Bustin’ my ass in Taiwan – Vacation, August 2011 (Hike & Bike)

Pics here.

Stock markets worldwide were crashing. Consumer confidence was diving. The two most boring and overused words in the English language were once again being heard – “Financial Tsunami”. In such situations, there are only two things one can and should do – hike and bike!

The 1st week of August, 2011
And so, I made plans with Romain Riche to once again revisit the beautiful Taroko Gorge. The last time we were there, we took a car up to Wuling (3000m) from our host Jeff’s place near Taroko Station (ground level). We did some high altitude hiking in Wuling but missed summiting Qilai North Peak (3600m) because of physical exhaustion and poor visibility.

This time the plan was to go back up with a vengeance. But slowly. Very slowly. That’s because the plan called for biking up to Wuling (90km distance and 3000m elevation) instead of driving up there in the comfort of a car. And yes, I do mean bicycle, not a motorbike. After reaching Wuling, the plan was to summit Qilai North Peak and other neighbouring peaks the next day before riding back down to Jeff’s house in Taroko station the following day.

The plan
11th August 2011: Reach Taipei and take the train to Taroko Station. Meet Jeff there
12th August 2011: Ride the bike up to Wuling (90km distance and 3000m elevation)
13th August 2011: Summit Qilai North Peak (3600m) and its cousins
14th August 2011: Ride back down to Jeff’s place near Taroko Station
15th August 2011: Do some hiking near Taroko Gorge and return to the world of work, emails and stocks

11th August 2011
As both of us were late in getting to the airport, our biking and hiking trip had to be preceded by some running to the airport gate. Like VIPs, we arrived just slightly late at the boarding gate.

We reached Rihang Su aka Jeff’s house at 1.30am on Friday.

12th August 2011
The big day was finally here. The plan was to do a 90km long bike ride from an elevation of 0m to 3000m in one day.

Contrary to the advice I usually give to fellow backpackers, I was travelling with a HEAVY backpack. I had everything including a Netbook and Garmin equipment in my bag. At that point, it all seemed important enough to warrant the pain of transporting all of it all the way up to 3000m elevation on a bicycle.

We had about 5 hours of sleep and left Jeff’s place at 8.45am.

Getting ready for some serious biking!

Soon enough, I learnt how to use the gears on the bicycle. First stop was Tiansiang which was 25km away from Taroko, at an elevation of 500m. As we were riding our bikes, the gorgeous Taroko Gorge appeared beautifully – sometimes on the left and sometimes on the right – as the mountainous road meandered through dimly lit tunnels. It was a surreal feeling.

The beautiful Taroko Gorge

We stopped for noodles at Tiansiang (400m) and continued pedalling up, up and away. And then I heard a voice. It wasn’t a hidden ghost or a secret inner-voice. But, it was accompanied by pangs of pain. I finally realized what it was. It was my butt. My butt was complaining big time. Carrying 15kilos on my back and pedalling up steep roads on a bicycle had its toll on my butt. I wanted to ask the famous Jennifer Lopez a question: “How do you insure your butt?”

Lunch at Tiansiang

The butt-breaking journey showed no mercy. After every 500m climb or the passage of 30 minutes (whichever came first), there was a signal from my butt to my brain to stop for a butt-break. I heeded the warning signals. Every butt stop was accompanied by the same question: “We have sent men to moon, build kick-ass (pardon the pun) missile defence systems, built ultra-fast super computers, so why in the name of the King of Butts can we NOT build a bicycle seat that doesn’t kill the butt?”

Putting on a brave (and artificial smile) withstanding butt-pain

Unfortunately though, there was no one to answer that question. Just me, myself and the mountains. And also Romain. But, even he shared the same misery. Slowly, steadily and painfully, meter by meter, we pedalled away through the misery and continued our never-ending climb.

By the time we reached 2000m, that’s all my butt could take and my butt could take no more. It demanded an end to the ordeal. And so, we stopped by what seemed like an old Taiwanese restaurant and I asked the lady there in my sympathetic voice and broken Mandarin whether she could please let the two of us stay the night at her place.

“500 bucks per person”, came the reply in a very business-like fashion. My butt would have paid anything for a stop then. I accepted the offer spontaneously and soon enough, the lady’s son escorted us to some basement floor where she had some excellent beds and toilets. Okay, “excellent” might be an exaggeration but anything that didn’t involve the word “ride” and “bicycle” on this day was indeed an excellent choice.

Butt relief for the day

The Taiwanese restaurant/accommodation place

Enjoying “Taiwan beer” hoping it will cure all butt problems

We slept at about 8pm and work up at a leisurely 8am the following day. Our butts needed that sleep to recuperate.

13th August 2011
We left the lady’s place at about 8.30am after having some much needed breakfast to reenergize.

Leaving in the morning

Reluctantly, I gently placed my fragile butt on the bike seat again. It felt like a hot iron rod was making contact with a recent wound that has far from healed. Cussing once again at the lack of man’s imagination in building an injury-proof bike seat, I continued pedalling. The altitude was 2000m and I was overjoyed at the fact that there was only 800m to go. Then Murphy’s law kicked in. “When things appear to be on track, you don’t know what the hell is going on”. How true. We were sweating and huffing and puffing all the way up to 2500m when suddenly, a 10-minute downhill stretch wiped off a cool 200m elevation gain. The downhill stretch felt great but I knew deep inside that this was going to be one of those things that you temporarily enjoy but end up paying for later.

Feeling my ass

Yet another unpleasant surprise for the day was our mistake with the altitude. We realized after we pedalled our way up to 2800m that there was not just 200m left but 400m more to go! That bit of disturbing news made my butt plan a coup on my mind. I was forced to be a wuss, get off the bike and push it upwards on all the hard uphill climbs. I felt like a loser each time tourists passed by in their fancy vehicles yelling “Ga Yau” (“add oil” – sign of encouragement) as I was pushing my bike upwards. All the macho man feeling inside me disappeared with the altitude!

Finally, as the clock ticked by, my perseverance paid off. We were 3100m above sea level at Wuling (Hehuan San). The sense of accomplishment was big, very big! I had never ridden a bike longer than 25km before and never had I pedalled up more than 500m in altitude!

After our high fives and mini celebration, the next stop of the day was Chengkong Cabin which was on the way to Qilai North Peak (3600m). We could see the Qilai North Peak summit from Wuling; it rose majestically high. The sharp ridge leading to the summit looked quite scary from where we were.

Celebrating after covering over 3000m in altitude on a bicycle

This is Qilai North Peak (3605m)

We started the hike to Chengkong cabin at about 2.30pm and reached a first no-name cabin, 4km away, in about an hour. Chengkong Cabin was about 2.5km further from this cabin. This was where climbers to Qilai North Peak were supposed to spend the night before climbing to the summit the next day.

Trail on the way to Chengkong Cabin

When we reached the Cabin, we were pointed to a small structure shaped like a Mongolian yurt. We weren’t expecting much in the hut – just some mattresses and quilts would have made us very happy. Unfortunately, the cabin didn’t even have that! We gazed at the bare floor as we recollected the surprisingly great accommodation we had the previous day.

The Cabin

Fellow Taiwanese tourists were puzzled when we told them that we didn’t have sleeping bags or yoga mats. They told us we were going to freeze without them and even asked us to head back to Wuling to be on the safe side! Then it struck us – we had heavy backpacks, a Netbook, Garmin equipment and yet we didn’t have the basic necessities needed to survive in the wilderness!

The latest Vivienne Tam high altitude sleeping attire

The Taiwanese tourists couldn’t bare the thought of us dying in their presence. So, they hatched up a plan for us. One of them lent us two yoga mats and the other gave us tent covers which we were told to use instead of blankets. We gladly accepted their offer with gratitude.

Dinner was dry instant noodles as there was no provision for hot water! Although, we did have the opportunity to “cook” instant noodles with natural and very cold stream water. Romain seized that opportunity but I went with the eat-raw-noodles-right-out-of-the-box version. I think both versions were equally terrible.

Our “dinner” – dry noodles

Wearing everything I had and eating dry noodles

The night was cold, very cold! We had to get up every now and then for two main reasons: (1) it was so cold that we had to get up and shake the body around to generate some heat (2) our fellow hikers were keen to impress us with their powerful snoring abilities. In fact, we could hear human “snore” versions of various species of animals sleeping in their natural habitats. For example, we had the “bear” version. This version was a loud snore with some double/triple bass that ended with a high sustained note. Then we had the “wild cat” version. This started off on a very high note, almost like a shrill and did not show any signs of abating.

There was so much loud and constant snoring that sleeping for most part of the night was ruled out. I was thinking to myself that human snoring was as unique as a fingerprint. It felt as though a snoring competition was being held in that cabin that night.

A constant gaze at the watch finally revealed the magic number I wanted to see. “04:00” – that was our cue for let’s-get-the-heck-out-of-here-and-climb-Qilai-North-Peak.

Leaving at 4am

14th August 2011
The snoring in the cabin could have almost started an earthquake! Eager to get away from the noise, we refilled our water bottles with cold stream water and set off on the climb to the summit. The distance seemed short – only 2.7km long but this was no ordinary climb. We had to hurl ourselves up through 700m of high altitude and negotiate very steep ridges that went up and down. Ropes were installed in some of the difficult parts of the climb. We were lucky with the weather – it was a bright, sunny day and the views were simply majestic. We could see the summit of Qilai peak as we headed closer and closer to the top and it looked threateningly scary. The last part was a very, very steep ascent to the summit which reminded me of the final climb to Mt. KK in Malaysia.

We were at the summit in 2 hours – about 6am. The views were among the best I had ever seen before. Simply spectacular. Undulating ridges, greenery, tall peaks, rolling mountains, grasslands – it was like a perfect picture painted by nature.


Views from the summit

After enjoying the views from the summit, we headed back to Chengkong Cabin where we said our goodbyes and thank you to the tourists and made our way back to Wuling.

Then came the highlight for the day. Riding back down to 0m elevation from 3100m on a bicycle! That thrill ride started at 9.30am. My butt was wondering why I was back on the bike but at that time, given the thrill of what was coming, my mind took over and all complaints stopped. There was some initial torment as the road went up to 3200m before a rapid drop but I somehow managed to get over that climb in my new not-so-heroic way – I pushed the bike uphill! Romain was a true macho man and didn’t get off the bike at all.

Then came the adrenalin rush. What a feeling that was. The bike accelerated from 0kmh to 45kmh in something like 10 seconds without any effort at all. Pedalling was the last thing on my mind – so I only used the brakes where I really had to. All the effort and butt pain from the previous day paid off. Even my butt was enjoying the thrill of the downhill ride! That adrenalin rush even gave way to some clever thinking. I thought of coining my own proverb then. “Like elevation on a bike ride, money is hard to gain and easy to lose!” (It still needs some fine tuning).

In less than 4 hours of mostly downhill riding, we were at Jeff’s place again. 4 hours – that’s all it took! Riding up took close to 15 hours! This gave us another idea. We had biked up and down on a bicycle but what about doing the whole thing again on a motorbike?

Upon reaching Jeff’s place, that idea took shape. We ended up renting scooters to ride up to Wuling again the next day. I even had a theme for the day – “All altitude gain and no butt pain!”

After we rented the scooters, we did a test drive to the Pacific Ocean and back before returning to Jeff’s house for a fine and truly deserved dinner and beer.

Touching the ocean

15th August 2011
We got up nice and early at 5.30am to begin our ride to Wuling. At 6.15am, we were on our scooters riding away to glory. I was reminiscing the time I had to pedal up that distance. I felt like looking at that steep road and yelling “in your face road!” I saw a couple of other insane bicyclists riding up to Wuling and yelled “Ga Yau”. It was my turn to encourage this time. The riders on the steep climbs could only muster a nod, much like me 2 days back!

Riding back up to Wuling on a scooter

All it took was 2.5 hours to cover the 3200m climb and 90km distance on a scooter! Riding back down took only 1.5 hours! Man has certainly advanced in the field of high-speed transport but is yet to advance in the field of designing proper bicycle seats!

In the afternoon, we said our goodbye to Jeff and left for Taipei. Romain got an upgrade to business class on the flight back to Hong Kong while I remained in the cattle class. I donated all my change to charity hoping I would get lucky with the upgrade the next time around!

Busting my ass in Taiwan was definitely a memorable experience – an experience I am sure to repeat BUT without a heavy backpack and with a custom made seat for the bicycle (with lots of cushion).

Special thanks to Rihang Su (Jeff) and Richard Foster for all the help and information about Taiwan.

And, of course, to lightening fast Romain for waiting for me at various junctions while I struggled on the bike!