Cycling Taiwan : Taipei to Taidong

After arriving in Taiwan and finding a work permit next to impossible to obtain, I set off on a trip around Taiwan. After reaching Taidong, however, I decided to head back to Taipei. Note that only cycling days are described here - I had a good few days off in Hualian with the local womenfolk... best kept private!

Day 1 : Taipei (台北市) to Yilan (宜蘭市)

Surface: Fairly good most of the way, though parts of route 109 are poor and parts of route 9 are excellent.

Shade: Some patches here and there, though they appear with greater frequency between Pinglin and Yilan.

Traffic: Very light prior to joining route 9 at Pinglin, then heavy all the way.

Shoulders: Missing but unnecessary due to a lack of for the first stretch. Unfortunately, in the second stretch (route 9, heavy traffic) there are almost none!

Wind: Weak to none, due to mountainous and heavily-built terrain.

Sights: Roadside Buddhas prior to Pinglin, a mountain-top view of Yilan, and the Pinglin tea museum.

The route that I took along road was in fact not my first choice. Two days earlier, I had set out wanting to ride to Yilan (宜蘭市) via Wulai (烏來), however I had found that the road was impassable. Thus, I set out to take the south-eastern road instead. After much searching through the poorly-signed edge of Taipei's sprawl (maybe one and a half hours), I located a sign which said 'North Eastern Scenic Area'. Knowing that this was a step in the right direction (especially as a brand new freeway, as yet uncomplete, was headed in the same direction), I pushed on down the only road through what otherwise could have been some pleasant, forested slopes.

I wound up figuring out that I had arrived at the entrance to route 106, though I'm not sure exactly how I managed this. (It was my original goal for the morning, however I am sure that my map must have been incorrect - I had meticulously planned my route, and attempted to follow my map to no avail.) Route 106 soon allowed me to turn southeast and join Route 109 (rather than eastward to Fulong (福隆), a possibility which I followed without realisation. No worries - I was only headed to Fulong (福隆) for a swim - and as it turned out I had one in Yilan (宜蘭市) anyway.

Route 109 had very few shops, and though it wasn't as sparse as some of my later riding (see day 5 / Route 197) it was still significantly different to the previous riding that I'd done in Yunnan, China (中国云南省).

Large portions of of Route 109 were either under development or appeared to be under landslide repair - this led to a few dusty portions, and the light traffic that was present sometimes made this midly irritating. Generally, there was adequate shade and enough shoulders in the earlier part of the route. During this, the earlier part of the day, a passing car wound down its window and a feminine 'Hello!' escaped. I replied in Mandarin and a short while up ahead I found that the car had stopped at a shop, and the occupants had gotten out. They waved me over and I took a break, during which they gave me an iced tofu dessert dish and a few light vegetables. This served as my lunch. The husband was a shoe-trader (exporting to Europe), and the wife worked for the Department of the Interior. They gave me their phone number, and offered me a place once I reached Yilan (宜蘭市).

Pushing on, there was a bit more of a climb, and the last of the unsealed section for the day was complete. The crest of this hill sported a large array of Buddhas and a couple of shrines, but that didn't stop me from an immediate and drought-breaking descent. At the foot of the descent was the town of Pinglin (坪林), where I stopped to explore the Pinglin Tea Museum (坪林茶博物館). This place, apart from sporting some highly attractive, young female ticket staff also has a huge collection of tea-related goods, teaset care instructions, tea history, tea processing exhibits, etc. Generally, a very interesting place - but one which you are likely to get much more out of if you can read traditional Chinese - as far as I can remember there wasn't a single exhibit in English.

Setting off from Pinglin (坪林), the surface became well-paved, the shoulders all but disappeared, and speedier traffic was constantly threatening. The reason being, we had joined Route 9. This part of the trip offers some great views down in to a river at the base of the winding valley, which would make for excellent freshwater swimming if you were so inclined. Routes down by foot were exeedingly sparse though... you would have to invest a bit of effort descending/ascending to earn your swim. In this leg, I saw a couple of Taiwanese cyclists heading the other way.

A mild climb out of the valley signified the end of the day's significant cycling, and I emerged from the thick forested area in to a long line of stagnant cars. Being a Saturday, and with a children's festival on in Yilan, it seemed that the mountain-top group of roadside restaurants here were doing great business... so much in fact, that the endless pull-in, pull-out was having a significant effect on the near-shoulderless throughfare's traffic-flow. I stopped here and had a well-earned drink, before procuring another for a lazy betelnut seller.

I then had the opportunity to admire (and photograph) a great view out across the east coast as I descended down a seemingly silken surface, noting the large island northeast of Yilan, and of course Yilan city (宜蘭市) itself.

Upon arrival, I checked out the tourist information centre (acquiring a map), before calling my friend an organising to meet later on. I tracked down a local vegetarian restarant (great!), and stopped in for a bit of Internet. Shortly thereafter, I met up with my friend, parked my bike at his wife's friend's restaurant, and went back to their place for a well-earned shower and some fruit. After this, we went swimming in a rooftop pool that I was told is filled with water from the nearby hot springs. I am somewhat skeptical on this point. Interestingly, the pool was only about a metre deep, thus prohibiting diving.

Later on, we ate at the aforementioned restaurant, threw my bike in the boot, and drove out to some relatives' tea and pear farm in Sanxing (三星) where, after copious tea and pear consumption, I was given a room to stay gratis.

Day 2 : Sanxing, Yilan County (宜蘭縣三星) to Heping, Hualien County (花蓮縣和平)

Surface: Good the whole way.

Shade: None before you hit the coast, and then some sporadic patches. As it is the east coast and Taiwan drives on the right, you will probably get a lot more shade in the afternoon.

Traffic: Moderate.

Shoulders: Missing in parts, generous in others. In particular, there's a lot of space prior to the coastal ascent at Suao (蘇澳).

Wind: Minimal when I passed through.

Sights: Temple at Suao (蘇澳), coastal views.

First up was breakfast in Sanxing. This was my favourite Chinese breakfast - totally vegetarian, right across China. It consists of friend bread sticks called 'youtiao' (油條), which you dip in to boiled soya-milk (豆浆). In China I usually had it with sugar, however the Taiwanese variant seemed to lack this addition. After breakfast, I said goodbye and thanks to my friend, before cycling-on southward.

Naively believing it would be relatively flat, I was soon disappointed. After an initial run down to Suao (蘇澳), stopping only for a photogenic temple, the coast-road's three-dimensional winding began. It wasn't to stop until just before Hualian, on the morrow.

The coast road had its benefits. Firstly, due to the proximity to cliffs, great chunks of it were shady during the morning and evening. Secondly, there were a lot of trees - and some spectacular views in to forested vallies on the inland side. Thirdly, there was a light breeze that assisted in battling the summer heat. Commonly slated as one of the (if not, the) most spectacular route in Taiwan, and perhaps overly praised (it wouldn't be the first time) by two-letter-acronym guidebooks as one of the world's great ocean roads, I didn't have much to complain about.

The first tunnel, before the small town of Nanao (南澳), was a bit dangerous though. If you are cycling, keep a lookout for this beasty. It's poorly lit, contains road surface irregularities, and is not very wide. In addition to this, the walls are very dirty (as I found out when a kid tapped me on the shoulder in Nanao (南澳) and notified me of the fact).

At Nanao (after a post-tunnel descent in to town), I rode over to the ocean looking for a swim. I did end up having one, however the water was very dirty (visible brown scunge), and I can't recommend bothering. There were only a few lost souls along the long beach - fishing, looking for shellfish, etc.

Soon, I set out once more (with the added weight of some soaked shorts), and only got so far as the next bend in the road before stopping. I grabbed an ice-cream at a large truckstop, which (from the road, not reading much Chinese) appeared to actually be some kind of attraction in a hall. Hah!

Shortly after this stop, I stopped again - the midday heat was too much. The place I stopped was a small concrete and corrugated iron building, the type that we would call a 'shed' in Australia but can serve as a home, shop and restaurant in Asia. My host, a snoozing woman, was quite talkative, and we were eventually joined by her husband - a devout Buddhist and vegetarian. We whiled away the early afternoon hours doing nothing much - eating, drinking and talking. When it came time to leave, my hosts wouldn't accept any money, and even bestowed upon me a hat, skin-cream (for my arms were crisps), and two pairs of gloves. Taiwanese people are exceptionally friendly.

A minute or two after starting out, I was approached from behind by a professional cyclist. He didn't speak much English, but we spoke anyway. Apparently he got 19th in the last Tour de Taiwan. His cycling group soon followed. He explained that they had a support vehicle - lucky bastards! There I was on a steel-frame and fat tires carrying all my own gear (and cycling in regular clothes), and there they were on ultra-light top of the line road bikes wearing nearly naught with a support vehicle in tow! Nevertheless, I kept up with them for a while, and a bit more of a battle concluded my day in the small town of Heping (坪林). Whilst I was poking about for a never-to-eventuate vegetarian feed, I saw that the professional cyclists had stopped here too. We were all getting raw deals from the two hotels in town, but after peeling off from the group I think I managed to scrape up a decentish room for 550元... definitely more than it was worth, but less than the 700元 that my peers paid.

After a shower, I wandered around town, finding a 7-11 about the most advanced operation in town. Sporting two competing pool halls as an excuse for night life (both equally devoid of customers, save one in which I dallied for a minute or two), no vegetarian restaurants and not a single Internet cafe, the place was a positive bore. After a few stops at 7-11 to punctuate my various directional amblings, I crossed the street and collapsed at my hotel.

Day 3 : Heping, Hualian County (花蓮縣和平) to Hualian (花蓮市)

Surface: Good the whole way.

Shade: Almost none.

Traffic: Moderate.

Shoulders: Missing in parts, generous in others. In particular, there's a lot of space whilst crossing the plain in to Hualian (花蓮市).

Wind: There was an annoying breeze on the plain before Hualian (花蓮市), and I suspect that it could have been worse.

Sights: Steep plain-stopping mountains (for which Hualian is famed), the impressive entrance to Taroko Gorge.

Though I didn't start out as early as I'd have liked, it didn't seem to matter, for after passing through the first of many tunnels for the day I came upon a telltale line of cars, the rumble of bulldozers, and my cycling friends. They had been there for half an hour already... waiting for last night's landslide to be cleared away. After another half hour or so, we were back on track, and I soon saw the sign that designated the start of the 'Taroko' Gorge National Park.

Shortly thereafter, the longest tunnel of the road appeared - stretching for some 4.5km. It had a very vicious and evil sign - 'no bicycles', but it stopped neither myself nor the others who followed. At least they had a tail-protecting support-vehicle in tow, though! I stopped after the tunnel, and my cycling friends took the lead.

After a bit more winding, I had a drink stop before crossing the mouth of the 'Taroko' Gorge and flying southward over the gradually undulating plains to the outskirts of Hualian. On the way, I left the main road to investigate a building that was burning down. It had attracted quite a crowd of spectators, not to mention a fire brigade that had all but given up an extinguishing much other than a pile of ashes.

On arrival in Hualian, I saw my friend's bikes and paused for some sustenance at a bakery they'd selected. I was shown the vegetarian fare, and other than a dubious rice-wrapped 'something', it was all quite nice - definitely miles ahead of the Han bakeries in Yunnan, China! I washed down my pastry stodge with some cold soya-milk (冰的豆浆), and headed in to town for some Internet. It was about 8:30AM.

Later, I met up with another interesting driver who had stopped the day before. He was a tea-trader, and he showed me his office and took me to some of his clients'. He mainly imported teas from Indonesia, Sri-Lanka and Vietnam for the Taiwanese market. He gave me a room at the back of his office and I had shared a good few days in this town with a great girl that I met the next day whilst checking the town out with a coffee-shop worker girl that my tea-trading friend introduced me to.

Day 4 : Hualian (花蓮市) to Chishang, Taidong County (台東縣池上)

Surface: Good to excellent.

Shade: Almost none.

Traffic: Moderate.

Shoulders: Adequate or generous most of the way.

Wind: There was a fair breeze on some of the plains, however nothing too bad.

Sights: Mountains, sugar-cane farms, a sugar cane refinery (southern Hualian), plus the odd temple - not a great deal.

Unfortunately for me, my romantic interlude had to cease eventually, so I sailed out of town to the south one late morning at 9:30 or so. Even though I made such a late departure, I still managed to make it well over 100km down to the town of Chishang. This day was almost entirely flat, with generous shoulders (so generous, in parts, that cars used them as lanes!) and good surface all the way. I had a food and Internet brake at lunch time, stopping at the town of Huisui. The lady that ran the vegetarian restaurant at which I ate was very nice, and gave me some free springwater, guavas and nuts in addition to the meal. Taiwanese are really very friendly (or is it just vegetarians?).

There really wasn't so much to report on this day .. just a long hard slog through fields of rice, sugar cane, etc. Some headwind towards the end of the day, but not a lot.

Day 5 : Chishang, Taidong County (台東縣池上) to Taidong (台東市)

Surface: Route 197 has a terrible surface for most of its length, at least between Chishang and LuYeh. I think this is slowly being remedied, though it will likely take years.

Shade: Patches on 197, little on route 9 until the pass through to Taidong.

Traffic: Almost none on route 197, with traffic on route 9.

Shoulders: Missing on 197, though it's no problem due to a total lack of traffic. Adequate or generous for most of route 9, with some sqeueezes.

Wind: There was a fairly strong breeze blowing northward through the pass to Taidong.

Sights: Rice fields, a lookout tower, mountains, and pineapple farms.

I decided to take 'route 197' out of town, instead of the standard 'route 9' that I'd been on since Yilan. I was in for a bit of variation and it looked like a less used / quicker-as-the-crow-flies route on the map, though perhaps sporting a bit of a hill in the middle.

How wrong I was!

After a fairly easy morning (with many ups, downs, and twists in the road making progress slow), it was midday and I was feeling the effects of the sun. Thus I stopped and climbed a roadside lookout tower. Here I had a peaceful few hours waiting for the afternoon to douse the sun's brilliance.

The day grew more and more painful once I set out again. Firstly, the road surface vanished entirely, and became gravel. Traffic stopped as well, and then I realised I was very low on water. There was little shade. I was sure that over the next pass, I would catch sight of Taidong (extremely close, on the map!) and I would have my final victory cruise.

Unfortunately, it never came. I grew more and more exhausted, sometimes stopping in small patches of shade, eventually starting to lick the salty sweat off my paws before continuing on. I was getting desperate for water. I caught sight of some power lines, and noted that they dipped down around the next bend. Surely, that was Taidong!

Alas... it wasn't, and I was greeted with the most spaced-out valley and switchback-laden part of my gruelling course. This part was slow going. I'd say I did about 2km in around an hour. Eventually conquering the stretch, I saw two cars at the pass through to the other side. I grew excited - maybe they would have some water! ... but alas, the cars were empty, and so were the waste-bottles by the cars at the roadside (if they weren't, I would have drunk from them!).

At this point the road surface came back to some semblance of normalcy - rock-laden dirt. That was heaven compared to the previous stretch, and I was pleased to have some traction again. The road here was fairly straight compared to the previous portion as well, and even sported some downhill portions (I was way above the valley below, now). I did about 2-3km in maybe 20min, which was an excellent speed compared to the earlier section.

Then I stumbled across some road-workers - hooray for road workers! They gave me water (without even a hello, the guy asked if I had no water!) and didn't even ask for money. God bless most Taiwanese, they're so much nicer than the dominant demographic in China (money-grubbing).

From here, it was still maybe 45minutes until I got back on to sealed road, but when I was it felt like heaven. Cruising easily down in to the valley, I left the hellish route 197 and painfully pedalled across the large and nearly-disused bridge at LuYeh to rejoin my staple route 9. At this point, I had done around 45km, and it was maybe 2:30-2:45ish.

Route 9 was then a breeze, and I stopped at the roadside for a 30元 fresh pineapple from an aboriginal-Taiwanese farmer lady. She refilled my water bottle for free, too. During my feast, I amassed a small crowd of onlookers - evidently, eating pineapple by grasping the leaves with one hand and attacking it with your jaws is not the standard mode of consumption.

After that, it was over another hill, and a long but pleasant trip down in to Taidong. There was even a Parisian tree-lined boulevard as welcome. Joy, joy, joy!

Closing waffle

My overall impressions of eastern Taiwan are that it's a scenic place to cycle, with very friendly people. The roads are good, but unfortunately there's a bit too much traffic / not enough shoulders in parts for me to give it the thumbs up over my previous mainland ride. What could be a great set of little spots for swimming (both fresh and saltwater) are hampered greatly by a lack of access paths, something which both preserves these spots for the more motivated (attention, worthy cyclists!) and disappoints the lazy (such as myself). The polluted or waveless nature of many of the beaches is also a disappointment, though I can highly recommend Fulong (福隆) in the north-east (almost directly east of Taipei) from a train-powered overnight trip that I did out of Taipei previously. Camping is possibly allowed but is definitely tolerated on the grassy areas behind Fulong beach, though before you get any 'cycle and camp around Taiwan!' ideas, I'd note that it's one of the few such camp-friendly areas I have seen in the country (this isn't to say that it's impossible - just not easy or 'the norm').

Walter Stanish
Taipei, Taiwan ROC

You can follow my other mountain biking adventures here.

Hosted at Pratyeka.