Eva Airlines and the Kosher Menu
Hitomi organized our entire trip to Taiwan and Vietnam. We discuss where to go and roughly finish the schedule together, then mostly through the internet she books the hostels, tours, plane tickets, local transportation, etc. It's something she doesn't leave to chance, in particular she wouldn't want me doing any of the booking since I'd forget or it'd be too late when I did get to it.
Hitomi booked the tickets on Eva Airlines, and she picked Kosher meals for me. She did this because she was curious if they would, indeed, bring me a Kosher meal.
They did. The stewardesses on Eva are all roughly similar: tall, thin elegant women, smartly dressed. One came up to me shortly after take-off to ask if they could unwrap my Kosher food tray. Manufactured in New York City, it was wrapped multiple times and contained multiple sealed plastic forks, etc.
Taipei Virtual Homestay
A fairly short flight from Vietnam to Taiwan, neatly avoiding the airspace of the PRC, brought us to Taipei. From the jet window, I had a nice view of the sunlight hitting the flat west portion. The backbone of the island made an interesting silhouette.
We were picked up at the airport by our hosts for the evening. Hitomi arranged this with "Kiri's House", which turned out to really be somebody's condo practically in the middle of Taipei. This particular family, consisting of father, mother, occasionally co-habitating daughter, and aunt had a number of extra rooms for people such as ourselves. The (middle-aged) father had an interest in mountain cycling and when I explained I needed to fix my tire, drove Hitomi and myself to one of the local bicycle stores.
Since repair would be fairly unreliable I was convinced to buy a new tire. The aunt, who spoke Japanese, assisted in the purchase and what was normal, started haggling over the price of tire.
We had dinner with the family. Our dish was some sort of cream sauce pasta, but obviously I was capable of eating "native food" and I tried a variety of foods.
For New Year's we hadn't yet made reservations, and Hitomi booked a couple of nights at a Hot Springs with the daughter's assistance. The daughter, college-aged, was inexplicably into the Los Angeles Lakers and spoke pretty good English, and helped Hitomi navigate the Chinese web. I put together Hitomi's bicycle and my bicycle with the tiny floorspace we had. I experimented with the bagging process, necessary for our train ride tomorrow tomorrow.
Getting to Hualien
We had much of the morning and early afternoon free to explore around town. After eating toast and drinking high mountain oolong, we walked into downtown, though not much was open until about 11AM.
There were a few coffee shops open at 10AM. We found a coffee shop whose logo looked surprisingly close to Starbucks', but was of an Indian Chief (Chief Sealth?) instead of mermaid. The place was called Barista Coffee but their name really translates as "Seattle Coffee" in Chinese. They had pretty good coffee — not as over roasted and bitter as Starbucks — and good desserts.
Continuing on to lunch, we headed to the basement of the mall and the food court area. We found a mass of people outside of 鼎泰豐 (Din Tai Fung) and decided this would be a good place to eat, since we had to take a number and wait. All the wait staff were unbelievably good looking and snappy with the service. For example, though we had no teapot on our table, someone must have walked by and poured us tea every minute. Probably the best dumplings I've ever had. Their U.S. branch is located in Los Angeles and, god willing, they'll open one in Vancouver, BC or San Francisco.
Returning from lunch, we biked to the station on one of the biggest roads through the city. With all the motorbike traffic around, it actually was okay, since at lights we'd hang together.
The train itself wasn't too bad, but it wasn't very fast. I had my bicycle located in the aisle, because of a lack of luggage storage, like you'd have on a Shinkansen-class train. So, I'd had to lift it aside when the drink cart came by over the next few hours. Hitomi had hers in front of her seat. Despite inconveniencing a bunch of people, everyone was pretty nice.
Our directions from the station to the hostel were vague and the directions instructed us to find an information station and ask there. As it turned out, we exited the station on the wrong side, and had to bicycle all the way around the rail yard. We discovered the hostel was in a practically blank building about 100 meters from the station. It was just built and signage was not part of the budget perhaps?
Since we were about 15 minutes by bicycle from downtown, we rode. I felt like I was back riding in downtown Sendai again, ten years later, but this time surrounded by signs I had a harder time understanding. But more so than the place itself, was the situation: I was, once again, out exploring a strange Asian landscape by bicycle. That feeling of giddy freedom was the same.
Hualien was a few magnitudes smaller than Sendai but businesses were packed together in a way Asians are familiar with.
We dismounted and wandered in the midst of the night market crowds. After considerable deliberation located a restaurant where we could order by pointing at some good looking food. There were a lot of interesting fish preparations, odd looking vegetable dishes, and stir fry dishes like you'd see at your food court Chinese place in the U.S. without the gooey sauces. Plebian fare but we found it's difficult to go wrong eating anywhere in Asia. I'm not sure what went wrong with U.S. restaurants and cuisine in general.
There was plenty of stuff to buy at the night market, but our bags were full already. We got shaved ice, ala Taiwanese style with lots of interesting sweet beans, brown sugar syrup, and some sort of creme. It wasn't mango season yet, but mango ice would have hit the spot.
Most Difficult Ride I've Ever Done
Hitomi and I didn't have ambitious plans for our first day of riding, or any following day. She didn't expect many hills, except in a few places, but yet there they were pretty much the entire way. We had some considerable climbs that took us up overlooking the ocean. The vistas were amazing and not much came between us and the sight of the water. One could easily ride off the road, hit the barrier, then fly hundreds of feet into the pounding surf below. The coast was not very developed at all and whatever towns there were were small. Traffic was minimal.
With a tail wind, we easily kept a good pace without effort. We came across a few other cyclists, and incidentally one group who were obviously on some sort of supported tour. Some of them were being "sagged" up the hill via van. Hitomi was yelled at for not stopping for the van, probably because she looks Chinese to the Chinese, though we were emphatically not on any tour.
Many Taiwanese were riding hybrid or mountain bicycle frames with street tires. We saw a few roadies, one heading the "wrong way" north into the wind, but Hitomi and I were alone as foreign tourists.
For lunch, we stopped in a restaurant, one serving the ubiquitous beef noodle dish of Taiwan. Hitomi wrote the order down, and I handed a napkin over to the chef who prepared our foods. Hitomi got noodles with peanut sauce: A substitute for the old bagel and peanut butter you see given on organized rides in the U.S.? We were close to the end, so I indulged in hard-to-digest meat chunks.
The inn we found, located adjacent to some interesting rocky shoreline, had some rooms to spare. Our room had a loft and partial view of the ocean. It was still about 2PM, it felt too early to end, and I wanted to do another ride. Hitomi had enough. I located a route through to the next valley to the west, along a river, and though it'd be neat to visit the town and check out the train station. (The train line goes inland.)
I had about 3 hours before night. But as it turns out, it was about 22 kilometers of switch-back road, one way, and this would be the hardest ride I've ever done.
There were two steep passes, the first a steady climb to a white water rafting village, the second through national forest and eventually dropping significantly to the next village on the river. The map did not fairly represent the hairpin turns and elevation change. It was a situation where you could see the road off in the distance, but you had to descend and ascend hundreds of feet to make it there. And unfortunately on the descents, without good sight distance, I had to waste all that gained energy on my brake pads. There were a few cars, luckily no buses. Again, the rail and parts of the road often disappeared down a ravine, and one could imagine the scene of a bus plunge story.
Eventually, I reached the junction of the road into the town. It was finally flat. I had completed the road and looking at the clock I had no time to visit the station, unfortunately. I was optimistic that the return would be easier, since it was "downhill" to the ocean. I wasn't floating back, unfortunately.
The weather turned wet and cold. I was too much in a hurry to care. A few drivers I saw on the way back shouted words of encouragement and waved. I was out of energy and stuffed my face with Christmas cake from Vietnam and a few sticks of Calorie Mate. I could only hear were the sounds of the river below, my body, and the grinding of my drive train. I could have used an encouraging song and I sang, just inside my head to keep my breath. It was past sundown, and I made it back to the coast.
Best Dinner I've Ever Had Following a Ride
Chimoto Hot Springs
Receiving A Banana
Cresting the Ridge Western Taiwan; Easiest Ride I've Ever Done; Hot Springs
Food Poisoned; Arriving in Kenting
Drinking Oolong in Taipei
Tired Being a Tourist
Taiwain: Cycling Paradise or Utopia?