This morning the jets gave me a more soothing wake up call than I would have received from the Minions bin lorry (or “The Binions” as I’ve just realised I should have called it) that followed around ten minutes afterwards, in all their annoying, fatuous glory.
So onto my route for the day. I couldn’t help researching this one before today as it looked to be one of the most interesting and scenic journeys of the trip. The plan was to head south towards Taitung on the 11 road, then north along the 197 – which looked like 40-50km of mountain road bliss – which eventually joins the mammoth 9 road. Thankfully only briefly, as you can opt for the less direct but far more enjoyable choice of the 193 road, guiding you all the way to Hualien city.
Several days prior, I had a conversation with one of my friends living in Taipei, whose name will remain anonymous. But he knows exactly who he is. And so will all of my Taiwanese friends reading this by looking at the profile picture below.. We talked about where I’d been so far, most of the places I chose to stop off at he was already familiar with, as that group are avid hikers, and probably know every inch of this island between them. Please observe the following conversation.
Sounds good eh? Aboriginal tribes, mountain roads, and lush scenery, pretty much everything I’m looking for. I wasn’t so keen on the 11 road, as it has the same view of the ocean for the entire journey and would most likely be full of construction vehicles, trucks and tour buses, as it’s one of the main routes between Hualien and the south. The 197 to 193 route was the obvious winner.
Once I’d reached the 197 the traffic became virtually nonexistent, which wasn’t a bad thing at first. Then I realised that I hadn’t seen another human being for about 30 minutes of riding. Then I noticed that the road surface changed from that of a solid asphalt to loose gravel. Then it became slightly muddy. I kept my confidence by noting that I was – at least – still on the correct route as I continued to ride past ‘197’ road markers, and that I was on a suitable mode of transport: a rugged KTR dirtbike. I’ve seen uncles riding these bad boys up hiking trails with several gas canisters on the back, so I had confidence that it was prepared for a challenge. I remember reaching a point where the road continued to get worse and worse, and my brain had a negative spell once the thought of getting a puncture crossed my mind. I had no repair kit, and hadn’t seen a soul for about 10km. If the worst happened, the bike would have to remain while I went in search of a mechanic by foot. I started to care less about enjoying the quiet mountain countryside views and more about getting back onto solid tarmac and finding some degree of civilisation.
I powered along the deteriorating road – incidentally the worst I recall seeing in Taiwan – in the belief that it had to end soon. Well, it got worse before it got better. I turned several corners that had clearly suffered landslide damage; piles of rocks teetered on the edge of a steep cliff drop to the left hand side, which was sporadically marked by temporary (though clearly showed some age) concrete safety barriers. Large chunks of granite littered the road but were only a minor obstacle to be steered around. The real stumbling block was around the next corner, which is probably best described as a 30 metre clay pit. Grey, wet, and appearing to have the consistency of a chocolate mousse, I stopped to think about the best method of crossing. Quickly? Nope. If the bike topples in, I’m in big trouble. Hard to lift out, and I would bet that the clay isn’t good for the exposed engine, and tough to clean afterwards. Slowly then? But maybe I’ll get stuck and the bike will start to sink. Not slowly and not too fast? OK sounds good. Let’s do that.
My main comfort was that I could see car tyre marks from previous visitors of the swamp, but I had no idea when they had been made, and if it had rained since then. I was hopeful that the more narrow weight distribution on a motorcycle wouldn’t be a problem if the clay had been compacted by the last car’s mass. I turned on my Xiaoyi camera to capture the event, as I predicted a lot of swearing and anger being directed at the aforementioned expert of Taiwan for his terrible advice, which I could show to him later. With some careful manoeuvring and the use of my feet as impromptu stabilisers, we managed to brave the metaphorical banana skin with only a caking of dried clay on the bike and my trainers.
Around 15 minutes later, a random road sign appeared on the gravel road, seeming to show different routes at a junction. My first instinct was to laugh. My second thought was that a previous landslide had most likely dramatically altered the landscape, thus calling for a slight re-shuffle of the intersection. All of that was rubbish in the end, as 100m later I finally reached a junction made of my old friend: tarmac.
Overjoyed is too insignificant an adjective to describe my immediate mood. I punched the air, whooped, and even chanted my celebrations. I felt like I was smoothly floating over the road, and leaned into turns with ease. We had reached industrially developed society again! A clear reiteration of that was the appearance of a well placed 7-eleven, where I stopped to have lunch – covered in dust and clay.
Between there and the 193 road there is a place called Chishang (池上), which has a straight road flanked by rice paddies used for a TV advert or movie or something, and as a result has been firmly placed into the Famous category. The knock on effect is one of the most horrible tourist traps I’ve has the misfortune of seeing in all of Taiwan, and is smothered in tackiness. Loud music blares out at eardrum shattering levels, dozens of pedal rickshaw drivers wait by the barricaded entrance to the road, and hordes of tour groups shuffle up and down the road taking their unique pictures of the famous tree. I’m trying my best not to sound negative about this, but… well, I’ll leave it there. I just don’t understand it. I tried at least to have a ride down the road to see what all the fuss was about, and the swindle of rickshaw drivers (incidentally, “swindle” is a word of my own invention; the collective noun for rickshaw and taxi drivers) jumped up in unison to tell me that no, I was not allowed down this road on my vehicle. However, if I wanted to hire a bicycle or rickshaw then I was very welcome to try and enjoy myself while attempting not to crash into anyone. I very politely told them that this option did not interest me, and carried on my merry way.
It didn’t take long before I was on the glorious 193 road which quickly made it into my top two favourite roads in Taiwan. It snakes through rural villages, lazy winding rivers, ramshackle farmhouses, stagnant ponds and is home to many curious locals. Frankly, 90 kilometres of pure joy. The traffic is nonexistent as the vast majority of vehicles want to finish their Taitung – Hualien (or vice versa) journey as soon as possible, so logically choose the faster route 9 or 11. The only other users of this road are locals driving from village to village, or lycra-clad tour bikers. It’s surprisingly well maintained, which I would attribute to its popularity with cyclists, and that if it wasn’t in such a condition it would be avoided (like, oh I don’t know, the 197?) meaning a loss of revenue for the local people. Probably the only drawback would be a minor loss of convenience; you can still buy drinks and whatnot, but I wouldn’t expect the choice of FamilyMart or 7-eleven from the little family-run shacks they have here. Although, the road runs in-between the aforementioned routes 9 and 11, so you are never too far away should you wish to get your favourite Matcha Latte drink.
As the sublime 193 came to an end, so too did my luck. Rain started to fall after an entire day’s worth of dry weather, something fairly rare on the east coast. I pulled over to cover my backpack in tarpaulin and replace my trainers with rubber Croc-like shoes which are perfik for riding a motorcycle in the rain, and as I bent over to slip them on my phone slid out of my jacket breast pocket. It hit the road and settled face down. People that have done this before know the awful feeling of not knowing exactly how shattered your phone may or may not be. Schrödinger’s Screen. It is both perfectly fine and completely ruined at that moment. I picked it up and turned it around for inspection, full of hope. Yeah, It was ruined. The impact hit the corner and the cracks spread the whole way up the screen, splintering in the bottom right. It was the final nail in the coffin, and I decided to get a new phone when I returned to Taipei, but for now, thankfully I was on the outskirts of Hualien and it was fairly simple to find my lodgings for the evening without the use of GPS. I reached the hostel at about 18:30 and took a well-earned shower.
My phone buzzes. It’s a text from my mate, you know, the bloke with all the good travel advice? He asks me how I got on. I tell him I hate his guts and will never forgive him. He seems confused. I tell him every detail of my ordeal, and he nonchalantly responds:
“Aww yeah, sorry. It’s not the 197. 193 is the one I meant.”
“Did you take the 197 then?”
“Oh I heard that it’s really difficult, like all off-road…”
“Dabon (mutual friend) is the only one of the group that has taken that road before, he says it’s horrible.”
“…I will destroy you.”
“The 193 is beautiful though, isn’t it?”
During my rage, one thing distracted me. How the bloody’ell did Dabon get through that clay pit on a scooter? To stop me riding all the way back to Taipei for a fight, I settled down for the evening by listening to whale song on my iPod. Day fourteen was going to be a big one: exploring the colossal Taroko Gorge.