Goodbye, Farewell, and Amen, Taiwan

Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Stop me if you’ve heard this one:

A Westerner goes to see a psychiatrist at Tzu Chi Hospital. In reasonably fluent Mandarin, he says:“Doc, you’ve got to help me. Taiwan has become too vivid for me, too noisy. I swear I’m hearing trumpets and firecrackers even when there’s no festival at the temple next to my apartment building. I’ve spent the last six months wavering between depression and anxiety.”

The psychiatrist nods sympathetically.

“Many Westerners who spend a long time here find our culture overwhelming. The key is to cultivate an understanding of Taiwanese culture. Here is my suggestion: There is an American author who has written many books and articles which will help you gain a new appreciation of Taiwanese culture. His name is Joshua Brown. Go read some of his work. He will make you feel better about Taiwan.”

“But doctor,” cries the patient. “I am Joshua Brown!”

The psychiatrist shrugs and presses a button beneath her desk, silently summoning a pair of straightjacket-bearing monks to escort the Westerner to the inpatient ward.

The preceding anecdote is fictional. The tale that follows is not.

The road before me winds upwards, and Taipei City is two hours behind. Legs burning, I continue climbing, breathing heavily. I am carrying too much baggage, physically and mentally, cycling away from Taipei City physically and metaphysically, trying to put distance between myself and a lifestyle that was slowly killing me. Full-time work is no life for a lifelong freelancer, and two years in group-think-heavy Taiwanese office culture withers a creative soul.

Whoops! Let’s nip that thought in the bud, shall we? Resentment causes stress, and stress leads to illness. The antidote to resentment is gratitude, and thus as I ride I shall make note of the many things for which I am deeply grateful to Taiwan for having provided.

Taiwan Gratitude List item 1: Magnificent universal healthcare, something barely imaginable for most Americans.

My opening anecdote about the psychiatric visit was only mostly fabricated. Indeed, it was a kindly family doctor at the aforementioned Tzu Chi hospital who suggested that I relax more and exercise daily, which I interpreted to mean quit your job and take a long bicycle trip.

Which brings us around to the current moment nicely.  

The motorcycle racers who’d sped past me on the road from Xindian have turned back at Pinglin, and in the last heavy mountain slog I have the road to myself, save for a few cars and trucks who’ve chosen not to avail themselves of the tunnel that’s turned Jiaoxi into a Taipei bedroom community. The road is beautiful, and the weather, which had threatened rain in the morning, was now beautiful – the crisp, clean air of a northern Taiwan spring.

It’s a road I’ve ridden many times, and it’s possible that this will be my last ride in Taiwan for a while. In a few months I’ll be leaving Taiwan again, perhaps this time for good. In January I turned 50, and if life is a three-act play, my third act has just begun. Having spent a good part of my second act exploring and writing about Taiwan, it feels as if the great magnet wants me somewhere else for the third. So one last trip through Taiwan, seeking serenity, an unseen vista, and perhaps an epiphany or two.

The road continues rising as it winds through the mountains separating Taipei and Yilan. The sign telling me I’ve officially left Taipei is a welcome sight, as is the cooling breeze and ocean view. Equally welcome is the sight of 10 kilometers of switchback roads leading down to the town of Jiaoxi, the first stop on my largely open-ended journey.

Jiaoxi has changed a lot since my first visit in the late nineties. It was a smaller place back then, with none of the high-rise hotels hastily built to provide housing and recreation for throngs of Chinese tourists (a torrent that has, for better or worse, become a trickle in recent years). Exhausted, I glide past these less budget-friendly resorts and pull up in front of a small, inviting inn on a side street.

The place seems strangely familiar. The man at the front desk greets me with a smile.

“You’ve stayed here before, haven’t you?” he asks.

My mind races back to a drunken spree through town many years before, during which I’d been a less than gracious guest.

“Recently?” I ask innocently.

“Maybe three years ago?” responds the innkeeper.

I relax, realizing my stay was during a more reasonable period of my Taiwan experience.

“Oh yeah, I was writing about Yilan. I think the local government booked the room for me.”

The innkeeper smiles and offers me a room with a full size tub for NT$1,100.

The tub is deep, the water hot and piped in directly from the earth. After a luxurious soak, I head out on foot to a small Japanese restaurant on the west side of Jiaoxi Park where I wind up sharing slabs of sashimi with the owner’s cat.

Taiwan Gratitude List item 2: Kindly innkeepers, inexpensive sashimi, and cats.

The morning is warm and humid as I cycle out of Jiaoxi. Yilan is Taipei’s wettest county, its perpetually flooded lands largely divided into plots separated by raised and well-maintained roads. The landscape is dotted with newly constructed houses, some of them quite lovely, others the gaudy weekend homes of well-to-do Taipei residents. A few newly built bed & breakfasts taking advantage of the beautiful countryside and proximity to Taipei look inviting, but the day’s ride has just started.

Gorgeous mountains rise to the west, with wisps of morning fog spilling through the valleys. To the east lies the Pacific Ocean, a few small clouds hanging over Turtle Island. These views are worthy of the ancient planet builders of Magrathea from The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, who existed solely to build worlds for the universe’s wealthiest beings after they had come to find their home planets tedious.

Perhaps I, too, have become spoiled by Taiwan’s beauty. It’s easy enough to happen if one avoids the cities, which I’m currently doing by skirting the plains surrounding Yilan City to the east, past the Kavalan whiskey factory. To the west, Route 7 stretches before me, rising from sea level to eventually reach the mountain town of Lishan.

Having only ridden downhill on this road, I contemplate riding the other way, winding through the mountains to hit Hualien through Taroko Gorge. My legs, still sore from the previous day, cast the deciding vote, opting for a southward swing across the river and back to the coast.

Not wanting my legs to get all the credit, my brain (specifically the lobe in charge of self-preservation) makes the call to hop on a local train from Su’ao to Hualien, thus avoiding the treacherous ride between the two, much of which is considered to be among Taiwan’s deadliest stretches of road.

The sky grows dark as the train winds southward, and by the time I disembark it is raining moderately. The same part of my brain that suggested the train advises me to find shelter for the evening rather than continuing south. My mobile app leads me to a place called The Peace Prison Cafe Inn, which seems too interesting not to check out. It turns out to be an extremely kitsch prison-themed hotel. The night passes uneventfully, save for a minor earthquake sometime before dawn.

Taiwan Gratitude List item 3: One of the world’s finest rail systems and an abundance of quirky hotels.

The skies are clear and blue as I leave the inn and head south, opting for Route 193 which hugs the western flank of the young mountain range separating the coast from Taiwan’s East Rift Valley.

To truly appreciate this most beautiful stretch of Taiwan, the reader needs to understand Taiwan’s place in geological history, for the island happens to lay on the very spot where two tectonic plates (specifically the Eurasian and Philippine plates) have been engaging in a slow-motion tryst. Taiwan itself is a product of this blessed union, and the Rift Valley is where the two plates meet.

The pools at the Hoya Spa in Ruisui. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

This morning’s tremor was evidence of the geological love-affair’s ongoing nature, as is the topography of the town where I wind up after a day’s casual riding. Little has changed since I started coming to the Hoya Spa Hotel in Ruisui 15 years ago. Roger, the owner recognizes me.

“You leading another cycling tour?” he asks.

“Just me this time,” I answer.

Roger offers me a room at a mid-week discount, and I check in, unload my bike and head over to the hotel’s real star attraction, the separate hot-spring facility offering all manner of massaging and pummeling hydrotherapy. As I sink into the warm rust-colored waters, it occurs to me that Ruisui, being close to a few of my other favorite riding roads, is as good a place as any in which to work out any lingering existential dilemmas while still getting in the requisite 50 kilometers a day of riding.

I book my room for the next two nights. Freed from having to lug 30 pounds of gear on my bike, I spend the next two days zipping merrily around the coastal mountain range and playing tourist alongside a few dozen Chinese tourists at the Baxiandong caves on the coast and a few hundred more at the Tropic of Cancer Marker.  

The author’s bicycle gets a rest along Route 64. Photo: Joshua Samuel Brown

Taiwan Gratitude List item 4: Abundant hot springs and fine (and free) roadside tourist attractions.   

Having achieved relaxation while simultaneously strengthening a heart made slack by too much time sitting at a desk, only one item on my pre-leave to-do list remains unchecked. Riding south after two days based in Ruisui, I’m determined to check this final item off my list.

Route 20, also known as the Southern Cross Island Highway, is considered one of the most beautiful cycling roads in southern Taiwan. It’s also impassable, thanks to earthquakes and landslides. Though many friends in the cycling community had sung its praises, reports differed as to how far along the road I might get before being turned back by its cessation. It seems a worthwhile way to check off the unseen vista box.

Just getting from Ruisui to the point where the road begins (at a sleepy town called Haiduan in Taitung County) takes the morning and some of the afternoon. A long bridge across a river bisecting much of Taitung County (the actual meeting point of the two tectonic plates) leads to Highway 20. To the east, the road turns into Highway 9 and follows the river through the Luye highlands and into Taitung City. To the west, it winds up and into the mountains before ceasing to be.

For several stunning kilometers I cycle, neither passing nor being passed by another vehicle until reaching a tribal village called Xinwubulou. A woman tending goats greets me. I ask her if the road is passable to the west coast. She looks at my overloaded touring bike and shakes her head.

“For them,” she says, pointing to her goats. “Not for you.”

On this side of the mountains the road is gorgeous, as awe inspiring as the road through Taroko Gorge, made all the more so by the lack of tour buses. A few kilometers out of Xinwubulou the road grows steeper, an inclining ribbon of black with a riverbed to one side and high cliffs and canyons to the other. The ride is at once exhausting and exhilarating. A few cars pass by, but not many. A slow, granny-gear grind brings me to the village of Xia Ma. The characters mean “down horse,” but also “dismount.” As the sun is going down and I can ride no further, this seems a good suggestion.

Xia Ma’s sole guest house is a renovated school with attached restaurant and many friendly dogs. The guest house is empty, but the family running the guesthouse (members of the Bunun Tribe) don’t seem all that surprised by my presence. The road is popular with cyclists and travelers heading further into the mountains to explore the area’s hot springs.

“When the government completes the repairs, we expect to see more traffic. Until then, it’s quiet around here,” the guesthouse owner tells me, adding that there’s still plenty of road left to ride before it becomes impassable.

After eating, I settle into my room to rest and contemplate the next day’s ride. An unexpected email invitation throws a potential fork into the road of my open-ended journey:

“Mr. Brown, this is Billy from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. We’d like to invite you to come share your experiences in Taiwan at a luncheon we’re holding for a delegation from America.”

There’s a list attached to the email with the names and political parties of the attendees, an even mix of Republicans and Democrats.

The luncheon is being held in a few days, enough time to make it back to Taipei over known routes, less so if I continue into the uncertain terra incognita to the west. My responsibility seems clear. I hit reply.

As I ride east back down the mountain the next morning, I begin mentally working on a speech about how support for Taiwan is a bipartisan issue, and wondering what one is meant to wear when speaking at a government event.

Taiwan Gratitude List item 5: Continued opportunities to speak up for Taiwan, wherever the road ahead takes me.