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Taiwan Surprise

The excitement of discovering new places and waving at new faces keeps us pushing on the pedals. Every trip delivers new knowledge and surprises around each bend. To get the full affect of culture shock, the least we know about our destinations the better, so an island to the south of Japan fitted the bill perfectly…

Most bicycles sold in North America, Europe and Japan nowadays are manufactured in Taiwan. Other than that, my knowledge of the island was limited to skimming through articles about the Chinese Civil War—that Taiwan was where Chiang Kai-shek retreated in 1949, with 600,000 Nationalist troops and two million refugees. Were they the first people to reach the island? Was it some kind of industrial wasteland? We couldn’t wait to find out.

You should never judge a place by the capital city where you land, but Taipei is impressive. More than a hundred kilometers of bike paths, a no-nonsense design that includes spiralled access to bridges and elevated tracks over protected mangroves. Chinese specialties are on display in small alleys and we fill up on spicy tofu, water spinach in garlic and rice. The attentive restaurateur jumps when we mention we came from Quebec.

“You had a vote to separate from Canada,” he says excitedly. He sees similarities between the province’s political will for independence and that of Taiwan. Although Taiwan has its own currency, elected government and diplomatic relationships, its political status is a contentious issue. He calls it a “renegade province of the mainland” and predicts that within 10 years China will come back to claim its lost child.

“It won’t be hard,” he says. “We have no resources, no petrol. Just rice. Close our ports, and we die.”

By the time our meal is over, we understand most Taiwanese feel a strong connection to China, since the majority of their cultural traditions come from a long history (most Taiwanese came from the mainland starting 500 years ago). Yet, Taiwan’s younger generation, who grew up feeling “Taiwanese,” has little desire for unification. It’s an open-ended story.

Taipei is a modern city with (not for long) the world’s tallest building. Constructed to resemble a stalk of bamboo, Taipei 101 boasts—well—101 stories stretching 508 meters. From this cutting-edge structure, resting atop Asia’s largest and most colorful indoor food court, we head to the old town center along the Danshui River to visit Longshan Temple, one of Taipei’s oldest.

Built in 1738, it is home to Guanyin (goddess of mercy) and 165 other deities. Hundreds of worshipers make the temple a daily stop on their way to and from work, engaging in hypnotic chanting. Modernity and tradition in perfect harmony.

While inhaling incense and mentally trying to put this temple either in the Buddhist or Taoist category, we learn the Taiwanese have an eclectic approach to religion, and elements from Buddhism and Taoism are combined to suit one’s needs.

The majority of Taiwanese combine the secular moral teachings of Confucianism with whatever religions they are affiliated. This laid-back attitude is something Christian missionaries have found frustrating—starting when Taiwan was Formosa, a post on the European trading route.

Many islanders don’t feel a conversion to Christianity should imply giving up the myriad of folk beliefs that have long-standing meaning to their culture.

In between temples (Taiwan has more per capita than any country), the most common public buildings are 24-hour convenient stores (great for toilet breaks), American fast-food restaurants and Seattle-born coffee shops (free wireless). In Taipei, we’re sharing the road with a fleet of scooters but, once we hit the scenic East Coast Highway, it is all about luxury cars and tour buses.

The Wild, Wild East

A rare bike commuter catches up to us on his way to work at the nuclear power plant and wonders why we chose July to visit Taiwan. “You know this is the hottest month of the year and it is typhoon season. November is a much better month to come here on a bike,” he informs us. July on the Tropic of Cancer is hot indeed, and tenting at sea level is like sleeping in a sauna.

The promise of cooler climes motivates us to ride up the Taroko Gorge as far as Tienshang on the first day. With marble-walled canyons, lush vegetation and cliffs so high they block out the sky, the gorge is a breathtaking ride.

At the visitor center, we learn the original inhabitants of the region, back 5,000 years, are the Atayal people. Known for their weaving skills, facial tattoos and headhunting, they are one of nine aboriginal tribes found on Taiwan. They are of Malay and Polynesian descent, and their language is of the Austronesia family.

Evidently neither Chiang-Kai-shek and his gang, nor the earlier mainland Hakka and Fujinese migrants, were the first to settle here.

Nowadays Taiwan boasts 23 million citizens, second only to Bangladesh in population density. But up in the Central Mountain Range, surrounded by jagged peaks, the only hints of civilization are the perfectly engineered cross-island highways—most of which were built by the Japanese during their brutal rule of Taiwan from 1894 to 1945.

While western Taiwan is densely populated plains and basins, the eastern side is dominated by high mountains (the tallest, Yushan, rises to 3,950 meters). Soon we’re camping at a 3,200-meter high pass, freezing and forgetting all about the heat below.

Because Taiwan sits on colliding Eurasian and Philippines tectonic plates which constantly grind together, earthquakes, mountains and hot springs abound. These characteristics can bring either bliss or destruction.

Of Typhoons, Bubbles and Visas…

We had read somewhere what is special about Taiwan is the Taiwanese who welcome visitors to their island with amazing warmth and hospitality. The first few times we heard cheers, we wondered at whom they were directed, but the heart-warming “Go, go, go!” coming from passing cars and the roadside was for our bio-propelled caravan.

This “Tour de Taiwan” also involves drivers stopping to strike up a conversation (in Mandarin-glish) to wish us well and offer some food and refreshments.

When we reach the edges of Yushan National Park, the encouragement turns to warning. Severe tropical storm Bilis is heading straight for Taiwan. The National Park’s portable toilets are tied down with ropes, plywood is nailed to windows, and everyone is heading for shelter—Formosan macaques included.

Moving fast toward the lowlands and the city of Chiayi (where we’ll stay indoors for four days), we have butterflies in our stomachs as the wind picks up by the hour, rain comes down from a high-pressure hose and trees are bent backwards. Our first typhoon.

Betel nut chewing is a local “pick-me-up” in which we did not indulge, but we happily developed a zixingche (bubble-tea) addiction. Found on almost every corner, bubble-tea shops provide a divine mixture of tea, milk, sugar and giant tapioca balls, the perfect cold fix on sticky summer days in the tropics.

The Southern Cross-Highland Highway climbs to 2,728 meters and turns into a great experience in miscommunication. First, we think the rangers at the Meishan Visitor Center say the highway is closed. Next, we think a policeman says bicycles can go through. A driver says it’s impossible…

After three days of switchback climbing, we reach Yakou Pass. We let it go for few kilometers down on the other side and realize a whole segment of the road has fallen off the cliff. We backtrack and start to ride at night, hitchhike and hop on trains, a panic-stricken effort to leave Taiwan before our 30-day visas expire. We make time to visit Liyushan mud volcano near Pingdong and volcanic Green Island off the East Coast.

I buy a chocolate milk from a 7-Eleven and read the expiration date says 95-01-31. After my initial shock of holding, what I think is an 11-year old bottle of milk, a fellow customer explains (with obvious amusement) that it doesn’t mean 1995, just Year 95 in Taiwan.

January 1, 1911, was the official date the Republic of China was born and the ROC Year Zero is our 1911.

What is expiring quickly is our visas, and from Taitung we have no choice but to head back north on the train to Keelung. Hopefully the ferry to Japan will also show up since Typhoon Kaemi is predicted to hit Taiwan any day.

While in Keelung, Taiwan’s busiest port, we ride through a maze of cranes and loaders and find a Japanese vessel scheduled to set off for Okinawa. We roll our bikes inside the hold and climb up to our cabin. When the anchor lifts at sunset, it’s time for a beer on the bridge to reminiscence about a most pleasant surprise: Taiwan.

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