Friday, December 17, 2010

Taiwan -- Day 6 Taroko Gorge and The Descent

We had a nice light breakfast the next morning before returning to Hualien, and the GIANT store to pick up new bikes.  The plan was to ride 22KM UP THE GORGE to Tianxiang before cycling back down the 22KM again.  I have to say that I was quite terrified about the prospect of riding up the gorge.  I certainly didn’t think that I had the muscle power to complete such a ride.  Even if by some miracle I were able to do it, it would never take place in the time constraint that we had. I asked John to arrange if possible, that the bike and I would be dropped off in Tianxiang and wait for the others to join me and I would then ride down with them. As with everything else that was requested of John, he was amazing and set it up.   Beverly had recently had surgery on her knee and she also decided to join me in the deviation.

Hualien GIANT Store

GIANT Store, Hualien

Unbelievably to me it only took an hour or so for John, Cola Mark, Wireless Mark and Kate to reach us.  I honestly couldn’t believe that they rode up the inclines, through the tunnels and across the bridges that fast. 

Tianxiang, Taroko Gorge

Tianxiang, Taroko Gorge

Me getting ready to ride

I was really psyched to ride down the gorge as I thought it would be the easiest ride of the trip.  Not a lot of hard pedaling, beautiful views and best of all, downhill.  Turns out I was wrong.  It was the most fear inducing, heart-stopping ride of the entire trip.  About 30 feet after we started to ride we entered one of the many tunnels along the road. Unfortunately this one was very long and BLACK! Not a single light in the tunnel. I was absolutely scared to the bone. I wasn’t sure if I should stop or turn back or keep going.  I slowed down but then realized that I couldn’t hear or see anything behind me.

Really, do most cyclists need this?
It really makes me think why this needed to be added.

Riding through the tunnel seemed to last forever.  I wasn’t sure if I was going to ride smack into a wall, or ride over a rock and bail or be hit from behind by a giant bus full of tourists.  When I finally reached the light I sent a thankful prayer to God.  This ride was now officially named White-Knuckle-Death-Ride-Down-Taroko-Gorge. I had been mentally set for a lovely easy ride and the first 10 minutes had aged me 10 years. I would definitely recommend to anyone thinking of walking or riding down the gorge to wear the brightest most reflective clothing they own.  It also wouldn’t hurt to have a powerful light and horn/bell on your bike so that you could alert people that you were in the tunnel.  If you have no time limits the ride up and down the Gorge can be completed by even the most novice of riders, although some walking may be involved.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

The next twenty kilometers or so down the Gorge and back to the bike shop were breath taking.  The scenery is unbelievable and words just don’t do it justice.  When the sun hits the gorge’s marble walls they light up. I stopped many times on the way down to take pictures. Waterfalls and trails abound, the river(s) rush by like thundering liquid cement and through it all you’re having the most thrilling ride. There are more tunnels and bridges to negotiate but none as scary as the first one outside of Tianxiang.  At one point we hit a single lane stretch of road and had to keep riding while the largest tour bus I’d ever seen passed by us. Kate of Global Soul Adventures had set up a helmet camera and she took an amazing six-minute clip of some of our ride.

The amount of rainfall in the Taroko Gorge

More rainfall from Typhoon Megi, Taroko Gorge

As usual I was lagging behind the group, even on the descent. These people are crazy (in the nicest possible way). Cola Mark clocked himself doing 41-MILES PER HOUR on the way down and I was freaked out if I hit 30 KILOMETRES.  They tore down the road having great fun, taking photos and teasing each other.  I rode like it was a Sunday afternoon in the country and I was 100 years old.  Kate was my savior this time and had me follow her, as I didn’t remember the way to the bike shop once we left the Gorge.  As we rode down the main street I saw Wireless Mark and Beverly at an intersection and Mark was holding out his hand.  Kate was riding ahead of me and yelled, “It’s for you, Niamh”. As I came upon them, I saw that Mark was holding out a can of Taiwan Beer for me.  What a lovely, lovely group I was traveling with. Bev and Mark had bought me a present for completing the ride in one piece. 

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge

Once the bikes were returned we all boarded the Pony Bus and headed back up the Gorge to Tianxiang and The Silks Hotel. It was amazing to ride up the gorge again but this time with the intimate knowledge of what it was like riding in on a bicycle.  This day was a memory of a lifetime and a definite bucket-list item.

I was warned beforehand to be very visible and wear lots of reflectors, bright clothes and have lights on the bike but I had no mirrors on my bike and my front light only shed dim coverage about 3-4 feet in front of me.  On the rear of the bike I only had a red flashing strobe type light. Very helpful though, was the fact that the bike had a sticker on the handlebars with “Riding Direction” written in English and Chinese and a big red arrow facing outwards.  I wonder how I would have gotten along without that.

Taiwan -- Day 5 Cont'd Taroko Gorge and The Leader Hotel

One of Taiwan’s National Parks, the Taroko Gorge is really a wonder of nature.  It should be on The Must-See List of every visitor to Taiwan. 

Taroko Gorge
 It is located at the crossroads of the old Su-hua (Hwy No.9) and Central Cross Island highways (Hwy No.8). This serves as the eastern gateway to the Park. The road through the Gorge is paved and well marked with signage.   There is single lane traffic in each direction and many tunnels to pass through and bridges to cross. In some areas the road narrows and alternating traffic have to use the same lane.  This is controlled by automatic traffic lights.  The road is quite busy with large and small tour buses, as well as individual travelers, bikers and cyclists. 

Taroko Gorge

There are many designated scenic spots along the Gorge as well as trails for hiking and places to swim.  The Taroko Terrace houses the visitor’s information centre.  It is definitively worth stopping to find out more fascinating information about the Gorge, its culture and flora and fauna.  The Taroko Gorge is quite a unique and complex area due to extreme altitudes and climates.  



Cola Mark from Bike Hugger, always ready to ride

Taroko Gorge
After walking around Tianxiang we drove halfway down the Gorge again to Buluowan and The Leader Hotel. Fantastic! What an experience. The Leader Hotel has 32 Semi-luxe cabins surrounding a large green open area. Circling around you to the south is the lush Tower Mountain and its waterfalls and below you to the north is the Liwu River. The main house of the hotel is the check in area, eating areas, store and also the entertainment stage. We checked-in, were given umbrellas and walked along the path to our cabins.

One of the most magnificent places on earth, The Leader Hotel, Taroko Gorge

Bev, Wireless Mark and I took a walk along the path that winds behind the cabins.  The path is made of paver stones and is quite slippery when wet. You really need to have a good pair of non-slip walking shoes in Taiwan. There is amazing flora in the area as well as incredibly large spiders and some venomous snakes. After a short ramble we returned to the cabins and sat on our combined porch and drank wine (Lindeman’s Shiraz bought at 7-11), listened to the night sounds and admired the astonishing view and thanked our good fortune and the Taiwan Tourism Board for arranging for us to stay in one of the most unique and beautiful places in the world.

Warning along the path

HUGE leaf

Since The Leader hotel is quite isolated on its plateau we were eating dinner in the hotel that evening.  It was scrumptious. Our first course was a quick drink of millet wine shooter served in a little clay pig.  Then the most beautifully cooked steak that melted in your mouth. All the food was served in a beautiful compartmentalized wooden tray.  Our steamed rice was served inside a hollowed and split piece of bamboo. I believe that we were served the IDAS Tribal Meal.  After dinner, Taroko Aborigines that operate the hotel had a cultural and musical performance.  We retired to our porch again, listened to the downpour, and finished our wine before heading to bed about 10p.  We had a long ride scheduled ahead of us the next day.

The Leader Hotel Dinner

Another Giant Spider, this one along the pathway

John our Tour Leader relaxing on this deck and Kate grabbing some photos.

My room at The Leader Hotel. It may not look it but the bed was super comfy.

Half of my bathroom at The Leader Hotel

My bruises, post-endo

Bev, Kate and I at The Leader Hotel

The cabins are set up in duplex style around the park area with a shared long front southern-style porch.  The aboriginal-style, raised cabins have two single beds which are low style on the floor but super comfortable. The bathroom was great and modern with a large shower area but no tub.  We had satellite TV, Wi-fi and minifridge.

Taiwan -- Day 5 Hualien, and the Oh-My-God-I’m-Going-to-Die Ride

Laundry was becoming a real problem at this point.  I had almost no dry or clean clothes. I had packed really light after reading Wireless Mark’s blog at and with the expectation that it would be more of a business type trip. I certainly wasn't expecting to do daily marathon bike rides, or have clothes that were super sweaty or wet from the typhoon rain.  My other clothing complication seemed to be that although I can use chopsticks very well, I was unable to control the splashing of food juices.  It seemed that at every dinner I managed to splash food over my chest. 

After a great sleep and fantastic buffet breakfast we headed out for another bike ride. There is a GIANT store located near the Hotel Bayview and we picked up bikes there.  The plans for the day was a 32km bike ride along the seawall, then freshen up and eat lunch on the bus on the way to our afternoon activity.  Unfortunately just before we left on our ride we found out that our afternoon four-hour river rafting was cancelled due to the torrential rains.  The rivers were beginning to rise and overflow and it would have been too dangerous.  

When we got to the GIANT shop the heavens opened.  It was a complete downpour.  The rain was coming down so furiously that it hit the pavement and pounded back up again.  Fortunately, earlier in the trip John had given us all plastic rain ponchos to use in case we needed them.  Dressed in shorts and a cycling shirt, I donned my bright yellow plastic bag, grabbed my bike and got ready to ride.  Since I was so unequipped for this cycling-cation and the typhoon, I had to stash my iPhone in my bra and my camera in my short’s pocket to keep them dry.  I did have a bicycle pouch (thanks Wireless Mark) but it was not waterproof and I decided it was better to be safe than sorry (or so I thought), especially after the fate of the other electronics on the trip so far.

The surrounding area of the Hotel Bayview

The raging ocean along the Hualien Bike Path

We set off along the marble seawall path to Hualien City.  There is such an amazing resource of marble in Taiwan that it is used for many things.  I’m not sure that a walking/bike path at the water’s edge was the best choice for this particular material’s use.  After we had rode along for a minute or two I cycled off the path and onto the dirt beside it. Instead of stopping and moving my bike back onto the path, I used my newfound cycling confidence to try and ride back onto the path.  Alas, that did not work.  I failed to realize that the marble was higher than the dirt and therefore had created a lip.  Since I have no upper body muscles I was unable to pull up the bike to cover the lip.  The end result was me hitting the path like a dead weight.  I completely bailed and ate marble path.  I crushed my iPhone into my left breast (which resulted in a nice bruise) and fell on my camera in my left pocket.  That also left a nice deep bruise on my thigh.  Pride dented, I laughed and got back up on my bike and headed off after the others. 

Wirelss Mark and Bev on a section of the bike path, Hualien City

Another view from the bike path.  Note the large ocean spray in the background.
The winds were howling along this section.

NOTE: Again I really have to thank Wireless Mark and Beverly for sticking with me during these rides and giving me lessons, advice and encouragement.  They made me feel like a real superstar and I will remember it always. For those of you that live in or near Cupertino, California Beverly teaches Women-only mountain bike classes.  Check out her blog(s) at and for more information.  For people on the East Coast, or who love dry wit, check out Wireless Mark’s blog at 

Now back to my Oh-My-God-I’m-Going-to-Die ride through Hualien City.  We came to a steep cliff area and we had to carry our bikes up to the top along the sectioned path that had stairs and ramps.  Once at the top it became a tarmac path through green fields and vegetation.  As we were riding I started talking to Wireless Mark and Beverly. I failed to notice that we were heading down a slight decline and gaining a lot of momentum and I went off the path again.  This time though, my earlier spill popped into my mind and I was terrified.  Tarmac was going to hurt a heck of a lot more than wet marble.  I went to my failsafe plan and starting to scream holy murder. Bev and Mark started yelling advice to me on how to stop but I was so panicked I finally just pulled on both the handbrakes.  That resulted in me doing a very nice 9.9 flip over the handlebars (Official Term is “Endo”, I believe) and a full faceplant into the dirt. Luckily my chin and chest took the brunt of the fall and I didn’t break any teeth.  The bike landed on my back and head, but the helmet protected me.  Yeah, bike helmets!  They may look dorky but apparently they work.  Unfortunately, I still had my iPhone and Camera in the same places and they proceeded to make my previous bruises even bigger and deeper. 

Bev and Marked rushed over to make sure that I was okay but my first thought, believe it or not, was “TAKE A PICTURE”.  Somehow, maybe survival instinct, I had to show that I was alive, okay, and going to continue biking.  Plus come on that was going to be a great photo.  For the second time that day I picked myself back up and continued the bike ride. 


Thankfully the reminder of it was fall-free and I had a great time.  I did have to abandon my lovely plastic yellow poncho because of all the tears in it, but I was already soaked to the bone by the typhoon rain and the sweat from the ride.  I was never cold though due to the great temperature in Taiwan during this time of the year.  Even with the blowing winds, whitecaps, and rain it was a fantastic and serene ride.  We rode along pathways, causeways, up hills and over bridges, down hills and through alleys, lanes and unnamed streets. It was an absolutely amazing adventure.  Our ride of course took much longer than we had planned and when we returned to the hotel we had 15 minutes to change, shower, checkout and get on the bus.

Note the tiled/marble paths

Interesting home/store along the bike path

By this time the typhoon was really playing havoc with our original schedule.  Our afternoon river rafting had been cancelled and we were going directly to Taroko Gorge. We set off in our Barney bus and stopped at 7-11 for some beers before going for lunch. We ate at a fantastic restaurant that did deep fried silverfish, veggie dishes and chicken. We finished there and took a drive to Tianxiang and the Silks Hotel in Taroko Gorge.

Corniche Bike Path, Hualien

Corniche Bike Path, Hualien
Look at what Typhoon Megi was doing.


Taiwan -- Day 4 Chihshang, Ruisui, and Hotel Bayview

The next morning we all left the hotel and began another day of riding in Taiwan.  I grabbed a hotel provided bike map (entirely in Chinese) and followed the symbols for the 11km bike path through Chihshang and the local rice fields and around the lake.  I know I went off track a few times but the scenery was just so beautiful you wanted to keep riding and riding. It’s amazing how safe I felt there. The country really does have such a sense of calmness and peace.  The entire ride the weather was grey and drizzly and only occasionally would I come across other people. The rice fields swayed under their bounty and the gentle wind.  Even though I was wet, the temperature was still a consistent 25C and with the workout of the cycling I never felt cold.

Outside the Papago Resort

View from the Chihshang Bike Path

Canal in Chihshang

These are bathrooms located along the bike paths in Taiwan

More canals through Chihshang

During the ride this twenty-something man on a bike approached me, and tried to talk. I replied “English only, Ni Hao” and rode off. He turned right and I figured that was the end of it. A few minutes later he was beside me again trying to talk, I told him “English only” again and cycled down the street toward the highway at the end of town.  I saw a lovely temple in the field and ventured down the driveway to see it, apparently my new “friend” (who I think was mentally impaired on some level) was still trying to talk to me. I started to take photos of the temple even though I was getting a little nervous at this point but tried to ignore him.  I turned to tell him to go away and noticed he had started feeling his penis and was still trying to talk to me and then he tried to touch my shoulder. I lost it at that point and I yelled at him loudly and called him some not nice names and rode out of there like I was in the final heat of the Tour de France to win. Still, it couldn't put a damper on my morning though.  I rode around the town some more and worked off my unfortunate incident. I stopped at 7-11 and picked up some supplies for the day (read: beer), and rode back to the hotel.  Once there I had a relaxing mineral bath, changed, packed my bags and got ready to continue our adventure.

Laundry Pavilion

Water coming into the Pavilion

Seats where women would sit and wash their clothes

The Water Wheel

The temple where the strange man tried to grope me

Once the rest of the group finished their century ride, got ready and packed, we headed off to Wuhe’s Tea House in Ruisui.  First we stopped for a wonderful lunch at a local Chihshang restaurant, which is housed in an old train car near the end of town.  I had a fantastic fried pork steak-like thing and rice bento-box type meal.  When we finished our lunch we wrote our wishes on pieces of bamboo and tied them to the ceiling.

Photo by Mark Blacknell

We once again boarded our purple Pony bus and headed to the tea plantation.  I’ve always been a tea drinker, (Did I mention that I’m Irish?J) but it was amazing to see the things that you can make with tea.  We took a walk around the tea fields before being invited in to partake of some tea “goodies”.  First up was some tea jell-o.  Our hostess showed us how to mix gelatin and unadorned black tea and have it set.  It was the exact texture of jell-o but tasted like cold tea.  Our second course was the best green tea that I have ever had.  It was wonderful with subtle flavors.  It was served with shortbread tea biscuits that were delicious.  The same great taste as shortbread but with the added texture and flavor of tea specks.  Our last course was what I like to call “Cricket Spit Tea”.  I didn’t really care for the flavor without milk but I drank it all anyway because I am polite and didn’t want to offend our hostess.  Unfortunately she took that as a sign I liked it and she filled my cup again. Drat!

The official description of “Cricket Spit Tea” is this: 

A few years ago, a tea plantation, in cooperation with the "Poison-Free Farming" promoted by the Hualien County Government, stopped using pesticides. This resulted in the tea leaves being eaten by little "green leaf cicadas" (leaf hoppers). The farmer discovered that after drying, these tea leaves that had been eaten by the little green leaf cicadas had a special honey aroma. After many attempts and experiments, a new flavor, the "Honey Peach Black Tea", with its gentle fruit and honey aroma, was created. During the First World Tea Award of 2006, it won a gold medal award, and has become a shining star for the Wuhe Tourist Tea Plantation.

Tea fields in Ruisui

Coffee Plants -- did you know they look like this?

Cola Mark, myself, Bev and Kate

Candy, Tea leaves and pumpkin seeds, shortbread tea cookies and fantastic green tea

The Taiwan 5 at Wuhe's Tea House.
On the table is tea jello and other goodies

After our tea break we headed to dinner. We went for a fantastic dinner at this mountain restaurant called the Moon House. It was a family style dinner with amazing dishes.  We had Chicken with Plum (all parts included), Poached whitefish in a ginger broth, Pork meatballs in a great sauce, Vietnamese salad/spring roll for the vegetarians, Tofu and vegetables in a spicy sauce, Cabbage and bok choy in chopsuey sauce, Vegetarian broth soup with greens (aka wonton type soup), Ginger sesame pork and Guava and dried plums for dessert. 

Chicken and plum sauce

The chicken came out in a big bowl with the feet and head attached soaking in the oily sauce. John put on “Ove” gloves and then plastic clear gloves over them. He basically had to pull the chicken apart with his bare hands. Luckily none of it flew out of his hands (a la Pretty Woman) and none of us were covered in oily chicken-juice splashes.  With the fish, it came out on the tray still in its boiling sauce and then you had to separate it off the bone with your chopsticks.  

The restaurant really was beautiful with amazing views down the mountain.  The only drawback was the bathroom only had squat toilets. If you don’t have good balance or good knees this can be a problem for you.  Luckily I managed it and kept myself dry.

Moon House Restaurant with Wireless Mark, Bev and Kate

A Squat Toilet (not the one at the Moon House)

By the time we left the restaurant it was dark. Apparently its physical location is as close a kept secret, as is its Internet address.  It seemed that neither John, nor our bus driver knew how to get to our hotel.  We made at least four u-turns and drove around the back alleys/roads of Hualien for close to an hour in the pitch black.  We knocked on two different houses to find directions and finally had a nice man drive his car to the main road so that we could follow him. I felt like I was on a special addition of “The Amazing Race”. 

We finally got to the Hotel Bayview at 9p at night. Everyone was so tired we had fallen asleep on the bus.  Waking up and finding we were at the hotel was a surprise. When we entered a bride in a lovely purple dress was having her photos taken with her new husband.  She looked absolutely radiant. We checked in and met downstairs a few minutes later as we all wanted to have a drink. Surprise, it's Taiwan and there was no liquor in the hotel. Literally, there was no bar or drinks in the minibar (beside water).  Since we were all asleep on the bus when we arrived we had no idea what was around us. Over 5000 7-11's in Taiwan and none near this hotel! 

Lobby of the Hotel Bayview

My bathroom at the Hotel Bayview.
The smallest bathtub in the world.

My room at the Hotel Bayview

I know it sounds like I drink a lot but I was on my first work/vacation in years with no kids, no husband and a tour leader that planned my entire day.  It was so nice to relax and not have to have to be “on” all the time or be the person in charge.  I just wanted to relax in the evening with a glass of wine or a beer. Was that too much to ask?

The Hotel Bayview in Hualien is right on the beach and lovely. It was the only hotel so far with no bathrobes. It had nice bathroom amenities with a gorgeous shower and half size soaker claw tub.  I have to say that the beds at all the hotels have been so nice and comfortable, as well as the pillows. This hotel was no different. The room was bright and cheery, with nice original architectural touches. There was also a nice balcony overlooking the seawall.  Interestingly enough it had an escape sling installed in case something should happen. Since Typhoon Megi was making herself quite known at the moment I quite liked that. The hotel did offer free wireless Internet and a cafĂ© with free coffee and biscuits. 

View from my room at the Hotel Bayview
Since the hotel was right on the beach it had a fantastic view of the ocean.  This was made all the more dramatic due to Typhoon Megi and the giant crashing waves and pounding winds. The surrounding grounds are all under construction and it was not as pleasant as our previous hotels.  There is a lot of clearing and updating that needs to be done with the adjacent building lots.  In front of the hotel is a great seawall, which goes for 30 plus kilometers to Hualien City.  From the look of the swells while we were there, and the crashing waves on shore it didn’t look swim friendly.

With no bar to stop at we went for a walk in the dark along the seawall during the fierce storm. (Always my next choice of activity when there is no bar :)) Directly in front of the hotel is a lighthouse type structure and a boat ramp. As we were standing on the ramp a huge rogue wave came up and soaked my legs and shoes. Completely sopping, I squelched along with the gang for a while longer. Finally I had to return to my room and get cleaned up.