Baling on Highway 7 - Remote Taiwan - CycleBlaze

Baling on Highway 7

arriving after dark - September 20, 2020

It’s quite a bit later than expected when I wheel my bike out onto the damp street, swing my right leg over the top tube and set off. Debbie has spent the last few days saying I shouldn’t go, but this little getaway of mine has been in the back of my mind for months, right through the sweaty and humid days of summer when it was been too hot to venture very far. 

She reckons it’s too risky to ride into the high mountains in wet weather and the forecast isn’t great. It was raining when I got up and looked out the window and the drizzle has only just eased off, but as it’s 9:45 it’s either now or never what with there being something like 70 undulating kilometers to cover before the sun dips out of sight at around 5:30. 

The sky is a swathe of grey, but my bike feels nice and speedy compared to the one used for cycling to work. This one just fits me a bit better, having bars that are higher and with a smoother feel. 

Even though my departure is well over an hour later than planned, I’m still taking the scenic route and head towards the town of Longtan on back roads. I bypass the eastern edge of town, then make my way towards Shirmen Dam, arriving at its wide access road at almost 11:00.

On Sundays this road is lined with vendors and busy with day-trippers buying fruit, snacks and whatnot, but today at this time there are few people around, and only a handful of stalls set up. I stop at one selling drinks and have a bottle of sugar cane juice that I gulp down while standing astride my bike as the two guys sitting on stools manning the place ask me some questions that I don’t understand.

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I ride up onto the top of the dam and take a look at the panorama, with the view stretching towards Taipei, far out of sight to the north. What I can see is an overcast sky and a flat valley, but that’s not where I’m heading. My route hugs the reservoir’s northern bank and climbs in strenuous sections and then dips, and my mind drifts back to the very first time I rode along this quiet, twisting road, something like a six months after arriving here back in 1999. At the time it struck me as an exotic, tropical place with tall tree ferns and lush slopes that screamed ‘Asia’.

The scenery still gives me a buzz and I pause briefly at one vantage point when a pleasure boat cruises slowly across the water towards me and makes me ponder why in all these years I've never taken a ride in one. The water level is very low because this summer has been particularly dry and there have not been any typhoons, which is highly unusual for Taiwan. A strip of exposed rock is visible around the water's edge, emphasizing that rain is sorely needed. Hopefully it doesn't arrive today.

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Another gap in the trees soon comes along to give me a view in the general direction I'm heading and the grey clouds look like they're not going anywhere very soon. It's not raining - yet - but my shirt is already damp from pedalling up the stiff climbs in high humidity. My guess is the temperature is just in the pleasant mid 20s, so it could be worse.

After the road twists and turns on a long descent, it crosses a small concrete bridge, then rises abruptly making me find one of the lowest gears and I spin away for a few hundred metres to Lakeside Coffee, where I lock my bike and head inside. It's time for lunch. I've cycled over 25km.

The terrace on the lower level is surprisingly busy. This is a Saturday, but it’s one most people have to work as next weekend is a four-day one and the government perversely dictates that to have the extra day, workers have to make up for it today. These people sat here at Lakeside must be retired, unemployed or self-employed.

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Bill ShaneyfeltMight be a house gecko.
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1 year ago
Graham FinchMy guess was a gecko... they're quite common here and sometimes one finds its way up to our 6th floor apartment.
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1 year ago

I get a table and gaze across the reservoir before a women comes over with a menu. She knows where I'm from as she recognizes me ffrom my once regular stops here. It's been a few years since I was last at Lakeside, so it comes as another surprise. I order a set meal with a cappuccino and drink orange-fused water while a couple of tiny mosquitoes find my bare ankles. The adjacent parapet wall has a lizard - maybe a gecko - stuck to it just beside where I'm sitting, so I take its photo.

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It's 12:30 when I eventually set off, knowing that the most serious climbing is yet to come.

After a few more kilomteres along the undulating road that skirts the reservoir’s north bank I get to Highway 7, make a right turn and start to go up a gentle slope. There's a fair amount of traffic, but it's not a real highway - just a provincial road - and there are just a couple of kilometres of riding before I drop down to a village called Sanmin, where there's an old Tea Factory that I've been meaning to check out for a while.

The place was derelict for decades after tea processing ended there in the 70s and it was only a few years ago that renovation was completed. The work won some architectural award.

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A lane leads off from the 7 to the warehouse-like place and the woman at the ticket booth takes my NT$100 (about US$3) and lets me wheel my bike in to the front yard. She says the ticket price includes a drink.

Again it's surprising how busy the place is. There's one tour group with everyone wearing the same T-shirts that has 'Making a Difference' printed across the front. Many of the visitors are quite young - maybe college age - and I try and find quieter spots to take a few snaps. I could get a 'free' drink of tea, but I hydrated well at Lakeside and decide to hand the ticket back to the young woman as I leave. She seems a bit surprised herself.

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I get back on Highway 7 and start going up a hill, with the climb from Sanmin to Fuxing being about 4km long. The village isn't really visible from the 7 and although I've cycled this way many times, I've never ventured into the village before. It's time to change that.

The shop at the junction where I make a right is a spot where cyclists take a break because it's at the very crest of two decent climbs and there are a few bikes outside. It's a small detour in Sanmin and a young woman behind the counter in the OK shop in its centre seems a bit shocked to see a foreigner walk in. She looks aboriginal, with eyes more rounded than Taiwanese are, and after getting some cold drinks and sitting for a few minutes I decide to buy a pot of instant noodles as up in the mountains there are few places to get a bite to eat. Next door is a fruit shop and after buying a few bananas I ride down a side street that drops steeply and turns into a concrete path that makes my brakes squeal. This is not a way I'd be able to ride up it.

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The lane spits me back out onto the 7 and my wheels whiz down towards the river with cloud-enveloped peaks of the Central Mountains ahead and it's 2:00 when I cruise across the original bridge that's now closed to vehicles. There's something like 27km still to go and the longest climb is ahead and getting to the couple of hotels in Baling before darkness falls is looking increasingly doubtful.

Once over the bridge, the ambiance is very different and it seems that even though Fuxing is just a small place, only a few vehicles go any further aand the 7 has narrowed. Mountains rise on my right and across the valley are simple homes dotted among the dense blanket of trees. A sense of adventure kicks in.

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There are about 7km of climbing to do before the road drops for a while. The highway goes over bridges and shoots me through a long tunnel before going up again.

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Bill ShaneyfeltNice macro shot of this grasshopper!
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1 year ago
Graham FinchThat was a biggie sat on the road... maybe 3 or 4 inches long.
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1 year ago

On this second uphill section, the sun goes behind the peaks and it feels cooler, but my shirt is wet with sweat. Eventually a sign tells me the elevation is 607m and says this Gaoyi, but there are no buildings to be seen. I set up my tripod to take a self-timed snap and become aware it's now dusk and switch on my LED lights just to be on the safe side.

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A fork in the road marks the turning down to Baling and it's now properly dark, but the village is pretty close and I reckon it won't be too long before I'm there.

My front LED isn't very powerful, so I take it steady on the way down to the river, where a bridge spans the water far below and the 7 then climbs a few hundred metres to where buildings line the edges of the road. Lights are on and it feels like this is civilization.

The hotel on the left is my preferred stay and as I park my bike a guy in his 30s comes out and asks if I want a room and I say yes. The ground floor dining area is absolutely packed, so I seriously wonder if he has a place for me, but he says he does and I wheel my bike inside and pay him the NT$1,200 he quotes me and get told that dinner will stop being served quite soon.

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I don't bother showing and just change my shirt for a dry one and walk back down the two flights of stairs and sit at a desk as all the tables are full and have some friend rice. As I eat it become apparent this is a work party on a night out and drinking is obviously having an effect and some people start singing to a KTV machine's microphone.

There's a pay-phone across the road so I pop over, insert a coin and call Debbie to let her know I'm in Baling and have a room and tell her the weather has been OK. She can hear the music and loud banter emanating from the open windows of the hotel's dining room.

Tiredness gets the better of me and I go back upstairs to my room and hope the music will stop before too long. I need some sleep. It's about 10:00 when quite comes, but by then I have a slight headache. It's been a ride my legs weren't really prepared for.

Today's ride: 70 km (43 miles)
Total: 70 km (43 miles)

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