Today was going to be a trek. Heading 168km north back to my flat in Taipei isn’t exactly a short distance, but fortunately it is incredibly scenic. To quote myself from the prelude of this diary:
“Imagine a day’s drive of winding paths through hilly green tea plantations and quaint villages, a flat cruise through scores of utterly still fishery ponds reflecting the surrounding mountainous landscape and warm rays of the sun. Lastly, a coastal finale providing all the good stuff; hairpin bends, clear blue ocean, and practically vertical towering cliffs with house sized waves regularly and spectacularly crashing into them, producing an astounding natural water display”.
Just put the order of that description back-to-front and you have my journey for day sixteen. The weather looked good, I felt good, I found a nearby breakfast joint for a bacon bagel and hash brown pancake, and was ready to rock and – even more so – roll. Except I needed to get my bike serviced before the long drive home, and didn’t fancy my chances of locating an English speaking mechanic. Time to give the old Mandarin a run out.
After filling up with petrol I saw a couple of mechanics on the opposite side of the road, and aimed for the one with the Kymco sign outside (I’m loyal). A gaunt old gent in a faded vest which looked older than me stood up from his tiny plastic stool to greet and wave me inside. His mostly toothless, betel-nut stained grin seemed much more friendly than alarming as he looked at me curiously for my request.
“Wo… xiang yao… huan yo” (I’d like an oil change)
“Huan yo! Hao…” (Oil change! Alright…)
“Huan yo ma??” *uses both hands to demonstrate a mechanical rolling motion, an ‘exchange’ action*
“Er… dui” (Er… yeah)
“Hao” (Alright geezer. I’ll get on it immediately)
He clearly overestimated my ability to speak the lingo, so began asking me a couple of questions while the oil drained from my engine. I met each one with a shrug and shake of my head, while apologising for how terrible my Chinese was. Ironically, one thing I’m very good at is explaining how bad I am at it. Clearly he noticed the bags I was carrying as a couple of words randomly registered; “huan dao ma?” (which means, “round-island trip?”) along with another brilliantly acted charade – a single handed upright oval-shaped circular motion. Yes. I felt like a native speaker. I nodded and smiled enthusiastically while verbally machine-gunning “dui-dui-dui-dui-dui!” as is the fashion in Taiwan. He nodded his approval in response. With a few taps of his finger, he noticed the Union Jack sticker placed just underneath my number plate and asked if I was from England. Yes sir, I am! I’m in there. I’m practically fluent. This is amazing. And to top it all off, it was cheaper than I’d normally expect to pay.
One of Hualien county’s many rugged yet bushy cliffs.
Less than 100m from the mechanic’s garage, I waited at a crossroad junction next to Hualien airport for the light to turn green. As I did so, two cars approached each other from opposite directions, and neither were using indicators (surprise, surprise). At the last minute, driver one decides that he would, in fact, like to turn left (Brits: we have right lane traffic here) in front of car two going straight ahead. Car two screeches to an immediate halt, while car one continues on to the left as if nothing happened, at a consistent slow speed. Car two does not appreciate this, and as soon as I spot him fuming through his open window at a standstill in the middle of the junction, I gleefully notice he is wearing a police uniform, and furiously bellows “GAN!” (basically, the Taiwanese version of FUCK) at the top of his voice. Much to the restrained amusement of some other scooter drivers and I, he takes drastic action and spins his car around in pursuit of the dodgy driver. As some of you already know of my disdain for some Taiwanese drivers, you’ll also know how satisfied I was to realise that it’s not only me that gets wound up by these careless morons.
I ride what’s left of the sublime 193 road (and incidentally, I pass a lone pig strolling through a village) before it joins onto the number 9, and decide to stop at one of the many viewpoints over the ocean for a rest. It’s the last chance for me to enjoy a view of the Pacific like this one for a while, so I park up at the side of the road and sit on the grassy cliff edge for a short time, which drops steeply by about 30 metres straight into the tumultuous water below. In between the rhythmic slams of waves battering the rocks I hear a scooter side-stand kicked into position, and turn around to see a younger man in his early twenties. He waves and shouts hello to me with a smile, then points above the mountains towards a thick manifestation of moody black clouds, as if to say: you’d better get moving, son. I gave a thumbs up and nodded to him in thanks and with absolute agreement as he put on his yellow poncho and headed northwards.
I ride another 30 minutes or so before stopping off in a small village within Nan’ao township called Wuta. It’s home to a tour bus pit stop, made up of toilets, a gaudy souvenir shop, and overpriced restaurant. Actually, the last comment is unfair because I’ve never eaten in there. It just looks like it’s overpriced. Anyway, it seems to be the halfway house for buses driving between Hualien and Yilan, but I used it as a free shelter from the increasingly heavy rainfall, and was a suitable spot to put on my waterproof gear. I wasn’t the only one, however, as I spotted ol’ yellow poncho from earlier pull up and set his scooter underneath a small area of cover, that was probably only enough to keep his handlebars dry.
“I followed you here!” he jokes cheerfully, while searching for a dry spot to place his helmet. His English is at least conversational level, and clearly wants to practice a little, or perhaps just stay out of the rain for a bit. He tells me that he is on his way to Yilan (宜蘭) but the rest was a little unclear, as I couldn’t establish if he was going for a job interview or starting work today. After examining my chic rain poncho and fake crocs, he tells me – sincerely it seems – that he thinks Europeans are “very gentle”. After hearing this a lot, I’ve worked out that here people seem to confuse the adjectives “gentle” and “gentlemanly” pretty often, but I don’t have the heart to tell him right now. Especially after he says that out of all Europeans, British people are the most gentle and stylish. I ask if he’s interested in going to the UK for a working holiday, but with a frustrated smirk he quickly responds that he needs to work for a while and save a wad of money before he could afford to do such a thing, but travel is high on his list of priorities. He had to get a move on to reach Yilan, so said his goodbyes and zipped off into the distance.
Several of the billions of people that queue up for a shot in front of the gates of Hualien’s Taroko gorge daily.
I stopped about five minutes drive away in Nan’ao (home of the beach caves) for some luncheon, as my hunger was getting the better of me. On a previous visit my friends and I stopped at a popular seafood restaurant by the train station, and remembering the high level of deliciousness it was the first option that came to mind. I park up and walk towards the restaurant, thinking of what I want to eat, but more importantly how I’m going to order it without the assistance of my local buddies, as reading seafood menus isn’t one of my strengths. In the end, none of that is important as piles of bouquets, balloons and a panicked hubbub from the workers inside tell me that it has been booked out for a wedding. Instead I found a small family run restaurant around the corner, but at first glance couldn’t tell if it was open for business or not. The frail old lady inside gave me a menu and sat me down at the smallest 2 seater table. Maybe they were expecting guests too? I ordered lamb fried rice, and noticed that the restaurant started to fill more as I ate it, and some of the visitors held a larger degree of curiosity towards me than I would receive in Taipei. I don’t mind, as long as they don’t ask me to have my picture taken with them. Stop that nonsense pls.
On the outskirts of Yilan it started to get considerably wetter, so my scheduled visit to the Kavalan whisky distillery couldn’t have come at a more suitable time. Yeah, you heard me right, whisky. Kavalan was established in 2005 after parent group “King Car” realised that the high quality of the water and damp, yet hot climate in Yilan would make ideal factors for producing and ageing one of the world’s favourite spirits. In fact, the climate is so suitable here that a barrel can be aged for just 6 years and have the taste of a 12 year old cask, as the frequent change in temperature and constant humidity considerably speeds up the ageing process. The proof is in the pudding, or in this case the ‘World’s best single malt’ prize in the 2015 World Whiskies Awards, and considering that was a mere 10 years after opening, the brand clearly has a big and exciting future ahead. In recent years Japanese single malt has started to challenge the big boys in Scotland, but now I’d bet that other Taiwanese brands are either thinking about or actively moving to join the fray. Anyway, if you’re in the area it’s an interesting place to visit, and previously I was lucky enough to be given a free personal English tour. The staff are very nice and pretty good at explaining the company’s background and their manufacturing procedure. If you can, visit during the week…
A sneaky peek-er-oo of the copper stills within.
As it was a Saturday, the car park was utterly rammed with dithering tourists and awful children. Parking was a living nightmare as I fought the urge to run down zombies totally unaware of their surroundings, that is, a car park. A park for cars, buses, and other shit that will seriously injure you if you don’t move out of their way. Eventually I found a spot without murdering anyone and slowly made my way inside the building. One of my main objectives – as I’d already visited here – was to buy a bottle or two of the Kavalan distillery reserve, unavailable to buy anywhere else but from this building. Thankfully, the shop is just to the left hand side as I walked through the front door, but sadly is heaving with people. I find the bottle I’m looking for, but it’s more expensive than I remember so decide to pass up the opportunity. I was going back to the UK in a couple of weeks so it seemed like a slight extravagance considering the relatively cheap price of scotch in comparison. But, I text my mate back home to see if he wanted me to pick him up a bottle as he also rates it, but after hanging around for 30 minutes and hearing no response I decided to leave empty handed. A large part of me was happy with the lack of reply as I almost instantly realised after texting that I had absolutely no room in my backpack to get it home.
Ageing oak casks of delicious Taiwanese whisky.
Driving through central Yilan at the weekend can be a huge annoyance. As if someone decided that traffic rules don’t exist for two days per week. On the way through I experienced a few incidents, one of my favourites was a car driver that simply decided that he didn’t want to wait in a traffic jam, so attempted to jump the entire queue and pull in front of someone, while almost knocking my bike. I had to brake sharply to avoid any dinks, and made a point of giving him the most evil of looks I could produce to hopefully notify him of his colossal level of bellenditry. Another was planning to U-turn on a main road. No problem, there’s no traffic coming, so go for it pal. So he slams his foot on the brake for some unknown reason, meaning I have to stop completely and find a way around him in the busy traffic, as does everyone else. Maybe he had an epiphany that he was Taiwan’s shittest driver. If not, hopefully he will soon. But not while driving.
Another road that I enjoy riding is the number 9 from Yilan to Taipei. It takes a couple of hours but has a lot of sweeping roads in good condition, leafy scenery, and a great view of Yilan city from the mountains as you ascend. Alas, I wouldn’t be able to experience this road at it’s finest today, as the rain continued to beat down mercilessly and a thick fog rolled in, shielding the majestic view. Being December there was also a mighty chill in the air, causing my hands to numb slightly at times. Frankly, this was one of the least enjoyable sections of my whole trip, and it was a little sad to finish on this note. Boo. But, it was nice to sleep in my own bed once again.
My apartment, last door on the left. Keep the noise down.
Lenpep’s final thought:
So that’s that, as they say. 16 days of thrilling adventure and hilariously entertaining stories. I hope you enjoyed reading it as much as I did writing it down (that is, only briefly for once a week). My main purpose of this diary was to have something to document the finer details of a trip that I’d never forget, but I’d be over the moon if it inspires or helps others do a similar thing.
Taiwan is such a surprising country with seemingly unlimited interesting places to visit, home to a friendly population, rich flora & fauna, and a far more interesting history than you might expect from such a small island. If you’re considering coming, then I hope this has persuaded you. If you’re already here, then what are you waiting for? Get yourself a motorcycle and do the huan dao, mofo’s!