Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Travel: The mountains call - Part II

Whenever I travel for my job, I try to bring my bike along. I always try to stay in race shape, so I can't afford to be off the bike during trips that can last as long as a month. I also hate working out in hotel gyms, pedaling in a pool of sweat on a squeaky stationary bike facing a wall. I would much rather explore a city by bike, and traveling with one is easy with the latest bike boxes and bags that are relatively light and protect your rig.

In Taipei, I can get in a tough two-hour ride in the mountains before work if I get out the door by 5:30 a.m. It's a fantastic ride that begins in the "Blade Runner"-like urban chaos of Taipei and within a few kilometers takes you into the lush green mountains that provide terrific views of the humming, sprawling city below.

Taiwan is undergoing a cycling renaissance. Bicycles were once the main form of transport for the masses before the leaf-shaped island evolved into a manufacturing juggernaut and the economy boomed. But the people who shifted to motor scooters and then cars are rediscovering the joys of cycling. On the weekends in Yangmingshan, the roads are filled with people pedaling everything from Colnagos and Pinarellos to tricked-out collapsable bikes.

My favorite ride is a 92-kilometer out-and-back route from the Feeling Hotel, over the mountains in Yangmingshan National Park and down to Jin Shan beach on the northeastern Pacific coast. The climbs can be steep, and in one five-kilometer section, I felt like the two greasy fried eggs and toast I had for breakfast were inching their way up my gullet with each pedal stroke.

But the payoff is huge as you speed down long descents into mountain valleys where farmers grow vegetables in small terraced plots on the hills. Elderly ladies set up rickety stands under umbrellas on the side of the road and sell cabbages, eggplants and greens. One itinerant butcher in a rusty red van throws a wooden chopping block on the roadside and hacks up cuts of meat for passers-by.

The park is full of hot sulfur vents that spew steamy clouds into the air that smell like rotten eggs. The tropical rainforest vegetation is loaded with bamboo groves and tall grasses, where locust-like insects make a strange metallic whirling noise that sound like a space ship is about to land.

A switchback-filled descent of about 20 kilometers ends at Jin Shan Beach. When I rode there on a recent Saturday, the beach was full of young Taiwanese surfers enjoying the higher waves being kicked up by a tropical storm.

I stopped at a roadside food wagon, and ordered a second breakfast of coffee and waffles with a generous dollop of whipped cream. I sat down at a small plastic cafe table and watched the people riding the waves.

When I turned around to go home, I could see dark rain clouds hanging over the mountain. Rather than wait out the storm, I decided to push through it.

A hard rain began to fall about 10 minutes into the climb back over the mountain. But as I pedaled higher, I climbed out of the storm and spent the rest of the way uphill in a fantastically refreshing mist that kept me cool. It was much like a dream.

I returned to the hotel absolutely exhausted but with a wonderful buzz from being in the spectacular outdoors. I lugged my bike up the steps of the Feeling Hotel and opened the door with a big smile on my sunburned face. As I stepped into the lobby, I saw the Taiwanese man in the black suit with his date. He was also grinning, also looking tired but happy.

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