Zen to Zero Part 4

Zen to Zero

A Tale of Transcendental Tribulation — Part 4

Part 1

Part 2

Part 3

The real bottom line

With the road now gently meandering alongside the riverbed, we decided to slow down a bit to savor the views and enjoy the company of our riding companions. Chief among these was Martin Hsu, the venerable owner of Kind Shock and the organizer of this moveable feast. Martin had conceived the idea of an annual road tour through Taiwan as a way to unwind with friends and business associates immediately following the tedium of the Taipei International Cycle Show. This was the tour’s third year, and Martin had upped the ante on previous years with a more challenging circuit that showcased some of Taiwan’s most spectacular sights.

Though hosting this event was undoubtedly an excellent way for a bicycle components company to consolidate and expand existing relationships, it was obvious that this ride meant infinitely more to Martin than just business. In fact, I reckoned after all of his company’s costs—bountiful seafood dinners for multiple riders, complimentary hotel rooms and the hundreds of ice creams that Martin treated everyone to throughout the week—he would have a hard time justifying these expenses solely as a marketing and relationship-nurturing exercise.

After seeing him ride and interact with each person on the tour, I became convinced that Martin’s motivations were simple. He loved bicycles. He loved Taiwan. And he wanted people to see his beloved homeland from the unparalleled vantage point of a bike. As long as everyone was smiling, he had no worries. The real bottom line for Martin was friendship. And after spending a week with him and experiencing our shared love of bikes and Taiwan, I had no doubt we would be friends for life.

Mobile melting pot

Our tiny train cruised together until we exited the gorge, following the river until it emptied into the Pacific. It had been one of the most uplifting days of riding in my life, and I felt a tinge of melancholy that it was coming to an end. But as soon as we hit coastal Highway 11, my mood was lifted by the smell of saltwater and the cool ocean breeze, for I knew well the unadulterated beauty we could expect from Taiwan’s pristine east coast.

As we leisurely headed south toward the city of Hualien—where we would overnight in a five-star hotel by the sea—the atmosphere was lighthearted, and the steady drone of tires on pavement was drowned out by the animated tumult of bilingual chatter. For the first time, riders of different skill and fitness levels began to mingle, sharing stories and reveling in the multicultural makeup of the group as a whole.

It was certainly a colorful cast of characters. Blending in somewhat with the Taiwanese were representatives from all corners of the Chinese world: a crew of Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers, one of whom was riding a full-suspension mountain bike; a contingent of chain-smoking, mainland-Chinese cycling journalists from Shanghai and Xiamen; and a hardy group from China’s southwestern province of Yunnan. Add to this an array of North American bike-industry types and two beer-swilling Slovakians and we had a recipe for hilarity. Martin was beaming from ear-to-ear. His many friends were now becoming friends with each other. His master plan was falling into place.

Tropical punch

Rejuvenated from a sound night’s sleep and a hearty buffet breakfast, the group set out the next morning on a southbound spin along a coast-hugging stretch of Highway 11. This region remains one of Taiwan’s most laid-back places, where the quiet agricultural countryside dips into the deepwater canyons of the Pacific. I was joined that day by Canadian photographer Stephen Wilde, a mountain biker from Vancouver who had decided to abandon the support vehicle he’d been shooting from the past few days in favor of a more organic approach.

Like me, Stephen had previously lived and worked in Taiwan, and we shared a fascination with the island’s curious combination of organized urban chaos and unforgiving wilderness. We rode peacefully along, trading expat tales and absorbing the area’s ageless pastoral charm. Rice paddies sprawled from both sides of the road for as far as the eye could see, their symmetrical patterns only periodically broken by the conical hat of a farmer or a family of enormous water buffalo—their hulking size invariably belying their typically docile demeanor.

Punctuating the farmland were empty stretches of sand such as Nioushan and Jici beaches and Shihtiping, a half-mile-long formation of volcanic rock that the sea has eroded into terraces. Stephen was awestruck by the landscape and marveled over how much easier it was to conceptualize the terrain from a bicycle than a motorized vehicle. After a few hours of relaxed riding, we rolled past a towering white monolith shaped like a sundial—erected to mark the point where the road crosses the Tropic of Cancer. It was incredible to think that, just two days earlier, I’d been on the verge of frostbite and now I was firmly in the heat of the tropics.

We ended the day with an abrupt climb to the west over the Coastal Mountains, culminating in a rip-roaring nosedive to the Antong Hot Springs, where a rinse in a hydrogen sulphide shower and an obligatory karaoke session awaited. “When in the tropics,” I told myself.

Getting Shanghaid

I woke up the next morning with a clear view of the mountains we had to climb to get back to the shore. It was obvious that a protracted ascent was ahead, so we filled up our water bottles and started riding south on Highway 9 through the East Rift Valley, a haven of hot springs sandwiched between the Coastal Mountains and the eastern foothills of the Central Cordillera.

Eventually we veered back to the east, where a blistering climb over the Coastal Mountains separated us from a swim in the sea near the aboriginal village of Donghe. Eager to get back to the ocean, I started pinning it up the hill, inadvertently enticing a mainland Chinese journalist from Shanghai to give chase.

In no mood for a game of cat-and-mouse, I laid down the hammer for about an hour to ensure I’d shaken him off the path. Confident I’d dusted him, I tapered off near the top. But just as the road leveled out, I turned to see that my stealthy Shanghai pursuer had caught up to me.

With nothing but 20 or so miles of high-speed descending between us and the Pacific, the race was on. And the road was phenomenal—a serpentine series of hairpin turns followed by stomach-churning straight-aways, with the cerulean hues of the ocean periodically popping into view. He stayed on my wheel until a roadside stand of fresh watermelon enticed us to call it a draw. We sat in the shade, spitting dark seeds onto the ground and laughing at our inescapable childishness. Through my stubbornness, I had somehow made another friend.

zero the hero

Back on the ocean, it was but a breezy ride through the southeastern city of Taitung to the sulphur carbonate waters of the Jhihben Hot Springs, where we would rest up before our final day of riding toward Taiwan’s southern tip. Watching the ragtag assemblage of riders pedal triumphantly to the finish of our penultimate day, I was struck by the bicycle’s power to unite people toward a common goal. As each unlikely hero huffed into the hotel parking lot—many wearing shower caps over their helmets to protect against the rain—it was impressive to see how cycling could be such a motivating force in their lives.

The last day of the tour would take us farther south along the coastal highway before turning west for one last climb over the mountains to our ultimate destination at sea level. Stephen and I were riding blissfully into a warm, tropical rain when we rounded a curve to see a wiry old man steadily churning up the hill on what looked to be a cheap kids’ bike. As we overtook him, he peered at us in surprise through thick, raindrop-specked glasses and flashed a toothy grin from behind his scruffy white beard. We were compelled to stop. This man had a story, and we needed to know what it was.

Speaking English in a German accent, he introduced himself as Ed, explaining matter-of-factly that his home was in Vancouver, but, now that he was in his seventies, he spent several months each year traveling on a bicycle. Last year he’d ridden through Vietnam, and this year he thought it was high time he checked out Taiwan.

He rambled on, giddy with excitement over seemingly mundane things like the delicious selection of snack foods in Taiwanese 7-Elevens. “They have everything I need to survive,” he exclaimed, pointing to the plastic bags of goodies that were dangling from his handlebars.

Ed didn’t believe in excuses. Age was no barrier to adventure—especially when it came aboard two wheels. He took nothing for granted. He existed unconsciously in the moment. His heart was open. His mind was free.

As we slowly climbed away from him, I turned for one last look. Smiling in the steady rain, he waved goodbye with the innocence of a child. Ed was, at once, Zen and zero. He was the man I wished I could be.