They say that the US Military operation to kill Osama Bin Laden involved extremely sophisticated planning, immense coordination, tireless training and impeccable execution. Apparently, in a special operation codenamed “Geronimo”, Blackhawk helicopters carrying a team of highly trained US Navy SEALS were sent in the middle of the night into a walled compound in Pakistan. These SEALS bravely accomplished their mission and disappeared just as swiftly as they arrived.
I know what you’re thinking – what an incredible feat involving such meticulous planning, right? Well, big deal! My grandma could have planned that Osama attack. Talk about organizing a trip to Taiwan that involves motorbiking, mountain biking, hiking, running, chilling and climbing. Now, THAT’S real planning. Read more…
You better not cry, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is comin’ to Taiwan
They say “windows of opportunity tend to slam shut quickly”, so I acted immediately when I saw a 4-day window of opportunity to climb Mount Yushan (Snow Mountain) in Taiwan during Christmas 2011. I was going to do this with Vivien Ringuede – an avid hiker friend who also believes in celebrating Christmas 4000m above sea-level. Besides, this would give us closer access to Santa Claus, as he flies down from heaven on his reindeer-driven sleigh. In fact, Santa wouldn’t even have to bother doing his usual US-Navy-Seal style HALO jump into a chimney (I hear that the US military is reducing budget for these kind of jumps anyway). Instead, he can simply come visit us on top of Jade Mountain bearing all his gifts. (Dear Santa: please can you bring a BMW motorbike with ABS control for me? Don’t ride it though. I need it to be 1st hand)
Smile for the mountains :)
The groundwork was straightforward. I contacted Richard Foster of Barking Deer and he said he would arrange the permits for us. All he wanted was our names and -get this- a “picture of us taken on top of a high mountain”. No, he wasn’t interested in how cool we look; instead, he explained that this was required by the Taiwanese authorities as solid proof of our hiking abilities. Huh?! In this day and age where Photoshop, Photosynth, Picasa, etc, rule our lives, I could have very easily produced a photo of mine supposedly taken on the summit of Mt. Everest!
Flyin’ ain’t for kitties!
The flights were easy. We booked Eva Air through Zuji.com at a cost of HKD 2,500 to Taipei and back. However, once the flights were booked, I got a big scare from my colleague when I told him the name of the airline I was going to fly. He gave me a startling piece of information about Eva Air which made me highly nervous about flying them. No, this wasn’t anything to do with their safety record, it was EVEN WORSE! In fact, what he told me had the potential of permanently scarring me for life! There was even the chance that I could end up losing my manhood! He told me (my voice is shaking out of embarrassment, fear and anger even as I type this) that ALL their flights are newly decorated in a HELLO KITTY theme!!! He then painted a pretty disgusting picture in my mind: “flight attendants would be wearing Hello Kitty uniforms, the body of the plane would have the Hello Kitty logo painted all over it, even napkins, toilets, and all sundry items would have Hello Kitty stickers stuck all over them!”
My second colleague, who evidently has no consideration for my well being, partook in the conversation by rubbing more salt into my already deep wound: “Hey Vince, maybe when you are seated in the airplane, the Hello Kitty ears will stick out from the headrest!” she commented with a big smirk on her face. (I had to go puke just after hearing that).
A quick Google search revealed that they even have a name for this ugly eyesore – they call it the “Eva Kitty Jet!“. (God, please help!) As I grimly heard all this information, I felt like someone had just sent a 10,000 volt shock down my body! I was lamenting to myself that the cost of the ticket may have only been HKD 2,500 but the “hidden charges” were insurmountable! Who can put a price on mental anguish, loss of manhood, loss of ego and loss of self-esteem? How would I ever be able to explain to all my friends that a macho man like me once flew a Hello Kitty plane? Just thinking about it sent shivers down my spine.
Anyway, after visiting a psychiatrist and attending several stress-busting classes, I recovered from this Hello Kitty-induced trauma and continued to make arrangements to reach the top of Jade mountain.
The gist was this:
2011-12-24: Fly to Taipei and hope against hopes that Eva Air has planes other than that friggin’ Kitty plane (Mr. Eva Air CEO, if you are reading this, please note that you have alienated roughly 50% of the world’s population -i.e. males- with this stupid Kitty idea).
Once in Taipei international airport, get to Taipei High Speed Railway Station and take the next train to Chiayi. Spend the night there.
2011-12-25: Take a bus to Alishan followed by a cab or a hitchhike to Tatajia (aka Tataka). Check in into Shangdong Pu hostel and do some hiking during the day.
2011-12-26: Climb Yu Shan and see Santa Claus! (I am excited! BMW – here I come!)
2011-12-27: More hiking and trail running or simply chilling in Tatajia(woohoo!) followed by a return trip to Taipei
2011-12-28: Back to Hong Kong on Eva Air :(
And.. the execution 2011-12-24, Hong Kong to Chiayi I got a ticket to ride but they don’t care
Christmas Eve celebrations started with a notice from the Hong Kong cops aka Hong Kong’s “finest” as they posted a huge traffic blockage notice by the area where my motorbike was parked. Hong Kong’s “finest” beat Santa Claus hands down in their generosity. No question about that. They are known for their charitable nature in handing out white tickets whether you want it or not! In fact, just yesterday, I received another one of their Christmas presents! It was a very thoughtful and specially wrapped white ticket just for me. It was also strategically placed right on top my motorbike’s handlebar to doubly ensure that it wouldn’t be missed. The white ticket demanded that I pay HKD 320 for parking my motorbike about 0.000000000000001mm shy of the actual parking zone. (Thanks guys! :) You’re the best!) The notice in front of my motorbike today demanded that I move it because of a road closure or else “it would be towed away!” (Guys, your gifts just keep getting better and better! What would I do without you?)
I figured it was Christmas so I would return the favor to my “finest” friends by honoring their move-your-bike-or-else request. I then decided to ride my bike straight to the airport. During the ride, I was contemplating two different contrasting scenes. Scene 1: Me, the macho man riding my motorbike to the airport. Scene 2: Me, (the macho man?) flying a HELLO KITTY aircraft!!! (Thank you Eva Air).
I got to the airport in heroic fashion, completed the usual check-in formalities and proceeded straight to Gate 60 to board. I breathed my biggest sigh of relief to date when I saw a normal looking plane parked at Gate 60. There was no cat-like monstrosity anywhere. This alone became my first Christmas present from Santa.
Normal looking plane at Gate 60
I boarded the aircraft and took a quick look around. Thankfully, it appeared to be neat and trendy looking. The flight attendants seemed to be very strategically chosen (know what I mean?) and there was even a first class entertainment system installed on all seats. I was going to say “keep it that way Mr. CEO, no need for feline features in the plane” until I opened their inflight magazine. This is when I realized that my first Christmas present from Santa was short-lived!
WARNING: the passage below may upset men of all races and ethnicities.
Here’s the opening page of their inflight magazine which is bound to set any real man running for the barf bag.
Revolting magazine cover complete with a “reader’s experience” (Pg 1)
This is what an “experienced” reader has said about the Kitty jet – “Since my last flight on the Hello Kitty jet three years ago, I have been wanting to travel with the Hello Kitty characters again. Now my dream has finally come true. The magical journey on the Hello Kitty Jet relieves stress and brings out the child in me. What a wonderful journey in the air”.
(Oh pleeeeeeeeese!!! That ain’t a dream lady, that’s a nightmare!)
And, here’s a lesson for all you boys and girls about Eva Air’s strategically chosen flight attendants. (courtesy: page 138 of their inflight magazine).
Zoe, the generous soul!
“Zoe, the deputy purser is a generous soul and passionate about her work. Reliable and attentive to details, she is the team’s No. 2 and is responsible for service procedures and schedules. She enthusiastically helps passengers solve their problems.”
(Hey Zoe, can you please solve my problem? I can’t take this torture anymore!)
Abby, the one with the beautiful smile
“Known for her beautiful smile, Abby is an assistant purser and is responsible for making sure that everything goes smoothly during meal time. During the flight, she ensures that each and every passenger is satisfied with their delicious inflight cuisine.”
(Looks like Abby will make a good wife!)
Nicole, the young and graceful one
“Young and graceful, cabin attendant Nicole assists passengers in purchasing duty free goods and helps out in many other ways around the cabin. She treats passengers as if they were family, bringing warmth and happiness to all around her.”
(Yup, always good to be kind to the one who pays ya!)
Liz, the tall and beautiful one
“Tall, beautiful and full of energy, chief purser Liz keeps a close eye on everything that goes on in the cabins to ensure that all passengers are safe and enjoy the flight. Liz has a clear, soothing voice and is responsible for making inflight announcements.”
(Looks like Liz is being sold on her sexy voice.)
And, ladies and gentlemen, here’s the biggest scare of them all. Here’s Eva Air’s very own teddy bear pilot!!
Hope this guy ain’t flying this plane!
“Eva Bear-Pilot dress up as a outstanding captain, he leads the crew fly to safety and amenity journey with the friendly professional services.”
(A pilot dressed up as a bear offering professional services???)
I couldn’t wait to get to Taipei!!
Upon reaching Taipei airport, we took a shuttle bus to the High Speed Railway station and boarded a super fast train to Chiayi. The train’s average speed was 250kmh! In less than an hour, we reached Chiayi and took our first breath of cold Chiayi air!
First breath of Chiayi air!
Is it a bird, is it a plane? No, it’s a friendly Taiwanese guy!
How often do you come across someone who volunteers to help tourists and be their guide? Yes, I mean for free! Imagine two backpackers land in Hong Kong with their big bags and cameras. They ask you for directions. Would you (a) give them directions and continue with your own business (b) volunteer to help them find hotels, take them to dinner and then go home after they are well settled (c) tell them to bugger off. If you choose (c), you are no longer my friend.
Well, we met a guy in Chiayi who chose (b). His name was Allan. We asked him how we could get to Chiayi main station from Chiayi High Speed Station and he not only gave us directions but volunteered to be our tour guide! He took us on a free shuttle bus to the main station and then the three of us roamed the streets of Chiayi trying to find a hotel for the two of us! We did see plenty of hotels but what we also saw were huge buses parked near every hotel we went to. It looked like the entire tourist population of the world had descended upon Chiayi. This also meant that we couldn’t get a room anywhere except in one place which offered us the only room they had – a “VIP” room! Initially, I thought that the term “VIP” in Taiwan was used in the same way that Hong Kong uses the word “mansion”. (In Hong Kong, every dilapidated, stinky, rickety old shanty building is called a mansion – like Chung King “mansion” in the heart of Tsim Sha Tsui). However, we were in for a surprise. This VIP room which came at a cost of NT$4000 per night (the only available room in the city) was the most luxury we had ever seen in the longest time! My “luxury” usually means finding a proper toilet on a hiking trail. This one took it a world apart. 3000 square foot of decorated living area, sofas, multiple televisions, jacuzzi, saunas, king sized beds – it had it all!
Here, take a look:
The bathroom – 5 times bigger than my HK apartment!
The living area
Having dinner with Allan
After the feeling of luxury sank in, we reluctantly left the room and took Allan out to dinner to thank him for all his help. Our plan for the following day was to take a bus to Alishan but, as riding motorbikes has always been a passion for me, I managed to convince Vivien that hiring a scooter was the way to go! (there were no motorbike rentals, only scooters). So, we ended up renting a scooter at a cost of NT$ 1500 for 3 days. After a sumptuous dinner filled with Taiwanese favorites, we bid good bye to Allan and returned to our luxurious room. Coming from Hong Kong, we still couldn’t get over the fact that we had so much of living space in a hotel room! We got delirious and even shot a video. Here it is.
Video of the VIP room at Yoyo hotel, Chiayi, Taiwan
2011-11-25: Merry Christmas and time to go to Alishan
Luxury meant laziness. Laziness meant a late start! We left our palace at about 10am in the morning after making full of use their “complimentary” breakfast. Then came the task of fitting me, Vivien, his bags and my bag in a 150cc scooter. We didn’t exactly look like the best advertisement for that scooter but it worked. The scooter sputtered to a start and off we went.
Off scooters, a mountain road climb and freezing butts
Reaching Alishan involved a 2500m climb on a mountain road. The scooter surprisingly behaved well despite all the load, but nature didn’t quite seem to like the idea of two dudes riding on a scooter loaded with all their bags.
Two dudes, three bags and one scooter
As I learnt in my geography class back in the day: as the altitude increases, the temperature decreases. Well, it decreased and it decreased big time. The oncoming wind brought the temperature down even further. And, before I knew it, my hands had trouble hitting the brakes because my fingers went numb from the cold. Soon, I discovered, as I was attempting to speak to Vivien, that my mouth was partially frozen as well. I then remembered my ill-advised sales pitch to Vivien the previous day. “We will be able to return the scooter whenever we want to and it is way more convenient”, I pitched to him the previous day and threw in more punchlines as well to make my case for the scooter hire. Today, I was thinking to myself: “convenient? My ass. My butt is freezing, my fingers are numb and all I can say is gibberish”. Vivien was equally cold. He was trying everything in his capacity to stay warm. Soon, we made an emergency pit stop and wore all items of clothing we had brought with us. We looked like we had just come from Antarctica BUT we still felt cold!
Freezing on the scooter!
In our desperate attempt to reach our final destination (Tatajia), we somehow bypassed Alishan! That meant shaving some time off and freezing a little less but it also meant that we had no food on us for the climb to Yushan as we were supposed to do our food shopping at Alishan.
We eventually arrived at a small place which seemed to only have three buildings – a visitor’s center, a police station and a hostel. Further inspection revealed this place to be Tatajia and the hostel (quite contrasting to Yoyo hotel the previous night) was our very own Shandang Pu Hostel. We “checked in” (involved telling an old lady that we were gonna crash at her place for two nights) and immediately gobbled up several packets of instant noodles in a last resort attempt at heating our internal organs which were on the verge of shutting down from the cold bike ride.
Shangdong Pu Hostel
After we were sort of warmed up, we headed over to the visitor’s center to register our names for the climb up to Mt. Yushan the following day. For the remainder of the afternoon, we decided to go trail running on nearby hiking trails. Vivien, the better navigator of the two us, led us to Mt. Lulin and a couple of other trails. The views were, let’s just say, white! All we saw were clouds cluttering up the sky and our views. The trails were fantastic though.
Admiring the clouds in Lulin Observatory
As they say, “man has no greater fury, then his stomach scorned” (ok, I say that) but after feasting on three packets on instant noodles when we arrived in the afternoon, I wanted anything else BUT instant noodles for dinner(even grass would have done). Luckily, the lady-in-charge of this fine hostel, agreed to cook us something special. With proper food entering the stomach once again, we were revitalized and energized to make plans for the next day. The plan called for waking up at 2.30am, leaving by 3am and making it to the summit of Yu Shan in time for the sunrise. The trail to the summit is 10.8km long with about 1500m of elevation gain. I boasted to a Belgian family that was also staying in Shangdong Pu hostel that given our past experience and superior hiking skills, we could easily cover the whole distance in less than three hours. After I said that, I did feel butterflies in my stomach (probably caused by the undeserved boasting) but I did the right thing and chose to ignore it (evil always triumphs).
We then hit the sack at about 8pm in order to get up very early in the morning on the following day for the summit climb.
2011-12-26: Yushan summit The blind leading the blind in darkness
We got up nice and early at 2.30am and left the hostel by 3.10am. We started off with a gentle jog to an intersection where it looked like we had two choices. The first choice had something in Chinese written on it and seemed to be a continuation of the road we were on. The second choice read “Mt. Linglun” (or something like that). My sense of direction isn’t quite the best so we followed Vivien’s decision to go with Choice 1. His explanation was that it couldn’t have been Choice 2 as it was in a different direction, so it had to be Choice 1. WRONG. We ran for about 15-20 minutes when Vivien murmured “this can’t be right”. He pointed out that we were losing elevation quite rapidly while we were supposed to be climbing instead. Following this startling discovery, we retraced our steps back to the junction and took the second choice. The map was confusing. It looked like the same mountain had different names. All in all, Choice 1 cost us about 8km and 40 minutes.
Choice 2 took us to an elevation of about 2800m when we saw another startling sign. The sign indicated that the way to Yu Shan was actually back at the junction. We were confused for a moment. Vivien brought out his secret weapon – a 3rd map which was given to us at the visitor’s center while I decided to turn off my headlamp and look skywards for an explanation. We were in pitch darkness in every direction other than skywards. The sky was beautifully decorated with more stars than I had ever seen in my life. It felt as though as I was in a Hong Kong indoor planetarium gazing at a man-made roof illuminated with artificial stars. This was real. As I was admiring the stars, Vivien made the decision to return to the junction hoping to find what seemed to be an invisible Choice C. Apparently, the new map he referred to had indicated that the trail to Yushan was marked with stones.
We returned to the junction losing about 1 hour in the process. Then we really saw a Choice C! Under the darkness, it looked like a dead end earlier but upon careful examination, there actually was a stone marker with something in Chinese written on it. We took this trail and verification that this indeed was the right trail came immediately as we began to climb quite rapidly.
After all these navigation errors, we were sure to miss the sunrise. But that didn’t dampen our spirits one bit. We were proud that we had actually climbed an appetizer mountain during the early hours of the day. (Or that’s what we told ourselves to feel better).
Setting off at 3am for the summit climb
Viven explains our mistakes!
The higher you go the harder it gets (corporate ladder AND hiking)
The trail wasn’t particularly hard but we were like injured soldiers on a battlefield. We had little food (thanks to bypassing Alishan), we hadn’t slept well the previous night and we had just spent our energy and time doing a needlessly extra 12km or so. We were both fine until we reached Panyu lodge (3300m, 8km from the junction) but subsequently, both of us felt the effect of high altitude. Each step was followed by heavy breathing and the wind was quite strong as we were nearing the summit.
On the way to the summit
Near the summit
It took us a strenuous 1 hour to reach the summit from the lodge but when we did, all the pain of climbing about 2000m in elevation and 20km in distance sunk away in the beauty of what we witnessed. A crystal clear azure sky and a strong sun revealed the majestic beauty of nature’s creations. It was a picture perfect scene: rolling mountain ranges with unique features, a sea of clouds dangling beautifully above the valley, boulders carved by the forces of nature over several million years and a dense green forest in the backdrop. It looked like nature had her masterpiece registered in Taiwan.
Views from the summit
Mesmerized by the summit views
Jade Mountain Summit – 3952m above sea-level
I can stay here forever!
On Cloud 9!
Chicks come and go but memories remain
We had the summit to ourselves until a lady friend flew by and took special interest in us (yes, we can’t help our charming looks). She was particularly interested in our food. They say that “the best way to enter a man’s heart is through his stomach”. It looked like this friend was practising reverse psychology. She played around with us for some time and then flew away, never to be seen again. (Don’t they all?)
Our lady friend
She loves me (and my food)
Toilet is a man’s best friend
Vivien and I were particularly sleepy from the high altitude and lack of food so we decided to head down. After a couple of hours we returned to our beloved hostel where the lady-in-charge had some special food for us. I took a much needed hot shower and gobbled up whatever she had made for us. This is when Vivien pointed out that in life, one just needs three things to live comfortably: a shower, a clean bed and good food. I concurred but being the greedy bloke that I am, I’d say that one also needs a clean, western toilet and that’s priority my friend. This hostel had one of those squat toilets which is a cheap way of practising hardcore yoga executed in strict military fashion where there is absolutely no room for error. (And there literally is little room in a typical squat toilet but maybe more room than you’d find in a Hong Kong apartment). Anyway, so after doing one’s business, standing up again on one’s own two legs requires massive effort and several thousand calories. So, I say that each and every mountain hut and hostel in this world has to have toilets that aren’t just there to satisfy urgent human needs but also go one step further in actually MAKING you want to go! They say that great ideas that change the world are conceived in toilets, so imagine the kind of ideas that the world could benefit from by combining the ease and comfort of good toilets with the peace and creativity of nature. (In fact, this very idea was conceived in one such fashion – more details only for those who really want it).
The rest of the evening was spent partially sleeping and recovering from the Yushan hike. I had a productive section as well. You can very easily guess what it was from that little blurb on toilets above. (Nope, there is nothing like ‘Too Much Information’).
We decided over dinner to return to worldly pleasures the following day. Meaning returning to Taipei sooner and having a beer or two in the main city.
2011-12-27, return to city life
We had close to 9 hours of sleep and got up at a leisurely 8am. We bid goodbye to the lady-in-charge at about 9am and set for Alishan on our mighty scooter. Getting back on the scooter definitely brought back very cold memories from before. So, this time we were prepared – or so we thought. I was wearing so many layers of clothing that even a high speed bullet couldn’t have penetrated me. BUT, I was still freezing. The outside temperature was about 6 degrees centigrade but the wind effect on the scooter felt like it was minus something. Luckily, the sun was shining quite brightly so when we reached Alishan, we decided to have breakfast there and warm up in the sun. As I was rubbing my hands vigorously to revive them from the numbness, I saw several busload of mainland tourists sluggishly getting out of their Volvo buses and attempting to follow their flag wielding tour leader. It was an amusing sight. Old tourists were slouched forward under the weight of heavy cameras hanging around their necks and seemed to struggle to get out of the bus. They seemed to be taking photos of everything under the sun – rocks and stones and concrete platforms and stairs. They needed a break every couple of seconds. The tour leader seemed to have an impossible job. She was carrying a megaphone around and coaxing these slow moving sightseers to form a straight line. It reminded me of a mountain herdsman grazing his herd of cattle. It made me realize that health and fitness is the most important thing in life!
A herd of tourists being grazed around by the tour leader
We left Alishan after breakfast and made the trip back to Chiayi where we returned our beloved scooter. We then took the high speed rail back to Taipei. It was then time to indulge in the pleasures of the city. We went to a hotel called Shabu Shabu in Taipei where I discovered the hidden Gordon Ramsey in me. It was a hot pot restaurant and they had the best collection of food that I had ever seen in my life. I concocted my own special soup base which pretty much involved monkeying around with all options available. I added ginger paste, spicy sauce, peanut paste, onions, red chili and a secret ingredient to my soup base (you have to watch the movie Kung Fu Panda to know what the secret ingredient is). As they say, “serendipity is the mother of all inventions” and today, I think I accidentally came up with the most perfect vegetarian soup base. I was eating like a madman until the lady asked us to vacate the premises. The cost of the buffet was only NT$ 450 but I am sure I had eaten food worth at least two times that!
After that sumptuous dinner, we hunted for a bar with live rock music but couldn’t find one! (our navigation skills seemed to be equally bad on city roads). We eventually settled for 7-11 beers to celebrate a successful end to the trip!
It was time to get up early again. We got up at 4.30am to make it to the airport in time for our 7am flight. I was back on my motorbike at 9am and rode straight to work to begin the start of a productive work day. Thankfully, Hong Kong’s “finest” had no more Christmas presents waiting for me.
Yet another fantastic mountain climb in Taiwan. Taiwan is topping my list as my most favorite place for travel. It gets my top vote for being the most friendly place for tourists and a paradise for hiking and biking.
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.
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.
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).
The original plan was to visit Mount Yushan in Taiwan and do a couple of kick ass hikes there. Unfortunately though, our last minute planning meant that we weren’t able to secure permits on time. So, Richard Foster of http://barking-deer.com/ aka “the barking deer guy”, who was helping us with the Yushan permits, told us that we could instead visit Taroko Gorge near Hualien. We were initially disappointed to learn that our dream hike in Yushan ended up being reduced to something sounding like “Tomato Gorge” near Hualien but a quick Google on the name lifted our spirits. The images of Taroko Gorge on Google were stunning! Apparently, the place was occupied by the Japanese several years back, hence the Japanese sounding name.
Apr 28th 2011
Armed with a US visa and a sense of adventure, Romain and I set off to Kaohsiung in Taiwan. Well, actually, I was the one who was armed with the US visa, which apparently is a good enough substitute for a Taiwan visa but Romain, who is a French national, didn’t need a visa to visit Taiwan. Anyway, the plan was to land in Kaohsiung, then take the subway to Kaohsiung Main Station in order to find the train time table to Hualien for the next day. We were then supposed to find a place to stay the night in Kaohsiung.
However, China Airlines didn’t quite appreciate the subway timings in Kaohsiung and we ended up arriving 1 hour late at the airport at around 12am. So, we had to instead take a cab to Kaohsiung Main Station. But then again, the Main Station was also shut! Some cabbies outside the station were flocking around, waiting eagerly to drive us to some hotel. Unfortunately though, there was a big barrier between us and the cabbies. Not a physical barrier but a big LANGUAGE barrier! My Putonghua was sadly limited to “Bu Ji Tao Putonghua” (can’t speak Mandarin) which worked great but unfortunately wasn’t a problem-solver by any means. So, the cabbie then called some Taiwan Tourist Translation hotline (can you believe that?!) and bingo! We were communicating! I asked the translator to ask the cabbie when the morning train to Hualien would depart. 0712 came the answer! With that, we decided to go to a hostel to catch some ZZs for a few hours. We ended up choosing the same hostel where Romain stayed the first time he was in Kaohsiung.
This hostel was called Cozy Planet. I called the owner, a guy called Sam who speaks flawless English and he volunteered to pick us up from the station and drive us to his hostel. He even upgraded us to some special room which included a TV, a computer and … a lady who’d make just ANY man do the dishes.
Ok, fine.. a POSTER of the lady.. but it certainly had the same affect!
After sleeping for a mere 4 hours, we were up nice and early the next day, all set to board the 0712 train to Hualien. We took a morning walk to the station at 6am and bought tickets to Hualien City station which cost about 1400 bucks for two.
Apr 29th 2011
Riyang or Jeff?
After a 5-hour long journey, we were all set to meet with The Barking Deer guy’s contact in Hualien station. A guy named Riyang Su who lives in Taroko.
We got off the train and soon saw Riyang waiting in his white van and waving towards us. He seemed like a very friendly guy, more like a long lost friend than just a tour guide. He drove us to his house in Taroko in about 20 minutes.
The house was nice and big! We had two bathrooms and the first floor all to ourselves. I saw Riyang’s name cards everywhere. However, one version of it read “Riyang Su” (the guy we knew) and the other read “Jeff”. We suspected that there could be a fellow guide living in the same house or maybe it was Riyang’s son who was called Jeff. We were inquisitive enough to ask Riyang who Jeff was. “In Taiwan, this guy, that guy, every guy is Jeff” came the response! Ok, so it was a fake English name and quite a popular one in Taiwan! Well, Riyang aka Jeff speaks passable English but you’ve got to speak slowly, very slowly! Otherwise conversations will last longer than you originally intended!
Romain and Jeff
We weren’t really sure what kind of adventure was awaiting us in the next couple of days but we soon realized that Riyang had everything set for us! He drove us to the Taroko Information Center on the same afternoon for our first glimpse of the gorge. It was beautiful! Truly, a geographical wonder!
Taroko has many, many beautiful trails. Hard ones and easy ones. At the tourist center, you can get a map of the place with the common trails on it. However, the timings on the trails are written more for grandmas and grandpas. If it says you need 4 hours to complete a trail, simply divide that by two! We did our first little walk/trail run that afternoon. A trail called the Shakadang trail.
Shakadang Trail – along the gorge. Water is in a beautiful green color
We did a little something extra as well. We went up from about 100m to 850m hoping to find something special but only found a bunch of red flags before we ran out of time and had to return.
Gimme a minute – I am off to the Pacific Ocean
Once we were back at Jeff’s house, he gave us some surprising news. “My house only 5 minutes from Pacific Ocean”, he said. That gave us an idea. We knew he had some great bikes, so we rented two of them and off we went riding to the Pacific Ocean!
Gimme 5 minutes – will ride to the Pacific Ocean and back!
Swimming there was not an option though, as the ocean is over 100m deep, even in the parts closest to shore! But, riding a bicycle on a pavement right next to the ocean was an option and we did exactly that! It was truly an awesome feeling!
After riding for a while, we returned to Jeff’s home for a nutritious and sumptuous dinner in the evening, topped with Taiwan Beer. We were looking forward to more adventure in the following day.
Apr 30th 2011
Biking ain’t easy
We weren’t really sure what we were going to do until the very last minute. Not because there wasn’t sufficient planning but because we didn’t quite understand what Jeff was telling us! But, things became crystal clear when he got our bikes out in the morning, took a picture of us and said ‘bye bye’. Our adventure for the day began shortly thereafter! We had two awesome bikes, a map of Toroko Gorge with the names of several trails on it and plenty of energy and a sense of adventure!
Taroko Gorge stretches a long, long way. From Taroko station, the altitude gradually rises from 100m to 3000m (Wu Ling). At the 23km mark from Taroko station, there is a place called Tiansiang which is at about 450m in elevation. Many beautiful tunnels adorn the road to Tiansiang from Taroko town. Biking on this road is a surreal experience! And, I realized soon, that it can also be a very difficult experience!
Getting ready for a 50Km bike ride!
Biking along the road that hugs the coast of the gorge
Not sure how the Tour De France guys do it but my little elevation gain from 100m to 400m was far from easy! Romain was up ahead speeding away and I was struggling a good 100m behind! Also, my use of the bicycle gears weren’t exactly right. I learnt on the trip that the gear controls on the left side of the handle bar are different from the controls on the right!
Riding in the dark tunnels was especially a thrilling experience! Some of the tunnels were dimly lit and we felt like we were riding bicycles in some caves! There was also a section called Swallow Grotto where they were lending free helmets to everyone crossing that area as it was prone to falling rocks! Not sure how a helmet would really help when a boulder makes a hard landing on your head!
After a thrilling experience (and a lot of pain for me), we reached Tiansiang some two hours later after some hardcore pedaling for 23kms. From there the trail running began! Armed with a map, we attacked as many trails as possible in about half the time it said it would take on the map!
Baiyang Trail – we took an extended path to get there
Baiyang Trail – Picture Perfect! On the way to the waterfalls
Chilling on a suspension bridge
By 4pm, we had biked 50km, hiked/ran close to 20km and were still going strong! We returned to Jeff’s place after that for our next mini adventure. This was a van trip to the Pacific Ocean again. It was actually a viewpoint from where we could see a steep cliff precariously dropping straight into the Pacific Ocean.
Steep Cliff descending straight into the ocean
50Km of biking, 20km of hiking/running and now enjoying the Pacific Ocean!
When we were at the Pacific Ocean, we were watching a crane dumping a speedboat onto the water. This speedboat was then driven to a trawler for bringing back the catch of fish for the day.
Crane picking up the boat and placing it near the ocean
Boat bringing back the catch of fish for the day
This fish called Ma Yiu (or something similar) weighed over 50Kgs
The day ended with another great dinner and left us tired but longing for more adventure!
May 1st 2011
Time for the high altitude stuff!
We had covered a lot of the relatively low altitude terrain (<900m) and so it was time to climb! Jeff drove us to a place called Wu Ling in the morning. Wu Ling is over 80km away from Taroko town and about 3000m in height. It took us 3 hours to reach the place. The temperature plummeted from 27 degrees to 6 degrees in a span of two hours. It was also drizzling which made it feel even colder.
Our plan for the day was to summit Hehuan Shan (3158m) and after that to climb Cilan North Peak (3600m). There was one big catch though - we didn't have the required permits to climb either mountain! But then, as they say, "where there's a will, there's a way!"
“Korea First, Hong Kong Next”
Jeff’s plan was to have us sneak behind a group that had the permits! This was a group from Korea and Jeff warned us to maintain radio silence and follow the Koreans. “Korea first, Hong Kong next”, he emphasized. So, if the permit guys were to check the Korean group, we were to pretend to be a part of that group. This group was 100% Korean. Romain and I were clearly the odd ones out! Unless we had a face mask on, there was no real point in maintaining any radio silence!! The Korean guys were dressed in multiple layers of clothing heavy enough to cause a crater in the ground. Contrastingly, Romain and I were wearing shorts!
As we started making our way to Hehuan Shan, we discovered that “Korea first, Hong Kong next” meant we wouldn’t reach the peak for several hours! And this was a climb from 3000m (Wu Ling) to the summit (3158m!) What would have taken Romain and I a mere 45 minutes looked like it would end up taking a couple of hours! So, we decided to shed our temporary Korean looks and return to trail running! In 40 minutes, we were at the summit!
Wu Ling – 3000m
The path to Hehuan Shan – 3158m
The heavily dressed and super slow Korean bunch
On the peak of Hehuan Shan
Luckily, we didn’t have any permit issues. Our plan then was to descend to the start of the trail (near Wu Ling) and take another trail to Cilan North Peak (3600m). On the way back down, we saw the Korean bunch still struggling to climb up to Hehuan Shan. We wished them luck and started heading towards the second trail for Cilan North Peak!
Our initial impression was that it would be an easy climb as we were to start at 3000m and climb up to 3600m (only a 600m difference) but this was far from reality!! What we didn’t know was that we were heading for a mammoth knee-and-calf-busting hike covering close to 1500m in total elevation through all kinds of slippery slopes!
The trail from Wu Ling to Cilan North Peak passed through three cabins (these were tents for temporary stops). The first cabin was at 2500m! So, the trail went down from Wu Ling (3000m) to 2500m (the first cabin). The descent was gradual and easy. This didn’t take us much time to cover.
The trail was also immensely beautiful. The colors on either side of the trail were spectacular and the vegetation and feel were typical of high altitude places. Tall trees, unpredictable weather, mist rising from the clouds and that fragrance of fresh mountain air! I felt couple of years younger by just taking a deep breath and admiring the landscape!
On the way to Cilan North Peak, from Wu Ling to the first cabin
After reaching the first cabin at 2500m, there was a 300m climb to the next cabin which was at 2800m. This was no ordinary climb, there were ropes, ladders and some big boulders in places that we had to negotiate.
At the 2800m cabin, they checked for entry permits that were needed to climb to Cilan North Peak. We didn’t have them! After some innocent pleading and reassurance that we were experienced mountain climbers, they let us continue. We took photos with the permit guys – a family that lived in this cabin. The guy there spoke great English.
Second cabin, these guys live here and check for permits!
Then came a climb that I won’t forget for a long, long time! This was by far the hardest climb I have done in quite some time. The altitude went up from 2800 to 3530 and it was one hell of a steep climb. 90 degree climbs using ropes while battling fatigue generated by a combination of hard exercise and breathlessness caused by the relatively higher altitude. Because of recent rains, the slope at several parts were so wet and slippery that it felt like the legs weren’t moving at all, despite all the effort pumped into making them move. We eventually reached another rocky slope amidst inclement weather and bad visibility. We had to take a break to refuel.
Taking a much needed break at 3500m
We could not see much beyond a certain point and it seemed like we had missed some turn at the 3530m mark which was to lead to the summit of Cilan North Peak. We were supposed to reach 3600m but instead we ended up seeing a huge drop ahead. It looked like we had missed the turn to the summit. Realizing that visibility was low and that we were running out of time (Jeff was waiting for us in Wu Ling), we had to turn back.
The peak to the left is at 3600m, that’s Cilan North Peak
We reached Wu Ling at about 4.30pm. Jeff was worried. The Korean bunch made it down from Hehuan Shan in a couple of hours and told him that we had taken off without them! They asked him to call the police! He breathed a sigh of relief after seeing us and congratulated us on summiting two difficult peaks within a span of a couple of hours!
Returning after summiting Cilan Peak (well, almost!)
In hindsight, we did feel a little bad because, in truth, we were 70m short of the summit! But, we decided that this would count nonetheless!
After taking more pictures, we headed back to Taroko town. I was freezing as it was raining and my tee shirt was wet from a combination of both sweat and rain. My socks were also wet and the body had taken quite a beating from all that climbing.
The descent to Taroko town took us to a spot at 1500m where we quite literally were just above the clouds!
Above the clouds! Is this Cloud 9?
We returned to Jeff’s place late at night for some much needed rest!
May 2nd 2011
This awesome adventure looked liked it would soon come to an end as it was time to head back to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong.
However, before that, we had one more 3-hour trail run left in the morning! This one was from a point called Swallow Grotto (before Tiansiang) to almost the start of Taroko Gorge. The beauty of this trail was that it rested precariously at about 700m above the gorge and followed the path of the gorge for the most part. One slip and we would have fallen all the way down to the gorge (and would have broken a couple of bones in the process). This is probably why this trail also required a special permit.
Hi Hamish, Hi Corby
Jeff didn’t know our official names. So, he decided to use some random names for the permits. So, today, I was called Corby Ganesh and Romain was called Hamish Black!
Hamish Black and Corby Ganesh!
Start of the trail
Trail runs at an elevation of about 700m above the gorge
You slip and you faaaaaaaaaaaaaaall!
View of the gorge from the trail
The trail finished at a suspension bridge which connected the mountain to the road.
As we were taking photos on this bridge, we saw dozens of tourists walking out of big Volvo buses. It looked like their biggest exercise for the day was to negotiate the steep stairs on their way down from the bus! Romain and I were wishing that we would never end up like them!
Well, all good things eventually come to an end and so did that trail and the trip to Taiwan! We returned to Jeff’s place after this for a shower before boarding the 5-hour train back to Kaohsiung.
In the night, we flew back to Hong Kong.
This was an A+ trip! 50km of biking, 60km of hiking/running and an altitude climb at 3560m! Couldn’t have asked for more! Riyang Su aka Jeff was a fantastic guide and it felt like we were visiting some friend who knew exactly what we liked and was facilitating that.
Taroko is a place to revisit! We have plans of doing a longish trek from Wu Ling (3000m) to all the way to Toroko Gorge (300m) next time around! Maybe preceded by a nice and long bike ride from Taroko town to Wu Ling (100m to 3000m).