Travelmag Banner
Archives
Search
 Features

Around Formosa By Bike




As I had given up any hope of following the rout I had planned out, settling for any road out of Taipei, I really didn’t know where I was. I was somewhere, in the interior of Taiwan, following Rt 3 south. Now, eventually this rout would have taken me to Taichung, and back to the sea. But I didn’t relish the idea of ridding inland for two days. Also, as I said. The rout was poorly marked, and poorly mapped, and I was in danger of getting lost. I rode all day, not knowing where I was, or when I would see the ocean again.

Darkness caught me somewhere on a mountain pass. I had no idea where I was, only that I was heading more or less south. Unable to continue in the dark, I stopped, and made camp in a tin lean-to beside the highway. During this trip, I had become so accustomed to always being able to find a 7/11, that I had stopped carrying food. In fact, I was only carrying about two liters of water. Stuck there in the mountains, I had no way to buy anything, and I still hadn’t had dinner.

I stretched out, and to read an incredible travel book, by Peter Hopkirch, about “The Great Game,” by flashlight. Suddenly, my reading was interrupted by an ear piercing scream. It took me a minute to realize the scream had emanated from me, when a mouse ran across both my legs. I settled down, laughed at myself, and began reading again. Minutes later, something jumped over me, and crashed into the aluminum wall with a loud CRACK! I shined the light, but couldn’t find the culprit. The next minute, something huge jumped up, and hit my eye glasses. I jumped back, and realized that the something huge was a very small tree frog, who was hopping around my camp, harmlessly. Once again, I had a laugh at the expense of the boy from New York, who was lost in the woods. Not two seconds later, something else hit the shed even harder. This time it turned out to be the largest and ugliest locust I had ever seen in my life. It was at least four inches long, but had a disposition like an auditor for the IRS. Herman Melville believed that nature was ambivalent. But this locust was pure evil. He really frightened me. God knew what he was up to, what he was planning. I would not have wanted to spend two minutes inside of his twisted little mind, which surely was a dark, barren place, where kindness could find no purchase.

While I pondered the locust fiend, something hit me in the arm. It was the tree frog, clinging to me with his sucker feet. He bounded off, and I settled down to sleep. Somewhere during the night I heard voices and saw lights. I knew I was dead, and tried to run away from the light. But it turned out to be the police.
They asked why I was sleeping outside.
“It got dark, and I got stuck.” I said.
“But it is too dangerous here.” Said one of the cops. “The vines grow right up to this leen-to and the snakes come in here all the time. Why didn’t you sleep at the Catholic church?”
“I have been sleeping in Catholic churches. But Tonight, I don’t know where I am.”
“We’ll take you to the church.” He said.
The cops waited, patiently while I packed my things. Then they rode behind me, keeping me safe from traffic, and lighting my way on the dark, mountain road.
At the church, they used police skills to jimmy the lock on the gate, but there was no one home.
You can sleep at the police station.” They said.
They let me have a shower, and then gave me a bed in the police barracks, where the cops sleep during their rest periods. In the morning, I made it out of town, and sort of figured out where I was. I had wanted to be home by late Tuesday night, but it may take slightly longer to get there.

09/17/2003
Kaohsiung
Home at last! Home at last! Home at last!

I made it back to Kaohsiung last night at 9:30. The last two days have been both eventful and exhausting. But, before I fill you in, let me announce the winner of our contest.

First prize, for Best Lodgings at a Place of Worship, goes to the Taoist temple, at Sheng Gang, West, Central Taiwan, thus proving that they are the best religion. As soon as I can save up enough money, I will buy a book, so I can learn exactly what a Taoist is. All I know about them at the present, is that they run a four star hotel, and gave me a private room, with a bath, air-conditioning, and cable TV, absolutely free. I finally watched National Geographic Channel on someone else’s dime.

On the morning of the 15th, I had just emerged from my ordeal in the woods, barely escaping the clutches of the police department. Actually, I had just thanked them for a peaceful night’s lodgings, and went on my way. I stopped off in Sinchou to read my email, and I was thoroughly impressed with the city.

Sinchou is apparently a technology city, the Silicon Valley of Taiwan. It is a small city, teaming with fresh minds and new money. It reminded me very much of Northern Virginia/Washington DC area, where so many people are working in technology related businesses. The streets were clean and orderly. Early morning traffic was intense, but you could see that all of the long lines of cars were driving into the huge technology park. At ten minutes after nine, the streets were empty again.

Getting to the coast proved very frustrating. At the time, I blamed the poor signage on the West coast, as well as the inability of the average Taiwanese to tell you what lies around the next corner. And, although both of those were a factor in my frustration, I suspect that I may have contributed to the problem through my own negligence. When I got caught in the rain, on my second day, my map blew away, and I never bothered to replace it. Instead, I was using the map in the Lonely Planet Guide Book. Not only is this map not particularly detailed, but it is also more than three years old. It does get full marks, however, for being the only map, which showed elevation, helping me to avoid the mountains that I so deeply love. What I was to discover was that the highway I was looking for 15/17 did not exist up North. Instead, there is a West Coast Expressway, HWY 61, which runs down the island, and ends, around Taichung. Once I accepted the fact that I was to be traveling on this highway, and gave up looking for the ones in the guidebook, my life became much easier.

61 is long, straight, and easy to follow. The down side, however, is that it is flat and boring. I found the east side of the island to be so beautiful and interesting. But, for the most part, once I cut west, at Keelung, the trip was over. The scenery varied between boring and ugly, all the way back to Kaohsiung.

By the time I began following highway 61 and making good time, I was already several hours behind schedule. I absolutely had to make Taichung that day, if I were to have any hope of reaching Kaohsiung by the evening of Tuesday, September 16th. The way was flat and easy, so I just pushed and pushed, skipping rest breaks, and even riding in the dark. I rode for fifteen hours that day. At 9:30 pm, I was so exhausted, that I just gave in. When I was about 40 km south of Taichung, near a small town called Sheng Gang, I pulled into a police station, to ask if they knew where the nearest Catholic church was.

When I walked in the door, I took the officer by surprise. He had been playing with his weapon, and the magazine and bullets were scattered all over his desk. I actually think he was practicing quick draw techniques. When he saw me, he blushed, like I had walked in on him in the bathroom or something.
“Sorry.” He said, very embarrassed.
He quickly scrambled to reassemble his weapon. Once he was finished, he forgot to put his toy back in its holster, and he was more or less pointing it at me as we spoke.
Not wanting to be rude, I sort of motioned at the weapon with my head, to remind him that in addition to being a way to kill time on the nightshift, a gun can also kill people.
“Sorry, again.” He said, holstering the weapon.
Oddly, he didn’t put the safety catch on. He reminded me a lot a small town deputy sheriff back home in the States.

“I am riding my bicycle around Taiwan.” I explained. “Every night I sleep in a Catholic Church, and I was wondering if you could tell me if there is one near here.”

The officer thought for a minute. Then he disappeared into the back of the station, where I heard a refrigerator open. A moment late, he reappeared, holding a bottle of water in one hand, and a huge jar of tomato sauce in the other. He handed me the bottle.
“Drink.” He said. Then he studied the label on the sauce. “This is Catholic, right?” He asked, pointing at the Chinese characters on the label.
The sauce must have been a fund raising project by the local church. My heart soared. Maybe they were not only Catholics, but Italians.
“Yes, that is Catholic.” I confirmed.
The officer dialed the number on the label, and spoke to someone on the other. He relayed a number of questions to me such as “Where do you come from? Are you Catholic? How long do you wish to stay?”
It all seemed promising. But then he hung up the phone, with a dejected look.
“I am sorry.” He said. “That church is not a regular church. It is a home for mentally challenged children, and the priest is afraid to have a stranger come and sleep there.”
That made sense. But now what? After the sisters had soaked me $1,000 NT for
my two nights at the church in Hualien, it really hurt to get rejected by another Catholic church. Was this a challenge to my faith? Another way of looking at it was, even a home for the mentally challenged didn’t want me. Was this a critique of my personality?

The officer sat me down in front of the TV, with a pot of tea, while he made numerous phone calls, on my behalf. All of the chairs in the waiting room had handcuffs attached to them. I always carry two handcuff keys on my person, one for civilian handcuffs, and one for police handcuffs. I was going o show the officer my great handcuff escape trick, but I wasn’t sure how funny it would be to him, especially after he had been playing with his gun, as if he hoped some day to get to use it.

As much as the situation was a little weird, this was the first time that I had spent a night in a police station, and I wasn’t covered with blood or reeking of alcohol.

In between phone calls, we talked.
“Are you American?” He asked.
“Yes.”
“That’s good.” He said. “I like American things. My gun is American. It’s a Smith.”
He pulled it out to show me, in case I hadn’t gotten a good look when he was
pointing it at me. He held it about half way out to me, but I didn’t know if he wanted me to take it. So I sat on my hands. I also noticed that he had ejected the magazine, but failed to remove the bullet from the chamber. I just kept thinking. If this guy accidentally kills himself in here, there is no way anyone is going to believe me that it wasn’t my fault.

“Nine millimeter.” I said, repeating a phrase I had heard in an Arnold Schwarzeneger film.
“Yes.’ He said, lovingly. “We also carry sticks. But the sticks are no good.”
“Oh no?” I asked, with real empathy in my voice.
“No, they are only made of wood.”
What did he want his stick to be made of? I don’t think anyone who has ever been clubbed in the skull has walked away thinking, Thank God it was only a wooden club.
“Taiwan is not like America.” He said.
I know, in America cops are trained in firearm safety.
“In America the criminals are afraid of the police. But in Taiwan, it is the other way around.” He lamented.
If it was any conciliation to him, he was scaring me.
“If I can’t think of a better solution,” He began, “Would you mind sleeping in the yard out front?”
“No, that would be fine.” I said truthfully.

I really prefer to sleep outside, but I just need to be in a place where I know I will be safe. At this moment, outside the police station seemed safer than inside.
“You could take a shower in the jail, if you wanted to. Then you could just go right outside and pitch your tent.”
A shower in a jail? I’ve seen those prison movies. I know what happens to you when you take a shower in a jail. There was no way anyone was doing that to me unless they bought me dinner first. But I guess that only happens when you take a shower with the other prisoners. In prison movies, when the main guy showers alone, they stick him in a cell, naked, and then the sadistic deputies hose him down with a fire hose. I was really missing the nuns at Hualien at that moment.

“I found a place for you.” He finally said, hanging up the phone.
My body was shutting down at this point. I was too tired. Sitting still was doing me in. I could feel a tingling sensation all through my legs, and moving up to my brain. My eyelids felt like they weighed eighty pounds. I could just sleep handcuffed to this chair. I thought.

“There is a Taoist temple in town, and they will put you up for the night.
How would that be?”
“That’s fine.” I said. “I have lived in a Buddhist temple, Taoist would be
fine.”
I was picturing the communal, wooden beds of the Shaolin temple, and was preparing myself to go without a shower. But at that point, I didn’t care. I just needed to sleep.
“Good. They have many different kinds of rooms. Some are $1,000 NT some are $2,500 NT.”
“They have rooms?” I asked. What kind of temple was this?
“Yes, the Taoists come there to pray. But I told the owner that you don’t have any money. So, maybe he will let you stay for free.”
That “maybe” was scaring me. I wanted to ask some more questions, but at that moment a woman walked in carrying a sleeping baby.
“This is my wife.” Explained the officer. “She will lead you to the temple.”

So, once again, I had a police escort through town. It was great. I ran all the red lights.
The temple turned out to be a huge, gilded hotel, with impressive statues of dragons and lions out front. It did seem to be connected to the temple next door, but I would never have called the hotel a temple. Inside it looked like any very expensive hotel I have ever stayed in.
“Room 906.” said the girl, handing me my key.
“But how much must I pay?” I asked.
“You want to pay?” She exclaimed, confused.
“No, I don’t want to pay. I just thought…Did I tell you I rode my bicycle
all the way around Taiwan?”
“Then you must be very tired.”
I took a long hot shower, washed my cycling clothes in the sink, ate two hot meals, one right after the other, and watched National Geographic, until I drifted off to the best sleep I had during the whole trip.

From here on out, I will just refer to National Geographic as “That organization who won’t look at my writing.”

The next morning, 09/16, I prepared myself for a huge push to Kaohsiung. Somewhere around noon, my front tire went flat. I had just been thinking how lucky I was to have made the whole trip with no mechanical breakdowns. I stopped in a gas station, and refilled the tire. There was no hole, the tire, like my body, had just been through a lot. The sun that day was the most intense of the whole trip, and I could actually smell my skin cooking. I could also hear the cytoplasm in my brain boiling. It made a sort of crackling sound, like popcorn.

I reached Tainan around dinnertime, and stopped for a double McDonalds meal. Two minutes later, my bike stopped dead. No matter how hard I pushed, the rear wheel failed to turn. A quick, physical inspection told me that the bracket, which supported my egg-crate, had broken, halfway through. Now the entire weight of all my gear was resting on my rear wheel. I tried to fix the bracket with string and wire ties but it was impossible. I was only 33 km from home, and faced with the choice of abandoning all of my things at the side of the road, or giving up the trip, and taking the train home.

“Doing a quick triage, I decided the only gear, which was absolutely essential was my film. The photos had to make it, or I would loose my sponsorship. But the thought of leaving all my books and clothing behind was too much.

“If only I had a back pack to put this stuff in, I could just about make it the rest of the way home.” I thought.
Right at that moment, I noticed that the shop across the street was a camping store. I bought a backpack for $1,200 NT (Money I really couldn’t afford to spend) and packed up what gear I could. Most of my stuff fit. Unfortunately, I had to leave my blanket and a few other non-essentials behind. I gave the blanket to a beetle nut girl, because I was afraid she would catch cold walking around nearly naked.

The ride home was grueling. My hands had been numb for several days. If I had been on Everest I would have sworn that I had frost bite. But now, with all of my gear on my back, the weight on my palms was intensified. After so many days of riding, it was so painful, that I can’t describe it. Every turn of the pedals was a chore. Twenty kilometers outside of Kaohsiung, I passed a cheap hotel, and actually considered spending the night.

When I finally got home, a wave of relief swept over me. I was done. I had circled Taiwan on a bicycle. The total trip was well over one thousand kilometers. On my final day, I had cycled almost 160 km in a single day. That thought kept me pretty high, until I had finished showering and changing clothes. When I lay down in bed, my mind was already asking, “What next?”

Author’s Bio

Born in New York City, Antonio spent much of his youth in the Appalachian Mountains of Tennessee. Fluent in Italian, Spanish, German, and Mandarin Chinese, he traveled to Europe, Asia, and Latin America for his education. He spent nearly seven years in the US Merchant Marines and US Army NG. Antonio studied at Tennessee State University, University of Mainz, Germany, Trinity College, England, Heriot Watt University, Scotland, Universidad Latina, Costa Rica, and The Taipei Language Institute, Taiwan. He has competed in martial arts and boxing for over twenty five years. Most recently, Antonio has begun a full time career as an adventure writer and explorer. He currently lives in Taiwan.

His writing has appeared in the following publications: Marco Polo Travel Magazine, Kung Fu Magazine, Martial Arts Planet, Travelmag.com, Radical Adventure Magazine, Escape From America, Taiwan Ho, The ELT Journal, The Investment Advisor, The Blue Lotus Club, Close Quarters Combat, The Travel Rag, The Elizabethton Star, The Bristol Herald Courier, The Italian Voice, The Italian Tribune, Pagina Uno, I Soldi, and America Oggi.

   [Top of Page]  
 Latest Headlines
Asia Pacific