20 April 2009
We started cycling in drizzles. Without the fenders, soon I had two big vertical stripes on my chest and back, painted by the wet dirts thrown up by the wheels. We reached Toucheng Station (頭城車站) in no time. Some fellow cyclists told us that we could try our lucks here to board certain trains (without bagging the bikes) to skip the hair-raising Suhua Highway and reach Hualien safely. The next train available was around 4:00 pm. Rain stopped. We headed South (8km) to the hot spring town Jiaoxi to munch on a whole chicken roasted in a kiln fuelled by the wood of litchi or longan. We even had enough time to take a dip in some hot spring before returning to Toucheng Station to board the train.
In fact, Toucheng Station is no longer an ideal station to board a train with your bikes now. At the time of writing, there are only three trains a day that would carry naked bikes. That one we took has been cancelled. Instead, Luodong station (25km southwards) or Su’aoxin Station (33km southwards) have 9 trains a day, stretching from early morning to around 11:00p.m. You would also skip the most part of Yilan if you board the train at Toucheng as it locates at the northern part of Yilan. Here’s where you can check for relevant information but it’s in Chinese only: TRA Bike Trains. Clients of Bike Express Taiwan need not worry about this; we are happy to check it for you.
Back to my trip. Again, we found ourselves in the dark when we arrived at Hualien and prepared our bikes outside the train station. A woman approached us and tried to persuade us to stay at her hostel. She appeared to be horrified by our idea of cycling in the dark. A man joined in to help. He claimed that he could predict the weather precisely after being a sailor for decades. He sticked one finger into the air and tasted it. “It’s sweet! it’s going to rain soon!”, he concluded and announced loudly. Sorry man! The north and north east coasts had made us experienced cyclists specializing in riding in the rain and in the dark. And please don’t be so sure. It’s very difficult to make predictions, especially about the future! I thought to myself.
We turned down the woman’s offer and headed into the 180 km longitudinal valley connecting Hualien and Taitung, the Huadong Valley. It was created after the Eurasian Plate and the Philippine Sea Plate kept pushing each other for many many thousand years. It is believed that the Philippine Sea Plate crept above the Eurasian Plate and formed the Hai’an Range or Coastal Mountain Range (海岸山脈). And they are still doing it. That’s why the frequent earthquakes in the area.
The valley was more populous than the northern coast. We had a local person cycling with us as he was heading home. He told us that the valley was so full of homestays that we needed not worry about finding a place to stay. Then, we decided to stop for the day after passing several townships at a leisure pace. And nope! Mr. Sailor, there wasn’t a single drop of rain.
John, who speaks better mandarin, asked a cashier at a convenient store if there were any homestays around. He came back with a look of disbelief on his face while I was looking for some snacks. Turned out a young lady with a baby in her arm overheard the conversation and invited us to stay in their place, which was just a couple blocks away and where she lived with her husband. For free! Wow! what could I say? I did have a split second of wary thoughts but how could we turn down such a generous offer? If she did not worry about safety issues of having two strangers staying at their place, neither should we. So we accepted her invitation and followed her home. Her husband was a young jade carver. He was appreciating (evaluating?) several pieces of raw jade stones on his desk while we chatted. We were told that Yuli Township (玉里, translated literally as Jade Township) in the valley used to produce a special kind of jade with fibre patterns.
Even though I could barely participate in the conversation with my broken Mandarin, I gained a new perspective on the Japanese rule in Taiwan (1895 – 1945). I used to think the older generations of Chinese must have all harbored a feeling of hostility towards the Japanese, who had been frequently in war with the Chinese in the past centuries. Being a former wartime foe of KMT and notoriously brutal during World War II, Japan was commonly thought to detest by the older Chinese from the other side of Taiwan strait.I was surprised to learn that some people in Taiwan had a nostalgic view of Japan’s colonial period. Like in all other colonial economies, human and natural resources were used to aid the development of Japan. But firstly, roads, railways, schools, clinics, water supplies, etc. had to be built to facilitate the extraction. After half a century of ruling, the Japanese had left behind numerous valuable infrastructures, historical buildings, sake breweries, sugar mills, logging railways and some intangible assets like agricultural technologies. Of course, the subjects weren’t treated equally. After we moved to Taipei, one of our neighbours told me that Chinese were not allowed to study law and politics during that period. The only prestigious profession left for those Chinese elites to pursue was medicine. This somehow became a convention within the Chinese community and that’s why people in Taiwan are enjoying superior medical services today. The living standard and population had grown significantly when Japan left Taiwan in 1945. Many old Taiwanese have a fondness towards the Japanese. I guess some people in Hong Kong share the same sentiment about the British rule (1841-1941, 1945-1997).
That was an unforgettable day.