Cycling in Taiwan: the long read

Cycling ‘the beautiful Island’

I’m puffing and sweating while climbing to the next corner. It’s not easy to cycle in this sultry, stuffy weather, this mountain I’m cycling on is situated on an island sharing the same climate as Hawaii. The air wraps me like a thick warm blanket while I make my way to the top. Fortunately, my trip is accompanied by a serenade of hundreds of exotic birds, hidden in the intense green trees that decorate both sides of the road. I round the corner, I’ve been climbing non-stop for the last two hours, rising now about 1000 meters above sea level. My calves are burning, but the top is near. I finish the climb and I stand of top of the mountain, looking down on vast green forests on rocky mountains. I realize why the Portuguese called this island “Ilha Formosa; the beautiful island. Welcome in Taiwan.

East coast
My cycling journey started in the far south-east corner of Taiwan, where I picked up my rental bike. Taiwan, the country that produces virtually all Giant bikes, has a great network of rental Giant Bikes; every big town has a rental place and you can drop them off anywhere you want, which is my plan. I will cycle across, through and over Taiwan from Taitung in the south east to Taipei in the North, where I my flight back to the Netherlands will leave.
The first leg of the journey is a 200 kilometer ocean road, hugging the pacific ocean on the right side and squeezed between the beaches and the mountains on the left side. During the two days that I am cycling this road, clouds constantly roll against the mountains, dropping their content on the green slopes, luckily I keep it dry. I’m not the only one who is enjoying this road, every so many kilometers there are designated cycling resting stops and I constantly encounter locals on Giant bikes, who have rented the bicycle for the weekend. It’s great to see how Taiwan is blossoming in cycling culture, there a numerous organized trips and races across the island. It’s becoming more popular to do as a sport activity too, which I totally understand given the rich and diverse landscape.
After cycling for 80 kilometers I make a left turn and hit the first mountain range, I’m crossing it to cycle in the lowlands of the Yuli Township. This is kind of a bowl formed by brute forces of nature; the Eurasian plate and the Filipino plate crashed into each other, forcing the heavier Eurasian plate to dive under the Filipino plate, creating vast mountain ranges and this bowl. Interestingly enough, the same process happens on the other side of the Eurasian plate; which is forming Iceland. In that sense, Taiwan and Iceland are siblings.

Taroko gorge
I leave the lowlands of the east coast behind me and prepare to dive into the mountains. First I will cycle a leg through the ‘Taroko gorge’, or in the local language ‘the magnificent gorge’. This is also highly loved by local Taiwanese cyclists, together with a couple cyclists I cycle about 40 kilometers through this area. The day is filled with breaks; I’m taking a lot of pictures of temples, the river or the scenery. Because of the steep rocks, it’s been left untouched by humans, creating a dramatic grey backdrop with dark green trees and forages dotted along the road. I left my Taiwanese friends for one more climb to the hotel; just one more steep climb before I can rest my legs and start to devour some delicious local dishes.

Sun Moon lake
A couple days later I arrive at a place dubbed one of the most beautiful cycle places on earth, well that raises the expectations! It’s a azure colored lake, black asphalt and local indigenous culture stretching back thousands of years. It’s sun moon lake. The two islands in the middle of the lake are holy and represent the sun and the moon; looking from the top it’s easy to see how the lake represented the sky and the islands the sun and the moon. I run into a French cyclist who has been cycling around the world for the latter two years and we discuss the beauty of the lake; it’s amazing cycling but a little too touristic for our taste.
The local government has built a flat cycling lane along the lake, now young, old, sporty, not so sporty people can enjoy cycling at this special place. The pace is too low for me on this road and I dive back into the mountains surrounding the lake, it’s a challenging road rounding the lake; filled with steep small climbs, post card-esque views over the lake. The lake also lives up to its name; the sun finally breaks through the grey skies. It’s sunny, the lake is intense blue, the roads are smooth, I get my first tan of this year, what else can I wish for?

Silence
Silence. Personally I prefer places that don’t appear in ‘listicles’ or in travel magazines. Therefore I only stayed for one day at the lake before choosing the quiet roads back north again. Along palm tree plantations, I cycle through quiet little villages, where I can observe life. The older men sitting on the side walk staring to the world unfolding in front of them, the women hanging the washed clothes on communal lines, men drying exotic looking mushrooms, little boys fooling around with a scooter. It’s because of my bike that I can have a look into the daily life of others on the unexplored roads. This what makes life interesting on the bicycle; it feels like cycling through a filmset. I’m bombarded with scenes from a different lifestyle, completely opposite of my own life world. No all-inclusive holiday can top this; the adventurous and exotic way of travelling on the bicycle. These days are the exact reason why I pedal across distant societies; I cycle therefore I am.
I have another 200 kilometers to go before flying back to the Netherlands. In the last two days I cycle straight across the country Northbound. I climb mountains, descend to rivers, climb again through forests. Some of those I don’t encounter anyone on the road. I sweat and puff in silence on these climbs, enjoying the vast views on intense green forests. The roads are butter smooth; there are enough hairpins to keep the gradient below a reasonable level and ensure enough viewpoints along the route.
Urban jungle
The last day I decide to save my tired legs to follow the West coast of the island back to Taipei. I descend from the mountain ranges and end up in the low lands of the west. I completely forgot that the 23 million people living on an island little bigger than Belgium have to live somewhere that isn’t in the mountains. Because the west coast is closer to mainland china, it has been historically denser populated because of the trade networks. It’s basically one urban jungle from South to North.
Unfortunately it is a wrong decision, I had to stay in the mountains. I dash through chaotic cities, constantly claiming space on the road from the dozens of scooters swarming around me every traffic light. Just in case I wear a mask, although my lungs have accustomed to the stuffy climate, I do want to save them from the polluting exhausts.

Between the big cities I encounter some of the beautiful 80,000 temples that cover the island. These are extremely useful places for a (lunch) break. Just before entering Taoyuan (the city with the international airport), I have to climb one more hill. The traffic gets suddenly quiet, the sound of the small stream next to the road fills the air and I push my legs the final time the conquer another hill. It’s the last dance with the landscape before entering the chaotic traffic of Taoyuan. On the hectic streets I return my bike, which I picked up 600 kilometers down south and take the cab to the airport. During the entire flight I think back on my 10 day trip in Taiwan, I will have a look at the pictures later. It’s time to digest this rich cycling adventure halfway across the world.

There are direct flights from Amsterdam to Taiwan. Renting a bike costs about 7,50 a day. The Taiwan Tourism Bureau organizes in cooperation with Giant Bikes all inclusive cycling tips across the Island. There are also some mountain challenges, the King of the Mountain is the toughest of entire Asia; covering 100km and 6000 altitude meters in one day.

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