Thursday, May 28, 2009

Credit Card Bike Touring in Southern Taiwan--Day 1

More pictures are on Flickr
Ride: From Kaohsiung to Kenting
Distance: According to Bikely, 72 miles, but it was more like 75, probably because of some of the back roads we took. The route on bikely is here
Note: The tour operator's website is here. Currently they have two routes, we did the southern route, although the eastern route seems to be more popular. Currently there is no English version of the website. If you are really interested in doing such a tour and you don't speak Mandarin, you can contact me and I can try to provide some translation. Mr. Twins Chuang was very helpful and gracious, and we were so happy with the package; $180 per person for three nights of hotel stay, bike and equipment rental, and the service. We highly recommend this operator! Mr. Chuang can be contacted by phone (886-0912186979) or email (twins.chuang@msa.hinet.net)

For the immersed recreational cyclists among us, Taiwan is a familiar place, if only in name only. The large majority of bikes circulated by bike shops (not department stores) are made in Taiwan by a handful of large OEMs, ranging from entry-level hybrids to high-end racing bikes. Giant is probably the most famous of the island's bike makers, but Merida (which owns 49% of Specialized) and Pacific (which owns the Schwinn brand) are also headquartered in Taiwan. Other important bike industry players include component makers Tektro, Wellgo, and Sunrace. A handful of frame-making shops, with Maxway the most famous example, also have been supplying good quality frames to familiar companies such as Surly, Soma, Salsa, Rivendell, Bruce Gordon, and Kogswell.

Taiwan is also where I grew up and where most of my family still resides. It's where I first learned how to ride on my younger cousin's mini-BMX bike in a police family community (my grandfather was a police officer) in Tainan in southern Taiwan. I got my first bike when I was 7. My father took me to a Giant store in Taipei one evening after school. He bargained with the shop owner for a blue BMX bike for children and ended up paying less than $300NT (back then $1 US is worth $40NT). It was a single-speed bike with hand brakes. We carried the bike onto the bus and took it to our neighborhood. I still remember the excitement I experienced when my father let me ride the bike back to our apartment from the bus stop in the dark. That bike was lost a few years later. But I have always had a bike since then. Including a short period when i rode my bike to school during 7th grade. unfortunately the bike (a Giant 10-speed road bike with flat handlebar) was stolen a few weeks into my commute.

I didn't really get into cycling again until about 7 years ago, but since then bicycle has become an increasing important part of my life. Now I ride almost everywhere for recreation, commuting, and general transportation. I even had a bicycle wedding. When my wife and I decided to have a reception in Taipei and maybe have a short vacation afterward, I began to explore the option of doing a short bike tour in Taiwan.

With all the stuff that was going on in my life--getting married, getting promoted and have more responsibility at work, running two rental properties--we didn't really want to deal with the logistics of bringing our own bikes with us. I thought it would be easy to find information for doing short tours on the Internet; after all, cycling has become more fashionable recently as all these bike companies try to expand their domestic penetration, especially in the high-end segments. One can easily find people's blogs or online discussions on their experiences going around the island (which is very doable in around a week's time) on their bicycles. One can even find possible maps and itineraries, but finding a company that provides some sort of package including bike rental proved to be less than trivial. Eventually, searching in Chinese and following some links in a few blogs, I stumbled on a company that provides bike tours in Southern and Eastern Taiwan. After checking out the weather, speaking to the operator on the phone a couple of times, and consulted with my relatives on the locations, we decided to do a 3-day tour in southern Taiwan.

A day after our reception in Taipei, we packed our bags with change of clothes, sunscreen lotions, a camera, and cycling gears and headed toward Kaohsiung, where we planned to start the tour the next day. We took the high-speed rail, which sometimes travel in excess of 200 mph down the west-coast corridor. The 200-mile trip took about 90 minutes, with 3 stops in between. We then hopped on the Kaohsiung metropolitan rapid transit (MRT; basically the city's subway system) to get to downtown Kaohsiung. The tour operator had booked a room in a hotel for us. He had even already dropped off the bike at the hotel lobby. We went to bed soon after checking in so we can get an early start the next day.

The next morning, we meet Twins Chuang, our tour operator in the lobby at 6AM. I paid him the rest of the fees for the tour. He told us that he would take us out of the City of Kaohsiung, which can be confusing and even dangerous for non-residents on bikes. We got some breakfast and departed. Even at 7 in the morning, southern Taiwan is already getting hot. We followed him through the city streets, without a good idea of where we are going. It took us an hour to get out of the city and got on a bike trail on a levee. We moved west toward the coast, as cities became suburbs, then towns. The terrain was very flat. About 20 miles out we began to enter coastal fishing towns. Twins accompanied us for another 10 miles to Linbian. He gave us some instructions, and encouragements and turned around.

At this point, the southern Taiwan sun is in full force, and because of the humidity, staying in shade only helped so much. In fact, we only felt some relief from the heat when we are moving and the air seemed to move around us. We rode another 5 miles to a sizable town of Fangliao. A small vegetarian restaurants beckoned as we were rolling slowly through the streets. We decided to stop and have some lunch before moving on. It was 11:30am or so. The lunch was great and inexpensive, like most meals in Taiwan were. We spent $2.50 each on a well-portioned meal. We took a break and chatted with a few patrons and the restaurant owners. They were amazed that I was wearing short-sleeved shirts in such blazing sun (my wife always wear long-sleeved jerseys). In southern Taiwan, people always wore clothing to cover their bodies when they go outdoor.

It was past 12pm now, and it was really hot. We started to see more of the coast now, and the view is quite nice--blue water and rocky coast. The road we were on is the main highway going down toward the southern tip of the island, and though the traffic was not heavy (on a Tuesday), plenty of cars whizzed by us. Despite of that, we felt quite safe; although there was no bike lane on this road, there was a very wide lane more motor scooters, and a shoulder on the right of the scooter lane. Most of the time we rode in the scooter lane, and the motorcyclists usually just rode past us. Occasionally we even passed a couple of scooters taking their time going somewhere.

As we pedaled down the road in the blazing sun, occasionally we saw a stand on the side of the road selling cold drinks and offered covered space right over the water. The prospect of drinking something cold under the shade was very appealing to us and we stopped when we saw another one.

We both ordered a flavored italian soda and sat under a tent looking out the sea. A cool breeze was blowing and it was so refreshing to sit there staring at the water. A friendly bulldog walked by and wanted to be petted. We spent about 45 minutes there and felt much refreshed, though were hesitant to get back into the sun. But as the beach in Kenting beckons, we hopped on our bikes and trudges on. We would ride stretches on the open road, then through a town. One thing great about Taiwan is the abundance of 7-11-type convenience stores, and the wonderful selection of food and drinks they consistently stock. We are both vegan and found plenty of stuff to keep us energized and hydrated. One of the items we liked the most was a brown rice milk. For $60 you get 700 ml of cold brown rice milk mixed with ground-up peanuts in a paper carton. We would always buy one and get a new drink to try. Every 25 miles or so we would also buy some water to fill up our bottles, as we were sweating like crazy.

The day got cooler and the breeze became stronger as we got closer to our destination for the day--Kenting, a seaside village known for its national parts with diverse flora and beautiful white-sand beaches. I started to cramp up toward the end of 75-mile ride, even though i was taking Hammer Endurolytes pretty regularly--I was simply losing too much sweat in the heat to replenish fast enough. Luckily we were very close. We began to see public beaches as we entered the outskirt of Kenting, and soon we were on the town's main street. Our hotel was not far into it. The innkeeper was expecting us and kindly walked our bikes in. We got into our clean and simple room (unfortunately on the 4th floor) and took a much appreciated cold shower.


We walked around town a bit, toward the direction of a beach. At this point it was near sunset and the weather has become quite pleasant. The sun is setting and we were both feeling quite blissed after a good day of riding and seeing different things. As we got back into the village, night-market vendors began to open their stalls for business. Unfortunately as vegans we didn't find too many things to eat, and surprising for Taiwan there wasn't one vegetarian restaurant in town. We ate some food at a restaurant that had some vegetarian dishes but they weren't so good. We were both pretty tired and went back to our hotel so we can get an early start the next day. It was a wonderful day and we looked forward to the next.
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