they get to sell the stuff.

Wushe

Wushe, on the Central Cross Island Highway

Hehuanshan:

Day 3: The road from Puli to Hualien takes you over Hehuanshan and is the Highest road in Taiwan reaching an elevation of 3275m. Hehuanshan itself can be reached from the road and is at 3416m. I didn't bother to go for a look as the whole place was shrouded in fog. In fact the weather was very bad that day and later on I came off the bike during a hailstorm when I was trying to read yet another ambiguous road sign. My own fault for sure but fortunately I wasn't going at all fast so I wasn't too badly hurt. Further down the hill is Taroko Gorge which is also quite spectacular.

Typical of East Coast cities, Hualien is less crowded, smaller and more spread out. It's a nice town. I stayed in the Dormitory at the Student Hostel.

Day 4: I headed South for Liyu Lake thinking I could cross the mountains again and visit the City of Taichung which I have never been to and which is Taiwan's 3rd biggest city. Unfortunately the bastard Taiwan Tourist Map stuffed me up again. The Highway I was hoping to take didn't exist and it was getting late in the day so I decided to head further South to Taitung. Possibly some of the roads depicted in the map were destroyed by the 9/21 earthquake but it doesn't look like they are in much of a hury to update it.

During Chinese New Year accommodation generally means taking what you can get and since it was still raining I didn't really feel like camping. I stayed in the Dong Bin Hotelwhich really should have been called the Dung Bin!!! I found a very nice little karaoke pub, and made some friends. I even sang a few songs.

Day 5: The weather was still pretty crap so I decided to forgo the Southern Cross Island Highway(Nan Heng) which goes over the mountains, for the long route which goes around the bottom of Taiwan. A fairly long day but I was grateful to get back home with an extra day to recover before work. In all I probably covered about 1500kms in 5 days.