It had gone ten by the time I woke up. Even with the fan on full blast all night, a habit that will surely end in a housefire sooner or later, I could feel the wearying, dreadful humidity of a sunny Taiwanese day.
As I munched away at two slices of gruesome, burnt toast, I idly swiped at my phone. Before long, I had stumbled down a rabbit hole of dizzying cycling videos on YouTube, and was struck with an immediate urge to go much too fast on my rickety, £100 bike.
It was about time for lunch when I finally ventured outside. I had a quick look on google maps for the highest nearby road. If I’d tried this back in the midlands of England, I’d have climbed 20 meters up a hillock. In Taiwan, however, you’re never far from a mountain of some sort – even if it’s the stunted Nanshijiao Mountain, who stands at a bashful 302 metres. Mountain nerds, sometimes known as geologists, apparently define a mountain as at least 300 metres tall. You’re really pushing it there, Nanshijiao.
With my stomach full of scallion pancake, and my brow already slick with sweat, I began peddling. I deftly avoided manic Taipei buses and countless scooters, until the road began to steadily climb.
Almost immediately, I had to get off my bike and walk.
The path up Nanshijiao Mountain twists back and forth the entire journey, tempering each successful climb with a sharp, narrow corner. An older man, perhaps in his sixties, with skin like leather in folds along the back of his neck, cycled up beside me. His calves tensed as he pushed down on the peddles, and he grinned jovially on the overtake. I growled and got back on my bike.
Taking in great gulps of hot air, I peddled furiously. My bike began to whine with the effort, and before long I was letting out chirps of pained desperation myself. We pushed and we pushed, rounding a spiteful corner onto an even steeper stretch of path. I tried not to resent the additional weight I was carrying around the tummy area – what some co-workers once referred to as “quite a lot of fat,” but what I liked to think of as energy reserves for precisely a moment such as this.
Finally, I got off my bike and looked back at our negligible progress. I’d began to wish I’d left my bike at the bottom and taken the hiking trail to the right of the road, encased by trees and shrubbery. Anything to get some shade.
But a few minutes later, a broad man on a scooter rolled by, a subway foot-long hanging out of his mouth. He bellowed a quick “jiayou!”, which means: “you can do it!”
After 40 minutes of intermittent cycling, I spotted a bearded giant peering down through the green canopy. If I’d done my research, I’d have known that this was a statue of an Earth God, Fude Jhengshen. But I hadn’t done my research, so I could only assume that Mr Klaus had lost some weight and gotten lost in the woods.
I pushed on to Fu De Gong Parking Spot, which sat on the mountainside as a throne to the vibrant statue. The backwall of the parking area was illustrated in vibrant colours – painted warriors leaping into battle astride tense, snarling horses. This tableaux acted as the backdrop to a young couple, flicking cigarette ash onto the ground.
I cycled further, spotting several peculiarly placed dinosaur statues, and pondered deeply as to their apparent significance in Taoist scripture. Eventually, I reached the end of the road.
There, standing beside his bike, was the older cyclist who had overtaken me earlier. I moved in next to him, and we looked out to endless Taipei, loud and frenetic and thick with the scent of petrol and food. But kind of beautiful, from up here.
The man nodded his approval at me. He gestured towards the few remaining steps that led to Hongludi Nanshan Fude Temple, and told me to go, go! I hadn’t planned on completing the short hike through the temple, unsure of how long it might take. But, at the man’s behest, I left my bike and walked, until I had reached the very top of Nanshijiao Mountain. It wasn’t much to boast about – the view was interrupted by big-hatted old ladies fussing around the final pagoda. Even so, it felt pretty spectacular, for the result of an afternoon whim.
And the best was still to come. I marched down the hiking trail, through the temple grounds, and back to my bike. I clambered onto the saddle, kicked off, and narrowly avoided flinging myself into the tacky dinosaur statue as I rounded the corner. I must have looked like a babe in a runaway pram, wide eyed and howling as I hurtled blindly down the mountain.
I was home by four thirty. I went to the bathroom mirror, and the reflection that stared back at me looked part human, part beetroot from sunburn.
I want to conclude with an ode to the comfortable satisfaction of a day well spent. I want to encourage anyone who reads this to follow their whimsy and go someplace magical this afternoon. But, to be honest, my skin was coming off in red raw sheets. So, I must impart a different lesson:
Buy sunscreen. It’s very, very important.