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“Battery low. Please charge now,” the robotic voice coming from my Bluetooth headphones announced. “Yep, me too,” I responded, in my head. Or maybe I said it out loud, I can’t recall. I might have slightly overextended myself on this day’s ride, and I had about another ten miles to go to my destination.
My eventual arrival at Jiaoxi, a resort town famous for its hot springs, would conclude what was probably the most exhilarating but also mentally and physically tiring day of my bikepacking adventure around the self-proclaimed “Heart Of Asia,” Taiwan.
I had not planned on cycling the infamous, while dangerous, Suhua Highway, a stretch of 118 kilometers connecting Hualien with Su’ao in the northeastern corner of the country. The official “Cycling Around Taiwan” guide booklet, published by the Tourism Bureau, strongly recommends avoiding this winding and narrow road, seemingly carved into the hillside of this part of the coast. Instead, one can hop on a local train for an hour and twenty minutes and enjoy coastal views from a train car. With the weather situation quite fluid, rain and some wind in the forecast, it made that option all the more appealing in theory.
My experience taking local transportation in that part of the country, however, made me change my mind relatively quickly. Not because of the quality of service by Taiwan Rail, but because of my fellow travelers. Hordes of, what I can only assume, Chinese tourists, retirees seemingly on a Taiwan trip, flooded the train before its departure from Hualien Main Station. They were loud. They were obnoxious. They kept touching and holding on to my bicycle and bags as if they were part of the train holds. They kept bumping into me as if it were the most normal thing to do. Oh, and the train car quite rapidly started reeking of fried meat as soon as, almost in unison, the whole group unwrapped their lunch bags.
At the third stop out of Hualien, my patience was exhausted, and I couldn’t stand this any longer. The prospect of cycling a dangerous coastal route with little to no shoulder, negotiating trucks, buses, and other tourist vehicles, as well as riding through multiple tunnels, all of a sudden seemed way more appealing than being stuck on this train for another hour.
So I got off at the next stop, breathed a sigh of relief and started cycling.
Taiwan might not be on most people’s radar as a cycling destination. If you, however, take a good look at your own bicycle, I am willing to bet that many of its parts are manufactured in Taiwan. If not the whole bike. The national tourism bureau published a cycling guide detailing how to do a loop around the country, something that seemingly every local cyclist aims to accomplish at least once in their lifetime. For all that, the main route, National Cycling Route No. 1, regrettably avoids what makes Taiwan interesting: 286 mountains over 3,000 meters.
During the first few days I spent in Taipei, as well as on the days that followed on the bike, it became clear that daily life in Taiwan seems to stay busy and lively until late at night. This becomes most apparent by observing the opening hours. Many businesses do not open their doors until around noon but staying open until nine or even ten in the evening. I saw an excellent example of this in Wufeng, where I walked past the large windows of a street-facing, modern-looking dental office still seeing patients at 8:30 pm. Those business hours, as well as 24/7 convenience stores, certainly help the bicycle tourist, having access to goods until late in the day.
My initial plan was to incorporate as much of the mountainous terrain into my route as possible, hoping to avoid some of the more densely populated areas in the southwest, taking inspiration from events like Bikingman Taiwan and the Taiwan KOM Challenge. I left Taipei early morning on well developed and signposted cycling paths through the city and along the Tamsui River in a westward direction. The environment transitioned from dense city and suburbs to rather remote mountainous terrain as I was aiming for the first highlight of the trip, Sun Moon Lake. The country’s largest lake and a popular tourist destination, the climb up was a first taste of what cycling the hilly terrain towards the center of the island would be like.
From the research I had done before my arrival, I had learned that, from a cyclists perspective, the eastern side of the island, with its rugged mountains, had way more to offer than the densely populated west. In hopes of upping my daily mileage a bit and avoiding spending too much time in industrial and urban centers in the west, I opted for taking a marked cycling route through Yunlin, Chiayi, and Tainan, across the Chiayi–Tainan Plain. In hindsight, that might have been the wrong choice. Urban sprawl was on full display, and one city was seemingly transitioning into the next, with a mix of manufacturing complexes and residential areas. Riding on roads four to six lanes wide and plenty of traffic was, as one can expect, not that much fun. The incredibly high amount of traffic lights encountered slowed down progress even more.
“Cycling in Taiwan has been great so far,” Jure told me. I bumped into him and his friend Sascha, both from Berlin, at a convenience store on the outskirts of Kaohsiung. They made use of their Easter holiday to cycle around Taiwan, on a route very similar to mine. “Taiwanese people just let you be, however, if you need help or assistance with anything, they are there for you,” Jure reported on their experience with the locals so far.
Things on the road turned for the better at the southern tip of Taiwan when quiet, rural Route 199 took me across the Southern Taiwanese mountains and onto the east coast, with breathtaking views of the shoreline. That day’s ride ended in Taitung City, one of the major cities on the east coast of the island.
I had heard great things about the East Rift Valley, located between two mountain ranges in the east. The valley, spanning about 180 kilometers in length, beckoned with the sight of paddy and rapeseed flower fields, stretching on for tens of kilometers, as well as encountering examples of aboriginal cultures. The route along the coast, on the other hand, with uninterrupted ocean views, seemed equally attractive. So I decided to do a bit of both. For about half of the following day, I followed the shoreline, the sun beating down from mostly cloudless skies. At the surfer town of Donghe, I then took a left turn onto Route 23, heading for the valley, hoping to get the best of both worlds.
But, oh my, I almost had bitten off more than I could chew on this road. The uphill seemingly never ended and the heat got virtually unbearable. Reaching the steepest part in the middle of the day, I had to seek shade from roadside trees and take a break for an hour. Amazing views that my legs and body paid for dearly.
In situations like this, it helps to remember that even the longest uphill eventually ends. The downhill on the other side into the valley was exhilarating, yet the promised scenic views of lush green rice fields only partially materialized. There were fields aplenty, mind you, the cloudy conditions, however, covered most of the landscape in a monotonous veil of grey over the following two days.
Passing through smaller towns for most of the route through the valley, reaching the city of Hualien, with a population of over 100,000, was a welcoming change. The day I was scheduled to arrive, it saw me cycling through moderate to heavy rain, starting at ten in the morning and only stopping towards my arrival in the city late afternoon. I used a rest day there for some off-the-bike downtime and to dry out myself and my equipment.
What should have followed was the train ride to Su’ao, but what happened was close to six hours and 113 kilometers of coastal road cycling, with all the stresses that come with sharing the road with local, tourist as well as truck and construction traffic. Interestingly enough, for the final bit of the day, making my way towards Jiaoxi, the majority of the traffic dropped away, and I soon found myself on the old coastal route, now seeing little use. As I climbed up, higher and higher, with almost no traffic, the views of the coast were stunning, revealing the characteristic crescent moon shaped bays strewn along Taiwan’s east coast.
Favored by locals for its hot springs, the resort town of Jiaoxi felt cleaner and less hectic than many of the other places I had visited in Taiwan thus far. Dipping my tired feet into one of the public pools with warm water was as much of a treat as sampling local food from the many establishments along the main road in the evening.
The only thing separating me from completing the circumvention and making it back to Taipei was a final mountain range in the northeastern corner. Unexpectedly I also had to watch out for reckless drivers in overpriced sports cars, racing up and down the switchbacks I was laboring up in the morning. Sitting out some more rain at a FamilyMart convenience store in Pinglin, the afternoon saw me inching up a narrow and steep back street, dubbed the “Buddha road.” The name stems from the fact that it culminates at a temple area with golden Buddha statues lining a stretch of the roadway.
The exhilarating descent on the other side brought me into an area east of Taipei, New Taipei City, before reaching my virtual finish line at the Taipei 101 skyscraper the following day.
While still a fascinating experience, with a bit better planning and slightly more time on my hands, I could have turned this journey into an even more interesting one. The days I spent in the population centers of the southwest could have been substituted with a route further inland, extending my time in rural areas. Because, from my experience, the magical moments on any cycling journey do not happen at a traffic light in a big city, but rather on a rural, quiet road, immersed in the peaceful sounds and smells of the environment around me.
While Taiwan does have quite a few national cycling routes, most of them traverse densely populated areas, especially the Chiayi–Tainan plain in the southwest of the island. I therefor took inspiration from events like Bikingman Taiwan and the Taiwan KOM Challenge to possibly put a course together that had the potential of being a bit more interesting.
My final route looked very similar to the following, however it includes the tough section through Taroko Gorge and a good part of the densely populate plains, albeit sticking to roads further inland. The slightly different Bikingman Taiwan route could be an alternative to this.
Whenever you are flying to Taiwan from an international destination, Taoyuan International Airport will most likely be your port of entry. I had booked an Airbnb a bit further outside the city center (in the Tamsui District), which made getting into town using the MRT slightly more time consuming. The fact that it was located right by a cyclepath along the Tamsui River, however, made it a great location to depart from.
Multiple convenience store chains have a presence in Taiwan, like FamilyMart and 7-Eleven, and their distribution is quite dense as to not having to worry about being able to find food or water. It might get a bit more challenging the further inland your route takes you, but at least one convenience store should always come your way during a day’s ride.
With regards to water safety, I filled my water bottles in convenience store bathrooms countless times and never had any issues. Treatment is not necessary.
Since the ride is all on tarmac, one could conceivable opt for thinner tires (I rode on 45mm front and 40mm in the rear).
There are multiple quality bike shops in Taipei, one of which, Trek Bicycles Taipei, I visited a few times for some repairs and a proper bike fit.
I decided to get a local SIM Card upon arrival at Taoyuan International Airport. Right inside the international arrivals area, I found a Chunghwa desk, which provided me with a 4G pre-paid card, valid for 30 days with unlimited data for NT$1000, which included a NT$430 credit for voice.
I recall that I never lost coverage on the route, but for areas where there is indeed no coverage, it helps to have offline map data available. I downloaded offline maps in Google Maps as well as using the mobile app Maps.me.
In order to communicate at least the basics, I made use of Google Translate on my phone.
As with many bigger cities in Asia, credit cards are widely accepted in restaurants, stores, and convenience stores. However, cash is still needed in smaller towns and “side-of-the-road” food stands and mom & pop stores.
Other resources I found useful:
- Cycling Around Taiwan (PDF) published by the Taiwan Tourism Bureau, includes pre-ride planning, itinerary and general tourist information.
- Everything you need to know to cycle around Taiwan
- Cycling in Taiwan: Best Routes and Travel Tips
- CNN Travel: Taiwan by bike: Around the island in 12 days
- Bloomberg: The Best Way to See Taiwan’s Rugged Coast Is Slowly—and on a Bike
- Where you should bike when you come to Taiwan: some suggestions. Great advice on route planning and, especially, which sections to avoid.