A bicycle tour is nothing like a road trip. It’s rarely a linear journey from origin to destination. It’s never a simple narrative reducible to an itinerary of meals and must-see attractions. Instead, a bike tour is a circular story, with each day a montage of idyllic landscapes, gruelling climbs, friendly locals, deserted byways, monotonous highways, bustling towns, punctured tyres, soggy misery and detours into mysterious alleys. Time moves slow enough to drink in an abundance of culture and nature. But a bike moves fast enough to experience a wide variety of settings each day. And maybe no place has a better assortment of settings than Taiwan.
“Taiwan is not a huge country,” says Frank Hou, the international manager for the touring arm of Giant, a beloved local brand that’s the world’s largest manufacturer of bicycles and owns most of cycling retail shops here. “It’s a small island, so in one day you can ride from the ocean to the mountains.” He proudly emphasises how safe the country is. Vrooming scooters are locals’ preferred transport, so car drivers are used to keeping close watch in their side mirrors. And Taiwan has one of the lowest crime rates on earth, so cyclists can carry the lightest of bike locks.
But the thing that has drawn me to Taiwan is its citizens’ love for all things cycling. “Most Taiwanese have three things they must do in their life,” says Hou. “Climb up Jade Mountain, swim across the Sun Moon Lake, and ride all the way around Taiwan. It’s the mission for Taiwanese people.” It’s this national pride that’s led the government to cover the landmass in dedicated lanes and scenic cycleways, complete with rest stops and service stations for circumnavigators. Murals of happy bikers decorate schools and bridges. And police stations give out free water and allow tourers to pitch tents in their front gardens.
To discover why cycling has captured the heart of an island I adore, I’ve decided to ride down the East Coast from Taipei to Kaohsiung. Famed for generally traffic-free roads, aboriginal culture and the beguiling beauty of the East Rift Valley, the route is a favourite for cycling-obsessed travellers.
Day 1, 8:15am
Fog encircles Taipei 101, the city’s 510-metre postmodernist totem. The spire guides me eastward along a winding bike path hugging an estuary of the Tamsui River. I weave past sports fields, meadows and the Muzha Zoo, one of Asia’s largest. Soon, the metropolis recedes as my fresh legs furiously pedal up the 106, a treelined mountain highway with few cars and lots of wildlife. As I climb, I’m cooled by a light rain and accompanied by a small flock of Formosan magpies, who glide above, trailing long, blue tailfeathers. A pink-faced macaque pokes out of the forest to give me a grunt before swinging back into the dense vegetation.
Day 1, 11:10am
When I called Simon Foster, the Taiwan manager for Grasshopper Adventures, for advice, he warned against making each day a race from hotel to hotel. “We view bike touring as a way to experience Taiwan,” he said. “If there’s something nice to see, stop and see it.” And so I’ve taken a long detour to loop around the quaint mountain town of Shifen. The area is best known for its Niagara-like waterfall and a charming shopping street bisected by a railway. Known as Shifen Old Street, it’s home to dozens of shops selling massive sky lanterns. Every few minutes, another floats up into the sky, carrying with it the hopes of tourists who have spent NTD $150 (about S$7) for the honour. It’s a bargain for dreams coming true. As the sky fills with wish-granting lanterns, I can’t help but feel I’m in a dream.
Day 2, 12:51pm
Stomach grumbling, I pass by noodle shops, a Mexican taqueria and an African restaurant, but stop when I see a long queue in front of a literal hole in a wall on Hualien’s Fuxing Street. Two women are frying scallion pancakes and stuffing them full of deep-fried eggs and hot sauce. Customers seem happy to wait for the greasy street snacks, so I get in line. As nobody at Lao Pi speaks English, a helpful neighbour rushes over to translate for the famished foreigner wrapped in Lycra. “How many do you want?” “Two… make that three.” Cycling 120 kilometres a day is hungry work and the satiating morsels are the perfect fuel to power me further south and into the Rift Valley, the crown jewel of the East Coast.
Day 2, 2:15pm
This is why the Taiwanese love to ride, I think as I roll alongside emerald green rice paddies and through picturesque villages tucked into cloud-filled ravines. Each East Rift Valley town has a network of seductive cycle paths, where unexpected treasures are hidden away from car-accessible roads. In the town of Fenglin, I stop to admire old Osaka-style tobacco-processing buildings built during the Japanese occupation. Hungry again, I then sprint to the Hualien Sugar Factory, where souvenir stores sell crafts made by local aboriginal tribes. More importantly, a busy shop here sells the East Coast’s most famous ice cream. I wolf down two scoops of taro, hop back on, and ride with hands stretched to the sky, basking in the day’s sunshine.
Day 3, 12:26pm
Bike de Koffee is a cutesy café in Chishang, an arty town that hosts music concerts in the surrounding rice fields during the summer months. As I sip a perfectly brewed cappuccino and munch a homemade bagel made from local rice flour, I watch sizeable groups of cyclists alighting from the train station across the avenue. They’re likely heading to the bikeway where I spent my morning. The converted railway connects the towns of Yuli and Dongli, meandering through farmland and over a bridge that marks the fault line dividing the Philippine and Eurasian tectonic plates. As I ride through clouds of butterflies and past sublime views of the valley, I become convinced this is the greatest stretch of bikeway on the East Coast, if not the whole of Asia.
Day 3, 3:16pm
Enormous fields of wildflowers and mighty river deltas line the road up to Luye Highland, a squat, circular mount filled with teahouses, kids flying rented kites and Instagrammable views of the valley below. From late June, the hill hosts the Taiwan International Balloon Festival and will be filled with hot air balloons for 10 weeks. After sipping a local oolong, I plunge down the backside of the hill, through pineapple fields and up into the foothills of the Central Mountains. Hidden away on an unmarked road, the Bunun Tribal Leisure Farm is an aboriginal cultural centre devoid of tourists but filled with magic. Huge wooden carvings peer at me as I cycle up the drive, and a gaggle of giggling children do their best to say hello in English and show me how to weave bracelets with indigenous patterns.
Day 3, 5:15pm
It should only be a quick ride to Taitung, where I’ll soon be refuelling in the night market with trayfuls of takoyaki (fried octopus balls) and bowlfuls of stinky tofu, Taiwan’s notorious fermented street treat. The sun is getting low, as is my energy, but today has taught me that a bike journey should never follow the shortest, easiest course. So when I see a small side street leading up a steep hill, I give in to temptation and deviate from the straight shot to the city. At the top of the exhausting climb is Yuan Sen, a botanic garden and hotpot restaurant. I’m having too much fun to stop, so I fly right by towards a country road pointing sharply downhill. My bike wheels begin to spin faster, around and around. Like a five-year-old boy, I pump the pedals, release the brakes and let out a joyous howl.
Day 3, 5:33pm
Swooping down a steep, serpentine road, I lean into the curves, I whoop in delight, I forget the pain burning in my legs. The descent seems endless, as do the vistas of the Taitung Plain, which occasionally whiz by as I veer through a series of technical switchbacks that demand all my attention. The world is painted in electric blue; the sun is submerged behind the Central Mountain Range but not yet beneath the horizon. Gradually, my bike slows. Gradually, my heartbeat slows. Gradually, the country roads turn into city streets. And not for the first time, I think a cycling story could be better told in verse than prose.
Tips for travel on two wheels
- It’s tempting to pop in headphones when cycling all day. But don’t. It’s unsafe and discourages locals from talking to you. Instead of missing out on memorable interactions, disconnect and let your mind meditate to the sound of wheel rubber massaging the tarmac. Save that audiobook for the hotel room.
- Keep waterproof trousers at the ready even on cloudless days. While you might think you look super sexy in your Lycra cycling shorts, it’s polite to show some modesty when hopping off the bike for an upscale lunch or museum visit.
- Unless you’re zooming down a mountainside at 80kph, white-knuckled hands latched onto handlebars and eyes glued to the road, etiquette demands that you wave and smile at riders passing in the opposite direction. Enjoy cycling’s sense of camaraderie.
- A multi-day bike tour is a fun way to strengthen your legs and improve your cardiovascular health, but be wary of using the trip to lose weight. Keep your body well fuelled with calories, or you might find yourself stranded in the middle of nowhere with no energy.
- Want all the adventure but none of the hassles? Consider a self-guided tour organised by a cycling travel agency. They’ll transport luggage between hotels, swoop in to fix a broken bike, and supply bike computers with suggestions for picture-perfect routes and sweet spots to stop along the way.
Day 4, 10:12am
The roads south of Taitung are lined with custard-apple stands. But the narrow farming roads soon converge into the four-lane Highway 9. The only road between Taitung and points further south, 9 is a traffic-filled exception to the East Coast’s otherwise bike-friendly reputation. A steady stream of Taiwanese tourers, halfway through their anti-clockwise around-the-island circuit, pass in the opposite direction. Some shout encouragement as I slog up long steady inclines. The so-called bike lane is just a tiny shoulder with only centimetres of safety on either side. To the right is a perilous, metre-deep drainage ditch. To the left, lorries brush by at 120kph.
Day 5, 1:50pm
On a bike tour, you can spend hours contemplating road surfaces. Silky asphalt, capricious gravel, vibratory cobbles. Roads speak to your hands on the bars, your feet on the pedals and your backside on the saddle. The roads that crisscross the Linhai Industrial Park, 15 kilometres south of Kaohsiung, are made of macadam, which speaks in the raspy voice of an old cigar smoker. The loose pebbles joggle when heavy-equipment vehicles roll past post-apocalyptic power plants and chemical factories. Google Maps has led me astray again, but I don’t care. I relish riding through strange, forgotten areas far from the tourist trail. This misadventure reveals the unfathomable scale of Taiwan’s manufacturing sector. I wave at all the dump truck drivers, who, not used to foreign cyclists flitting through this forest of smokestacks, give me wide grins, waves and thumbs up.
Day 5, 2:58pm
So as to not get grease on other travellers’ luggage, I loosely wrap my bike with sheets of cardboard a bus driver found lying around the station. Taiwan’s high-speed rail system only accepts folding bikes or those packed in boxes, so instead I return to Taipei on a considerably slower Kuo Kuang Bus. After five days of slow travel, I appreciate the unhurried pace as I stare longingly out the window at West Coast roads I want to ride. My tired knees disagree, but my heart know this journey has been too short. As we approach the capital’s glowing skyline, crowned by the immense Taipei 101, I promise my beloved Taiwan that I’ll be back. I’ll climb its Jade Mountain. I’ll swim its Sun Moon Lake. I’ll complete the 1,000-kilometre loop atop a bicycle.
This trip (and all photography) was undertaken before the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Please check the establishments’ respective websites for opening hours as well as booking and seating requirements before visiting, and remember to adhere to safe-distancing measures while out and about.