Cycle touring around Taiwan
First visit, May 2011
Its time again for me to undertake yet another cycling experience. This time the destination is Taiwan and there is no associated geology conference to interfere with the serious cycling. Now Taiwan is not the most obvious cycling destination, but a little research revealed that Taiwan has great potential which i have decided to investigate. I was also interested in the possibility of visiting the Pacific cycles factory where my Reach bike was designed and made. When i examined the roads and topography i realised that there are serious mountains here and numerous roads into them along the western margin. But only a few roads cross the island completely because the mountains are so rugged and the passes are as high as 3250m! Higher than any pass in the Alps! In other locations such mountains would be cold and snowy, but Taiwan is in the tropics so the climate is much more pleasant. Almost too good to be true, so i booked my flights and folded my bike and now i am attacking the mountains.
After a transit through Singapore my arrival in Taipei was uneventful and i reassembled the bike in a corner of the airport terminal, and rode off to a nearby hotel I had booked for my late evening arrival. As often happens at airports, there was no access for bicycles on the airport entrance roads but i rode cautiously and the traffic was only light at 9pm. At the nearby rather flash hotel the staff did not complain as i took my bike with me in the elevator up to my room.
Seeking a late meal i went to the hotel restaurant where i met a local person doing the same and we had a pleasant conversation. He was welcoming his mainland chinese relatives and we sat at separate tables but when i went to pay the bill this kind person had paid for my meal! I was very impressed by his kindness. What a wonderful welcome this was to Taiwan!
And the kindness continued next morning when George from Pacific cycles collected me and escorted me around the factory and museum of innovative bicycles he had designed. Truly amazing and interesting.
After lunch i commenced my cycling southwards. I was pleased that the traffic was not as difficult to manage as i had feared. After 2 hours i reached the large city of Hsinchu. Here the traffic was heavy and a bit chaotic, but i soon learned to survive the hoardes of scooters. Many of the roads have edge lanes for scooters and this is great for cyclists also, providing some protection from motorists. But the scooters are only a cyclist's ally when dealing with cars. They are a cyclist's enemy in the drag race at every stop light.
In the evening i met Fleur, a cyclist living and working here. She taught me by example how to survive the traffic as we rode to the night market for supper. Be bold and absolutely fearless! It works.
Next morning it was time for me to venture into the unknown and hope i could survive without speaking mandarin and without being able to understand the complex squiggly patterns that everyone else reads so easily. The major roads are all well marked with route numbers so i felt confident i could navigate my way. But in the first major town a street market had closed my route and i lost it while trying to bypass the closed roads. So i merely rode east on uncharted roads, which eventually connected to the route i wanted. In the process i found numerous well paved roads and quiet villages through the intensely cultivated tropical farmlands. The main route south was a wide and low traffic road that had been replaced by a freeway and was perfect for cycling being hilly and scenic. Eventually i reached the major city of Taichung. Here i tried unsuccessfully to follow the route numbers but the signs were mostly absent and i continued seemingly forever through a jungle of traffic lights. Eventually i found a motel, not being sure just which city i was in. The motel staff said i was in Nantou but at a nearby police station next morning they told me i was still in Taichung. Some 6 police became involved in helping me with directions on how to get to my chosen southbound route. But despite their help i soon became quite lost again. Just like my touring in Europe, big cities are all "Hotel California" experiences. Check out anytime, but you can never leave!!
After many circles, 4 hours and discovering numerous back alleys and dead ends i eventually found an exit road southwards. I must remember to stay up in the mountain villages and avoid the big cities. In these villages the locals often waved encouragement to me. Or perhaps this was their way of indicating they thought i was crazy to ride a bike in these hills! As i reached Chiayi, where i planned to stay for several days, my gearshifts became erratic and i would need to check and repair them soon.
At a pizza shop that evening (thats right, at least i can understand pizza menus), i was given directions to a bicycle shop. They are not common, but scooter shops are everywhere. Next morning i found the shop at 8:30am but it did not open until 11am. I had no city map so i randomly rode around looking for a bike repair place and found one in a narrow alley. The guy there had clearly never seen gearshift levers like mine (normal road bike shift-brake levers), but he did have the cable i needed. I showed him how and helped install the new cables and the gears were soon fixed. My next problem was to get local maps so i went to the city hall building. Fortunately there were street signs in pinyun (latin alphabet characters) which i could read. A request for maps must have been unusual because i soon had some 20 staff involved in finding, printing and translating my request. Not to mention the cup of tea while they ran around helping me. There was no lack of helpfulness and much interest in this unusual foreigner.
It was now 10:30 and i was keen to go cycling out of the city and i decided to visit a scenic area some 30 km away. I found a turnoff to a village that was on my map, although the road itself was not. I was feeling confident as i finally found some serious hills to climb. A sign on the road seemed to say the road was closed and i knew there was landslide damage in the area. Although closed to cars i was able to pass through on a very narrow pathway across the landslip. I continued on and up through tea plantations hoping to reach the village soon as it was getting late, and i was hungry! It was after 3pm when i finished lunch high up in the mountains, far from my hotel in Chiayi. I was concerned about being so late but hoped for a fast downhill ride home. There was a downhill, but only to cross a river and there was another enormous climb following. I really was not expecting this, but there was no choice now. It was 4:30, i was in the damp mist above the cloud base, i had no idea which road i was on and the tea plantation ladies were all crammed in the trucks going home after their long day at work. And fool me was up here on a bicycle. Maybe i really was crazy after all.
It was not until 5pm that i found a roadsign which allowed me to work out how to get back to Chiayi, which was over 30km away. Fortunately much of that was downhill, an astonishingly long and tortuous downhill which was quite fun. And i made it back to the hotel just on nightfall. Not quite what i had planned for the day, but truly an amazingly scenic day.
So after just 4 days here i have found friendly and helpful people everywhere, good roads and manageable (albeit chaotic at times) traffic, warm weather and fresh pineapples. Hey, peach season in Hungary last year was great, but nothing can beat fresh pineapples. Taiwan is looking like a cycling jewel.
Stay tuned - the real mountains haven't even started yet!
Riding up Mt Alishan to the clouds
Overlooking a reservoir just east of Chiayi
After surviving my late day mostly lost in the mountainous misty tea plantations, i tried to plan a more gentle day, but still with mountains. This time i went southeast and climbed through plantations of betel nut palms to a lookout over a reservoir. It was saturday and the motorcyclists were also having fun on the numerous switchbacks on this road. They were curious about a cyclist up at their lookout, but friendly, although only a couple spoke english and chatted with me. I turned back and retraced my route to avoid getting trapped in the next valley with no easy way home. But the day was still young so i still managed to find another (small) mountain to climb on the way back to the plains where i enjoyed a late afternoon coffee and cookie.
Next morning Fleur and i met downtown to ride up to the fabled Mt. Alishan and back. Now this was an ambitious plan, even moreso for Fleur who first had to arrive on the High speed train from Hsinchu, some 150km away. (And return afterwards) About 20 km en route we rode through a festival to honour the birthday of one of the Taoist gods. Lots of fire crackers and busloads of tourists taking part, but we stopped only for a quick drink on the way to visit our own mountain god. By 2:30pm we were still 20 km from the top, although some 1300 metres above our start altitude and we turned back to ensure we could be home by dark.
And that evening a group of cyclists from Hong Kong arrived in Chiayi. They planned to ride up to Mt. Alishan next day and I would join them. Was i crazy to ride this mountain twice in 2 days?? Regardless, next morning 18 of us commenced the relentless ascent of 2170m in 77km. After 50 km most riders were struggling as this was no ordinary mountain. While they all drank tea, i rode ahead to find a shop to buy soft-drink, as i need the sugar for fuel, not merely water. But despite waiting for 45 mins, no other cyclists came by. So i departed to finish the ride alone. At one point the road was being repaired across a serious landslide. As i arrived they closed the road. But i pretended to be an ignorant foreigner (which is not hard for me) when they yelled at me in mandarin, and i rode through the closure. A bit naughty, but actually quite lucky in retrospect as the road closure was for close to an hour. This meant i had the road to myself for the next 15 km as the incessant stream of tour busses were stuck at the road closure. It was great to peacefully glide (ok, crawl really) through the forests high above the rugged valley. I reached the top at 4pm but no other cyclists arrived before 6pm. Except for 3 who had caught a bus. And many riders needed help from the sag wagon. It really is a serious climb, but the scenery was stunning. I have ridden in the Alps, but i now realize that the alps is where infant mountain-gods undergo their preschooling. When they grow up, the adult mountain-gods actually live here in Taiwan!
After a relaxed day in the nearby forests, we all set off to the north for Sun-Moon lake, another famous tourist destination some 110 km away. Strangely, there was almost no traffic on the route we used and we enjoyed an exhilirating descent down into another rugged mountain valley. Frequent photo stops were required to capture this amazing scenery. But the lake was actually uphill in a different river valley and few riders were expecting the climb at the end of the day. The lake itself is scenic enough, but clearly heavily commercialised. I did however enjoy a Starbucks coffee, the first i had seen in Taiwan. Surely i had earned a little decadance by now!
Next morning the Hong Kong riders set off northwards to ascend the highest main road pass in Taiwan, 3250m. But i turned back south as i have more mountains in my plans yet. It was a bit sad to leave my new friends of 3 days and find myself alone again. But as i climbed route 149 through the tea plantations later that day almost every motorist that saw me waved and shouted "jaio", the chinese equivalent of an excited "GO!". Even the road maintenance crews enthusiastically welcomed me as i rode by. I have declared this to be the "friendly road" and despite being alone it feels that there are friendly and helpful people everywhere.
It is time i now crossed the main rage to the east coast. Warning - big mountains ahead! This is sure to be fun.
With only about a week remaining it was time to make proper plans to cross the mountains to the east coast and then cross back to the west to reach the airport. I had been having fun riding in circles but there are only a few ways to cross the mountains and I would need to plan carefully. I decided to use the southern cross island route even though this was closed due to typhoon damage in 2009. I hoped the route would be open to bicycles even though it was closed to cars.
Heading south into the misty hills i discovered a route called the coffee road. This is exactly my sort of road! Around midday i saw a sign for coffee pointing up steep side road, which i followed. Then just ahead i saw a cyclist so I followed him into a parking area where i found 15 other cyclists resting. It was a cycling group of civil engineers from the adjacent county, out for a day ride. They kindly invited me to join them for lunch and coffee. I asked about the road route i hoped to use, which they were responsible for maintaining. They hesitated but said it would be passable for a cyclist. But to cross the 2800m high pass safely i needed to cover a long distance this afternoon. I set off to try and be as close as possible to the start of the high mountain pass.
By 4pm it had started to rain lightly and i decided to stop although i was in a remote village not usually visited by tourists. With help from a girl in the 7 eleven convenience store, I found the only hotel in town and checked in. As i then set off to explore the town, the hotel owner insisted i join him and his family for dinner, for which he refused to accept payment. After dinner i went in search of some pineapple. A man selling whole pineapples had a bag of pineapple pieces and i managed to request a cupful of them, for which he refused to accept payment. It seems these pieces were his "free taste" samples although he had given me 10 pieces. Everywhere i went i was showered with kindness and I felt welcome despite (or perhaps because) these villages were well off the usual tourist route.
Next morning i set off to the mountain pass, but i was further than i had hoped from the pass as I traveled up a major river valley bordered by impressively high mountains. There were numerous busy roadworks repairing the extreme landslide damage of 2 years prior. It took me until midday to reach a control post at 1000m altitude, still 35 km from the crest. The guard refused to let me pass because it was already raining at the summit. Then Martin arrived in his new Toyota 4wd pickup truck. He convinced the guard to let him drive to the summit, and invited me to join him. So i did reach the summit but not by bike. And it was cold and wet and i would not have been able to ride this serious mountain pass alone in just an afternoon. I had been saved from the folly of my inadequate planning. Now i had to decide if i had time to complete a complete circuit of Taiwan. Martin discussed my dilemma and offered to drive me some 100 km south so i could cross the mountains on the only other route, the south island link, despite the fact that going south was not even part of his planned trip that day. I was very grateful for his exceptional kindness and help.
At a small town nearby i found a hotel with help from a policeman, as the sign was only in chinese and unreadable to me. And the welcoming staff showed me to the laundary which i could use. Did i smell so bad that i clearly needed a laundary? Or was this just more Taiwanese helpfulness?
Now one quirk of the non-western hotels is the miniscule size of the bath towels. I first had this problem in Alishan where the bath towel was just 400*200mm and paper thin. And this hotel had a similar sized towel. But by now i had become an expert in self drip-drying after my shower, a necessary skill.
Next morning i crossed the low mountain pass to the east coast, which was busy with tour busses. I also came across several other cycle tourists, local taiwanese on the popular east coast route. The ride along the pacific coastal cliffs was very pleasant and scenic but i needed to cover some serious distance which was made difficult by a strong headwind. After 160 km i was out of energy and found a hotel for the night in a pleasant coastal town not usually frequented by tourists. Next morning i went searching for fruit for breakfast and found a market stall selling bunches of bananas. I only wanted 2 bananas and had difficulty communicating my request. Eventually i broke off 2 bananas and offered him whatever money he wanted, but he declined any payment. A mere 2 bananas was free!
After 30 km on the undulating coast road i needed to find some mountains and crossed the coastal range into a wide valley parallel to the coast. Here i found a bike path. Although I did not really want to go in that direction, a bike path was too good an opportunity to ignore and I rode the path to the nearby town. It was an excuse for a coffee at least. The bike path had been a railway line and crossed a long bridge across the river valley. Half way across there was a display in english and chinese about the plate tectonics which caused this valley and the frequent earthquake offsets which led to the railway line being rerouted, leaving this old line available for bicycles. What a great discovery, a rail-trail bike path with a geological explanation and clear evidence of plate tectonics as I stood on the junction of the Phillipine and Eurasian plates.
I continued northwards on a secondary road winding first through rice paddies and then through rolling hills and orchards. It was a wonderful route with very little traffic and avoided both the main highways. After crossing through the large metropolis of Hualien it was about 5pm and time for me to find a hotel. I stopped at a road junction where there was a map on a sign, trying to work out where I could travel to before dark. Although the map-sign was understandable, there was no scale at all and I was concerned that the next township might be 30 km away. Then a cyclist approached. It was Halu from Japan, and he explained that the township was only 1 Km ahead as he had visited here last year. So we both rested well that night in preparation for the ascent of Taroko gorge next day.
Taroko gorge is a serious climb. In about 80 Km the altitude
rises from 70m to over 2500m, with a cruel descent of some 200m
near the top making the overall climb some 2700m. And this is
merely to a northbound highway junction. If continuing west, it
climbs to a crest of 3250m over the next 10 Km. This is far more
serious than the climbs in europe. The highest pass in the tour de
france is 2800m, but it starts from 1200m so the overall climb is
"only" about 1600m. I planned to climb only to the highway
junction, about 2800m vertical, while carrying my touring luggage.
But brave Halu planned to go over the crest at 3250m. We climbed
together all day, with Halu being a little faster than me. Maybe
he had less luggage, but I think he was stronger also. It took
from 7am until 3pm to reach the highway junction, where we met 2
Japanese cyclists, one of whom had ridden up there on his fixed
gear track bike. Astonishing! I turned north to find a hotel in a
town 30 km away, mostly downhill fortunately. I trust Halu was
able to crest the high pass and find a hotel on the descent before
nightfall. Everything about this gorge was giant sized, from the
sheer cliff walls to the immensity of the engineering task of
building a road through this vertical world. I was pleased to have
survived the challenge I set myself, but in awe of the magnitude
of these mountains and the efforts of the other cyclists I met
Above the clouds half way up Taroko Gorge
In the high mountain village of Lishan that night I found a comfortable hotel and fresh local apples. But I could not read the menu and survived on a junk food diet instead. Then I continued north along the valley, although with some serious climbs also, for the next 80 Km. It was amazing to see intense agricultural development on slopes of at least 60 degrees. Surely even mountain goats would have trouble climbing these slopes. At lower altitudes the entire valley was filled with cabbage farms, thousands of acres of cabbages. But I hate cabbage, all I wanted was a coffee and there was none of that here. About midday I reached the junction to another mountain pass across to the west coast which would be the last mountain crossing of my tour. This was a climb of about 800m over 15 Km. so up I went again around uncountably numerous switchbacks through the dense undergrowth up into the misty clouds. And by 4pm I had crossed the range and dropped down to a small village with a welcoming hotel for the night, where i met another Japanese cyclist. He also confirmed other comments I had heard that the mountains in Taiwan were more rugged and bigger than those in Japan.
I had 2 days left and was within easy reach of the airport so I deliberately found devious routes through the foothills before delving into an unattractive large town to find a home for the night. The busy city and its market were very different to the mountains I had come to love. And on the last day I again rode back up into the mountains where I met Andy from Taipei who was doing a day loop ride over the mountain range. We shared a coffee and pleasant chat before parting and I went west to the Pacific Cycles factory to say goodbye to the friendly people there before heading to the airport. Access to the airport was on freeway like roads and I suspected cyclists were not welcome on the last 3 km. As I reached the departure terminal, I noticed (in my rear-view mirror) a police car following me. I quickly swerved across 3 lanes and the road divider into the bus area and rode against the traffic direction. There was no way the police car could follow that manoeuvre and I escaped into the departure area to fold my bike and depart. Does this sound unusual? - not really, the road rules in Taiwan are somewhat optional and I had seen other traffic behave erratically quite often.
I was amazed at what I found in
Taiwan. From friendly people to courteous traffic to busy cities
and quiet mountains, well paved roads and excellent
infrastructure. Everything about this country is giant sized.
The mountains, cliffs, landslides, road construction, bridges
and hospitality. And all with a warm tropical climate and almost
no rain to interrupt my travels. This is the best cycling
destination I have ever found. And despite the smallish size of
the country, there are so many more challenges here that it is
likely I will return again to this place.
In India, you have to die to reach Nirvana. But in Taiwan, I found cycling Nirvana for the living!
Rarely, there can be snow on the high mountaintops in December/January. Cold weather is not likely to be a problem.
The major roads are well marked with a numbered route system. You can navigate easily by following route numbers most of the time, even on secondary roads.
Almost all roads are well paved and in good repair. There are many road tunnels on the mountain roads and they are not always lit. You will need your lights at times.
Many younger people can understand english, but english is less understood in the smaller mountain villages.
The taiwan tourist agency has some free, acceptably useful maps in english. But you might have to search a bit to get them. At the airport they only had the entire of Taiwan map. But there is a set of 4 more detailed maps available. These are the Northern, Central, Southern and "Eastern taiwan and offshore islands" maps. The maps do not have a scale and no distances are marked, you need to work out the scale from the latitude grid markings. Use about 100 Km per degree.
Convenience stores are almost everywhere. You can usually get drinking water for cyclists at police stations.
There are tourism offices in some places, but the staff do not speak english and they have almost no printed help in english! Tourists to Taiwan are usually from China.
You can take your bike on the high speed train, but it must be in a bike bag.