Thursday, December 9, 2010

Taiwan top five must do list!

Traveling to Taiwan? Don't miss these spots!
With only two weeks of travel, I know I'm missing landmarks or must see's, but from my experience, I can highly recommend the following for anybody traveling to Taiwan, otherwise known to the locals as "Formosa" meaning "Beautiful Island".  You could say the list is in order of priority for must do's, but any of these are don't misses in my book! 

Typical view inside Taroko Gorge - near Silks Place Hotel
1. Taroko Gorge National Park
This marbled canyon of tropical fauna and steep breathtaking views is still the all time favorite for me of the entire 2 weeks. Try renting a bike from either Silks Place where we stayed one night, or near the gate entrance from the Hualien side at a Giant Bicycle Station. I suggest a bike ride thru the tunnels and S turns early in the morning before the double decker buses take over, or just take a side hike. Staying in the Leader Hotel is more like a quiet serene lodge. You'll be immersed in nature, possibly see monkeys. Had to be dragged out of there, as I wanted to breath it in, sit and watch the low clouds change the landscape every few minutes. See my entry's on our bike ride and stay <here> and <here

View from Wen Wan Resort at Sun Moon Lake
For us Californians, I suppose Tahoe would be a comparison, but it doesn't really compare. Similarities stop at the fact that it's a lake in the middle of beautiful mountains with colorful water. Taking a bicycle ride again, or perhaps rent a scooter for a fun loop around the 33km meandering Moon Lake Road. Stop at the Ci Hen Pagoda. Either arriving there via a tourist boat or via scooter or bike, then hike up the 700 meter path to capture the view from the top - where you can ring the bell. Apparently this is a perfect location to spot the annual appearance of fireflies as well. We were put up in one of the newest and highest end hotels there, and I imagine other accommodations have the same stunning views, at maybe a lesser "gold leaved elevator" price. But I can say, with heartfelt appreciation for the rare luxury, the outstanding service and food and room amenities, perhaps for a special occasion, do consider staying at The Wen Wan if you can swing the $700 room price tag (for a jr. deluxe rm). Small villages host dance recitals and markets and varied dining outside your hotel choice. (blog entry to be posted on our group's adventure there soon).

Kate LaCroix rides on one of many Taitung County bike paths
3. Taitung County "biking heaven"
This city boasts the first, and famous, bike path that the cooperative of Taiwan's Transportation and Tourism departments along with Giant's Cycling Foundation completed. The larger of completed network of bike paths that will eventually circumnavigate the entire island! 2010 is in the middle of a 4 year plan and 4 billion dollar investment to build the infrastructure needed. (Yes, I just said 4 BILLION dollars with a straight face). This landmark, original path built, even has tolls for the tourist or passerby (locals can use for free). You'll ride through terraced rice fields, under trellises, near small villages, in the backyards of local farmers. Bathrooms, parks and cycling stations within only a few kilometers make it an easy level for beginners to enthusiasts to take in the landscape. Our accommodations were first in a canyon that boasts natural healing hotsprings at the Royal Chihpen Hotel. I have to admit I didn't really get to enjoy it in my jet lagged state, with late arrival and early departure. What I did use was the japanese style soaking tub with actual spring water piped into each room's bath, quite lovely! The 2nd location that we actually rode to and from, via bike lanes and paths, was the gorgeous Papago Resort. I was able to enjoy the beautiful pool, and oversized modern, bright and beautiful room there! One of my favorite blog entries during trip with pictures of the paths <here>. 

Starting path ride towards Hualien City,  from Hotel Bay View
4. Hualien - Coastal bike paths and dining
Despite our group's arrival at the same time as Typhoon Megi's rain and wind, we road the bike path from our Hotel Bay View to it's end the other side of Hualien. The path was first paved in marble bricks (rather slippery in the rain, but beautiful), mostly followed the coastline, occasionally moving through an industrial cement plant or factory's property, into small neighborhood villages, parks and then the city itself. Our Hotel Bay View, was new, beautiful, and charming with compact rooms, but views of the roaring Ocean below - and Agean style decor. I do suggest eating at the Moon House restaurant, if you can find it, inland, between Taitung and Hualien in the "Rift Valley".  Ride in the rain with me in blog entry <here>
Author Beverly Garrity,  at Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Buildings
5. Taipei - Markets and landmarks
A clean and friendly city that has more history than I could absorb, more markets to explore, and stunning accommodations and dining, that it would take months to visit. A short list of to-do's there would be to visit the National Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall. Memorial has gardens, buildings and museum to explore. Soak in a 360 degree view of the city and take a ride up the worlds fastest lift, to the top of what was the World's tallest building at Taipei 101. A night market is a must, I suggest more than one - the busy bustle of locals displaying their wares, local cuisine, open late. Stimulating with creative marketing to people watching and exploring, a must do. A couple entries in my blog from Taipei City <here> and <here>.

Taichung Taiwan - Bicycle Factories

Miss Megi rerouted our group to the middle of the island.
Throughout our travel, I had been pursuing cycling industry connections for help to extend the trip, to visit bicycle frame and accessory factories after our set itinerary. Unfortunately we could not find any seats on China Airlines for us to return any other day than originally planned. Just when a few of us were giving up hope to see where our lovely bikes are built, the "mandatory Typhoon Megi reroute" brought us to the west side of the island, very near the factory laden, industrial city of Taichung! Heading out of Taipei our guide wanted our wish of factory visits to come true, so of course, started making phone calls. Quickly he set up visits via Giant, and then SASO contacts, (thanks to my friend and colleague Kevin Wren of The Bicycle Cooperative).  Since we had only a couple hours, we were very lucky to walk through two very different factories. Nothing like instant wish granting! Again, John our guide and the Tourism Bureau, continued to feed our growing VIP persona's. 

Shortly after the phone calls, and barely off  the direct route to Sun Moon Lake, we were at the Giant factory. Giant is the world's largest bicycle manufacturer, making the majority of  their bikes on mainland China. However, they produce high-end bikes in their headquarters of Taiwan. Further, multiple brands that many of us own and ride, use Giant for their manufacturing as well. There is nothing like seeing an operation of assembly lines!  It's an infrastructure made up of a labyrinth of conveyor belts, grey-green colors mixed with steel and cement, with sky lights providing natural lighting to balance the fluorescents. The monochrome and dated feel were accented by bright splashes of yellow painted directions for compartmentalizing, and for safety, on the floors. Having grown up with a family business of a machine shop and manufacturing, it smelled and looked familiar, despite it being an exponentially larger scale of building, and automated machines. I could have spent all day there! 

Employees were in comfortable uniforms; pink for women, blue for men. The showroom and design office headquarters was staged like a typical business: products showcased, pro-team PR back drops for photo-ops, and even a small store (that didn't seem open while we were there). We were assigned a PR tour guide, Zack.  He had a headset so we could hear him in the louder areas, and a well-practiced tour ready for us. Only certain locations were acceptable for us to photograph, understandable in the competitive world of products. 

Areas where we couldn't snap some shots were near the painting and decal area.  There we saw a dry-cleaning style track with every bike frame and brand you can imagine slowly sliding by like your favorite vice - say candy - for us bicycle geeks and gadget collectors. I saw Scott, Trek, and Giant next to each other on the meat hook-style rack sliding by. How sweet I thought, look how they come from the same building, and get along so well before they end up in the marketing dog-eat-dog world or, better yet, side-by-side in a race.

We were taken to a wheel building and frame finishing area. Here ladies and gentlemen quickly drilled water bottle cage fasteners on, or zip-tied wheels onto the frames for packing. We watched employees snap spokes into place and tires and tubes on wheels in a zippy,  enthusiastic - and clearly timed and quota'd - speed. Impressive is just a word, but seeing this, efficiency made you gasp. If you could safely steal their attention you'd get a beautiful smile like most, if not all, Taiwanese we encountered. My mind wandered; "were these folks worked to the bone, unhappy in a sweat shop"?  It didn't appear so. Then again, they were showing us their high-end factory, via a tour guide. 

As we exited, a bell rang. Slowly and methodically, each and every employee put away their tools and migrated outside for break time. Similar to industrial areas here in Silicon Valley, some went to "roach coaches", while brown-baggers gathered their lunch break food items in the picnic areas. Others left on scooters. Seemed fairly normal but hard work, blue collar, but hey, they were building bikes... so we thought it was beyond cool!

SASO Factory - Taichung
Pressing carbon into die for bicycle bottle cages
Our gracious host Tony Wang, explaining details of carbon fibers
The next factory we visited was SASO (of Mekkem Industrial) - who build carbon accessories. Expensive bottle cages, carbon forks, mini-tools, to other products like bags and purses. Here they produce beautiful high-end products. It was a much smaller operation, more like what I was used to as a kid in local industrial parks. SASO operated in two different warehouse / factory buildings, as they had outgrown the single original building. Small groups of women sat at tables carefully stuffing carbon fiber straw-looking pieces into dies shaped for water bottle ribs. Hubs, forks, all being molded to fit in their metal counterparts. Tony Wang and David Chang gave us an intimate tour of their facilities. They were so hospitable; I thought we'd end up at their homes for dinner!

Actual carbon fibers before becoming sheets, then as building material.
Thought I'd model a stunning feather light silver number. I didn't ask how much it sells for.
After touring the newer facility, we were offered espresso in their conference room that seconded as a show room. Enamored with the shiny objects of carbon forks, cages and bike frames lent to a giddy group of cycling geeks and tourism media. Snapping pictures right and left, posing with carbon purses, we could only imagine if this were a store in the U.S., the value of the merchandise we were surrounded by, would be quite high. After some charades and laughs with our language barriers, we were invited to see the old facility. It was much more dark and stereotypical factory building, yet clean like the previous building.  Again, small groups of assemblers mixed with large areas of ovens for the carbon, and huge pieces of equipment we knew next to nothing about.

We all have a new appreciation for what goes into, and who is assembling our  toys. 
Like all our experiences in Taiwan, we wanted more. We wanted to meet more manufacturers, see more cities, and see what the west side of Taiwan had to offer. However our bus was ready to take us to our next hotel, our next adventure, and soon we'd see something we'd seen nowhere else in Taiwan.
Next entry; our road trip from Taipei to Sun-Moon, including lunch between factory visits near a temple, and the bustle of a busy working town.  (I want to thank X-Fusion Shox for making the effort to try and line up a day tour, if I had stayed, but we couldn't get scheduled. I promise to be back and spend some time there!)

Monday, December 6, 2010

Taiwan train ride with pro's and Taipei sightseeing

Day 8 Taiwan: Sound bites, Dining and Ferris Wheels

The press conference (October 21, 2010) at Taipei's Train Station ended with a mass march to the train cars Taiwan had newly renovated with fabulous bicycle accommodations. Each car was equipped with bicycle racks so you can sit in the same space, and keep an eye on your bike. Our media group was invited to join the Rabobank team in their car, as we had requested an opportunity to interview Óscar Freire and/or Robbie Hunter of the Garmin pro team. Óscar is a top sprinter with 3 World Championships, an honor that only a few elite cyclists can share. 

Obligatory groupie shot of blogger - Beverly Garrity and famed racer Óscar Freire
This car had not only the team and it's staff, but our friends - the Taiwan dignitaries that we were again so fortunate to have access to. Taiwan really treated us as VIP's - and I hope we can repay the favor with our outlets back here at home, to spread knowledge of what a fantastic destination this country is! Since the TV cameras of Asian media swarmed our man of the hour, we waited our turn. 

In the mean time - as I mentioned in a previous post -  I didn't waste my time, as I was there between the bike racks and the seats with Erik Dekker.  Dutch like his team sponsor, Erik is now the team manager, and was once a force to be reckoned, an Olympic medal holder, followed by many wins and stage wins in pro tours (in 2000 he was voted the "most aggressive rider").  A charming fellow who hesitated when I asked him how he felt about leaving Colnago Bicycles behind, and moving to Giant Bicycles as their main sponsor and equipment provider. (I explained my query came from my own personal connection with Colnago. See my work/shameless plug here.) He clearly got my question, and his face let us know he missed the famed Italian bike frame with European heart.  He also - realizing the conversation would be an interview, not just sharing words in a sweaty humid car with some Americans - sincerely spoke of Giant Bicycles quality, and responsive and stiff frames. 

The line of the day from him, however, is that after we all exclaimed how darn hot it was in the humid car that made us all sweat like we were sharing a sauna - was that I smelled. I responded with "but good right?!"... and he said he didn't say that. We all had some good laughs, and we could tell they were sad to see us exit at the first stop.

Mark Blacknell, interviews Óscar Freire as Kate LaCroix records the conversation.
"My future plan is to enjoy the present now" - Óscar Freire
Before the train stopped though; there was the headliner to interview, and our very own interviewer from Podium Cafe &, Mark Blacknell, was already several questions in, before I noticed he snagged a slot between the TV cameras. I snuck up as well to join the party, and just in time for this precious quote when he was asked about his racing future, after they discussed how the tours have many more crashes now. Significantly different than stage races in the past he noted. So his response to questions about his future? "My future plan is to enjoy the present now."

Our brief time with the Rabobank team proved to be informative and candid (including time with our new Taiwan dignitary friends). I think we all wanted to stay, spend more time, and certainly want to return.

We made a quick exit at the first train stop, as we were off to tour Taipei for one more night.  The plan, after that, was to rejoin all the racers on the train on the East Coast (for the Taiwan Cup). They would train down now, we would bus over later.  Or so we thought. Our new girlfriend Megi - had different ideas. 

The nearby Typhoon Megi not only brought rain and high winds, it stranded hundreds where it hit the hardest.  Worse, it brought mud slides and buildings were actually collapsing... exactly where we were supposed to be. The Taiwan Cup had to be cancelled, the racers were stranded less than an hour after we left the train.  They stopped, as the tracks were washed out or blocked.  And most tragic of all, lives were lost elsewhere on the island. The next day when the race was supposed to start, we were planning on a bike path ride to a Buddhist Temple in Hualien. The very temple collapsed, and killed 7.   

We all felt not only deep sorrow for the victims of the natural disaster, but for our new friends trying so hard to promote Taiwan, and have this well organized cycling festival, not be able to come to it's fullest fruition. Not surprisingly, they handled it with grace. Quickly they found new hotels for us (as well as all of the Taiwan Cup riders) and allowed us to see a part of Taiwan we'd not expected to see.

But I get ahead of myself, as we were all still in Taipei, and the news of the race cancellation hadn't even come through yet, as we were about to tour Taipei 101. (Building Wikipedia facts <here>, or official Taipei 101 website <here>), then check into the Grand Victoria Hotel. Dinner at a unique artistic restaurant "The Five-Dime", then a spontaneous rain-defying ride on the Miramar ferris wheel

Celebrated as the World's tallest building from 2004-2010, and remains landmark feat in architecture and design, Taipei 101 is both beautiful and symbolic. She boasts the fastest lift at 37 seconds to go from the 1st to 89th floor! I noticed Taiwanese are so aesthetically oriented, that the view from their famous building affected the cityscape below, propelling them to pay attention and decorate rooftops. This was something I was particularly impressed with.  I always wonder why roofs are so poorly neglected, coming from one who loves flying, and seeing the world from above. 

Five-Dime restaurant was designed by Hsieh Li-Hsiang with every nook and cranny either sprayed concrete - or collected items of oversized bolts or eye-hooks to rusty metal and mosaics, or driftwood and ceramics - all organically arranged.  I'd never seen so many dishes on one table. This made the ceramic artist in me very happy. The food was amazing, even the limited number that were vegetarian (as I was eating) were outstanding. It was during this dinner that we found out that the train filled with professional cyclists never made it to Hualien.  Rather, it only made it another 45min down the tracks (from where we departed) before stranding all its passengers. 

After hearing the news that the Taiwan Cup was cancelled, and the road was out, we knew our plans would be changing soon as well. No longer could we bus down to Hualien with the roads out.  Typhoon Megi had spoken.  So our amazing guide John was busy making alternative plans, soon we would find out, to get us to another stunning location on the island. 

In the meantime, since the night markets were closed (because of the rain) we thought it was a fine time to see if the 70 meter high ferris wheel was in operation.  And yes, my friends, it was. Nobody else was brave (stupid?) enough to go up in it, but four of us piled into bucket with a clear floor, and went for the almost 20 minute spin above the Miramar mall.  We were laughing the entire time, at the fact that we likely - in a typhoon - ought to not be there. But if you look at the history so far, we were being taken care of - and somehow, a safe and good energy surrounded our group, be it Taiwanese good luck, or just dumb luck, we were having a blast, still, even thought all our clothing was soaking wet.

Next stop: factory visits to SASO's carbon manufacturing and Giant Bicycles' high-end bike frame facility, then to Sun Moon Lake!

Thursday, December 2, 2010

(Taiwan recess) I burn things.

Authors note: I haven't been blogging just to write creatively as I'm feeling behind on my Taiwan trip - which I vow to finish noting... and am reserving my BevCycle blog for it... I'm tempted to blog under my old site SLaB...  yet that seems like more clutter. One blog is enough - yes?!  I'll finish the amazing Taiwan trip after this little recess.

I burn things. Distractions. Weather.

Rhode Island (raw) oysters
Whether it's vegetable broth or thanksgiving sweet potato marshmallow topping on fire, I ruin the pan that it was in as well. I'd like to blame my electric stovetop... but reality is... I burn things. In the last week or two it was a 4 qt pot that I had been cooking, and neglected the Basmati rice and Mung Bean concoction. Today, popcorn in the wok (wok is saved). Just now... broth was over boiling onto the stove... and I thought. "Would a kitchen remodel really solve this? Or is it that I'm distracted, don't set timers... and put something on the stove and walk away?"

Lately I've been in my head, and outside the space I'm sitting in, and terribly distracted by thoughts of what am I doing with my life, what is my purpose (blogger? Artist? Designer? Marketing? Cycling Coach? World Traveler?), and why can't I get the work I do have, done. How come I'm not in better shape? Why is it that when the temperature drops beneath 70 degree's, I can't climb onto my bike. Is it the excuse that lycra waistbands of my long tights and jerseys and gear are not comfortable, or laziness? So... not riding a bike, and I'm trying to heat up food. What is wrong with me?!

Just back from a warm island, where I happily rode into an unknown ride, on an unknown road, with questionable weather clouds of rain and wind... I'm guessing the weather has a lot to do with it. Am I distracted by thoughts of being somewhere else - for sure. But certainly I've made it through cold seasons before. This burning thing... the kitchen and I... it's relationship with me has been building into this for my 40+ years. "I'm more of an assembler" - I say. "I like to eat Raw" - now that is a true statement. If it was easier, and yes... warmer... I'd eat salads, sushi, and only items cooked to I think it's 118 degree's. This is a challenge in a household that doesn't feel the same. (Husband is a filet mignon kind of man, along with old leftovers - ewe, fresh is best). I think leaving anything in the oven for over 30 minutes means you've killed all the goodness that your body needs- enzymes - vitamins - maybe even the minerals change or are crushed under the long oven tanning session. So if it's so dead, why even put the calories in you then? We all know that simple carbs - aka - white flours/rice etc - are colon cloggers, so why bake then? (This spoken with some knowledge - says the girl with both parents Colon Cancer survivors and me the poster child for an appendix blow up post prescribed diet of "mild" foods like pasta, mashed potatoes and rice). 

When you eat it freshly picked, and unharmed by microwaves and heat... don't we get more out of the sacrificed plant or animal? I'm very drawn to this idea of eating, yet with some kind of allergy to all things high in Arginine - (meaning pretty much all nuts) - it's hard for me to figure it all out - and be sure to get my fill of protein and nutrients. I'm hoping to rid my body of it's rashy reaction to Arginine (had cause my childhood emotional scars of acne actually - turns out when I stopped eating poor man's protein of Peanut Butter everyday... my skin cleared!). In the mean time, since I still seem "sensitive" to coconuts all the way to peanuts... what is my plan?

A "nut" allergy keeps me from being a true vegetarian, that and I love the smell of bacon and an occasional... grass fed - hormone free lean hamburger doesn't suck either. Not a fan of tofu, mostly cause it's actually NOT that good for you, and it's terrible for the environment, as we are losing perfectly good tree's and soil for this Soy/Bean raising craze. So here I am... stuck in a needing to be renovated 1950's house w/ 1980's kitchen of an electric stove top that hates me, and a fire alarm that is validating my dislike for cooking, by going off like Pavlov's dogs might salivate - every time I try to cook. It's like punishment for trying. Turn on the oven... BEEP BEEP BEEP the ear piercing painful sound causes my blood pressure to skyrocket and my heart to pound and stress to enter my growing age lines. 

I've been eating mostly "Pescatarian" lately- It's always been my M.O. really anyway. Protein of choice: Fish. Not that all fish are raised, farmed or caught in a safe manner for the environment, but overall - it's usually better, and I try to make the "correct" or lesser of evils choice when ordering. The extra catch (pun intended) with this way of eating... is the Mercury. Yes... this is where politics come into play. A simple diet of fish for protein, and organic veggies and fruit as my bulk intake... are marred by politics. If we had stricter standards (whoaa, stand back Republicans that don't want government regulating all businesses actions - so that the economy can thrive or at least recover)- yes, when it comes to things like... smoking that affects MY health - even though YOU are smoking, we restrict it. Well. Here we are... coal being burned in a significant number of power plants and cement plants... and Mercury is ending up in our water, and in our air, and in our fish, and in my body.  Boo on my simple solution of being a Pescatarian. Boo on politics vs environmentalists that effect not only my diet, but my family planning as well. It's all connected, and "he" who thinks it isn't, has their head in the sand.

Now what is a girl to do. Burn lifeless food and take it in, or try to save the world and lobby for stricter pollution laws and filters on said burning of coal - so that less mercury lands in my stomach. If you've read earlier blog entries of mine, you'll know I was found to have TOXIC levels OFF THE CHARTS of Mercury and Lead in my tissue. After a 10 week arduous Chelation,  halved it. Giving up on trying to have kids w/out birth defects - I am not going to get pregnant even w/ half the mercury - and decided my multiple years of NO FISH, were ending, and that I wanted my sushi and to eat it too. So here I am, loaded w/ the evil toxic mercury, hoping to not add nitrates to everything I attempt to cook - by hopefully stopping my burning habit. And hopefully - I will always live walking or riding bike distance to a Whole Foods. Yes... I know they don't always use local producers... and actually use China for "365" products... but seriously... a girl has got to eat. Geesch!