For several months I have been scheming to take a crack at riding the lesser used northern route up Taiwan's famous Alishan, or Mt. Ali. After a few less ambitious rides It really looked doable, but scheduling and life events prevented any earlier attempts.
This weekend, after a much larger party fell apart one by one, Michael and I decided we would take a crack at Alishan ourselves in a two stage effort from Taichung City. With a little bit of planning we were ready to go.
There were a few concerns leading up to our planned take-off time at 6:30am, Saturday morning.
Our major concern was making sure the roads were rideable. The areas in and around Alishan are not only in rough shape due to frequent earthquakes, but last year's Typhoon Morakot rained disaster down upon the area, quite literally, dropping 2777mm of rain and havoc during its short traverse of Taiwan.
Even one year later not all of the mountain roads around Alishan have been repaired. We feared the worst and hoped for the best.
As I packed my backpack I realized I had to pack for a variety of unknown conditions and temperatures. I even packed and unpacked a set of cyclocross tires and tubes for the second day (eventually I decided to forsake the CX tires.) We also had to consider the possible temperatures up in the mountains, which can easily drop into the single digits at high altitudes. There was also the hydration and nutrition factor... and guessing how much food will be available up in the mountains. Another big consideration when choosing a route is what options are available in the event of a mechanical or physical failure. A little experience and guesswork helps, but you never really know.
Here's what I brought:
- inner tubes x2
- patch kit
- spoke wrench
- Schrader valve adaptor
- tire levers
- CO2 Cartridges x3
- mini pump
- night glasses
- granola bars x4
- gel pack x4
- arm/leg warmers
- base layer x1
- socks (extra pair)
- light pants
- long sleeve shirt
- rain bag
- Camelbak (2L)
- money (NT 6000)
- cold weather bike pants
- light skull cap
- warm skull cap
- full fingered cycling gloves
- Health Insurance Card
- small change
- six piece multitool
It looks like a lot more than it was, and it was just a little more than I needed. I could have done without the bike pants, which were there in case it was cold at the hostel rather than for riding. Everything else was used at some time or another. I DID forget to bring underpants. Shhhh!
Mt. Bike Club in Nantou
We hit the road at just after 6:30am on Saturday morning and beat a good pace down to Mingjian, where I had timed a stop for coffee and all the carbs a Sausage McMuffin can pack for a day of climbing. I also figured it would give us a good lead-out in the nutrition dept... if you can define anything under the golden arches as "nutrition"... before we made our way up into the mountains where meals are much more scarce.
The food issue was a biggie. Climbing is an energy intensive discipline and especially over long distances. A miscalculation in fuel can quickly become a total disaster.
We stopped at Tong Tou village, where the 158甲 meets the 149 and had some noodles and sport drink for an early lunch. The weather was warmer than it had been over the past week, so we were sweating as if the sun were shining directly on us.
The climbing was pretty gradual up until that point and then not far after our lunch stop, the road made a drastic and vertical change. Suddenly we were wrapping our way up the 13% grade of a set of switchbacks that we hadn't expected to be so steep. I felt good and made time up one turn and then another, while construction vehicles rumbled past barely faster than the poor cyclists who had to suck in fumes by the mouthful.
Fron high up on the mountain we could look out toward Zhushan and Nantou. It was a gorgeous scene.
I was elated to find a marker at the top of the first major section of climbing that denoted we were entering Yunlin County and Caoling Township, where were were scheduled to spend the night. It seemed as though we couldn't be too far from our destination.
Unfortunately the feeling was very wrong and it was merely a short respite before another set of "stairs" took us even higher.
We stopped at a tourist rest stop, the only tourist rest stop on the mountain, and filled on water and sport drink. I was drinking off a single frame-mounted water bottle, while I kept the 2 liters of water in the Camelbak for emergencies. I was being conservative and gulped an occasional mouthful. I didn't feel dehydrated or in need.
I finally edged my way up to the tunnel, which passes between the valleys on either side of the ridge, and waited for Michael to pull himself up the impossible grade.
Bang! As soon as we slipped through the tunnel it was as if we had been sucked through a wormhole into another time, place or dimension. The sun almost immediately broke through the clouds and the ruddy grey/green and dusty yellow transformed into shades of brightness glistening over a little mountain village. Even better, it was a descent. We pulled into Caoling at 1:45pm and quickly found our lodging. We stayed in the Caoling Spa, which, I gather, only pumps "mineral water" into the upscale rooms.
Michael and I would have to do without the sexiness of piped in "mineral water" and settle for a night in separate warm beds and the romantic glow of cable TV, which was playing the delightfully awful movie, Hydra.
We ponied up for the NT150 "five course meal", which was actually five plates of food that could easily have been leftovers. It was hardly enough for even one person, let alone two. We seriously needed to find some carbs and proteins ASAP or it could doom Sunday's climb. We also needed recovery food. This emergency was compounded by the fact that breakfast, like at most mountain hostels, would be rice porridge, which contains enough calories for about 20min. of climbing. Things were getting serious and we eventually coaxed the cook into making us up a bowl of fried rice. I even took some of the leftovers back to the room to eat cold in the morning. We still had the granola bars and gels, so I moved those over to Michael's bag, where he could get at them if he found himself in dire need.
Depending on your fitness, bring a little more food than you think you might need. There isn't much for sale in those remote mountain villages.
We awoke the next morning with sluggish legs from the climb the day before. The weather was sunny with a small amount of haze in the air as opposed to the overcast skies from Saturday. The manager of the hotel offered us mantou instead of rice porridge, so we ate those and then stocked up of the condiments set out to add to the porridge. I think I had two full bowls of salted peanuts.
We loaded our bags and rolled into deserted downtown Caoling with the vain hope that there might be more food lying around.
We eventually found a lone "Everything Store" open, where we picked up some bananas and we each grabbed a couple packs of instant noodles. The Tongyi Mian are perfect for biking. They are light, dry and loaded with enough calories and salts to give a rider some needed energy. We were set to work our way up to our final climb over the mountain.
Finally, it was high time to hit the road. The morning was bright and crisp as the morning temperatures oscillated wildly between the extremes of sunlight and shade, like the light and dark sides of the moon. I found myself in a constant state of dressing and undressing on the side of the road.
At first, the climbing was pretty gradual as we followed along the empty reservoir that was created during the 921 earthquake. The raw power of nature is omnipresent and often the only adjective that finds its way into a sentence is "wow!"... if it could be considered an adjective.
I was thrilled to arrive at the entrance of Alishan National Park.
There was still a steady stream of construction vehicles passing us along the road. The only way I could help not getting upset at the noisy, chugging hulks of diesel dirt, was convincing myself that the trucks were all working to fix the roads and make future riding even better.
Just at the base of the great hill climb to 1800 meters, the 149 abruptly ends where the bridge is missing. A makeshift crossing made it possible to detour around the bridge. If you are planning to take this route in the future, be sure the road is fixed or it is during the dry season. There is no way a crossing would be possible if the river is more than a trickle.
We continued to battle large trucks along a stretch of hard dirt and dust. I started to question my wisdom in leaving the CX tires at home. Fortunately, the dirt didn't last long and there were only a few gaps in the pavement all the way up. I would be careful on any tires skinnier than 25c.
In many places there was stark evidence of disasters of incredible destructive power.
Some roads were just eliminated all together, and others just scars on the cliff sides.
In other locations that destructive power took the form of spectacular rock formations and towering peaks or the contorted skeletons of man-made creations, bent and buckled.
Michael shouted that he was in desperate need of water, and I assured him there would be some in the village ahead. I was wrong. There was nothing there. I climbed with a little more purpose and another kilometer of climbing brought be to a single hostel that could have easily been taken for an abandoned building. I opened the door and instantly saw coolers with sport drink and water.
By the time Michael arrived I was ready with the refreshments.
I was beginning to worry about Michael as he seemed more tired than usual and was walking several of the climbs over 6%. I worried about water, food and staying too long up on the mountain when we still had to get down the other side. Descending in the dark would be a long, slow and dangerous affair.
We made it higher and higher into the Taihe tea district. One entire hillside was devoted to tea cultivation, while the other side had large sections of cedar and bamboo carved out for more tea.
One of the farmers I use to supply us with tea has a farm right here and I was happy to see the spot where it is grown.
The road would not let up for an instant and the high percentage grades kept the pace slow and steady. One of the best pieces of advice I can give about climbing, is to simply stay relaxed. Relax the upper body and let the legs spin along naturally. It actually takes some conscious effort to relax, but it makes a world of difference in being able to ascend up these ridges.
I found a tea drying platform and sat down to wait for Michael as he hiked his way up. When he arrived we sat around having bananas and noodles. Michael was out of water, so we filled up using the emergency supply. I was relieved to lose the extra weight off my back, but at the same time very cautious that we were dipping into our reserves.
Luckily, I thought we were running out of mountain and we would be descending shortly.
When I took off from out resting place, I got about a kilometer up the road before I realized I had left my camera down at the rest stop.
I turned around and flew down the mountain to retrieve it. That totally sucked as I had to climb the same part of the mountain I had already climbed before. Nobody wants to add unnecessary climbing to a long day of vertical.
I finally came upon a wide dip in the road where I could look out over all dominion. The only other adjective I could find was "holy fucking shit!", if that can be considered an adjective.
Then, just up the road I hit the peak.
"Top!" I yelled down to Michael below to give him a little more energy to make the final hundred meters to the peak.
We were soon zipping along gorgeous cedar-lined roads into the tourist train stop at Fen Ci Hu, a former hub of the logging industry, and now a serving to clear out tourists rather than timber.
What we really had needed all day was a good cup of coffee. Sometimes it makes all the difference. In Fen Ci Hu we found it. The coffee was made with local Alishan Coffee and it was a mighty good cup. I actually enjoyed Formosan coffee as much as Kenyan, Ethiopian or Colombian varieties.
Moreover, it was enough of a morale booster to carry us to Chia yi.
The other side of the mountain was hazy and made for terrible pictures, but it was a magnificent descent.
There had been some talk of taking the Highway 18, which is the main route off of Alishan, but upon seeing the traffic along the 18, taking the 159甲 was a no brainer. Later, we found out there had been a serious bus crash below on the 18 and were thankful we had exchanged horror and chaos for a fantastic alternate route. I took the 159甲 many years ago and always remembered it was one of those very special roads that makes for a zen-like experience on the descent.
The 159甲 is a cycling paradise and absolutely worth the time. There are a few rises that go with the descents, but there is so little traffic and so much scenery... do it!
Just as we were making our way out of the mountains, a large cloud blotted out the sun like a curtain coming down at the end of a marvelous day. We started running into more cyclists on the way out; people coming up out of the city for a quick climb.
One dude said something while he passed me and then hit the hill ahead with the strangest climbing form I have ever seen. He was shifting the bike from one side to the other, while moving his body the opposite direction in a three foot pumping arc to... maybe... get more... speed? I couldn't help it. I acted like an emotional man and discovered I still had plenty left in the tank... and so I smoked him on the hill. And then the next guy and the next. I was just feeling great. I felt absolutely fresh.
We rolled into Chiayi station at just about 5:00pm to begin an interesting encounter with Taiwan's transportation system.
Each day there are four bicycle trains, two morning and two evening trains. We had to take the train at 18:03pm (weekend rush hour), which is the designated "bicycle train".
The government has done a lot of work trumpeting the fact that they have these "bicycle trains" available, but when you actually take one... you find they do not differ from any other train and it makes the point rather... moot. All trains could be "bicycle" trains.
We first had to register at the information desk. Only after registering could we buy a ticket. We found this out after standing in line for ten minutes. Each customer must buy a ticket for their bike along with one for themselves.
The rider is then led across the track by a conductor and must wait on the platform for their train. The rider, with bike, must then jockey to hop on the train along with the entire mass of humanity that would also like to get on.
The conductor arranged our bikes to sit in the hallway near the conductor's cabin, but he needed the aisle clear and could not move in or out easily without hitting the handlebars. He seemed annoyed at the bicycle policy as well. At the same time Michael and I notices several easy solutions to the bike problem.
One bike fit fine, the other stuck out in front of the seats. This put the bikes in the way as the car filled up.
Before long the train car was packed and people were trying to rest things on the bikes. People's legs and belongings were pushing up against the derailleur and spokes.
At one point a man went to go stand in the narrow hallway and couldn't keep from playing with Michael's shifters. We had words with him to keep his hands off the bikes, so he then resorted to badmouthing us in Taiwanese.
Then it was my turn to figure out how to extract myself from the train with my bike at my stop. Somehow I cut through the crowd with a little bit of yelling and made my way off and home to conclude my trip over Alishan.
An amazing time.
I plan to do it next time in only one day.