Monday, June 29, 2009

Riding the Northern Cross

This weekend I did the Northern Cross-Island Highway, Highway 7, from Sanxia in Taipei County, to I-lan, and then back around to Keelung. One of the best rides on the island, it offers stunning scenery, breathtaking hill climbs, and unexpected encounters. As the pic above shows, we started the ride in Sanxia, fighting the traffic....

....but soon broke away into the hills.

The first climb is about 350 meters, followed by a short downhill and then a 9% upward grade for a couple of kilometers. Despite the much longer and higher climbs later on, I felt this was the hardest part of the journey. This section is popular with bicyclists from Taipei. Here a group of them rests.

One of those "Look how high we've climbed" moments.....

The bridge near Xiao Wulai, where we....

...rested and lounged in the river for a while.

After Xiao Wulai it was back to steady climbing.

The road didn't seem that steep, but appearances were deceptive. After you rounded a couple of curves, it was always surprising to see how high you'd actually climbed.

At nearly every bend in the road there was a the cars are lined up waiting for a rockfall to be cleared.

Looking back over a section of the road.

At one point we had to wait while work crews cleared the road of fallen rocks. We also waited out the rain. After we stopped at this sausage vendor's stand, we got caught in another bout of rain. Pushing on, we arrived in Baling at about 600 meters elevation for the evening, where we stayed at the youth hostel, which was clean, dry, and had washers and dryers.

At Baling a chain broke on a bike someone had rented. We went to the scooter shop to see if the legendary improvisation skills of Taiwan's scooter repairmen could help -- eventually the company sent out a chain and bike mechanic to fix it -- and there we ran into a young man. "Is there an internet cafe in town?" I asked. "Nope." "So what do you do for fun?" He considered that. "Eat. Sleep. Watch TV. Shoot flying squirrels."

At 5:00 am, Baling sleeps as we ride out into what would become a day whose beauty and clarity remain in the memory for years afterwards, incredible riding on a road we had all to ourselves, and stark raving terror.

We crossed this landslide holding our bikes, nervously waiting for the muddy shelf to collapse and take us with it. It turned out to be a blessing -- with the road closed behind us, we rode for the next two hours on what was essentially a wide bike bath devoid of vehicles (quipped one wag: "It was kind of the government to put in this bike path for us") Those other bicyclists with spiffy expensive biking clothing and imported Italian composite bikes? Didn't see them above 400 meters.

We stopped at this bridge for snacks with awesome views over the chasm as dawn broke on one of the most beautiful days I have ever experienced. This marked the beginning of another 600 meter climb over 10 kilometers to the high point of the road at about 1280 meters above sea level. It was not a steep climb, but it was steady, and it was hard work for me.

An aboriginal village strung out across a mountainside.

Shafts of Edenic sunlight cut their way to the road through the forest primeval.

We took a short break here.

Lots of beautiful but dangerous things on the road.

As I rounded a turn, suddenly I shouted "Holy shit!" and headed back down the mountain. Michael turned to find out what could make me, a confirmed hill hater, turn back down a hill I'd just puffed up. The answer was an exemplar of the notorious "hundred pace snake", or the Sharp Nosed Pit Viper, which I had nearly driven over in my zen-like approach to a ten kilometer hill climb.

A closer look at this dangerous animal, which was quite aroused by our presence.

After the peak, a welcome drop of a couple of hundred of meters.

A stunning day of blue skies with little clouds or fog in the mountains. As we rode around to the section of the road cut into the mountain there, it began to cloud over.

We then dropped several hundred meters in about 10 kilometers of switchbacks (hard on the hands, all that braking) to the Lanyang River, whose bed is planted with rocks...and watermelons.

Another view of the riverbed.

The beautiful Lanyang River. We rode along here for an hour, then split, with one party going to Luodong to catch the train to Taipei, while a couple of us headed for Toucheng to spend the night and continue to Keelung in the morning. After a 95 kilometer day, we ended up staying in Wai Ao at the surfing B&Bs there.

At dawn the fishing boats were gathering up their nets as we struck out for Keelung. 70 kms later, having done 250 kms since Friday, we arrived at the Keelung Train station a little after 10, and tossed my bike, and myself, on the train. I could hardly believe that I had been able to conquer the Northern Cross.

Felt good.

UPDATE: Michael Cannon's account with loads of pictures.

Don't miss the comments below! And check out my blog and its sidebars for events, links to previous posts and picture posts, and scores of links to other Taiwan blogs and forums!


Todd said...

Incredible pics... judging by the amount of hill climbing you've been doing lately, maybe we should ride Jiji Dashan instead of Baguashan!

Stripe said...

Awesome post! Enjoyed the pictures and the stories.

Did you shoot any flying squirrels? :)

Fili said...

Oh, wow, that looks terrific !

Michael Cannon said...

Here's the corrected URL for my Saturday shots of the ride.

Sunday and Monday posts will follow after catching up on bill paying work. :)

Craig Ferguson said...

You're really doing some serious hills these days. Good stuff.

wayne said...

Whoa on that landslide. Are landslides that big common in the summer with the afternoon torrential downpours?

I did this ride a month ago (Taipei to Luodong in a day) and was looking forward to doing it again sometime this summer.

Anonymous said...

Great work. Glad to see there was more than one viper in action this weekend.

Michael Fahey said...


Landslides can happen anywhere in Taiwan's mountains in the spring and summer typoon season. But these are the first landslides I've ever seen on the northern cross, and I ride it at least two or three times a year. I don't think you need to be too worried about them.

Pa-Dutch-Travel said...

wow! Amazing. Thank you so much for sharing!