After spending so many weekends training for one cycling event after another, I really just wanted a chance to get out on the bike and explore some of Taiwan's hidden little corners.
Although the scenery is always beautiful, the main attraction to some of the lesser known parts of the Taiwanese landscape is that these places always seem to offer the most rewarding surprises. Whether it is through the people you meet or the things you see, these "off the tourist map" places make you dig a little deeper and push a little further.
On Saturday I set out with Domenic A. to ride into Wujie Village, a small indigenous outpost tucked snugly into the side of a deep canyon.
Wujie is the northernmost settlement of Bunun speakers of Taiwanese indigenous people and has featured prominently in Taiwan's unique and colorful history. The people of Wujie are the Kantavan group, who lived in close cooperation and conflict with other Seediq and Bunun speakers. Early in the Japanese colonization effort, the Japanese used the Kantavan to help bring the Taki-Todo (Wushe) group of Seediq people to submission.
During the "pacification" campaigns in the first decade of Japanese rule, the Japanese sealed off important trade routes for many of the resisting tribes by cutting intertribal trade in iron and valuable salt. The Japanese used their power and access to valuable commodities to convince the Kantavan to lure the Taki-Todo men down to the riverbank (pictured) for trade. Traditionally, a friendly meeting between tribes would conclude in a celebration of sharing millet wine. It was after a night of drinking that the Kantavan picked up their headhunting knives and killed most of the trading party. The massacre severely depleted the Taki-Todo's ability to resist the Japanese and it marked one of the first incidents of the Japanese successfully using indigenous people to conduct warfare against other tribes. The incident is depicted in the Taiwanese historical blood epic, Seediq Bale.
I have been dreaming of riding to Wujie for a long time and after so many delays I had my chance.
In a break from form I opted to drive out to Guoxing near Puli to start the ride. I hadn't been to Wujie in about five years and only by scooter, so I really couldn't remember what the road conditions would be like. Starting in Guoxing saves the legs from two good climbs... and on Saturday I really needed as much leg as I could muster.
We charged out through the valley along the Highway 21, which snakes up a hill to a plateau overlooking Puli. The descent off the plateau is relatively straight and I couldn't help dive bombing into the Puli Basin below.
As soon as the road leveled out we were suddenly made aware of exactly how daunting Taiwan's mountains can be. They rise thousands of feet above the valley like a bristling wall shrouded in clouds and mist. They can also be steep and intimidatingly rough.
I couldn't help but remind Dom that we needed to "get over that."
After a buzzing through Puli we found the Nantou Route 71 to Wujie. The Route 71 splits from the more placid Route 131 and starts out as a gradual, but very apparent ascent.
As we edged closer to the mountains the hillsides closed in before totally enveloping us... and that is exactly how it feels. It feels as though you are being absorbed into the hills as the narrow alluvial corridor steers directly into a wall.
I have to admit the ascent is one of the toughest I have ever encountered. The opening salvo of the battle against gravity starts with a 15%-17% straightaway. It is like the ugliest part of the famed Route 136, but there is more of it and the suffering is hot and prolonged. The straightaway does not end with mercy, but rather it ends with a set of vaulting ramps.
I was feeling the effects of some poor preparation on my part. My first mistake was that I was feeling a bit dehydrated before bed and neglected to load up on fluids. My second mistake was allowing my crazy situation at work rob me of a few hours of sleep. My third mistake was in not having enough dinner or breakfast. I made it, but I was sure feeling it and I was having doubts on the wisdom of such a trip.
The road finally "let up" for a while, but not by much. The grind was rough. I could look up ahead and see a steep row of power lines outlining a distant road like latticework... to the highest points of the mountain.
I knew there was a tunnel through the mountain, and I believed it was lower rather than higher, but I was beginning to have my doubts.
Soon the tunnel appeared around one of the corners and I was thrilled to see that it had been improved from when I first rode through it about ten years ago when it was pitch black, filled with deep ruts and gravel trucks. This time we had lights and room for two cars to pass. Of course the lights in the middle of the tunnel went out as we got to the middle.
From the tunnel it is a magnificent descent into one of the most glorious scenes I have ever witnessed. My pictures just don't do the scene justice.
The tunnel might as well be a portal into another world.
On the other side of the tunnel the road becomes more characteristic of a high-mountain road with dribbling waterfalls, low hanging vines and butterflies the size of sparrows banking between light and shadow.
Far below a river of black and white sand etches a lazy path between sheer walls of rock and jungle.
Somewhere between the chiseled peaks on the smallest oasis of open land, the community of Wujie has planted small plots of corn, grape and other crops to fill the banks of the riverbed with neatly plotted patterns of green.
The worst part of the descent is all the stopping that is required to soak the sights all in.
We eventually put the cameras away and slipped into Wujie.
The town itself is quite sleepy. There are a few hostels and a local grocery along the main street, but they don't seem to get many visitors. Most people who are not local blast on through for some off-roading or some excellent mountain biking out on one of the old inter-village trails.
Like far too many indigenous communities Wujie is a village of the very young and the very old, where grandparents raise the children while the parents work in the cities. In many of these places the children raise themselves. Though, there is also something refreshing about seeing packs of kids out plotting their own course covered in dirt and ice cream.
We stopped in at the general store to have a lunch of instant noodles a kind woman named Ma Li Na was willing to fix for us. A savior!
Within a few minutes we were swarmed by kids who insisted upon hearing us speak "American". I had a delightful conversation with one little girl who kept telling me that I was speaking to her in "American" despite the fact she understood every word. I tried to get their Bunun names, but, sadly, few of the children knew their names in Bunun.
It was a really nice time. We answered lots of questions, but each question was politely phrased and with the stated purpose of local curiosity rather than simply curious entertainment. They just don't get too many Americans swing through there.
At one point Dom was said to resemble Vin Diesel... because he is white and bald.
We all too soon had to put the legs in motion again, thanked Ma Li Na, and headed out to explore.
We still had the return climb to contend with, so we didn't stay long. It was enough to just soak in the sights and hang with the locals.
The climb back was so much better than the way in.
Then, smack in the middle of that tunnel, I smashed into a gap in the pavement and suffered a pinch flat. A short hike and repair later we were back on the road.
We made good time to the top and hit a fast descent back to Puli just as a few sprinkles of rain began to fall.
Dom blocked a lot of wind for me on the way back to Guoxing. I arrived at the car parched and starving, but feeling totally accomplished for having successfully realized one of my dream rides into Wujie.
For Mountain Bikes check out these links to Wujie riding. Incredible!