Tuesday, 30 December 2014

sun, moon, rain and fog

We have lovely sunshine as we follow country roads through farmland steadily up into the foothills.  By a stand of sunflowers we get chatting to some local tourists  - it turns out Jessica is back from the UK on holiday and visiting her aunty and uncle who invite us to have a tea in a local cafe.  Already this has set the mood for our cycling - we take it nice and slow and dawdle a lot. 

There's a big cafe scene in Taiwan which gives the country a western feel.  It makes for a happy change from China.  There are also convenience stores in every town so if you can't afford to sit in a cafe you can at least afford a coffee or a choc-ice in a 7-11, which is also handy for wi-fi.  But for cycling hobos there are also the luxuries of tourist information centres, bus stops, benches and picnic tables and roadside temples.  There are also plenty of little restaurants serving good cheap food.  It's ideal.

Late in the day we start thinking about camping, turning down one spot because it's still too early and then finding ourselves in a narrow valley. climbing, with lots of banana and palm plantations.  Several people had told us that in Taiwan you can always ask at a police station about camping and that they are very responsive, often offering use of their toilets, showers, and even, in one small place, dinner.  So when we reach a tiny village with the sun already setting we ask at the local police station about camping in the little park by the river.  The policeman looks amused and says no.  So, angry for having bothered to ask instead of just camping, we continue up the road and camp behind some banana trees only metres from the road.  It is, undoubtedly, our worst pitch of the trip.  The next day is brighter as we reach Sun and Moon Lake - a pretty little lake in the foothills surrounded by forested mountains. 

There are villages at either end of the lake, a bike path around one side, footpaths into the surrounding hills and lots of boats ferrying people to and fro.  There's even the obligatory cable car taking tourists up to a view point to catch sunrise/sunset.  It's clearly a popular spot for Chinese tourists - we recognise them from their clothes - Chinese fashion being rather particular.  And groups wander the streets together, herded from bus to restaurant to shop to bus.  We join all the tourists on rented bikes heading around the lakeshore and find ourselves a sunny spot away from the roads before camping when everyone else has gone.  

Christmas Day begins with clouds on the hills.  We continue our circuit of the lake and stop in the southern village which is aboriginal.  Taiwan's aborigines live in the central mountains and on outer islands, presumably settling here to escape the Chinese migration from the 1600s onwards.  (It is widely thought that most austronesians originated from Taiwan way back when.)  Thankfully, the locals here are not all in native costume for the tourists, but are running restaurants and hotels.  We find one to eat in and one to sleep in.  We want to Skype our families and we don't want to do it from a 7-11!  By the afternoon it's raining so we're glad of the accomodation and our conversations with our families leave us with the usual mixed emotions.  

in case you feel you are lacking any

We want to continue southwards through the hills.  The country roads are steep in places but have less traffic than the main roads, so it's slow going some days.  And the rain continues off and on.  On the bright side it remains warm so even if we're a bit damp in the tent we don't need to wrap up.  Somewhere we cross the Tropic of Cancer - it's the first time we have camped in the tropics and it seems like a perfect time of year to do it.  The land is lush and thick with foliage.  

Taiwan has a population density higher than that of China, with 20 million people living on an island the size of Switzerland, but thankfully it also has a lot of mountains and forest, so once you escape the western coastal plains it's not built up at all. 

Frustratingly we find ourselves climbing switchback roads in the mountains in cloud and mist.  Our eyebrows are dotted with beads of condensation.  We pass tea plantations and endless palm plantations and occasionally get vertiginous views back down the valleys we have left behind, before reaching a pass and descending down into another one.  

At some point we tire of the fog-bound hills and decide it's time we looked for the sun again.  We head back westwards and literally as soon as we descend into the flat farmland of the plains the sun appears.  And to our surprise we find that although the land is cultivated, it isn't crowded.  We enjoy riding past the old farm houses - one-storey buildings around a courtyard with distinctive curving rooftops.  We make our way over to salt flats, and amongst the oyster beds - seawater fields of mud.  In the villages women huddle around mounds of the shells, breaking them open to retrieve their flesh.  The back roads are pleasantly quiet as we ride happily towards Tainan.

good ol' bamboo

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