Sunday, 25 January 2015

can you feel it?

it ain't Mongolia
Twenty-eight hot baths later it's time to get going again.  The road curls around the southern tip of the island and climbs the ridge separating the east and west coasts.  The landscape has changed - there's no forest here, just bare open bluffs and cliffs with rocky coastline.  We've been looking forward to this because everyone tells us that the most beautiful part of Taiwan is the east coast.  In fact it is the least developed, which may explain why, but as we head northwards we realise that the geography is much more dramatic on this side and there is very little coastal plain.  For a couple of days we are climbing and descending steep winding roads to and from the coast.  The road is free of trucks.  The forest has returned.  A couple stop and offer us oranges for energy.  The villages are further apart and we camp behind a health clinic.  I complain to Gayle that this blog is getting rather boring.  We cycle here, we cycle there.  My descriptive powers are not quite up to the landscapes - you'll have to check out Gayle's photos.  She tells me to put some deep emotion in to it but hey, this is our life.  It feels kind of normal to be cycling slowly uphill, with no idea what to expect around the next corner, and then descend rather more quickly with a silly grin on our faces.  Deep emotions don't come into it.  It's fun, it's hard (why is it still hard sometimes?) and wild camping behind the wall of a village health clinic, out of sight of locals on scooters whizzing home, is a good end to a good day.  Throw some jokes in, Gayle tells me, but not everything is funny.  But come to think of it........ The M1 and the M25 are in the pub, sat at the bar, when this scrawny thin piece of tarmac walks in. "Don't look at him, mate." the M1 advises. "Nah, don't even think about eye-contact!" "Why not?" asks the M25 "I mean, how can us two big motorways be frightened of that skinny little bit of tarmac, eh?" "Yeah, well, I'm warning you,"says the M1, "he's a cycle path".

reflecting how funny life can be
ecology culture coffee
The east coast of Taiwan is popular with Taiwanese for cycling, but it takes us for surprise when we join the main southern cross-island highway and find a cluster of cyclists heading down to the coast too.  They all stop at the same restaurant for lunch.  "It's good food then?" I ask one woman. "Yes, all cyclists stop here to eat beef noodles.  It is very famous." So we stop and eat chicken and veg with rice.  We hate to follow the crowd.   The waitress in the restaurant speaks perfect English - turns out she's Filippino.  Now back on the main road heading up the coast the road has flattened out and is awash with young men and women in lycra, riding road bikes with a couple of panniers.  We trundle along at a healthy speed and give 'em a run for their money up the short hills that come along now and again.  We ask three young Chinese students where they will stay tonight.  They tell us the elementary school in one of the towns.  We make a mental note of this.  It seems it's perfectly fine for cyclists to ask to stay at the schools.  But we don't think anyone is camping because everyone's travelling so light. Towards the end of the day the dark clouds hovering over the hills finally beget rain. 
The timing is lousy.  An hour before sundown and we are getting good and wet.  Our female cyclist from the restaurant stops at a convenience store and helps us get online using her mobile phone.  The wi-fi provider sends her the code we need to pay.  She then heads off and it is only a few minutes later that we realise that she is being texted with our password for the wi-fi too.  Oh well.  That evening there are roadworks and a couple of steep climbs and what with the rain we are keen to stop as soon as we find a place.  A track leads us into an orchard of custard apples and we pitch up between the raised beds before the rain falls again.

Our coastal road north brings us to Taitung.  It's a small city.  Our road almost takes us all the way past until we realise that we need to find the city centre.  There's a lazy laid-back feel about the place which is a relative term in Taiwan.  The whole nation seems rather relaxed compared to China.  But here on the east coast it's chilling, man.  We are being hosted by Liu here.  He works at the city's Museum of Pre-history, history being the arrival of the Chinese immigrants, so it's really a museum of the Austronesian people in Taiwan.  Liu is a very polite man, and maybe a little shy, but he welcomes us into his home with tea and cooks us a great bowl of noodles.  He's the first Taiwanese we have seen cooking and, judging by his kitchen, and the noodles, he enjoys it.  We enjoy his cooking too.  Liu is really quite a crazy kind couch surfing host who never says no to anyone and has a large house to accomodate his guests.  On our first evening we meet Pieter and Youi who have come on a visit from Korea and spend a happy hour or two chatting away.

Taitung art village

On Saturday Liu suggests we go for a ride in the surrounding countryside.  Andrew and Suzanne, Czechs with very unCzech names (I think they were Andriy and Suzanna) stayed the night before and they are planning to catch a train but Liu persuades them to join us as we head up along the East Rift Valley which runs parallel to the coast.  First we stop off at a soya milk farm where they produce not only the milk, but tofu and other soy milk products, none of which I can name.  We can peek inside but the main thing to do is sit at an old cable reel set on its side and tuck into something like yoghurt and then a fried tofu dish.  Both are great.  

steaming vats of soy milk
The valley is wide and flat around the huge river that runs southwards.  As usual there's not much water at this time of year, but the surrounding dykes indicate what happens during the summer typhoon season.  Liu takes us down to the rice paddies where an alternating crop of rapeseed has been sown and is now flowering.  It's very pretty and there are a few folk out on bicycles and photographing the vivid yellow fields.  We have lunch at the Bento Box Museum.  The bento box is basically a takeaway lunchbox introduced by the Japanese.  Taiwan is a takeaway country so you see them everywhere.  The place is busy with daytrippers all chowing down.  It's all fine but there's a sense that we are working our way down a list of the local tourist sights along with everyone else.  It seems that if you go to this village you do this thing.  If you go there, you do that.  If you cycle there, you eat here.  There appears to be no individuality in people's leisure activities. Dear Liu, I'm not complaining about our day - which we really enjoyed - but commenting on how different it feels to home.
rice ready to plant out in the paddy

Andrew and Suzanne head off northwards while we return towards the city, stopping off at a tea shop to try a selection of locally-grown teas.  We are treated to the traditional tea-making ritual which is really a form of Chinese water torture to an Englishman.  First the pot is filled with hot water and then the teacups are rinsed off.  The water is poured away and while the pot is still warm, leaves are thrown in and then fresh water added.  A splash of tea is poured into each cup and then tossed away before finally, after a little brewing the tea is poured.  
Chinese water torture
The cups are porcelain and little larger than an eggcup.  Where's me big mug of tea with a bit of milk on the side?? We sip our thimbles and then the tea is poured away and the whole process is repeated but with a different leaf.  We work through the range from a very light green, through an autumnal range to a very dark and fragrant red tea.   While we are tasting a group of women form Taipei come in and Liu starts chatting away with them.  The woman serving the tea has also not stopped talking.  It feels a very sociable country does Taiwan.  The tea is all delicious and we head back to the city just after dusk.  Back at the house Liu cooks us another great meal.  He has prepared a pasta dish with meat on the side and salad.  We are really quite surprised because we didn't think anyone in Taiwan would be that interested in European cuisine and ultimately we are rather embarrassed because we could have cooked for him after all.  But Liu is a generous and thoughtful man and seems happy to look after us. Although he works at the history museum his real love is Buddhist Art, which he studied at university.  He tells us that he switched from architecture.  A bit later on he tells us that he first started studying electrical engineering.  Somewhere along the way he managed to break away from the expected course and plot a route for himself.  He recommends a few places in Japan to visit and sees us off the next morning with an abundance of snacks and treats which we enjoy over the next few days.  We feel very lucky to have had such good hosts in Taiwan.

perfect host.....

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