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Antonio Graceffo
Around Formosa by Bicycle

September 2003
Page 2

Copyright © Antonio Graceffo, 2003.

All Photos by Antonio Graceffo

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I left out a tidbit about the kind Sisters I stayed with, back in Hualien. The night they invited me to dinner, they kept mentioning how expensive the hotels in town were. It suddenly hit me, that in a very round about, Chinese way, they were asking me for money. No problem, I thought. I am broke, but I am not poor. I always felt that if the church helped you, and you could pay something, you should. So, I asked. "How much would you like me to give you?"

I think you could actually hear my jaw drop when the good Sister replied "One thousand Taiwan dollars."

Did I hear right? Yes, it was cheaper than a hotel in Hualien. And yes, I had been too tired to sleep outside. But still, this was a place of worship. Didn’t they remember what had happened to the moneychangers when they set up their stalls in the temple?

I tried to smile when I handed them the money, but it was a lie. I actually considered stealing the towels when I left the next morning.

The 20 km or so from Suao to Ilan were flat, easy and uneventful. In Ilan, I asked a man on the street if he knew where the Catholic Church was. He surprised me by doing something I had never seen a Taiwanese do before. He took out his phone and called information.

The church was huge, mediaeval, and imposing. But it turned out not to be Catholic. I have a general mistrust of Protestant converts. I particularly worry about being burned at the stake for worshipping the Pope. But I was so tired, I could have spent the night with agnostics. Fortunately the Protestants didn’t care about my religion. They only asked me if I had $300 NT. I handed them the money gladly, and made a note to go get the rest of my money back from the sisters in Hualien.

In addition to being cheaper than my room with the sisters, my room with the Protestants was the nicest room so far. It was a private room, with air conditioning, a fan, a shower, and a bathtub. I was so excited about the bathtub. But as I said, I am severely sunburned, and my skin is sloughing off like a rattlesnake when it grows. Sitting in the tub, all that meat floating off my body just made a stew. Afterwards, there was a flesh ring around the tub. Recently in Taipei, the vice cops had busted a flesh ring. I hoped they wouldn’t be coming after me.

This morning, the ride from Hualien to Keelung was easy, although I was very tired from having been on the road seven days now.

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At one of my photo stops a man came up to me, and gave me moon cakes and tea. We spoke for a while, and I answered all of the requisite questions. "I came from Kaohsiung. Yes, I rode all the way. Yes, I am very tired." But then he put the whammy on me. He blurted out "America is Taiwan’s friend." "Yes, it is." I agreed.

"America keeps us safe."

"Yes." I said, again, but knowing that the US was holding talks with China this week.

"Mongolia is also our friend." He added.

Taiwan had recently granted Outer Mongolia their independence. Although, most people in the world, and especially in Mongolia, had been unaware of the fact that Mongolia was part of Taiwan till last spring. Since then, Taiwan and Mongolia have been opening diplomatic relations and trade agreements. Even the Catholic Sisters in Hualien had been planning a mission to Mongolia, which had been delayed because of SARS.

Once again, I agreed that Mongolia was Taiwan’s friend.

Next, the man suddenly switched into English and yelled. "Here, no Chinese!" It was the only English sentence he said. "You mean Taiwan is independent?" I asked, in Mandarin.

"Yes, Taiwan is independent. We are not Chinese. I am not Chinese! I am Taiwanese."

Although it was a lie, I agreed, and threw in a good word or two about Hong Kong, Tibet, and East Turkistan. It was an uncomfortable situation, but I smiled and nodded as he bombarded me with propaganda. He asked me what I thought, and I told him about the article I wrote on the protest in Hong Kong on July 1st, against Article 23.

"America is so strong." He said. Then he got back in his car and left. The moon cakes were good. One of them was pork. The other was sweet, red been.

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In my opinion, the Taiwan Highway Department gets full marks. The road surface was always clean and well maintained. There were no potholes. There were always guardrails, although there weren’t always lights. Even in rural areas, with low volumes of traffic, the road quality and the signage was excellent. But once I turned inland, things changed.

Getting out of Keelung was one of the most frustrating parts of the whole trip. There were forks in the road with no signs telling you which fork to take. Directions were bad. And asking for directions from Taiwanese people is so frustrating that I tried to avoid doing it. I would just get angry, and come away no wiser for my efforts. They don’t know how to read a map. What’s more, they don’t use the highway numbers when directing you. So the second time you come to a fork in the road, you have no idea which way to turn.

I asked at a gas station. "Which way to Taipei?" At first, the guy looked confused, as if he had never heard of Taipei. Then I explained to him that Taipei was a very large city, probably less than ten kilometers away, and which, by coincidence happened to be the capital of Taiwan. There was a slight glimmer in his eyes as if, perhaps long ago, he had heard of a city called Taipei, but he still looked somewhat lost. "

Should I take Highway 3?" I asked, prompting him. But, I got that doped-out-mental-patient smile that Asians give you when they are shutting down their brain, and refusing to share information.

The Guy just grinned and said, "Yes."

I knew he was lying. He hadn’t heard, or refused to hear the question. So, I asked again. "Should I take Highway 17?"

Again, the same answer. "Yes."

"Hmm. Should I take Highway 4,973.8 and fly to Venus?"


"Thank you." I said, and pedaled on.

Often, instead of actually giving directions, they will tell you, "Go back the way you came, and ask again." I hadn’t thought of that "ask again" part. It would never have occurred to me on my own.

Taiwanese also seem incapable of measuring distance. I would ask. "Which way is Miaoli."

The answer would be. "It is very far."

"Yes, I am aware that it is far, but which way?"

After they gave me directions, I would ask them "How far is it?"

"Very far."

"Yes, but how many kilometers?"

Once again I would get the methadone stare.

"20 km?"


"75 km?"


"5,000 km?"


"Thank you."

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Another strange anomaly was that I never saw a sign that said. "Welcome to Taipei." or "You are now in Taipei." So, when I stopped again to ask directions, everyone seemed very confused. Although I yelled at them, and called them awful names at the time, I realized later that the problem was that I was already in Taipei, but was asking directions to Taipei. So, I forgive these people, and apologize about my rude comments. And if the truth be told, I never met their mother, so I don’t know if what I said about her were true or not.

On the other hand, they could have said. "You are in Taipei." This certainly would have defused the walking powder keg that is my zero tolerance and well-publicized lack of patience. The spark that actually set off the explosion was after I had said Taipei ten times. The guy looked at me and said, "You want to go Taiwan?"

What the hell was this Bozo thinking? Why would I come to him, and ask how to get to Taiwan?

In Taipei, I stopped two foreigners on the street, and asked where the Catholic Church was. They didn’t know, but they lead me to a cheap hostel, where I could spend the night. At this point, I had ridden over 120 km, and I was exhausted. Plus, as I mentioned, my nerves were on end from all the difficulties of getting into Taipei from Keelung. I didn’t need any more stupid setbacks in my life.

My legs are extremely tight from riding, and my right foot was painful and could barely support my weight. When I got off the bike I walked with a limp, making walking a chore. And this added to my frustration. I hobbled up two flights of stairs, to the hotel office, and asked for a room. The manager told me there were no rooms, but there was one dormitory bed left. So, we hobbled two blocks away to look at the bed. There was no way I could sleep in a dormitory. I would much prefer to sleep outdoors or in a private room, where I knew I would be safe and clean. I thanked the owner, and hobbled back down the stairs. I could feel my strength and resolve draining as I went. Where could I spend the nigh? Also, I needed food and rest instantly, or I would collapse. I had just made it back to my bike, when the second hotel manager came to me and said.

"We have one room left. Do you want to see it?"

If they had one room, why didn’t they show it to me before? Well, I didn’t care. I needed a room. So, limping, I followed him back, two blocks to the hostel, where he showed me what must have been a broom closet. "It doesn’t have air conditioning." He explained. "But, we will remove the mops and industrial cleaners for you."

"How much?"

"Three hundred and fifty."

"I’ll take it." I said, handing him the money.

"But there is no air-conditioning."

"I know."

"But it is very hot."

"Yes it is." Where did this guy learn his sales training, in the Bizaro world?

Against the protestations of the manager, I hobbled back down the stairs, across two blocks, and picked up my bicycle. Then I rode back to the hostel, and carried the bike up to the second floor, where I locked it up in the living room.

By this time I could barely stand. All I wanted out of life was a shower and some sleep, followed by some food and some sleep. But the manager was waiting to talk to me.

"There is no smoking." He said.

Did he miss the fact that I rode a bicycle there from about 1,000 KM away? "No problem." I said, taking my shower things off the bike, and heading toward the bathroom.

"And shut of the lights when you are out of the room."

"Fine." I said. "I will be asleep the whole time I am in that room. So, the lights won’t be on at all."

"And shut off the fan when you leave."


"And..." He started in with more rules, but I cut him off.

"I am going to take a shower, and go to sleep. That’s it. I don’t need you to tell me anything else. I gave you your money. You gave me the key. We are finished. Now leave me alone."

But he was still standing there, like a nightmare that I couldn’t shake. "That’s fine." He said, taken aback. "Just come back to the main office and fill out the registration forms."

What? Had I heard him right? After all this he wanted me to go back down the stairs and cross the two blocks again, and register?

"You must register." He said.

I took off my helmet, and tossed it across the room. "All I want is to shower and sleep. Please go." I was going to add, "If you want my passport number I will give it to you." But I was too tired even for that.

My helmet bounced off the wall making a terrible noise.

"OK, maybe we can talk later." He said, backing away.

The next morning I had a breakfast meeting with Malcolm, from, who is tracking my trip on the internet, and will be cosponsoring my rowing trip around the island, in February. We had Western food, my first, in about 18 months. There were waffles, eggs over easy, bacon, and coffee. I can’t believe there are people who get to eat like that whenever they want to.

Getting out of Taipei proved equally as frustrating as getting in. No one could tell me where the road was that would lead me to the West Coast. After riding the same strip of highway back and forth about ten times, receiving contradictory directions, I found a policeman, who, not only told me how to go, but rode ahead on his motorcycle, to show me where to turn. On the way, we passed his colleague, who had mistakenly told me to go in the opposite direction.

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As I had given up any hope of following the rout I had planned out, settling for any road out of Taipei, I really didn’t know where I was. I was somewhere, in the interior of Taiwan, following Rt. 3 south. Now, eventually this rout would have taken me to Taijung, and back to the sea. But I didn’t relish the idea of ridding inland for two days. Also, as I said. The rout was poorly marked, and poorly mapped, and I was in danger of getting lost. I rode all day, not knowing where I was, or when I would see the ocean again.

Darkness caught me somewhere on a mountain pass. I had no idea where I was, only that I was heading more or less south. Unable to continue in the dark, I stopped, and made camp in a tin lean-to beside the highway. During this trip, I had become so accustomed to always being able to find a 7/11, that I had stopped carrying food. In fact, I was only carrying about two liters of water. Stuck there in the mountains, I had no way to buy anything, and I still hadn’t had dinner.

I stretched out, and to read an incredible travel book, by Peter Hopkirk, about "The Great Game," by flashlight. Suddenly, my reading was interrupted by an ear-piercing scream. It took me a minute to realize the scream had emanated from me, when a mouse ran across both my legs. I settled down, laughed at myself, and began reading again. Minutes later, something jumped over me, and crashed into the aluminum wall with a loud CRACK! I shined the light, but couldn’t find the culprit. The next minute, something huge jumped up, and hit my eyeglasses. I jumped back, and realized that the something huge was a very small tree frog, which was hopping around my camp, harmlessly. Once again, I had a laugh at the expense of the boy from New York, who was lost in the woods. Not two seconds later, something else hit the shed even harder. This time it turned out to be the largest, ugliest locust I had ever seen in my life. It was at least four inches long, but had a disposition like an auditor for the IRS. Herman Melville believed that nature was ambivalent. But this locust was pure evil. He really frightened me. God knew what he was up to, what he was planning. I would not have wanted to spend two minutes inside of his twisted little mind, which surely was a dark, barren place, where kindness could find no purchase.

While I pondered the locust fiend, something hit me in the arm. It was the tree frog, clinging to me with his sucker feet. He bounded off, and I settled down to sleep. Somewhere during the night I heard voices and saw lights. I knew I was dead, and tried to run away from the light. But it turned out to be the police.

They asked why I was sleeping outside.

"It got dark, and I got stuck." I said.

"But it is too dangerous here." Said one of the cops. "The vines grow right up to this lean-to and the snakes come in here all the time. Why didn’t you sleep at the Catholic Church?"

"I have been sleeping in Catholic churches. But Tonight, I don’t know where I am."

"We’ll take you to the church." He said.

The cops waited, patiently while I packed my things. Then they rode behind me, keeping me safe from traffic, and lighting my way on the dark, mountain road.

At the church, they used police skills to jimmy the lock on the gate, but there was no one home.

"You can sleep at the police station." They said.

They let me have a shower, and then gave me a bed in the police barracks, where the cops sleep during their rest periods.

In the morning, I made it out of town, and sort of figured out where I was. I had wanted to be home by late Tuesday night, but it may take slightly longer to get there.

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