Five Reasons to Ride North on the Pacific Coast Highway

It seems that almost everyone we’ve met along the way has had a different reason against riding north on the CA-1. Some say it’s the wind or the weather, others say it’s the traffic or the lack of shoulder; others simply laugh and say, “You’re going the wrong way!” It is true; guidebooks generally advise against travelling north due to the strong headwinds that northbound travelers face. We’ve experienced these winds a bit, but it’s all been manageable. We think there are just as many reasons to travel north as there are not to do so. Before you knock a Mexico to Canada trip (or anything in between) consider these:

1. The scenery becomes more and more beautiful. Southern California is nice and all, but it doesn’t even compare to Northern California and Oregon. Travelling north gives you something to look forward to as you move up the coast. We started in dry desert-y beaches, and are now staying in campgrounds surrounded by lush pine forests (Big Sur!). I’d say the increasing beauty up the coast definitely overshadows the wind.

2. It gets cheaper! Campsites get cheaper. Food gets cheaper. Laundromats get cheaper. Everything gets cheaper the closer we get to Oregon. It was definitely a blow paying $10 per person at some of the Southern California campgrounds, but Northern California’s $5 per person is pretty nice. We also hear that showers are free at state parks in Oregon. (Apparently Washington is a little spendy for camping, but smoked salmon – a.k.a pure, non-perishable muscle power and energy – is cheap, so it all evens out).

3. You will have a constant stream of information. At the start of this trip, we didn’t buy a book; we didn’t even plan past our first two campsites. We just thought we’d figure it out as we went along. Luckily for us, we didn’t have to because almost everyone we’ve met has been heading south. This means they’ve already scoped out the best (and the worst) campsites, restaurants, and sights. Because of friendly southbound travelers we found out that the central coast had absolutely no water, something they all had to find out the hard way, and we were able to plan accordingly. Let me tell you, living is pretty easy when you don’t have to stress about planning.

4. Learn killer relaxation techniques. Okay, so sometimes we get headwinds, and they really aren’t that fun. However, being stuck in strong winds gives us a chance to practice complete relaxation and acceptance of our surroundings. Get zen with it and ride against the wind. (Also, you’re gonna get wind no matter what direction you ride. We even got some killer tailwinds the other day!).

5.  Riding north automatically makes you a complete bad ass. You can totally boost your confidence by doing it because everyone you meet will be like, “Wow that’s so hardcore. You are awesome.” You will feel incredibly cool and strong.

So as Tim likes to say to the ragged old ladies on the backs of tandems who call us crazy for riding north, “Don’t knock it till you try it!”

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They don’t make ’em like this in Southern California. Also, we learned about this incredible campsite (Kirk Creek) from some southbound travelers. Double whammy!

What goes up…

There is a well known rule of physics (that is more casually known as common sense) which states that what goes up must come down. I’m sure you’re all familiar. In cycling, it’s a mantra to help get us through those super steep climbs.  Well, most of us. I think I’m one of the only cyclists on this planet who may prefer the climb to the descent. I know it seems crazy, but I have my reasons.

We just passed through Big Sur, CA. If you know the Pacific Coast, you know that means steep hills. The views were amazing, as is usually the case from lofty elevations, and let me tell you I worked for those views. I earned them. Then in an instant I’m flying down, and the hill that took forty minutes to summit is overwith in less than five. It’s a little bit disappointing. It’s like putting 3 hours into preparing a meal that’s devoured in 20 minutes. Even if the end result is worth all of the effort, it’s a little sad to see it disappear so quickly.

Of course, barreling down the 1 on a four-inch shoulder is slightly terrifying. It’s little bit difficult to put total faith in a bicycle, and very difficult to put total faith in the drivers behind me. I’m trying to take it as a lesson in control and to just go with it (and hopefully by the end of this trip my hands won’t be numb at the end of each day from squeezing my handle bars in terror every time I go down a steep hill).

IMG_1113A view worth climbing for

As if we needed another reason to ride bikes…

It’s official, the best way to make new friends is by riding a bike. 

It seems like everyone we come across wants to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. We have already met so many friendly people, and we’re only a week in! People are super keen on giving us directions, cheering us on, and helping us find the cheapest places to stay. 

We met this jovial restaurateur in Lompoc, CA. He made us feel really special because he was so interested in our story!Image 

 

Chung Tai Chan Monastery

Taiwan is a predominantly Taoist society, and it seems like Taoist temples are about as much of a commodity as 7-11s are. In fact, while driving down the east coast earlier this year, we saw a temple factory of sorts, where the intricate pillars and eaves seen in so many temples are manufactured. They are still beautiful, but it does take a bit of the magic away for me.

Although Taoism rules, there are still many practicing Buddhists, Buddhist temples, and Buddhist organizations. One of these is the Chung Tai Chan, whose monastery can be found in Puli, Nantou County on Taiwan’s East Coast. This beautiful temple and monastery are anything but factory manufactured. The monks at Chung Tai were kind enough to allow us to book a tour last minute.

The temple, which is over 16 stories tall, is nestled in the hills just outside of Puli and surrounded by trees. It’s shape is meant to represent a cultivator kneeling in prayer position. When we arrived, the parking lot was swarming with tour buses and tourists. Many people come to see the grounds, the museum, and the first two floors of the monastery, which are open to the public without needing to reserve a tour. We asked our hotel in Puli to help us call the monastery the morning of the day we wanted to go in the hopes we might be able to see a bit more of the temple. They agreed even though there would only be a Chinese language tour going on that day. Our guide was so nice and helpful and she took the extra time to explain everything in English to us as we went along the tour, although she did ask that if we ever wished to visit again that we book our tour at least three days in advance. Tour bookings can be made here.

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A temple guardian

At the entrance to the temple, guests are greeted by guards who sit out front protecting it. The first floor is called the Hall of the Four Heavenly Kings, which features four 12 meter-tall statues.

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Heavenly King

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Laughing Buddha to welcome guests

As you go up to the next floors, there are three Buddha Halls, which hold statues of the various Buddhas, and other intricate hand-made Buddhist artifacts. Each hall also has hand-painted ceilings, swimming with lotuses and mandalas of all colors. Our tour followed the path that the monks take every day on their way to the Chan Meditation Halls. The circular path instills calmness as you walk up.

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Transformation Buddha carved from red granite on the second floor

On the 16th floor, the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas is amazing. The wall is covered in Buddhas hand cast in bronze. In the center of the room, a 7-story teakwood pagoda was constructed without the use of a single nail. The tour ended here, and we were asked to share our feelings after visiting the temple while looking out across the valley. Many answers were similar, with people expressing feelings of peace and calm.

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Across the valley

Unfortunately photography is only allowed on the first  and second floors, so you’ll have to go see the rest of it for yourself. You can also check out the virtual tour, but seeing it in person is a really incredible experience.

We were given a taste of history, culture, and spirituality all in one visit. Not to mention the beautiful artwork and architecture that fills the temple. Just seeing the craftsmanship makes a visit well worthwhile. Apart from the temple, the Chung Tai also offers an art gallery, museum, and beautiful gardens.

gardenLotus pond in the gardens

I would definitely recommend a visit to anyone who is in the Nantou area. There is a frequent bus between Puli and the Sun Moon Lake visitor center, and the monastery is just a quick taxi ride from central Puli.

gAstronomical Adventures – Japanese in Jiaoxi

Yesterday we took an afternoon excursion in the hills of Jiaoxi near Wufengci Waterfall, which included a steep climb straight up a mountain, some bouldering, a bit of repelling, swimming, and at least one near death experience. Needless to say, I was ravenous by the time we arrived back at our scooter.

We had planned on going to a Japanese restaurant, Le Shan, which we had tried a couple of times before. We headed into town excited for sushi, but not so much for the restaurant itself, as the staff is horribly rude and there is no English menu. We figured we’d just use our rudimentary Chinese skill combined with menu roulette, and see what we ended up with.

Well, thank goodness they hadn’t yet opened for dinner because we tried out the place next door instead, and it was fantastic all around. Xiao Liu Restaurant is a must visit if you are in Jiaoxi. The menu offers sushi, sashimi, and nigiri, along with other 小吃 (xiao chi – literally, small eats).

Although they don’t have an English menu, they have lots of photos on the menu, as well as a sushi bar up front where you could easily point at the different types of fish you wanted. However, the owner’s English is impeccable, and he helped us find exactly what we wanted to eat. He also gave us some seared squid to try, which we both agreed was some of the most well prepared squid we had ever eaten.

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Happy eating seared squid!

The prices are a little steep compared to the general Taiwanese fare, but for the food and the service, they are totally reasonable. We had an assorted sashimi plate, seared salmon, and some rice-stuffed bean curd skin, totaling about NT660 or US$22. Pretty dang good if you ask me. I’m sure at home we’d have paid at least $40 for the same meal.

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Our spread (after the better part of it went straight to our bellies)

For me, Xiao Liu is a complete 180 from the place next door (which I think is a super famous restaurant in Jiaoxi – it’s always packed).  The sushi at Xiao Liu is just as good, if not better, and the service isn’t even comparable. Our experience here was a perfect example of the Taiwanese friendliness and hospitality that so many travelers and expats in Taiwan speak of.

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 Outside they even have a little hot spring bath for your feet. How luxurious!

How to find it:

Coming in from Yilan City, continue on Jiaoxi Rd into the main downtown area, and turn right on lane 108. The lane only has two restaurants so just look for the Xiao Liu Restaurant sign. From the train station, just head up towards Jiaoxi Rd and turn left; take another left on lane 108. Happy sushi!

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宜蘭縣礁溪鄉礁溪路5段108巷1-1號

Getting Jaded, In a Good Way

Lately, I cannot get jade out of my head. Each time we pass a market stall selling jade pieces, I slow down and do one of those long, open-mouthed stares, while Tim urges me to hurry up.

I have always found jade to be a beautiful stone, but I hadn’t thought too much about purchasing any in Taiwan until recently. I asked my mother what type of gift she might like from Taiwan, as I was completely at a loss, and she asked me for a jade Buddha statue. An ongoing search for the perfect Buddha statue ensued. I still haven’t found a Buddha, but I have found at least a hundred bracelets, rings, and pendants to drool over.

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An array of poorly organized jewelry and stones at the Yilan day market. We did the coin test on some of the jades; fakes!

The biggest problem with shopping for jade is that it can be extremely expensive. The second-largest problem is that people love to try to sell fake jade; especially to naïve foreigners. Knowing this, I have been really apprehensive about buying any jade jewelry thus far. I bought my first piece today at the day market in Yilan; a decidedly fake jade ring which only cost NT$100. Low-quality jade can be inexpensive, especially small pieces, but that’s not how I figured out my find is fake.

There are quite a few tricks to determining whether a piece of jade is authentic or not. Many of them include big, fancy jeweler’s tools and other things like scales and buckets of water. If you were looking to spend a lot of money, I would say these types of practices are a good idea, but for the casual shopper, they aren’t so practical. The simpler tricks will certainly suffice, especially for less expensive stones.

According to the experts, real, quality jade has a unique look and feel, especially upon close examination. Generally, a single piece should be a uniform color; meaning you won’t have green, yellow, and red shades all in one ring. It should also look slightly transparent, like looking through honey, with no air bubbles. Clearer than honey probably means it’s glass.

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My faux-jade ring. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a rainbow piece of jade like this; not to mention there is a raised line where the maker clearly melded the resin together. Oh well, at least it was cheap!

Next, jade has a feel. It’s dense, man. This means that choosing a piece of jade is like choosing a good watermelon, when you pick it up, it should feel heavier than you expect. Furthermore, jade is a quickly cooling stone. Hold a piece of jade in your hand until it matches your body temperature, then let it sit for about 30 seconds; touch it with your tongue or the inside of your wrist, and it should feel cool.

Finally, the sound test; take a coin or another piece of true jade, and hit it lightly against the piece in question. It should make a light high-pitched sound. A dull sound indicates that it’s probably either marble or resin, and a low-pitched ring might mean glass.

These aren’t necessarily surefire ways to tell whether jade is real or not, and they may not indicate quality of authentic jade, but they will certainly help you along. Pay attention to these little details, as well as the price. A large piece costing a miniscule amount of money is probably too good to be true.

Now you are ready to hit up one of Taiwan’s famous jade markets! In Taipei, the Jianguo Flower and Jade Markets, or in Hualien, the Stone Crafters Market; they both offer many options for jewelry and other trinkets. Happy jade hunting!

Of course I didn’t come up with these tests on my own. I had a little help from the following websites: http://www.wikihow.com/Tell-if-Jade-Is-Real, www.hotscams.com/articles/how-to-tellif-a-jade-is-real-or-fake, where you can also find more in-depth information.

Not for the squeamish

Last night, we got our first (known – *shudder*) rain spider, otherwise known as the Laya spider. I almost ran all the way to Taoyuan International airport. They may be big, but they are crazy fast, so we now have a new roommate. They do seem to be mostly harmless though, and they eat cockroaches, so I guess I’m ok with our new little (big) pet monster.

Photo update – I was able to get a picture of our very own laya, as she is still cruising around the apartment; here she is:

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