Cycling, like other repetitive movements, triggers a meditative state of sorts that clears my mind. I’ve solved coding problems and made major life decisions on bike rides.
I was riding a Taipei City YouBike home early December when struck with an epiphany. I’ve wanted to take time off of work to cycle around Taiwan for years! Winter is the only time I’d consider this adventure. It’s hot enough during the coldest months of the year, and there is no time like the present.
My lease was month-by-month on the 8th of the month. December 8th was days away but I am supposed to give my landlord two weeks notice and I had some loose ends to wrap up. Oh, and I didn’t have a bike — January 8th it is.
A new friend of mine told me that she had a bike I could borrow — left behind from a past lover to cycle the island last winter. “The condition was bad even before he bought it,” she said. “It’s not a good bike, but I guess it’s fine for normal riding.”
We met at the MRT station nearest to the abandoned bike. She’s hit with waves of nostalgia as we walk through her old neighbourhood, pointing out the places she used to frequent on the way to her old apartment. “This is it,” she says. It’s a bit more rusted than it looked in the photos. “How long has this been sitting here for?” I questioned. “Since February.” It sat there for nearly a year with nothing but a combination lock securing its frame to its rear tire. It wouldn’t have survived a day in Vancouver.
After wiping off as much filth as we could, she suggests I give the bike a try.
“It’s yours if you want it.” She unlocks the tire from the frame —
“Of course.” I rolled my eyes, hopped on, and pedaled forward. Noticing that
both tires are flat, I hit the brakes but didn’t slow down. I stop with my feet
and suggest we take it in for a tune-up.
One can bike around the island in less than two weeks but I had planned to spend a month or two, taking my time to explore and continue to work on my projects. I made arrangements to store the larger of the two bags I brought to Taiwan at a friends place and packed the one I was to bring with way more than I needed.
A poorly timed “cold snap” rolled through Taiwan. It was seven degrees and raining when I closed the lease to my apartment. I’m a fair-weather biker. I didn’t want to stay in Taipei so I caught a train to Toucheng. I liked the design of the Lanyang Museum and wanted to see it in person. It also served to protect me from the elements.
It was still cold but I caught a break from the rain and took a short bike ride to Jiaoxi — a small town known for their hiking trails, hot springs, and green onion pancakes. I indulged in the local offerings. Many guests at my hostel were there to hike to higher altitudes to experience snow for their first time.
I continued south to Yilan City where I’d wait out another few days of rain before catching a train to Hualien. The rain wasn’t holding up and that stretch along the coast is known to be extremely dangerous for bikers as there are a lot of trucks, windy roads, and little to no shoulder.
My friends warned me about the rain on this part of the island during this time of the year but I’m pretty easy going. It afforded me the time I needed to balance work with play and officially defer my registration at the Mandarin Training Center to the spring and summer semesters.
I eat at low key restaurants where you typically eat with other people unless it’s not busy. Two women sat at my table for dinner in Hualien. They didn’t speak English at all but between my growing vocabulary and translation software we chatted for about half an hour. I told them that I was heading to Yuli by bike the next day. They suggested it was too far but I showed them it was less than 100 kilometers and that Google Maps estimates 5.5 hours — “mostly flat” with a 600 meter incline towards the end.
One of them happened to be visiting from Yuli and kindly suggested that I visit the free hot springs. She proceeded to show me photos of her family. She called her husband and handed the phone to me. “Welcome to Taiwan!”
At this point, I hadn’t really biked all that much. My shoulders and neck were sore from the hour long ride with my backpack days earlier and my next planned ride was over five times as long. I bought some bungee cords and spent an hour doing my best to strap my bag in effort to take the weight off my shoulders. I rode one meter and it fell off. I sighed, threw my bag on my back, and powered through.
After about 80 kilometers — shoulders aching, soaked in sweat, and covered with a thick layer of soot — it was time to ascend the aforementioned 600 meter incline. I hadn’t yet attempted to change gears on this bike. I apprehensively shift down a gear. The noise was horrific as it struggled to change gears. It wasn’t catching so I shift back. It caught on after a few more fearful attempts by my legs were already shot. The landscape views made it all worth it. Taiwan is breathtakingly beautiful.
Yuli was a surprising vegan hot spot. It helped that I had a friend show me around. Maybe I’ve just been blind to it all in other cities but the food was incredible. I had the stinkiest stinky tofu. I had 燒餅 loaded with tofu and vegetables from a vegetarian breakfast shop — the first I’ve seen of its kind. We rode into the mountains to hike and bathe in the free hot springs that the woman in Hualien told me about. We revisited the hot springs every night of my stay, aiding the recovery of my body.
I took a similar ride from Yuli to Taitung City. Cycling past fallen coconuts and receiving welcoming and encouraging thumbs up, “hello!” and 「加油」 from locals often had me forgetting about the pain.
I was making small chat with someone in the elevator of a Taitung hostel, exchanging stories about what brought us to Taiwan and Taitung in particular. I mentioned that I was cycling around the island. “How long have you been training?” I was a bit thrown off. I mean, I have been riding Taipei City YouBikes when I’m out past the last train but that’s probably not what she meant. “Oh, I just borrowed an old bike from a friend and started going,” I replied as we exited the elevator. “That’s my bike!” I proudly continued.
She immediately shifted from a calm and relaxed vibe to one of confusion and possible anxiety. “Well, you must have seen a lot,” she stuttered. “Yeah, I’m taking my time and mixing it up. Some days I explore and others I work on some personal projects — I brought my laptop.” She withdrew further. “Oh of course, because you’re crazy,” she said as she walked away.
I brought my bike to a shop to find a solution for my backpack. My shoulders and neck couldn’t handle another ride like that. I was about to embark on my longest ride yet — 150 kilometers to Pingtung City.
It made a world of a difference. I felt so unencumbered and free. I was flying! It was such a beautiful day to cycle. The temperature had just dropped from 29 degrees to a more tolerable 22 degrees over night. I cycled for hours with beaches to my left and mountains to my right.
I stopped in Daren for an early lunch to refuel for the second half of my journey. I had biked through and around a lot of broken glass, rocks, stones, and debris from car accidents along the way. I looked at my bike while waiting for food and noticed my rear tire was looking low. I walked over to take a closer look and confirmed it was flat.
I considered myself lucky — I’m already in a town. I search Google Maps for “bicycle repair shop” and I’m notified with “No results found. Try panning or zooming the map.” I immediately realized that I wasn’t going to make it to Pingtung. There was no way I’d make it before sunset with any unexpected delays.
I remembered reading that police can help with situations like this — at least to help get you in the right direction. The only open restaurant in this town just so happened to be across from the police station, as is the case with the rest of the town. The police confirmed what Google Maps had already revealed — there are no repair shops within walking distance. They advised me to take a bus to a larger town.
I waited about an hour for a bus but there was no room for my bike. The bus station didn’t have a schedule but it did have a phone number. I dialed and it played back a recording in Mandarin that started with “sorry” and the rest was unintelligible to me. Assumptions lead me to believe that customer service is closed on Sunday or that the number was not in service. My friend called to confirm the latter.
The shop owner from a nearby supermarket saw my struggle and came to help me. He said the next bus isn’t for another four hours. Google Translate was failing us miserably so he called his daughters to help translate. He graciously offered to drive me and my bike to Dawu train station when he was done at the shop. He gave me a seat and some snacks while we continued to chat with intermittent translation aids between customers.
I wanted to get to a city large enough to be confident that my bike could be serviced. I heard that a train was departing to Kaohsiung within the hour. Perfect! I had visited a few years ago. My repair needs could certainly be met and it would be nice to revisit with new eyes.
There was some uncertainty about the issuing of my tickets but I finally had them in my hands just minutes before boarding. I later found out that the maximum bikes had been reached for my train but I was granted an exception.
The first half of my journey was unforgettable and I’m looking forward to seeing what waits for me to discover in the second half.