Photos are here.
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.
The Secret Seven
Seven elite participants were chosen from dozens of applicants to participate in this once-in-a-lifetime adventure trip. The interview process was more extreme than anything the world has ever seen. The potential applicants were put through a pizza eating contest at Pizza Corner on Hollywood Road while I blabbed away for an hour with details on the plan. Those who survived my hour-long lecture AND smiled at the end of it were chosen for the mission.
So, the Secret Seven included Olivia Luk, Dominic Rigby, Hannes Niggli, Martijn Doekes, Jinhwa Kim, Romain Riche and yours truly. And, the plan, well, here you go!
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7th June 2012
We landed in Taipei at about 9.30pm and took a seven-seater van to our hostel. Our host was a Taiwanese dude. In his bubbly, ecstatic fashion, he welcomed us to his hostel which seemed largely empty.
The bunk beds in the dormitory room reminded me of my boarding school back in the day. The “upper berth” guys were quick to reserve their spots. It was about 1am by the time we slept. If you are willing to pay a little more, Expedia offers a range of affordable hotel accommodations. Romain and I were supposed to get our motorbikes from Jeremy of www.bikefarm.com the next day morning at 10am while the rest of the gang was supposed to take a bus to Wuling Farm at 7.20am from Taipei Main Station.
8th June 2012
Trouble in paradise
I turned my phone on at 6am in the morning. The first SMS that popped up on the screen woke me up in a flash.
“HEY VINCE , I WONDERED WHAT HAD HAPPENED TO YOU, WAS ALL SET TO SEE YOU THIS MORNING BUT I THOUGHT YOU’D CANCELED ON ME. I AM TOTALLY BOOKED TOMORROW BUT MAY GET BACK IN TOWN FOR THE EVENING OR ELSE IT WILL HAVE TO BE SATURDAY MORNING. HOPE THIS WORKS FOR YOU AS YOUR MAIL SAID YOU’D BE IN WED EVENING AND WE’D MEET THURSDAY MORNING. I’LL BE SURE TO CALL AS SOON AS I’M FREE. JEREMY”
Ok, so, I screwed up the dates in my latest correspondence with Jeremy, and there went our motorbikes! (Note to self: next time write emails with a calendar by the side). There’s nothing like some startling news to wake you up from your sleep. Romain and I were counting on the motorbikes and now that plan was blown to smithereens. I relayed the distressing message to Romain who was half asleep. His reaction was predictably spontaneous. He woke up from his sleep in a fraction of a second.
My immediate reaction was to scrap the motorbiking idea and join the bus crew to Wuling Farm. But, Romain, like a determined soldier, was adamant to somehow find a way to make the motorbiking work. Hannes provided some much needed moral encouragement. If I remember right, his words were “you can’t give up even if you have to bicycle all the way to Wuling Farm”.
“Anything with two wheels”, he exclaimed. It reminded me of a proverb – “it is easy to be brave from a safe distance”.
So, while the rest of the gang checked out of the hostel, Romain and I had to come up with a Plan B. I was suddenly reminded of the movie Collateral. In the movie, Tom Cruise shoots someone on the second floor of a house and the guy drops down all the way from the second floor onto the roof of a cab. He then says to the cabbie “Okay, look, here’s the deal. Man, you were gonna drive me around tonight, never be the wiser, but El Gordo got in front of a window, did his high dive, we’re into Plan B. Still breathing? Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.”
And, “rolling with it”, for us meant asking the drunk guy from the previous night for advice! He was sober in the morning (thankfully) and told us that our only hope to rent motorbikes was to get out of Taipei. Heeding his advice, we took a train all the way to Hualien and walked into the first bike shop we could see.
There’s one solution to all of life’s problems – G O O G L E
A young kid greeted us in the shop and pointed at various scooters. We saw exactly two big scooters and immediately pointed at them. Then the kid signaled to me asking me to go with him to the front of the room. A “GOOGLE TRANSLATE” Firefox tab on his computer was then our primary mode of communication. The bargaining was classic. I asked him to reduce the price to NT$300 per day and he typed away to glory on his side of the Google Translate window. “Locomotive you see its price is relatively high. Outside the day to give you 300″, read the translated version. We eventually agreed on NT$350 per day.
We smartly signed a Chinese form without understanding a word on it and left our thumb print on it. (Hope I didn’t bequeath all my money to him).
We also found two great bikes from our friends Hannes and Dominic. Too bad they decided to take the bus instead.
Then came a fab 160km ride all the way from Hualien to Wuling farm via Taroko. We were riding away to glory along winding mountainous roads, breathing in fresh mountain air and admiring stunning views along the way. I felt like I was in nature’s lap.
After several hours of riding in nature, we reached Wuling Farm at around 6pm in the evening and were reunited with the rest of the troupe.
The hotel in Wuling Farm looked dandy. It had a great reception area, neat rooms but a rather mediocre dinner buffet. Well, it wasn’t that bad. Hannes, a stickler for tasty Swiss food, definitely enjoyed it very much. Especially the fine Swiss cheese and Swiss Muesli.
9th June 2012
Early to bed, early to rise keeps hikers healthy, wealthy and sleepy
Jinhwa is full of energy. Too much energy. Her plan called for us getting up at 2am in the morning and leaving our rooms by 2.30am in order to catch the sunrise from a hut near the summit. There was only one catch. The start of the trail was well over 10kms away from our hotel in Wuling Farm. Walking on a concrete road that went up 500m in elevation at 2.30am in the morning didn’t sound very appealing. We needed a Plan B. Our loyal scooters came to the rescue. Romain and I “scootered” our passengers all the way from our hotel to the start of the trail on two trips. My scooter sputtered on full throttle and refused to climb up the last part of the steep road with Dominic riding pillion with me. I hinted to him that he had to lose weight. He was quick to blame the scooter instead.
Then came our most egregious violation of Taiwanese laws. We quietly sneaked past the park entrance of Snow Mountain to get onto the trail. It felt like we were KJB spies infiltrating deep into enemy territory. We did have the required permits to climb Snow Mountain but our “crime” was that we never registered our names at the local police station. All Snow Mountain climbers are supposed to register their names at the local police station. Our Plan B there was simple. In case we got caught, Jinhwa would play the innocent non-English speaking travel group while begging and pleading for forgiveness. If they still wanted to capture and torture someone, well, Hannes was always expendable.
The first part of the trail reminded me of the climb to the summit of Mount Kinbalu in Kota Kinabalu. The trail went up from about 2000m in elevation to 3000m. There were plenty of stairs but it wasn’t any more difficult than climbing Rooster Hill in Sai Kung 2-3 times.
We reached a hut named “Hut 369″ at about 7am in the morning. it took us roughly 4 hours to get there from the start of the trail. You might ask why the nondescript and uncreative name. It reminded me of the names of some of the buildings in Hong Kong like “100 QRC” or “8 QRC”. Eventually, we figured out that it was called “Hut 369″ because it is at an altitude of 3690m! I was thinking that their marketing guys should have come up with something more jazzy, something like “Sunrise Hut”.
The trail from this hut to the summit was STUNNING. It got all of us high on endorphins. We were all in the zone, smiling and connecting with nature. The trail initially went through a Black Forest (yes, I was thinking of the cake as well) but I mean a tall wooded mountain range. Then the landscape blended into a rocky terrain filled with beautiful Rhododendron flowers. This is where I started to feel the altitude. We were at about 3500m in elevation. Then came a very slippery slope filled with rocks and boulders of all shapes and sizes. After climbing that slope using all four limbs, we got our first view of the summit. It was a sight that will forever be etched in our memories. At that point, I felt like nothing else mattered. It was just me, the mountains and nature.
We had several interesting conversations on the summit. Well, first of all, everyone was in full of admiration for my outfit. Hannes thought that my 70s style Nike track pants were a must have for him in his wardrobe as well. Dominic was enamored by my belt and wished he had worn a belt too. The girls loved my bandana and my cool and groovy look. Basically, I was the harbinger of fashionable mountain wear.
Then we had an intense debate over a simple question. Why does it get cold as we climb up although we are getting closer to the sun? Hannes, Dominic and Martijn gave me so called “knowledgeable” answers to this, although it was evident to me that all they were trying to do was to confuse me. As I read somewhere, “if you can’t convince them, confuse them”. They were practicing that to perfection.
We spent about 30 minutes on the summit and decided to hike along a ridge called “The Holy Grail”. This ridge connected to the summit of Snow Mountain to the neighboring summit of another mountain which was at an altitude of around 3800m. Hiking in that altitude has a tiring effect on the body, every kilometer becomes an accomplishment. Our original plan was to get to the top of North Peak which was only 6km away from the summit of Snow Mountain but getting up at 2am and hiking for 7 hours had its toll on everyone – well, almost everyone. Romain, Jinhwa and I decided to hike a bit further towards North Peak while Dominic, Martijn, Olivia and Hannes decided to descend all the way back to the start.
The three of us went up a mountain called Karantakun Shan or “Krrrrrr Shan” as Dominic calls it (his Mandarin needs improvement) on the way to North Peak. Then the clouds started to set in. It started drizzling.
We covered all of 2km in 45 minutes and then made an executive decision to turn back. Romain and I were sleep deprived and tired from the 160km bike ride the previous day. We decided that continuing to hike along those precipitous ridges in that altitude without proper focus could have been disastrous, especially with the threat of uncertain weather. So, we took our group picture at some point on the way to North Peak and turned around.
Then came a fast downhill descent, all the way from 3800m in elevation back to the entrance of the Snow Mountain trail. Romain and Jinhwa were running down like there was no tomorrow whereas I had trouble focusing due to sleep deprivation. We eventually caught upto Dominic, Hannes, Olivia and Martijn who were walking down. Upon returning to the start of the trail, Romain and I “scootered” everyone back to the hotel on two trips. By the time we were done with the day’s festivities, we were all exhausted. And soon after that, it started to rain. The timing was perfect. Well, for everyone except Martijn who decided to skip the scooter ride and run from the start of the Snow Mountain trail all the way back to the hotel in the rain. He was somehow full of energy at the finish.
10th June 2012
Hey Doc, what’s shakin’?
There’s nothing more earth-shaking than… well, earth shaking! We were awoken by the loud noise of the rattling of windows at 5am in the morning. I turned around to look at Dominic and Hannes to ensure that they weren’t upto any mischief. Dominic seemed equally startled.
“What the heck is that noise?” I asked him. “Earthquake”, came his shocking answer. It was the first ever earthquake I had experienced! At breakfast in the morning, we read on the news that it was about 6.5 on the Richter scale.
After breakfast, we met Rihang Su, our friend/guide who drove 7 hours from his house in Taroko to pick us up from Wuling Farm. He came with 4 mountain bikes in his van. The plan was simple – on the way from Wuling farm (2000m) to Taroko (sea-level), there is a place called Daiyuling (2800m). Dominic, Jinhwa, Hannes and Martijn were to ride the mountain bikes all the way down from Daiyuling to Taroko. Olivia, who gave the bike riding a miss, was going to be part of the “camera crew”. Romain and I were going to follow the bikers on our scooters! The plan seemed perfect but there was a catch. It was raining nonstop. There was constant rain and the skies showed no signs of clearing up.
By the time Romain and I reached Dayuling on our scooters, we were totally wet. The van group seemed a little demoralized except for Dominic. The sight of the mountain bike somehow juiced him up and he seemed both enthusiastic and determined to ride down to Taroko, despite the nonstop rain. They say that enthusiasm is contagious and this occasion was a perfect example of that. Upon seeing Dominic’s excitement and determination to ride the bike down to Taroko, Hannes, Jinhwa and Martijn followed suit. Romain and I couldn’t care less about the rain and decided to ride our bikes all the way upto Hehuan (3200m) in the rain before riding back down on our scooters to catch up with the cyclists.
Riding a mountain bike all the way down to sea-level from a height of 2800m will drive even the world’s most depressed person ecstatic. The exhilaration is unbeatable. Add some rain and slippery roads that meander all the way down through dense green forests and the release of endorphins is 100% GUARANTEED.
Despite wearing girly gel shorts, Hannes initially seemed to be struggling on his bike at the back whereas Dominic was speeding down as though he was Lance Armstrong. In fact, judging by his speed and his Formula One like turns, one can argue that he was also likely to be doping “allegedly” like Lance Armstrong! Jinhwa and Martijn seemed to be in total control of their bikes, well, except for one section through a dark tunnel where Jinhwa abruptly stopped in the middle of the tunnel as it was too dark for her see anything! Luckily, the “camera crew” (Rihang and Olivia) were just behind her and offered her support.
Romain had the closest call for the day. While he was waiting on the side of the road for me to catch up, a huge boulder rolled down from an adjacent steep slope and fell about 20 meters in front of him and disintegrated into several pieces. Had he been 20 meters ahead, it would have meant instant death.
Descending into Taroko was a truly spectacular moment. Despite having already been there two times in the past, I was still captivated by the gorgeous beauty of the gorge. The different shades of the color of water, the greenery of the trees, the mountain ranges in the backdrop, the meandering roads in the foreground – it was a simply spectacular sight.
The Taroko area is full of beautiful trails. Near the entrance of park and just about 15 minutes from Rihang’s house is a trail called Shakadang Trail. We decided to run that trail before reaching at Rihang’s house.
We were all quite hungry after a day filled with physical activities. Rihang knew the best place for us to regain all the energy we had lost. We went to Hualien city to a Japanese hotpot restaurant (Shabu Shabu) and ate like pigs. We were also dressed like pigs. Our shoes and clothes were wet. So, five of us ended up at the restaurant wearing bathroom slippers. The remaining two packed in two pairs of shoes and were slightly better dressed.
After gorging of food for well over two hours, we headed back to Rihang’s home. I wasted no time in going to bed. I could hear the sound of frogs mating and insects singing as I closed my eyes. But, nothing could have kept me awake that night!
11th June 2012
Waking up to a half marathon
Romain is full of energy. Too much energy. He wanted a greater challenge on the last day of our Taiwan trip and suggested that we run all the way from Rihang’s house to Tiansiang (25km from his house). Being equally insane, I accepted the challenge and the two of us got up at 4.45am in the morning and started running by 5.15am. In the beginning I felt groggy and questioned the sanity behind running a half marathon at 5am in the morning. But, the smell of fresh air in the gorge refreshed my senses like nothing else could. I soon started relishing every moment of the run. We ran through the dark tunnels along the meandering roads all the way to Tiansiang. It took us roughly 2.5 hours to complete the run.
The final agenda on this adventure trip was a hike along the “Cliff Trail”, which is a trail that runs at about 800m in elevation above the gorge. A slip of the foot will result in a 800m drop into oblivion.
Before returning to Rihang’s home to repack, he drove us to the Pacific Ocean where Jinhwa went for a swim. She didn’t quite know that the ocean drops to a depth of 100m quickly and the currents are strong enough to carry someone deep into the ocean in a relatively short span of time.
It was time to then make the journey back to Hong Kong. Romain and I rode our scooters back to Hualien city and returned them to the bike shop. The kid there said “ok” and didn’t even bother checking to see if the scooters worked. It was the quickest ever return of scooters that I have ever witnessed.
We couldn’t get seats on the train to Taipei from Hualien. So, we ended up with standing seats but turned them into “sitting” seats by sitting on the floor of the train.
We returned to the hustle and bustle of Hong Kong in the late evening. I will never forgive the Taiwan Customs guys for seizing my bottle of fresh chili that I bought in Hualien!
A truly kick ass adventure trip that involved 400km of motorbiking, 35 kilometers of trail running, 20 kilometers of climbing and an immeasurable amount of fun and excitement. Taiwan is an amazing place for a great escape into the wilderness. I am already looking forward to returning to compete in the Taroko marathon.