Day Nine – Kenting to Taitung

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So I’d just passed the halfway point; both geographically and in terms of trip duration. Today I waved farewell to the sunny shores of Kenting and fist bumped the east coast city of Taitung.

The day started with a local breakfast in the company of my dorm mate Esther and hostel chief Ian. He recommended a well respected family eatery where we were fortunate enough to sample a delicious cold noodle dish called Ma Jiang Mian (麻醬麵). Incorporating the aforementioned cold noodles and a combination of peanut, sesame and soy sauce along with sesame seeds, it is entirely unpretentious and – along with one of my favourites lu rou fan (滷肉飯) – a great inexpensive dish for backpackers, or indeed anyone on a budget. After this scrumptious start, we headed back to the centre of Hengchun to find a huge bandstand in the town square with several people focusing their attention intently on the performer. Curious to see what the fuss was about, I wandered over and gradually started to hear what sounded like a rock band performing live, then was taken aback after seeing just one drummer on stage. To make things more bizarre, he could barely see over the bass drum or reach the pedal as he looked, in my eyes, no more than 10 years old. He knew how to hit the bloody things though, to be fair to him. From what I’d witnessed, his only competition was a girl of about 8 on a unicycle, and she was absolutely shit. Sorry little girl. Practice harder for next year.

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The glorious 200 road. Ride it ride it ride it.

It took about 20 minutes to get packed up and strapped down onto the motorbike before I was ready to set off on the day’s journey. My plan was to take the 200 road (AKA Bee-sting Boulevard) then opt for the only possible route along the east coast to Taitung. One of the cons of having boundless mountain terrain is that it can limit your choice of road at times. The main drawback about this isn’t that I can’t choose the route that I want to take; more that I’ll have to share the road with infinite amounts of cars, tourist buses, 12 ton lorries, and last but definitely not least, huge construction vehicles. Taitung and beyond to the north along the east coast of Taiwan suffer immensely from constant landslides, which dictate the frequent need for maintaining and rebuilding of infrastructure, just to add to the inconvenience. Consequently, if you ride from Kenting to Taitung or vice-versa, be prepared to share the road with every other driver going in the same direction. One recommendation aside from the obvious safety bikewear is a facemask or scarf to tie around your mouth and nose, otherwise expect to be wiping exhaust dust and road grit off of your face for the next few days. Heed this warning. HEED IT. Anyway, that’s exactly what happened, but more on that later.

I was more than happy to take the same road again as yesterday, actually it felt like a real treat as my first road of the day. My planned route all the way up to Taitung would be a little different to what I’ve become accustomed to so far, as aside from the obvious surrounding beauty, the area boasts a high population density of aboriginal Taiwanese, in fact, the second highest percentage in the country. The indigenous group here are known as the Paiwan people, and their legend is typically fascinating – their ancestors lived on the nearby Dawu mountain (on the border of Taitung and Pingtung counties) in an area called Paiwan, where heaven was said to exist. Since then, the population has spread out, but their identity has always retained that name. Good eh? Also, back in the 19th century they had several tit-for-tat minor rucks with the good ol’ US of A, most notably the Rover incident and the Formosa Expedition, the latter being the retaliation for the former; the killing of American sailors after their ship sank off the coast of Taiwan (then Formosa), but only because they started it by killing natives first. Apparently. For such a small island, Taiwan’s history certainly is rich and captivating.

On my drive through I certainly understood one of the reasons that humans settled here thousands of years ago, it’s bloody magnificent to look at. As altitude increases the scenery seamlessly transforms from clear blue sea to jungle canopies along a spine of rugged mountain peaks. This was probably one of the best photos I took on the whole trip, complete with Jesus rays and everything. Check it yo.

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One of the memorable moments of the journey. A car passed me while I was enjoying the view and decided to pull over and join in with the basking. Or so I thought. A father-son combo got out, spoke together in Taiwanese dialect for a minute or two, then finally Dad had a fag (cigarette for non-UK readers) and a wee before hopping back in the car and continuing their journey. They must have thought this view was rather average if they live around ‘ere.

Almost every minute of the journey once I’d reached the 9 road was stuck behind a large, and hence slow vehicle, repeatedly kicking dirt and dust into my face like a wronged cowboy. Luckily the weather was better than expected, if a little uncertain at times, with oceans of dark grey clouds manifesting directly above and in front of me, while blue skies over the sea mocked me. I had to play a bit of a strategic game by choosing my breaks and petrol refills wisely to avoid the wrath of the rain gods. When planning routes during this trip, I could generally suss out whether or not a certain road on the map was interesting. Presumably the road would to be busy as previously mentioned, but I expected – at the least – something visually pleasing while driving along the coast. Disappointingly, it wasn’t enough to make the day’s journey a memorable one, considering the other negative factors. Also, the perpetual construction work was unmistakably evident, detracting massively from the area’s natural beauty.

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Situated in a frequent typhoon zone, in between the ocean and the vast central mountain spine of Taiwan, the weather is always going to be quick to change to extreme. Pack a mac in your sack! …Jack.

By about 5pm I’d reached Taitung. Having only been here once before on a rainy morning I didn’t remember much about the place, but it looked far smaller than I expected (that’s not a bad thing though, before any Taitungians jump down my throat). Soon enough after pulling over and consulting the internets I found a joint with an interesting name. “Why Not Hostel”. Why not indeed? Great marketing strategy. It took under ten minutes to reach the spot I assumed it would be, however, it’s not uncommon for GPS locations to be wrong so I pulled over at the junction for another look at my map when a voice popped out of a window.
“Hey. Are you looking for the hostel?”
Where is he? What kind of sorcery be this? I look around for an answer, and the human that made the noise, but no luck. Suddenly, he appeared in view, sitting on a stool outside while calmly smoking a cigarette. I must have missed him on first glance, but this encounter unsettled my brain for a few moments. Before long, I was parked up and shown the accommodation to check it was to Sir’s liking (I am Sir).

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After setting my bags down upstairs and being offered the grand tour of the hostel, I notice that the place has a lot of personality, just like the owner. After I compliment some suspended lightbulbs in the bathroom and the use of steel pipe to make shelves, tables and ladders, he tells me that he is quite a keen handyman, and completed almost all of the work here himself. Not just the decoration either, we’re talking electrics, the lot. As my football team were due to play later on that evening (Tottenham Hotspur if you’re curious) I made the usual enquiry to check if there were any sports bars in town that might show it. The answer was a regrettable no, yet he proudly directed my attention to the large projector that was set up in the communal area and hooked up to the hostel computer. Game on! All I had to do was find a stream that was showing it and I’d be in footy heaven. For some inexplicable reason – it doesn’t happen often – but it wouldn’t work and I failed to get any kind of a live feed. Thus, I was limited to drinking a couple of Taiwan’s finest tinned beers and constantly refreshing the BBC sports page to see the live scores. It turns out I missed a belter of a game. We won 5-0.

In a bittersweet beer induced light headedness, I decided to hit the sack. I had a few plans for the next day, involving a few abandoned building visits, one of them a cinema. Surprise, surprise…

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Day Eight – Kenting kontinued

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Travelling around a tropical country is no picnic you know. It’s not all relaxing in a hammock while your monkey butler gives you a back massage and prepares your Mojito. It can be stressful, tiring, and such hard work can give you quite an appetite. That’s why I destroyed two bagels for breakfast this morning. Not one, two. During this time I watched the world go by outside of the breakfast shop with a nice hot black tea, while my monkey butler did the crossword.

If you’re like me and enjoy views rather than landmarks, you’ll find yourself busy should you visit Kenting at some point. Today I marked a beach about 20 minutes drive away called Jialeshui (佳樂水), which has a reputation for being the best surf spot in South Taiwan, and is arguably one of the top in the whole country. My plan was to head down thataway to search for a friendly surf shop, hire a board out and spend the day falling into and ingesting a gallon of Pacific seawater. It’s far more fun than it sounds, honest. I did have a minor concern this morning; it was so windy that I thought it would be more likely that I’d be kitesurfing rather than regular surfing. Trying to ease my fears, I spoke to the previously mentioned Brit-from-Singapore after breakfast.

“It’s nothing to get worried about”, he confidently reassured me, with a slow, mechanical shake of his head. “I did the journey yesterday afternoon when it was windier than this and it wasn’t a problem. If you’re on your motorbike you’ll be too heavy to notice any effect anyway”. Just what I wanted to hear, even if I knew deep down that it wasn’t entirely accurate.

Off we pop, then. I got on the road from my hostel in Hengchun, which – according to the local lad and hostel owner Ian – is known as “Wind Town” or “Gustville” or “Blowy Village”, something like that.  You get the idea. It’s windy as shit. It’s also the setting of the highest ever grossing Taiwanese film called “Cape No.7”, if you like that stuff. Anyway I digress, a few of the roads out of town were a little treacherous, as some of the narrow roads seem to act like wind tunnels. Once I got out of town, it felt OK. Then once along the 200 road I was hit by a potent gust every 2 minutes, which each time felt like I was being gently pushed from the side. Every one that thumped me was met with a spoken ‘WHEEEEY’ along with some cursing, which I hope, if nothing else, gave any locals within earshot a bit of a laugh.

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The old West Gate of Hengchun town. 

 

Due to distraction and having so much fun preventing serious injury, I missed my turn by approximately 4km. I wasn’t particularly bothered by it as the wind had settled down, and the scenery I had driven through since leaving town was fantastic. Rolling green hills, lush foliage and quaint farm life. I u-turned, and aimed to get back on track. A few minutes later while riding through rich vegetation, I felt something go into the right hand side of my motorbike helmet. My visor was up at the time due to the warm temperature, and I assumed it would be a dead leaf, or twig, which isn’t an uncommon occurrence at all, particularly in tree-dense areas. I could feel it irritating the side of my head and wasn’t travelling rapidly, so decided to go for the left-index-finger-hook-out while driving. Safe enough. As soon as I put my finger into the helmet I felt an excruciating sharp pain like an electric shock, and a lot of confusion, considering I was expecting a leaf to fall out. I looked at my finger and there was a bleedin’ great sting hanging out of it. I slowed down to a halt to perform emergency surgery, and the little fucker flew out of my helmet and buzzed off on his way until he probably died.

Through constant cursing, I pulled it out of my finger by using my fingernails as tweezers, and some paranoia crept into my mind after recalling a sign at the nature reserve just the day before, which read “beware of poisonous snakes and wasps”. At the time I scoffed at this peculiar safety warning, and now I was beginning to wonder if maybe Taiwan did have poisonous wasps. Immediately after, as any normal person would, I thought: what would Steve Irwin do? The answer is this – suck the wound to get any of that bloody venom out, mate. So there I am, at the side of the road, sucking the tip of my finger and spitting it out in the ditch like a wally, making occasional “Aaaaa” noises while there was an old man on the opposite side of the road sitting outside his old one storey country shack, with legs sprawled out from an old woven chair and his head propped on the top of the backrest. His open-mouthed expression was one of bewilderment; but he appeared so comfortable wearing it that I guessed it was his natural look. That was confirmed once I’d nodded and waved in his direction, despite my pain, and he did literally nothing, except maybe breathe, in response. Cheers old fella.

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My finger was throbbing like I’d been hit with a cartoon hammer, but I thought it was most likely to pass within 15 minutes or so. Like the trooper that I am, in spite of my suffering I set off once again towards the surf zone, all the while keeping an eye on my finger to make sure it wasn’t swelling up too much. When I arrived near to the spot, I saw a couple of closed surf shops, and thought maybe they were low staffed, and perhaps already at the beach showing their customers the ropes. Rather than waste more time looking around, I thought I’d head to the water and check what the conditions were like, as if it was as windy on the coast as it was during the drive here, I’d be pretty reluctant to get in the water, especially without a buddy. I parked up the ol’ bike and walked up a short uphill slope to what seemed to be the beach. It didn’t take longer than ten seconds to realise that surfing was not a wise move: the sea crashed up against the rocks like Neptune himself was in a terrible mood, and the beach simply didn’t look like a beach. The sand had been sculpted by the strong wind so comprehensively that it was covered in thin rakes of driftwood and formed into an almost totally flat surface. The gales came intermittently, but frequently, and when they blew, I had to immediately shut my eyes before hundreds of grains of sand blinded me. In addition to that, they felt like millions of tiny knives being blown into my poor legs. So all this coupled with the lack of open surf shops, and lack of humans on the beach, I decided that this had been a bit of a write-off. Back to the motor then. Just as I was saddling up, I noticed a car with 3 tourists pull into the lot. They cheerfully got out of the car and began strolling up the slope to the beach when the Wind Gods smote them for having such a cheek. Watching them wincing in pain as they were hit by the million knife gale, I doubted they would last much longer than I did.

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Nice beach, good surfing (probably), and much pain. So many memories.

My evening plan was to watch the sun set over Hongliu port, and then have a fish dinner before heading back to the hostel. The idea that it would be the last sunset over the sea I would witness for a while was a pleasant and mildly sentimental idea at the time, but seems a little vapid and corny to me now, especially considering it was the first one I’d witnessed too. Either way, it was pretty nice and more peaceful than I expected. There were several couples looking from the road when I arrived, but I hopped down onto the concrete dock and sat on the ledge for the best view possible. The others quickly realised that yes, this bloke has seen a sunset or two in his life and clearly knows what he’s doing. So they shook off their fears of an untimely death and came down to sit along the dock edge. Sadly – for them – they left before it really kicked off. The sun had disappeared over the horizon yet still illuminated the sky thanks to the spattering of clouds above, and had taken on a soft yellow and peach hue which adjusted slightly by the minute. It was possibly the most painting-like sunset I remember seeing. Luckily for you, I had the foresight to pack my camera.

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I felt like I was inside one of Bob Ross’s paintings.

Afterwards I found a pretty spartan-looking fish restaurant along the dock, which looked like the type of place that would be utterly packed to the rafters during high season, but not so much outside of it, due to its lack of effort in the presentation category. In my opinion, the majority of eateries like this more than make up for that shortfall with the high quality of the food. That was again true in this case, but it was a tad more expensive than I expected. My mysterious image caught more Taiwanese eyes yet again, as I had conversations with two different families, one noticing that I was clearly struggling to work out the menu and order in Chinese, and the other asking how I got to this place, how I know it, and what the hell I think I’m up to. Both very nice indeed.

But not as nice as the two American cyclist gentlemen I encountered on the way home while waiting at some traffic lights. Sensibly wearing bicycle helmets, and strangely, short sleeved white shirts. What the devil is this?

“Hey, good evening, how are you today?”

Shit. Mormons.

*Light turns green*

“No.”

And yea, those Mormons were hence left in the dust. Len 8:14

Day Seven – Cruisin’ around Kenting

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First things first. Wherever I am in Taiwan, my go-to dish is the majestic beef noodle soup. My opinion of a city is influenced by how proficient they are at creating this fine dish, so it seemed only fair that it was my first meal in Kenting. I took a walk along the standard Zhongshan Rd (of course, as there is probably one in every city in Taiwan) and had a look at the options. It was a lovely day, hardly a cloud in the sky, and the town’s population were casually setting up their market stalls and businesses for the day’s trading.

Something that I touched on in one of my previous entries was how strange it can be trying to find breakfast in Taiwan sometimes. I clattered into this hurdle once again after finding a restaurant, and was told to sod off for half an hour until they were ready for me. I’m pleased to say it was worth the wait though; thick rough cut noodles and a tasty broth. Sadly, I remember the beef not being particularly tender, but I put that down to arriving too early in the day. Available at the front were an array of different garnishes for diners, lots of chilli options whether you like it in a red sauce, with soy, or just straight-up peppermania. I tend to douse mine in white rice vinegar and stick a bit of soy chilli in there. If you’re a spice fiend, you’ll probably enjoy it here. Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of heat, but something inside my body says NO when it’s in noodle soup. 7/10, the main con was the price, a little expensive if outside of Taipei. And the beef must fall apart when you touch it. But not bad.

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My gurl Katrina. Just needed an oil change and a slight chain tighten so far. She’s low maintenance. ❤

Once fuelled with meat and noodles, my plans were the following: enjoy a ride along the coastal roads on the motorbike, visit a nearby lighthouse, then a potentially awful tourist trap at the southmost point of Taiwan, and have a ramble around the national park. I was extremely lucky with the weather in Kenting as every day was warm and sunny, which was a stark contrast to my friend’s visit a few months prior to that. That, combined with the often flawless road quality throughout the country’s main roads, made riding alongside the coast an absolute joy. I would have been happy to do this all day, but you gots to see the sights. The next twenty minutes consisted of me grinning from ear to ear, almost forgetting that I was in south Taiwan and not riding along a beach road in Los Angeles. Tall swaying palm trees lining the edges of the street, and bright hot sunshine mixed with a cool sea breeze made it particularly California-esque, but the distinct lack of traffic made it a much less stressful experience compared to riding along Sunset Boulevard.

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I got to the lighthouse, and alarm bells rang instantly. Not literally, I didn’t steal anything. I mean that as soon as I arrived it looked like a hideously ropey and expensive tourist trap. Signs at the front gate were demanding money for parking, and also for a ticket to see the lighthouse. I felt like, other than the obviously nice view, I wasn’t going to enjoy much else about the place, as I find it hard to enjoy certain landmarks or tourist spots while there are hordes of people waddling all over the shop, chattering inanely. I deduced this would be a problem judging by the 3 tour buses parked near the entrance, so decided to instantly split and make my way to the very bottom of Taiwan.

I must have made it there before the rabble swarmed upon it, because there were relatively few people around and thus provided a healthy amount of peace. The walk from the start of the no-scooter-zone to the tip of Taiwan was around 500m, and appeared to be a fairly recently built brick path. Google maps reviewers are often unhappy with this path, which apparently ruins the atmosphere and natural setting of the area. Well mate: when there’s a hugely visited tourist spot which gets battered with typhoons several times a year, and the walking surface is basically a mixture of slippery mud and sharp volcanic rock, what would you suggest as a safer and more efficient alternative? A rope swing? Jetpacks for everyone? Don’t make me laugh. Oh, too late. You did. Shut up. Stop reviewing stuff and do us all a favour. Anyway, after the harrowing 500m walk across the ugliest brick path known to man, I found the supposed ‘southernmost point’, which was no more than a wooden viewing deck with a concrete plinth in the middle confirming that yes, you are here.

To be fair to the Google reviewer I just mocked, it’s pretty shoddy, and should be torn down immediately. When I visited, it was effectively destroyed. All of the floorboards had been removed, the highest probability being via one of the awesome storms that hit the area a few months before my visit. However, the structure was still in place, so any visitors had to manoeuvre along the framework and handrails at the edge. I took advantage of this and dropped underneath the structure to explore along the rugged chunks of dead black coral, closer to the sea. A few minutes after I climbed back onto the platform, three suited Chinese businessmen arrived, looking very uncomfortable at the prospect of balancing precariously just to obtain a selfie and go home. One of them spoke pretty good English, and made light conversation while mentioning that he would go to England next year, and he was very much looking forward to it. Of course after that – once we were truly considered good friends – the obligatory request for a selfie followed. I reluctantly agreed, which I’m sure made the day of each of these three gentlemen, who could return to their hotel content that they have a picture with a foreigner. Yes, this is a thing in China for some unfathomable reason, but thankfully it rarely happens in Taiwan.

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This lifeless looking place is a massive hunk of volcanic rock on the real tip of Taiwan, not that fake wooden one.

I’m always keen to see a nice view, and in particular a nice sunset. The decision to go to the national forest nature reserve instead of the lighthouse was spot on, even if I do say so myself. I had a quiet walk around scenic swampland and botanical gardens (where a gardener cheerfully waved at me from his sit-on lawnmower), walked through some oddly cold and damp stalagmite caves, and found the view I craved. On the rooftop of the appropriately named ‘viewing tower’ is a great panoramic (and extremely windy) viewpoint of the south peninsula and the mountainous forests to the north. I reckon with good enough eyesight, you could see all the way to the Philippines. Maybe not actually. I’m talking out of my arse. In other news, I managed to see a deer which should give you a good idea of how quiet the area was – and how lucky I was. Also nearly got into a scrap with a macaque. Thankfully there weren’t too many of the little sods around at this time of year, and his one-man ambush didn’t go to plan. I’m smarter than you, ya furry little imp. Go and put some cream on that angry red face.

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The southern view from the platform.

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The northern view.

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The national forest nature reserve just before sunset.

Another reason that made this a good call over the crappy lighthouse: the drive to and from the national forest reserve is ridiculously fun. Again, the roads are in great condition, the traffic in December was very low, and the bends are like something out of Sega Rally. Even the dense, leafy scenery reminded me of one of the Alpine tracks on the later stages. If you come here on a bike, do it.

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This little massive wee fella is called Dajianshan (大尖石山), which means “Big Pointy Mountain”. I’m not even bloody joking. Beautiful language, isn’t it?

I hit the coastal number 26 road once again to make my way back to the hostel. I arrived back and was met at the front desk by the owner, Ian. A very pleasant and interesting guy with almost native English ability, he had spent several years in Australia, which was obvious to me even without asking. As luck would have it, we were both thinking of plans for dinner so he decided to show me a fairly new sushi joint down the road. He told me a bit about how the hostel came to be a hostel, and his time in Australia of going from not speaking a word of English to comfortable fluency. We decided to make more of a night of it when he informed me that there was a darts bar down the road, so we returned to HQ to see if Esther was interested in coming along. Like any European away from home, she couldn’t refuse a beer, and we even managed to persuade a fellow Brit to come along (whose name escapes me, sorry mate) who had been slaving away in the Singapore finance sector for some time. It was a Thursday night during low season, so of course, minus the local regular dart fanatics, it was pretty dead. The most notable moment of the night – and perhaps my life so far – was throwing a 180 during a game. Once I’d realised that I’ll probably never throw such a score again and the high wore off, mild depression set in and I glumly trudged home, to begin the steady descent after the peak of my life. Sigh.

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There we go. Beat that. You can’t. Actually. Physically.