Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Cycling around Taiwan: Prologue

Taiwan is an island. So is Australia. One day I'd like to ride all the way around Australia but right now I don't have the essential luxuries I need to attempt that. However, Taiwan is much smaller and cycling all the way around it is much cheaper and won't take six months. In fact, depending on how fast you are able to cycle (which in turn depends on things like your physical condition, the weather, what kind of bicycle you have and how much gear you need to take with you) you could cycle around Taiwan in as few as four days. You might be able to do it in fewer days but I don't know what the record is. However, most average people attempting this feat will probably take around 7-14 days.

It would be a terrible shame for someone who loves riding their bicycle (i.e., me) to have lived in Taiwan and not spent a long week just traveling around the country only as fast as their two legs carried them on two wheels. The island really does offer a diverse landscape of different terrains, climates, local specialty foods, cultures, and random encounters with its inhabitants. My desire became a reality in February and March of this year when I cycled with my two friends, John and Andrea, around the country. Our big break came with the Chinese New Year vacation of 2010. We were all freed from our employment obligations for two weeks; Good time in which to make the most of brakes, chains, gear levers, handlebars, pedals, spokes, tires, and saddles. We started out from our home base in the city of Tainan on the south-western coast on the 9th of February and started cycling anti-clockwise around the island. Unfortunately a series of three cold fronts was on the way and it was only a matter of time before their paths crossed with ours. After three days of wind and rain we were forced to abort our peregrination in Hsinchu, within one or two days of Tainan. We were despondent.

Almost one month later we were in Hsinchu again, setting off to complete our circumnavigation of Taiwan. We rode all through the night and into the morning until once again we were standing outside our apartment building having our photo taken by one of the security guards: A 'finished' photo to mate with our 'before' photo. The photo showed the three of us looking more or less the same as we had over five weeks earlier. What it failed to capture was how we had been enriched by our experiences: the people we had met, the time we friends had spent together, and all the beauty of this remarkable place that we had been steeped in.

This series of thirteen posts and the accompanying map at Bikemap.com describe our journey. We hope that it may inspire other ordinary people wanting to experience something extraordinary.

My friends on this journey:

The beautiful and very capable Andrea.

The dashing and charismatic John.

Me. That was a stupid idea.


  • John has also blogged this trip although he has included edited video sequences on his page here.
  • I have retraced our route and left remarks and photos on the Bikemap website here.
  • I have written up some useful advice for anybody touring around Taiwan by bicycle. You can find that information on my page about cycling in Taiwan.

On the eve of the first day of the big ride, I do some last-minute packing in our living area.

Cycling around Taiwan: Day 1: Tainan to Chaojhou

Start of Day 1: February 9.
Location: An-ping district (安平區), Tainan City (台南).

Andrea prepares one of the essential stays of our expedition: 'gorp' or trail mix; a great form of slow-release energy food; nice and easy on the stomach and bowels and a guard against the potential for gastrointestinal complications caused by the sometimes caustic mix of eating a lot of questionable food and long-distance cycling. By the way, a lot of people believe that the term 'gorp' originates as an acronym for Good Old Raisins and Peanuts but this may not be true according to Michael Quinion.

The requisite before photo, expected to be matched up later with an after photo. We began pedaling at about 8:25 in the morning. It was a foggy, hazy morning and the sun was only a warm glow in the sky. The roads were quite busy. It felt good to finally be starting out on an adventure we'd been talking about for months.

A stop in Kaohsiung for lunch: hearty beef noodles and fruit teas with a lot of pulp.

A major intersection in Kaohsiung with cool architectural features. John always says that Kaohsiung is so cool. Obviously.

Down the road from Kaohsiung we stopped at a 7-11 for a rest and refreshment stop. Sitting out in front of the convenience store, we admired the local architecture adorning this provincial highway.

Sitting outside the 7-eleven. From left to right: A bag of gorp; me; Open-Chan!, the 7-eleven mascot.

Sitting outside the 7-eleven.

Further down the road, I noticed how strangely beautiful is the blending of this river fringed by aquatic flora and southern Kaohsiung's heavy industry.

Heading south, the central mountain range looms far ahead through the haze.

After cycling through the town of Linyuan down the No.17 Highway we discover that the bridge over the Gaoping river is closed due to maintenance and repair and so we must find another way across. We re-route up the No.21 and onto the No.88 which will take us across the river.

One of the many, many bathroom stops of the journey. John seems particularly pleased with this one. With exposure you build up a collection of expectations about what bathrooms are like in gas stations and conveniences stores and it is nice when you are pleasantly surprised. Some gas-station bathrooms even exhibit potted plants and perpetually smell of flowers.

Reconnoitering in the township of Chaojhou in search of dinner.

End of day 1: February 9. Location: Chaojhou (潮州鄉), Pingdong county (屏東縣). Distance on my electronic odometer: 100km. Accommodation: cheap hotel close to the downtown area. Remarks: didn't sleep well due to fireworks, nasty diarrhoea (those afflicted will remain anonymous to save embarrassment), and mid-sleep leg cramps causing the victim/s to suddenly leap out of bed (anonymous again).

Cycling around Taiwan: Day 2: Chaojhou to Kenting

Start day 2: February 10. Location: Chaojhou Township (潮州鄉), Pingdong county (屏東縣). Remarks: Woke up at 7:10am. Ate a breakfast consisting of our trail mix and a few things from 7-11.

The sun rising over the central mountain range as viewed from atop our hotel in Chaojhou.

We breakfasted at a local establishment called 7-Eleven.  This photo illustrates a typical breakfast on our cycling trip: fresh local fruit purchased the previous evening, yoghurt, our gorp or trail mix, and some milk into which the gorp can be added.  The carrot in the photo is a bit random and was something I brought with me from home.  I intended to munch as we rode down the highway but unfortunately [I think] I sat it on my bike rack from where it promptly fell off as soon as we started cycling.  Poor carrot.

Getting closer to Pingdong.  It was a beautiful day with a clear blue sky from where the sun beat down mercilessly upon us.  It was a relief to find this shelter overlooking a beautiful little cove where we sat and consolidated some of our stamina.

We rolled into Kenting Township and were stopped at a set of traffic lights when a woman approached us to solicit our patronage at her establishment, some kind of hotel or homestay.  Doubtfully, we followed her back to the hotel.  We were a little taken aback to discover that what she was offering us was actually a lot nicer than what we would have considered probable.  Clean, airy, and stylish, the place definitely had a touch of the Mediterranean about it.  It only cost us NT$400 per person for the night and they even did our laundry for free.  What you cannot see in the photo is the water machine, the refrigerator, the bathroom, or the huge flat-screen TV.

Kenting nightlife along the main street through town.

At night the place really comes alive and the main street is lined with little stalls selling all kinds of things or offering all kinds of services like massages and games.

Out in front of a seafood restaurant, this man knows how to make a dead fish look good.  He uses skewers to prop up their fins.  He's obviously had a lot of practice at this.  However, his mastery with the skewer wasn't enough to entice us inside and instead we ate at a Thai restaurant on the main street after which we slept soundly.

End of day 2: February 10. Location: Kenting Township (崁頂鄉), Pingdong County (屏東縣). Distance on my electronic odometer: 177km. Accommodation: cheap but very nice hotel down a little alleyway off the main road of Kenting Township; NT$400 pp. Remarks: We slept well after a feast at the Thai restaurant on the main street.

Cycling around Taiwan: Day 3: Kenting to Dawu

Start day 3: February 11. Location: Kenting Township (崁頂鄉), Pingdong County (屏東縣). Remarks: Woke up at 5:00am. We were out on the street and ready to ride at 6:25, just as the sun was coming up. The street was quiet and deserted, lined with empty carts and stalls; quite a contrast from the party atmosphere of the night before. A fresh breeze and a few small clouds in the sky saw us on our way.

Out on the main street of Kenting Township at daybreak.  After a short ride we would be getting close to the southernmost point of Taiwan.

And here it is: a map of the southernmost point showing both of the southern capes of Kenting National Park.  This map can be found on the monument marking the You Are Here area in the photo above.

John and Andrea at the beginning of the pathway from the main road down to the southernmost monument.  It was still very early in the morning when we arrived and the early morning light is quite pale.

We arrived at the monument to find that several other people were already there admiring the new day from the bottom of Taiwan.  As soon as we walked out along the short boardwalk they seemed to disappear, leaving us alone with an almost invisible armada of small black insects that just wouldn't go away.

A bit of logistical flimdiggery by John allowed us to get a good group shot.

And what can you see from the monument that stands at the southernmost point of Taiwan?  If you are a big fan of algae, rocks, and beach sand then you're in for a treat.  If bars, amusement parks, and coffee shops are more your thing then you probably wouldn't hang around here for very long.
As you cycle back up to the main road you pass this place.  It twigged some vague sense of familiarity when I saw it but it wasn't until much later, after we returned home, that I saw it on the Central Weather Bureau web site up in the top-left corner.  It's some kind of weather station.  That big green thing also makes land-marking much easier on Google Earth.

Just around the corner on the main road is this cemetery from where the top of the Eluanbi Lighthouse may be seen.

Around the cape along the main road you come to Longpan Park.  There's not a lot here apart from some stunning views and beautiful scenery.  And that's enough...

Rocks, grass, dirt, and opportunities for taking some great photos.  Damn, that is a great photo.

More stunning seaside scenery.  A small settlement in the distance stands out whitely and brightly in the clear light.

At about 8:45 we arrived at the small town of Manjhou where we sat ourselves down at the local Beautiful Breakfast eatery and completed stage two of our morning repast, fueling us for the long day of cycling that still lay ahead.

A wonderful shot that epitomizes small-town-Taiwan takeaway breakfast.

A panorama of one side of a valley the no.200 enters after Manjhou.

We detoured off the 200 intending to follow the road that would take us through the Jiupeng Desert.  After passing through what seemed like a very quiet stretch of narrow road, anxiously avoiding the oxen grazing untethered on and next to the road, we discovered that the road no longer runs to the Jiupeng Desert, having been cut off by a water-course.  However, if you examine the area on Google Maps, you can see the shadow of the road as it used to be, continuing on the other side of the washout.

At about 2:30 in the afternoon we came upon the small village of Syuhai and discovered that some enterprising people had set up a cafe with a menu containing lots of the kind of food that we like to eat.  We stuffed ourselves and then relaxed, taking in the laid back charm of Taiwanese rural life while some local men killed a huge pig trussed up on a pole.  The pig did not go quietly.  We did.

Local fauna on the 199.

On the 199 in the mid-afternoon sun.  We posed for a group shot.

At the junction of county road no.199 and provincial highway no.9 at the border of Taidong County.  For some reason people regard this junction as rather significant; it was covered all over with the signatures and scrawls of many a passerby.  I guess it is the official start of the 199 that runs from here at Shouka to Checheng on the west coast.

Very close by the junction there is a wall that begs for posers.  Luckily we brought a couple along.

More local fauna; this time, some kind of moth.  We found them clinging to the pole under the distance marker.

A fine feast in Dawu.

End of day 3: February 11. Location: Dawu Township (大武鄉), Taidong County (台東縣). Distance on my electronic odometer: 284km. Accommodation: a homestay (more like a hotel) next to the 7-11 on the main highway running through town; NT$400 pp. Remarks: We arrived in Dawu (and the coast) after flying downhill from Shouka, covering about 10km very quickly. Tried to find a place to set up our tents but to no avail.

Cycling around Taiwan: Day 4: Dawu to Taidong

Start day 4: February 12. Location: Dawu Township (大武鄉), Taidong County (台東縣). Remarks: In the morning we looked outside to discover that the blue skies had been replaced with heavy cloud-cover. We started cycling at about 8am. A kilometre from the homestay I put on my cheap plastic raincoat but it turned me into a sail and slowed me to a crawl. With some difficulty I took it off again and we persevered into the headwind.

Overcast skies, a big road, and a beach made of grey rocks lined with rows of tetrapod concrete wavebreakers.  Not a great example of the beauty of the east coast.  Still, that blue ocean and those adjacent mountains offer a lot of promise.

This water course is covered with a swathe of material deposited by Typhoon Morakot in August of 2009. 

A view from the same spot, looking in the other direction towards the ocean.  Note that the house seems to have been ripped from its base and the top half with torn walls ended up in this spot.  That truck in the photo seems to have been involved in some of the construction and repair work going on in the area.

Down the road we stopped in the little town of Jinlan for our second-breakfast consisting of bananas, apples, 7-Eleven coffees and dan-bings (omelets).  Although John ordered the two dan-bings at the same time we soon received one dan bing and one toasted egg sandwich.  The mind boggles.  Anytime you order more than one of anything at the same time your chances of not getting what you asked for increase exponentially.  Actually the increase is not exponential but I threw the word in there because it sounds good.

We were greeting and being greeted by a lot of other cyclists who we saw on the road and generally getting into the spirit of cycle-touring.  Some guy in a black sedan passed by us, swerved off the road in front of us, stopped his car, wound down his window, and pumped his fist in the air shouting, "Go go go!" as we passed by.  He was certainly getting into the groove.  We were sometimes getting shouts of encouragement from other motorists but the sudden loud noises coming from cars passing close by us tended to startle us more than encourage us.

Further down the road we stopped in a small town to sample the delights of the local specialty: the sweet sop (or sugar apple or Annona Squamosa).  Andrea and I had never tried them before despite having had plenty of opportunity.  And when we did try them here we wondered why we never had before. 

It's really good.

After investing a substantial amount of time in resetting the balance of his digestive system in a gas-station bathroom John caught up with us for the ride into Taidong.  Actually getting to Taidong City seemed to drag on and on while the wind blew hard against us and blew a light rain into our faces.  The day seemed more grey and dull than when we had started out in the morning and so did the road.  When we finally, inevitably made it to the city we plonked ourselves down on a bench at a 7-Eleven, a little dispirited, and rested while we decided what to do next.  We ended up moving a short way down the street to the Madina Indian Restaurant where our spirits were buoyed by some rich cuisine while several Indian men tried to wrestle a large industrial refrigerator through a doorway at the rear of the premises.  The doorway proved to be only very slightly too small and they set about removing the frame and the door itself.

Downtown Taidong.  We checked into a hotel we had used before on our east coast trip and then spent a while recovering.  In the evening we went for a walk and a meal.

A beautiful photo of Andrea transacting with a fruit vendor on Taidong's famous Fruit Street.

End of day 4: February 12. Location: Taidong City (台東市), Taidong County (台東縣). Distance on my electronic odometer: 344km. Accommodation: a cheap hotel on the edge of the downtown core of Taidong. Remarks: The wind blew hard against us as we pedalled along the seemingly endless, dull road into Taidong. For the first time on the trip it rained on us, albeit, very lightly. Got into town and plopped down outside a 7-11 at about 2pm. After lunch at an Indian restaurant we cycled to a hotel we had stayed in on a previous trip down the east coast. Later that evening we enjoyed a walk along 'fruit street'.