Stephen Jack Marketing Consultant, Writer


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Landslides and Rickety Bridges
Traversing Taiwan's Central Mountain Range by Bicycle.

Special Free Offer! – Two top quality mountain bikes totally FREE. There's just one catch. You have to find and collect them yourself, and these expensive items are stowed high in the mountains of Eastern Taiwan.

This is the story of how they got there.

Experience has taught me that a line on a map neither guarantees the existence nor usability of a track. On my favourite fold-out map of Taiwan there is one particular line that has always piqued my interest. The route starts near the central Taiwan town of Shuili and works its way east as a four-wheel drive track to the top of Taiwan's Zhongyang Mountain Range. Nestled there is the beautiful Rainbow Lake. From there though things are less clear. Some maps indicate a broken line snaking most of the way down to the east coast of the island. Others show nothing at all. I had ridden to Rainbow Lake a year earlier. Then, although I hadn't planned to try a run all the way to the east coast, I had made inquires about doing so. What I heard was very vague, but it boiled down to either the path being derelict and unusable, or that it would be impossible to follow without an aboriginal guide. As a bike path all the way to the east, the route looked tantalising, though not particularly promising.

That was until Rory heard a completely different story. He and I occasionally cycled together around the hills surrounding Taichung in midwest Taiwan. Rory had met someone who had done the trip by bike a couple of years earlier, partly along an abandoned railway line. That was all we needed to know. Rory, a ball of British energy, was always organising some sort of group activity. So being the more lethargic type, I let him do the same this time. He reckoned on a three or four day trip. Once we had come down from the mountains in the east, we planned to cycle north along the main road to Hualien, a small city on the coast. So armed with primitive directions, and a week-long Lunar New Year holiday, we set out for the Pacific Ocean.

Rory had roped in two of his friends; J.D. a slightly grizzled up-for-anything Aussie, along with Marie, a tall brown American, a recently reborn cyclist. Like Rory they were working as English teachers in Taichung. They travelled the 60 km from Taichung to Shuili by bus. I cycled, meeting them at the bus station.

The first day was hardly a big ride. Starting out in the late afternoon, we got only as far as the edge of town before my bike carrier snapped. When Rory and I turned back to Shuili to get a new one, the others; Marie and J.D. rode on to Dili, about 10 kilometres east.

Dili Village
Dili was the true beginning of our little excursion. It lies right at the base of the mountains. One half of the village sits on the plains while the other half rises steeply up a hillside. It is only 20 kilometres from the epicentre of the devastating 7.6 Chichi earthquake (known locally as the Great 9-21 Earthquake, after the date it struck, Sept. 21 1999). This Bunan aborigine village took a pummelling. Surprisingly, no one had been seriously injured. Dili lacks a hotel but a local family, the Chiangs invited all of us to stay with them. The house was brand-new as their original home was destroyed in the quake. They were lucky. Many families were still living in temporary shelters.

As I looked for food in the village, a well-rounded woman introduced herself as Ah-ma (grandmother) and promptly led me by the arm into her little house nearby. "Eat, eat," I was ordered as I took a place at the table. My friends were also soon rounded up and given a pig's trotter in a pink plastic bowl and Taiwan Beer in a matching cup. Everybody was talking at once; asking questions and ritually praising the beauty of our respective countries, even though not one of our hosts had been beyond Taiwan. I was tempted just to stay put in this friendly village instead of sweating buckets and straining legs in the days to come. One young woman was rolling drunk. And I mean that literally. Spilling as much beer as she drank, she toasted us continually. Then she moved around the table and squeezed between Rory and myself; much to the consternation of the other relatively sober women. She blurted, "Roly I like you. I like you. I like you, oh!" Then she was gone. A few moments later someone saw her rolling drunk, like a runaway roll of Persian carpet, down the steep main street

As for our travel plans, the locals were sceptical. With a dismissive wave of a hand, we were told: "It's impossible, there is no way through after Rainbow Lake. The earthquake destroyed everything." "There is a big forest fire burning. They've got a roadblock and they'll never let you through." But an old ex-school teacher in traditional tribal garb told us that it might be done. This was encouraging to hear but we were going regardless. As I said, Route 16 had always looked tantalising.

Flying Squirrel Road
From Dili it's a two-day almost unrelenting dirt track climb to Rainbow Lake. Route 16, which I call Flying Squirrel Road, winds along the Choushui River, Taiwan's longest. By midday, as we kept climbing, we had put hundreds of metres between us and the river below. The bush fire was real enough but well under control with fire fighters burning firebreaks and moping up. No one tried to stop us, not even the fire chief who supervised operations from a chair on the balcony of a hut.

The last time I had cycled this road we spent uncomfortable night beside the road without any camping gear and only biscuits and water for dinner. At four in the morning we were woken by a small group of aborigines who insisted on sharing their food with us. They rekindled our fire, and in no time had a makeshift spit rigged up over it. They had been out spotlight shooting – earlier we had heard shots – and had bagged a feishu (flying rat). Roasting in sprawling flames the flying squirrel looked like a miniaturised version of the creature in the Alien movies. The meat was extremely bitter, but thankfully there was not enough of it for each of us to have more than a bite or two. Our new friends had also brought homemade rice wine. We sat around the campfire drinking and talking until daybreak. It is after that nocturnal rodent, our supper, that I dubbed this road, Flying Squirrel Road.

This time around our food was less exotic but better, and with sleeping bags and tents we slept a lot more comfortably.

Apart from a few vegetable growers on the plateaux, few people live along the upper reaches of Flying Squirrel Road. But deserted huts and the disused logging camp we rode through were evidence of a time when more people were willing to endure the rigours and loneliness of a life in the wilderness.

There was little respite from climbing the second day. Every time we crossed a pine covered mountain pass another seemed to loom ahead. All of us walked at least some short sections if only to give our legs and behinds a rest. In the afternoon Marie astonished us when she suddenly sped from behind gleefully waving as she overtook us. Her feat was achieved from the back of a farmer's truck she hitched a ride with. Thirty minutes later as we crawled to the top of a hill there she was waiting all rested up, smoking a cigarette.

There are really two Taiwans. Plains Taiwan is covered with rice paddies and small factories. Here for 16 hours a day, the characterless cities, towns and villages that make up this patchwork are a wild jumble of commerce, traffic and noise. The acrid air however tends to linger through the night unless a wind comes to carry it away. The other two thirds of the country is mountainous. Mountain Taiwan is beautiful but isolated and rugged. Throw volatile weather into the mix and you might expect that Mountain Taiwan would be the last genuine refuge for the island's beleaguered wildlife.

We stopped for a leisurely lunch at a waterfall and were about to set off again when a family coming down the mountain pulled in. They quickly lugged a dead deer from their small truck to the water's edge. The hair had already been singed from its body. Rory gave them a short, stern senseless-killing-of-protected-species admonition. "It was already dead. We found it in someone's trap," the father countered, not very convincingly. If they were only scavengers, they were very well prepared because with them they carried a complete bush butcher's arsenal. We left just as blood gushed from the deer's slit throat into the cold mountain stream.

By late afternoon we were all exhausted. Conversation was reduced to a single often repeated question; “How much further is it?” I had been here before; I was supposed to know. The problem was that on the last trip I had been just as physically rundown as I was now, and any recollections of travel times were extremely fuzzy. I told them we had an hour to go but it turned out to be more like three. As the light faded we stopped to watch a spectacular sunset gleaming through the clouds while J.D., the pushing 40-years old, former Australian Rules footballer, coach, and bouncer showed his fitness by pushing on to the lake.

At the top our path led directly to an unoccupied hut built for Taiwan Power Company maintenance workers. In recent years an electricity cable had been strung along our route linking east and west. The hut was a mess inside but it kept the howling wind at bay much better than our tents ever would. It had been 10-hours since we had broken camp in the morning

Rainbow Lake
On a sunny day Rainbow Lake is the stuff of picture postcards. A small crystal clear lake set in a crater, it was impressive enough though the fog when we saw it the next morning. Above the lake we stood at 3,000 metres on Seven Star Lake Mountain, straddling the peaked roof of Taiwan, a panorama in all directions. But there was little time for mountaintop mysticism. We were on a tight schedule, and having come up one side of Taiwan, now it was time to go down the other.

Dragon's Tail
The steep undulating narrow dragon's tail track that we followed could not have been more different from our physically demanding climb up from the plains. It was tricky to ride especially with loaded bikes. We had covered a few hills when Marie refused to go further. She'd just had one crash and was staring down another formidable nosedive. She couldn't be coaxed, and decided to go back. J.D. went as well, but made clear he resented it. “I've never given up on a challenge in my life,” he moaned as he headed homewards with his girlfriend. The next time I saw them, after my return, I told Marie that in retrospect, she'd made the right choice in going back. Because the rest of the trip turned out to be a challenge indeed.

It was just Rory and myself now, and unlike the territory we had covered so far, what lay in front of was unknown. Miles away across the valley we could see what looked like the railway – the next section of the trip, stretching around several the mountainsides. Rory was sceptical that the track we were on would connect with the railway. It did seem unlikely. But I had spoken to locals at the lake and as far as I could tell it was the right way. After this point we did not encounter another sole.

Ghost Railway in the Sky
On my earlier trip, I hadn't even been aware the railway existed. Now suddenly we descended onto a fragile-looking little track strung around the mountainsides. Later, I found out that the line had been built during the period of Japanese occupation (1895–1945) to ferry timber down to the east coast. Most of the big timber had long gone and it had been decades since steel wheels had run the rusty rails. It was the railway equivalent of the Hollywood ghost town, but in place of tumbleweeds, broken windows and cobwebs were crashed boulders, fallen trees, and heavy undergrowth and even trees growing between the rails. Nature had been busy reclaiming lost ground.

The line had been cut in to the side of the mountains but in places where the builders ran into a ravine, a waterfall or where it was just too difficult or flaky to cut, wooden bridges had been erected. Some were still in reasonable condition but most were very rickety or rotten and a quite dicey.

One very long bridge not only listed to the side, but also rocked like a canoe with every footstep. We crossed it one at a time. When I reached the middle I made the mistake of looking down. What I saw can only be described as the abyss (forgive the cliché). That's when I started to shake. For an instant I considered an alternative traverse but quickly realised that crawling while dragging a fully loaded bicycle on its side would be impossible – it would get snagged. So feeling my jaw tighten, I spoke to myself. “This is a very bad place to get the shakes. Stop it.” It worked. A little further on, trying to sound casual, I mentioned to Rory that I was afraid of heights. "I reckon,” he said “that if I don't fall down when I am walking down the street, why would I think I am going to fall just because I am up high?" This cold hard logic gave me confidence – for a few minutes; until the next rickety rail bridge, or worse, the next missing rickety rail bridge. I was glad to let Rory take the lead.

Across one ravine, the wooden bridge structure had disintegrated. All that was left were the rails, sagging and swaying ominously in the wind. Many other bridges had been washed away completely by waterfalls or knocked out by landslides. This meant finding other routes, clamouring down ravines or hugging rocks on cliff faces along a makeshift path. Every few minutes we the path would disappear under landslide damage and we would have to work our way over. Often it took the two of us to transport a single bike across or around these obstacles, carrying or passing it, before doing the same with the second bike. Sometimes the going was so rough that we would have to detach our luggage from the bikes to transport them. It was very tedious going.

The undergrowth kept slashing at my skin and I kept bashing my leg into my metal bicycle pedal, but although I kept thinking that I should stop to pull on long pants, I didn't. Mentally this was still a bike ride. Surely the bike riding would begin again just around the next bend? After the trip, both of us had scratches, cuts and bruises on every square centimetre of our lower legs and mine took nearly two weeks to heal.

For much of the time, we looked down on other mountains, their peaks pushing up through big fluffy clouds. The only evidence we saw of large animal life were what we guessed were deer turds lying on rail sleepers.

We passed a beautiful turquoise rock pool fed by twin waterfalls, where had it been warmer, would have been a great place for a dip. We trudged the railway all day until Rory found the stone steps. This is where we left the railway line. From our rough instructions we knew these stairs descended 1,000 metres to a dirt road.

Before I reached the steps I stopped to fix a puncture. Rory was calling out but I couldn't understand him. Then he roared very clearly.

"Get the fuck over here now!"

"If you can't wait five minutes then go ahead," I called.

With the tube repaired, I went over. "I was getting into the panic mode," he explained. He was anxious to keep moving – his girlfriend was flying to Hualien in the evening to meet him. In any case I was glad he'd waited for me.

The Steps
The light was fading so we moved quickly, bouncing the bikes down the steep steps. The only way to prevent them with their heavy loads, from running away from us, was to keep the brakes on at all times. Though covered with pine needles and leaves and perpetually wet in places, the steps themselves were surprisingly solid and stable. It was comparatively easy going and I was glad to get away from the scary high ledges of the railway line. We continued on well after dark, following the beams of our bicycle headlights until we found a flat spot large enough to pitch our tent.

Without J.D. and Marie the quality of our camp meals suffered. Biscuits and instant noodles are no substitute for spaghetti bolognese, curry and rice, and even whiskey. Our noodles that night were anything but instant. It took us nearly an hour and a half to get our fire going and the food cooked using wet pine needles for fuel.

That night I dreamt of falling. Falling down canyons; careening from high-rise buildings, flung from fun park Ferris wheels. You name it; I fell off it. I must have fallen 50,000 metres in all. Normally if I have a bad dream, waking is enough to put the demons to rest. Not this time. No matter how many times I woke up to rotate my stiff carcass, the toppling and tumbling continued just as soon as I nodded off.

When we woke the next morning, we were confident of a rapid decent and arrival in Hualien by mid-afternoon. But here, I have to revise what I said earlier about the steps being "surprisingly solid and stable." That should read, "Where steps existed, they were surprisingly solid and stable," because just below our camp they vanished. They had collapsed completely 100 metres below along with the earth that held them and the trees and bushes that had surrounded them. We soon noticed that there was a pattern to this as they performed their disappearing act in several other places and the only thing to do was to thread our bikes tediously through the bush on the very steep slopes. It did not bide well for an early arrival in Hualien.

One particularly treacherous rock slide was so crumbly we had to cross very lightly and quickly as hand and footholds would not support any weight. Rory, crossing behind me, lost his balance and dropped his bike. I won't forget the horrified look on his face as the bicycle slid downwards before getting hooked on a rock 50 metres below.

"Shit, what do I do now?"

"Just get over here, we'll worry about the bike later."

Rory leapt over to where I was. We did manage to retrieve the bike from a lower point on the path. He was lucky. Had this happened in any of perhaps a hundred points along the way, his bike would have stayed gone.

As we worked our way toward the bottom of the steps, we saw protruding from the forest a shiny silver suspension bridge, very solid and recently built. It stood in stark contrast to the damaged and derelict paths we were used to. We took it as a sign of easier pathways ahead. The bridge spanned a large ravine. We crossed it to connect with the dirt road that was going to get us out of the mountains.

As cyclists we had no business being on railway lines or steps, regardless of their condition. This dirt road, on the other hand was built for 4-wheel drive vehicles. Here at last was a stretch of earth where we could actually ride our bikes again and make fast time zooming all the way down to the plains and Hualien.

The Dirt Road
Our bikes had taken an awful hammering along the way but we were pleasantly surprised to find they were still in decent working order. The dirt road was a mess but it looked quite rideable. We excitedly anticipated a long unobstructed downhill run. It felt great to be a cyclist again. Unfortunately that feeling did not last long.

Rock slide damage became progressively worse. It was obvious that no four-wheeled vehicle could possibly use the track in its current state. Within three hours the track was virtually unridable. It became even harder and slower going than on the railway line. We got bogged down once again. But what was really frustrating was that track never seemed to descend and all we wanted to do at this stage was to go down.

We had kept expecting things to get easier, get better just around the next corner. We truly believed once we got to the steps or to the dirt road, or just past this or that obstacle, everything would click into place. But it never did. It got harder the further we went. Then it just got impossible.

The Great Big One
We were forced to stop yet again. When we clambered up a small hill made of fallen boulders to see what was ahead we were forced to an abrupt halt. The scenery had become shockingly different. The track ahead had gone; wiped from the earth. But here it wasn't just another fissure or chasm – even I had gotten somewhat used to those – here the whole side of the mountain had slid away, from above, below and in front.

We contemplated how to get around what lay in front but it was already obvious, to me, at least, that there was no getting around something so enormous.

"We'll just have to cross it," Rory said, determined to reach our destination.

"Nah, we'll never make it. It's just too dangerous."

I tried to sound casual but the alarm bells that had been ringing in my head for the last two days were by now bursting in my eardrums.

"Yes we can; we have to. There's no other way!"

So unencumbered by bicycle or backpack, Rory ventured out very slowly and carefully.

The landslide was fresh, alive and with each step his feet disappeared under the white sand floating down in floury waves. Forty metres out, he stopped, squatting on the steep slope looking for some way ahead. The problem was that there is nothing except a mass of chalky marble dust and unstable boulders. And it looked the same for as far as I could see, and that was a very long way.

I waited at the edge hoping he wouldn't fall ending up in the rubble 300 metres below. I wondered how I would react if he did. I looked at the boulders above ready to warn him if one broke off. I was really hoping he wouldn't say, "We can make it, let's go on."

Finally he looked back nervously. "No," he shook his head. "There's no way across."

The trip, as we had planned it, ended right there. We were not going to see Hualien, and at this stage I didn't care. I just felt relief.

The only way was back. We were already 24 hours overdue and needed to get to a phone to call no doubt worried spouse (mine), and girlfriend (Rory's). We had another motive to get out fast too; lack of food. My supply was down to a single chocolate bar and the crumbs floating at the bottom of my backpack. Rory had more but only enough for about a day. We were already worn down and knew well that without sustenance we would never maintain the energy to get out.

We had been packhorses for our bicycles for two exhausting days. After a few wrenching moments – my bike was almost new – the decision was made. We left behind all non-essentials, and that included bikes in order to make a quicker retreat.

The Way Out
As we set off the way we had come, the weather that five minutes earlier had been clear, now turned nasty. A chilling fog gushed in and whirled in around us. It started raining as we reprised the track, re-crossing all the landslides. We stopped only to refill water bottles before the steps. If I had needed convincing that dumping our bikes had been the right choice, this was it. I cannot imagine how long it would have taken us to carry our bikes and bags up the steps. Climbing with only small backpacks was hard enough and required a breath-catching rest every few moments. One small positive aspect of backtracking was that I found my toolkit on the steps which had, unbeknown to me, fallen on the way down. I didn't have a bicycle but at least now I had the tools to fix one! We made quite good time, getting to the top of the steps just as darkness set in.

The small shoulder at the top was exposed to wild weather. But for a second time we found a Taiwan Power Company hut to stay in. The hut seemed a better idea than the two of us squeezed into Rory's one-man tent, which he described as a ‘leaker.' The hut had warm quilts, a godsend when your sleeping bag is wet. There was even a few minutes of heat left in a gas bottle. Ironically the one thing the Taiwan Power Company huts lacked was electricity. We were content enough to go to bed at 6 o'clock when our candle stump burnt out. Several times I was woken by typhoon-strength winds battering the hut; twisting and buckling iron roofing sheets. And although we had used a very large concrete block to jam the door shut, the next morning, it was swinging open, violently.

After a breakfast of cold canned eel, we pulled on our wet clothes and set off. It was slippery going as we retread the railway, quickly but carefully. Reaching the trail to the Rainbow Lake was a relief as it meant that there were no more steep drop-offs to deal with.

The weather was so terrible once we arrived back at Rainbow Lake that we tossed aside all hope of finding visitors to hitchhike down the mountains with. If only we had our bikes now, we'd be off the mountain in a few hours. As it was it looked like a long wet hike down.

But emerging like ghosts from the fog, was a small group of day hikers in variously coloured raincoats. Determined to impress them enough to get a ride off the mountain, we pounced, politely seeking an assurance they would give as a lift. They were heading down the mountain in 10 minutes and would take us, the man leading them said. We were jubilant, home was in sight.

But a full hour later, after a lengthy photography session in which the lake was nearly invisible in the fog and rain, the group started planning a hike around the lake and discussing where they would have a picnic! One glance at Rory was enough to know that he found their behaviour odd too. We were both shivering badly. Then the leader did a complete about face, announcing his group was spending the night on the mountain.

"But didn't you say you were going home today?"

"No," he said.

We left at once. Without a ride it we had a two day walk to Dili in front of us. But about 15 km later behind us we saw headlights bobbing down the mountain. But even in the 4-wheel drive van that picked us up we still couldn't get away from landslides. Two hours later one was blocking our way. Nobody was getting out until it was cleared, so we all stayed at the Haitiian Shi (Heavenly Sea of Clouds) Temple hostel enjoying the luxury of a real meal, a hot water wash and a hard bed.

Latter that day, our sixth, the van carried us out of the mountains.

Throughout the trip we both came to fully appreciate the versatility of the bicycle. We discovered many ways to move our two-wheelers. You can walk a bike. You can carry it. You can fling it down a 20-metre drop off. You can push it, fully loaded up a steep embankment one pace at a time, locking the brakes so it doesn't roll back on you, before using it to lever yourself upwards. You pass it to your mate across a deep crevice. You can even thread it through the tangled branches of fallen pine trees. We did all this and much more. About the only thing we did not do with our bikes after Rainbow Lake, was actually ride them.

Our trip turned out nothing like we had planned, and It felt very odd returning without our bicycles, the metal steeds that had originally been so crucial. But I had no regrets and neither I think, did Rory. How long it will be before those bikes are swallowed up by that swelling marble eruption in East Taiwan is hard to say. So if you want them, you'd better hurry.

FREE Bicycles – Last Chance – Genuine offer to the intrepid collector. As a bonus, we'll throw in a set of bicycle panniers, a bicycle bag, helmets, a tent, and a cooking set, (steak knives not included). Fine Print: Original owners unwilling to act as guides.

Date of trip: Lunar New Year (Feb. 2001)

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