Over a roiling pot of mala-flavoured da bin lo, a popular meal across Asia where diners cook copious amounts of meats and vegetables in a tasty stew, on a particularly chilly December evening in Hong Kong, we made a group decision to participate in a 300KM charity bike-a-thon the following March. It would be myself, Derek, from my Nepal, Shanghai, and Seoul trips, Alex, who was also on that Shanghai trip, and Will, a Chinese-Brit. I’d also traveled by train from Hong Kong to Beijing with Alex and Will in the fall of 2010, meeting up with Derek and a few other friends who had flown to the northern capital instead. We were all part of the same church small group in Hong Kong, and we had grown close as a community of expats, all attempting to figure out what we were supposed to be doing with our lives.
We flew into Taipei at the end of March with about fifteen other riders, of varying levels of experience and skill. Prior to the trip, we had trained on the hilly roads of the New Territories in Hong Kong, biking for 30 to 40 kilometres at a time. I hadn’t biked regularly since I was in elementary school, and picking it up again on a road bike was a tall task. Climbing the low hills of the New Territories was a struggle, and they were but a shadow of the steeper hills and mountains that awaited us in Taiwan. Nevertheless, we trained often and we trained hard, partly out of self-motivation and pride, partly out of a concern for our cause. Hong Kong’s relatively lax immigration laws has made it a popular destination for refugees and asylum seekers in the region. However, once they enter Hong Kong, they quickly realize that the city is unprepared and unwilling to accommodate their presence. The UNHCR is slow to process their refugee claims, taking up to 5 to 10 years to evaluate and place an asylum seeker, during which they are not allowed to work. There is a small allowance for rent and daily necessities, but it is a small pittance in one of the world’s most expensive cities. Our charity bike-a-thon aimed to raise funds to help alleviate some of their financial burdens by having friends, family, associates, and colleagues sponsor our ride. By the time we were settling into our hotel beds in Taipei that first night, we had raised well over HKD 1,000,000, and our sponsors demanded results.
The next morning, we took the train down to Hualien, the same train I had taken with Yun Ping back in 2009, when we hiked through Taroko Gorge together. Located on Taiwan’s Pacific coast, at about the midpoint of the island, the town of Hualien would be our starting point. From there, we would spend two days biking south along the coast, and then another two days looping around and heading north into the mountains and back to Hualien. We were split into three teams – A, B, and C – corresponding to our level of skill. I got placed into team B with Alex, and, after picking up our road bikes and taking a few team pictures, we hit the road.
The views as we rode along the coast that first day were spectacular. The coastal mountains, covered in lush, subtropical vegetation, half-hidden in fog and cloud, plunged into the dark blue waters of the Pacific. The coastline was dotted with secluded beaches, interspersed by vibrant, green, farming fields. We stuck together for most of the first half of the ride, but we eventually drifted apart as we stopped to take photos or grab a quick snack. There were some long sections of road where I was the only rider. By the time all of team B had arrived at our destination in the late afternoon, all of Team A had already showered and settled in. Team C, unfortunately, got lost and had to ride into the night – they ended up meeting us directly at the restaurant where we were eating dinner. There was a small sense of accomplishment for getting through the first day, especially since we had covered almost 80KM, almost three times longer than our training rides.
The second day of riding was relatively easy – it was a lot of low, rolling hills and flat expanses as we continued our route along the coast. It would also be a bit shorter than the previous day’s ride, giving us most of the afternoon off. Each team had a local guide, and our’s was a Taiwanese writer and biking enthusiast named Alan. He was working on a year-long project about biking in Taiwan at the time, and he had befriended Happy and Yi Shiuan, our other two guides. Both are heavily involved in the local biking scene, and they had asked Alan to help out with our group. He was no slouch either, biking the whole four days in a pair of slippers, never seeming to break a sweat. After arriving at our next guesthouse, a few of us headed down to the beach for the afternoon, where Will promptly lost his wallet in the ocean. Incredibly, the wallet was found the next morning, washed up on an adjacent beach, and Will picked it up at the closest police station the next day. That night, after a barbecue dinner, we gathered as a group to discuss the next day’s mountainous route. There were concerns that the mountains could be potentially dangerous to ride on, especially in wet conditions, and the leadership team proposed an alternate route around the mountains that would add an extra 30 to 40 kilometres. In the end, we decided to go ahead with the mountain route, with the more experienced riders going back and forth, herding the rest of the group safely up and down the hills.
Day 3 would be our biggest test, a true measure of how far we’d come, and the payoff for all our training and preparation. The sky was overcast when we awoke, an ominous sign hinting at the weather lurking around the corner, and the first drops began to fall as we headed out. The first 15 to 20 minutes was relatively flat, before we turned inland and felt the gradient begin to increase. I had found a steady rhythm that I could maintain while going uphill, and the first hour or so of climbing actually felt good. My team was the last to make the climb, but pretty soon, I had left them behind and was catching up to the other teams. About halfway through the climb, however, I started to hit the wall, and I found it difficult to find any reserve of energy in my legs. By this point, all semblance of there being three separate teams was gone, and I biked with whoever I could keep up with. Yi Shiuan, the strongest of the three guides, came back to ride with me for a bit, and he physically pushed me up certain portions of the climb. Finally, after a few hours of the most wretched biking I’ve ever experienced, I powered through the last hill and found myself at the blessed summit! There was a smattering of riders from the other teams gathered there, and we set out together on the long downhill ride into the valleys of the interior. As we glided down the hills and around treacherous bends, the heavens opened up and the rains came down. Nearly blinded by the downpour, bikes whirring by at hazardous speeds, our ragtag group of disheveled riders hooted and hollered until we reached the valley floor, whipping past green fields and farmhouses, the exhaustion and pain falling away with each passing second.
On the fourth and last day of riding, we set our course back to Hualien, and home. It was a miserable ride, to be honest. After the adrenaline rush of the day before, the flat terrain heading back to the city was underwhelming and mentally taxing. We spent most of the day riding through a torrential rainstorm, soaked to the bone and wary of the increasing traffic on the narrow country roads. At some point, the teams broke down again, and I found myself riding with different groups of people throughout the day. The exact route into the city was unclear, and a few of us had to guess our way onto the city roads. We eventually reunited with a larger group of riders, and pretty soon, we were riding up the street towards the train station, making a right onto a side road, and pulling into the bike shop again. A few people would be staying behind in Taiwan for an extra few days, but for those of us flying back to Hong Kong that night, we needed to catch the next train back to Taipei.
As I settled into my seat on the short flight to Hong Kong, I was eager to get home and tie up a few loose ends. There was a sense of accomplishment in completing the ride, something I would have never thought possible given my lack of biking experience, and I was grateful that I was able to share that with Derek, Will, and Alex. We were also able to raise well over our goal, and that made all the sweat and pain and tiredness worth it. I’d travel with Will and Alex again, quite unexpectedly, later that year, while Derek would join us on another trip the following spring. Looking forward, Ashley and I had three weeks in North America lined up in May and June, and, with a little over a month to go, we didn’t have much time left to plan. But first, we had to settle the little matter of a bended knee, a ring, and a question.