Day three: Monkeys, mountains, and a mild crash
Waking up to the sound of rain on the roof is never a great omen on a cycling tour, and was even less so for me as guide since I knew that the first half of the day would be filled with winding mountain roads. But the group was in good spirits nonetheless as we rolled down the hill from Ruisui heights, rain gear flapping wetly as we rode. The rain slowed to a drizzle around the time we reached the bottom of a road which, for my money, is one of the finest in Taiwan: Route 64, AKA Monkey Mountain Road.
It’s a glorious winding road, rising high above a river that spans from the central valley to the ocean, and we’d not even gotten to the highest point when two auspicious things happened. First, the rain stopped. And second, we came across one of the troops of monkeys who call the area home. We stopped for a while to observe them, and after trying (and failing) to take something approaching a decent shot of the monkeys with my phone, I realized that a film would illustrate their presence way better and shot this short film:
There’s something intrinsically entertaining about watching monkeys, and as you’ll see in the film, the monkeys lost interest in us well before we got bored of them.
We continued riding, enjoying the climbs and dips of route 64 for the rest of the morning, and while we didn’t see more monkeys, we did ride past a trio of water bison who seemed to find our presence mildly interesting.
But the roads were still wet, and somewhere around the 25km Brandon hit a patch of wet leaves and took a spill. Emily was a nurse back in California, so before I could even begin running through my own government-mandated tour guide first aid, she was already shining a light in his eyes and assessing the extent of his injuries. Brandon was shaken but otherwise seemed uninjured. To be on the safe side, Brandon rode in the van while Emily and I continued riding the rest of the way to the cave of the eight immortals. This turned out to be not a bad deal for Brandon, as the skies opened up again when we hit the coast.
We dined on excellent dumpling soup, fried rice and vegetables at the cave of the eight immortals, and while Brandon was still sore from his crash, we decided to hike up to visit the caves themselves.
After our hike, it was raining even harder, so we faced the following choice:
1) Continue riding in the rain for the rest of the afternoon, or
2) Take advantage of the offer of free rice wine samples being made by one of the 8 Immortals Cave Vendors.
Perhaps it was the rain or Brandon’s unlucky spill, but the wine won out. After a few warming shots, we and the bikes were in the van being driven down the coast by Lion (our driver, of course, had not partaken). Our goal for the evening was the seaside town of Chenggong.
As we were way ahead of schedule, I suggested that if Brandon wanted to be 100% sure that nothing was broken before continuing the next day we could easily swing by the hospital. A short time later, Brandon had been X-rayed, prodded & pronounced medically unbroken, and left the hospital with some muscle relaxants, pain killers and clean bill of health. The total cost of the visit, for readers not familiar with Taiwan’s amazing healthcare system? NT$790, about $26 USD.
Lion and I checked Brandon and Emily into their hotel, a lovely artistic place in the hills above Chenggong that would’ve pleased any Frank Lloyd Wright fan. We headed downtown and in keeping with the more relaxed tenor the day had taken, had their dinner – traditional hand-pulled beef noodle soup – delivered to them. Tomorrow would, we were sure, be a better day.
Total distance for day three? A beautiful, wet and winding 36km ride in the morning, a somewhat damp but not unpleasant 40km van ride in the afternoon.
Day Four: The final leg down the coast
Though skies were overcast, the rain had stopped before dawn and the roads were dry. Since today’s riding would be a largely flat and coastal, we decided to begin the day with a hike across the Sanxiantai Arch bridge. It’s a popular tourist attraction, but with good reason. The bridge itself is a fairly nifty bit if engineering, being both architecturally interesting and useful (if your idea of “useful” includes “facilitating a hike around a volcanic island you’d otherwise be hard pressed to reach”).
In addition to being beautiful, Sanxiantai is windy, and as we walked across the bridge we were pleased to note that the wind that threatened to blow us off the thing were coming from the north, meaning that, barring change, we were in for a seriously aided ride south for the rest of the day. After a hike and a stretch, we headed out, stopping to take a photo at this junction that seemed especially fitting given the start and end points of our four day journey.
“Want to ride back to Hualien?” I asked. “If we ride hard, we might make it by dusk. But we’ll have the wind in our face all the way.”
Luckily, Brandon and Emily called my bluff.
Soon we were riding with the wind at our back, first through the town of Chenggong and then on the wide open section of Route 11 that stretches to Taitung and beyond. It’s a good stretch of road, one that I’d ridden many times in the past. Emily commented that it reminded her of stretches of the California coast. I agreed with her, minus the betel nut stands. With favorable winds, we were able to ride with little effort until lunch in the town of Donghe, which is known primarily for two things.
The first of these are excellent steamed buns, and Lion steered us away from the main road to a small shop in the center of town which he said had Donghe’s most authentic buns. We started with nine, a variety of savory and sweet, deciding by consensus that the most traditional (your standard meat bun) was the best, and that the least traditional (something with a shrimp and cheese filling) was, well, weird. But overall, they were good enough to grab a few more for the road.
The second thing that Donghe is famous for are monkeys, and though they’ve been known to come down to town on their own (probably for the buns), for the most part visitors to the area have to go up into the mountains a bit to find them.
Unlike the troop we’d encountered the day before on route 64, the Donghe monkeys are almost domesticated, enough to
a) Make seeing them from an alarmingly close distance practically a sure thing,
b) Prompt local authorities to hang signs warning people against feeding, teasing, touching or otherwise getting too close to monkeys.
Thoroughly monkey-ed out, we headed back down towards route 11 to continue the last leg of our trip. We stopped in the town of Dulan, best known for it’s hip tribal art scene, laid back vibe, and great coffee.
After coffee at a shop run by a local tour guide named Kate, we continued riding on the last stretch of route 11, and though the wind was at our backs we rode slowly, knowing that the journey would soon be coming to an end.
Though the largest city on the East coast (by population at least), Taitung is a tiny city by Taiwan standards. That said, cyclists riding in from the north will often find themselves greeted in a large way, specifically via a series of sonic booms created by jets doing maneuvers around a nearby military base. Pulling into the outskirts of town on Route 11, we were met by lion flagging us unexpectedly westward.
“Huh” I said as we huffed up an incline for which I’d not prepared. “I’ve not taken this road before.”
The road wrapped around town, passing a large hilltop Buddhist Monastery from which most of the city could be seen. A lengthy downhill glide brought us through farmland on the southwestern edge of town, smaller roads that gave way to a large avenue leading directly to the trains station.
“Door to door service,” said Lion.
While Emily and Brandon changed their clothing for our train trip back to Taipei, I readied our bikes for their own trip back to the Rikulau company in Taichung. Our cycling tour had come to an end.
Total distance for day four? A mostly-coastal 60km that felt like 40 thanks to the tailwind.
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