SCIH 005 – Typhoon Damage
Wednesday September 23, 2009 11:00a.m.
At the 7-11 back in Chiahsien
This may be a bit confusing, but I am back in Chiahsien and back at the 7-11. And it is only 11 in the morning and I’m done cycling for the day. So what the heck happened?
Well, quite a bit happened. For one thing, I got a forceful reminder of another thing that one should always remember about Taiwan – the bathrooms can be dangerous. The problem is that they don’t often have separate wet and dry areas. The shower area and the area containing the sink and the toilet and all that can often be the same area. I hate that, and one thing I love about my apartment in Taipei is that it has a separate shower cabinet, so everything else stays dry. I don’t think they combine the wet and dry areas on purpose. They simply haven’t thought it through. I don’t think their bathrooms were originally like this, and when they added all the elements that make up what we think of as a western bathroom, they just threw it all together. This means that the floor of the bathroom is always soaking wet – and very slippery. Worse, it means that other areas can be wet as well, and this is what nearly did me in.
In my hotel room in Chiahsien (Room 607), they had simply stuck the showerhead on the wall near the door to the bathroom. It isn’t a very convenient spot, and I ended up just leaving the bathroom door open when I showered. I didn’t realize that this meant that the smooth tile floor outside the bathroom door would also get wet. So in the morning, just as I was getting ready to leave, I slipped on those wet tiles. You know how when something like that happens time can slow down? Well, it slowed down in this instance and just as my feet went out from under me, I had the time to think about all the terrible things that could happen – broken leg, fractured skull, broken arm, etc. I pictured my bike ride coming to an abrupt halt. Luckily, none of those things happened. I managed to grab hold of the door jamb, so I didn’t go straight down and kill myself. However, I did slide forward totally out of control and my left knee slammed into the other door jamb.
I think our bodies know how important bones are. You know how when you hit your head, the pain and shock is so extreme that you just curl up in a ball and hold your head? The same thing happens when you hit your knee. I think our bodies think we are all still hunters. It knows that if we break a leg, we can’t hunt, and we can’t run from predators, and so we are dead. So if we are careless enough to give our knees or legs a hard knock, we are rewarded with some extreme pain. I collapsed on the bed in a little ball and just held my knee until the pain receded. While I lay there, I wondered how much damage I had done. I knew there were several days of hard uphill cycling ahead of me. Smashing my knee on day 2 isn’t a good way to start. Luckily, I didn’t do that much damage. I could bend my knee without a problem and I could cycle. It was only when I crouched down and then tried to stand up again that my knee gave me trouble – and still gives me trouble.
Even with that little accident, I was on the road a good twenty minutes earlier than the day before. (And this morning, a solid hour earlier.) It was already extremely hot and humid, and before I’d even climbed out of the town, I had already stopped to wipe the sweat out of my eyes with my handy towel.
I wasn’t entirely sure where I was going to end my day. It all depended on the road conditions and on which towns had hotels and that sort of thing. I had no real idea what I was cycling into. I had read, though, that there was a town called Meishankou that had some kind of Youth Activity Center. I’d read this in my Lonely Planet, and I was glad to read it. I’d had an experience with these Youth Activity Centers before, and they were all good experiences. There is a network of these things across the country. They are usually in very large buildings and are used by youth groups and other organizations that need lots of rooms as well as meeting rooms and activity areas. They don’t really cater to individuals, but by some kind of fluke, they will often rent an entire room to one person even if that room was meant for 8 people. Perhaps they only do this for foreigners. What happens is that they charge you per occupant. So this room might go for NT$500 per person. Eight people would equal NT$4,000. But when I showed up on my own, they rented me the entire room for just NT$500.
I didn’t know what this place in Meishankou would be like, but if there was such a place there, it seemed a good destination. It was no surprise, however, that this town wasn’t marked on either of my two maps. That’s Taiwan for you. Anyway, this town was my temporary destination and I set off with a spring in my legs.
This spring lasted a very short time. This is another aspect to Taiwan, and, in fact, to most mountainous areas. The thing is that people tend to build their villages and towns next to rivers. And they do this in river valleys. As a cyclist, one usually ends one’s day in a town, and this town will be at the bottom of a valley. So every single day, the first thing you have to do is start climbing up out of that valley. The valley where Chiahsien is located happens to be quite a deep valley. So as I left the town, I started climbing up a steep grade, and three hours later, I was still climbing. The climb never seemed to end. A topographical map helps to predict these sorts of things, but I haven’t been able to find a topo map of Taiwan. So these sorts of climbs come as a complete surprise each time. It’s a good thing that I’ve done as much cycling as I have, because I usually take them in stride. The only difference this climb made was that it started to look unlikely that I would make it to this mythical town of Meishankou by the end of the day. In fact, when I stopped for a rest and looked at my map, it started to look very unlikely that I’d be able to make it across the mountain range to Taitung in the days that I had remaining. At this pace, I would need a few more days. It’s always hard to tell, though.
The road was certainly not without interest. About two months ago, Taiwan was hit by a powerful typhoon. I’d read somewhere that it had dumped eight feet of water on the island in just a few hours. Taiwan’s mountains are very steep, and their roads aren’t built to the highest standards, so typhoons tend to do a lot of damage. There are mudslides and floods, and roads and bridges routinely are washed away. Apparently, though, this typhoon was much worse than any other in living memory, and it did a huge amount of damage. I started to see this damage almost immediately. Bridges and sections of the road were washed out everywhere. Construction crews were everywhere rebuilding and trying to make alternate routes across rivers and that sort of thing. In Canada, a road like this would not be open to any kind of traffic. It would be considered far too dangerous. But that’s another great thing about Taiwan. They have a much more sensible attitude toward safety and that sort of thing. They don’t go crazy about every little danger that a person might face.
All of this damage and reconstruction slowed me down a lot more, not just because the road was in such bad shape but because I stopped so many times to take pictures. It’s quite something to see entire sections of the road just gone. The road would just go off into space and then stop. There would be a gap of a few meters or twenty or thirty meters, and then the road would begin on the other side.
The bridges were almost all destroyed and that made crossing the rivers interesting. Enough time had passed that they had built a new crossing, but they were all very rough and ready. And the new sections of the road were so steep that it was next to impossible to ride my bike up them. I could physically do it, but I was worried that by putting that much pressure on the pedals, I would break the chain.
It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to ride a bike through terrain like this. There were times I felt like whooping aloud. There was something almost joyful about it, to be on that rough road climbing up mountain after mountain. The road followed a simple pattern of cutting into a long valley and then making a hairpin turn to climb back out of it again. The road did this again and again as it wrapped its way through the mountains. Sometimes it is difficult to appreciate moments like that when they are taking place. That’s where photography comes in for me. It allows me to take pictures and then remember the experience much more clearly than I would have otherwise.
The first stop after a grueling climb up and an exhilarating ride down was a small town called Laonung. Laonung had no hotels that I could see, but it did have a 7-11 and I stopped there for a rest and a carton of milk. It’s nice to have those luxuries on a trip like this.
After Laonung, the road went back to climbing. That isn’t surprising because the road was following along a river, and a quick glance at the map showed me that the climb would continue for the entire day if not for two or three days. An hour or so after Laonung, I reached the town of Baoloai. This town is considered the gateway to the South Cross-Island Highway – the highway that I was attempting to cycle across. Baolai was more of a typical Taiwanese tourist town because it had hot springs. The hot spring water is funneled into the various hotels and they can call themselves hot spring resorts instead of plain old hotels. Baolai had a beautiful setting as well. I could easily have stayed there for a day or two just to soak up the atmosphere.
After Baolai, the road got much rougher and the terrain much wilder. The damage to the road was much more extreme and the repairs more rudimentary. I could feel myself heading more into wilderness. I didn’t think there would be any more 7-11s on my way…
Things went smoothly for a while until on one sharp curve, a man in a 4-wheel drive vehicle pulled over to talk to me. He seemed a bit wild-eyed and crazy. His teeth were stained with betel-nut juice and he didn’t seem entirely sane. He’d pulled over to tell me that I had better turn around, that the road ahead was impassable. He seemed a bit upset when I didn’t take his warning very seriously. Over the years, I’ve gotten used to local people telling me what I can and can’t do. Most of the time, they haven’t a clue what they are talking about. This is a common problem with travel overseas. Quite often as a foreigner you know more about the country than the locals do. They might know their little town or village, but not much else. You can ask ten people how far it is to the next city, and they will tell you ten wildly differing things. You simply can’t trust local informants. They either have no idea what they are talking about or they don’t understand the kind of traveling I’m doing.
For a crazy local informant, however, this guy knew an awful lot. He told me that the road ended at a town called Taoyuan. Not only did the road end there, but the town itself was cut off. There was no electricity and no food and no water there. He told me in the direst way that I should turn around and run for my life. I explained to him that I wanted to check it out for myself and he got even angrier. He waved his hands in the air and predicted all kinds of disaster for me. Before I left, he gave me a big bottle of water and said that I would need it if I were foolish enough to keep going. I thought that was very nice of him and I accepted the water despite having many liters of it stashed away inside my pannier bags.
I didn’t know what to make of this man’s story. He seemed very sincere. Yet, I had spoken to a large number of people about my plans to ride my bike across this highway, and no one had said anything about the road being impassable. Some of the people I’d spoken to were in the tourism business as near as Tainan. You’d think at some point someone would have pointed out that the highway was closed. Then again, based on previous experience overseas, it wouldn’t surprise me that no one even knew about it. This is just the way things are. In Canada, people would know if a highway just outside their city was destroyed in a typhoon. But here, people just might not know. In any event, there was no way I was going to turn back based on the ranting of one wild-eyed man.
A few kilometers later, however, a police jeep pulled over beside me. An officer got out and he told me the same story – that the road ended in Taoyuan. He added the information that even if I carried my bike across the river, I still wouldn’t be able to get anywhere. He said that on the other side of Taoyuan, the road was totally destroyed in many places and nowhere near being repaired yet. He said that there was no food and no water and no electricity there. Even the local people were cut off and those that had elected to stay would remain cut off for up to a year. He said it would take that long to repair the road.
Even with this confirmation from the police, I felt I had no choice but to keep going and see for myself. That the road was closed to cars and buses does not mean that it is closed to bicycles. I’d had that experience in Ethiopia. I lived for days with the dire threat that a bridge was out and that I’d have to turn back. When I got there, however, I found out that it was possible to simply wade across the river with my bike and keep going on the other side. Vehicles couldn’t cross, but I could.
The going was very slow on this stretch of road leading up to Taoyuan, and it seemed less and less likely that even if I could get past Taoyuan that I would be able to make it to Taitung in the time remaining. I was simply moving too slowly.