In keeping with my romantic ideal of riding off into the unknown, I had no fixed route planned. All I knew was I wanted to cycle down the West Coast to the southernmost point of Taiwan, and then up the East Coast to the northernmost point.
I had printed some maps, but of the wrong road; all the maps turned out to be useless and were discarded on Day 3. What matters is that having the maps in my bag gave me the confidence to start, and then I figured it out along the way. Just goes to show that you don’t really need to know what you’re doing, as long as you’re doing something.
There were lots of blond moments, and hours spent getting lost and trying to get back on track. Twice I had to be warned by local drivers that I was about to ride onto a major expressway where bicycles were not allowed. They were kind enough to slow down, roll down their windows, and save an apparently suicidal cyclist from herself.
I’ll first show you a diagram of the whole ride, which makes it look like I knew what I was doing. Further down the page I’ll share some of the facts I learnt about Taiwan roads, which may help you navigate them more smartly than I did.
I covered significant distances each day for a total distance of 1,027 km, because all I did was ride. I started around 7am since I awoke naturally at 6am, and ended around 5pm or 6pm when it started to get dark. I also had a fast road bike, lightweight luggage, and was at the peak of my cycling fitness. You may want to adjust the daily distances if you have a heavier bike, more luggage, or don’t cycle long distances regularly.
Taoyuan International Airport
The first blond moment was when I calmly walked my bike out the main doors of Taoyuan Airport, with no idea how to get from there to Highway 61. Luckily I was stopped by 3 policemen who asked me where I was going, told me bicycles were not allowed on airport roads, held a 10 minute conference in local dialect to discuss what to do with me, and finally escorted me to a shuttle bus stop and told the driver to put me down outside Cargo Terminal 1, where public roads started and bicycles were allowed.
At the end of my ride on Day 7, I similarly rode all the way back to Taoyuan Airport until the bike lane disappeared and drivers started honking at me to get off the road. This time I was prepared. I got onto the footpath and walked my bike the last few kilometres to the airport, ending up in a cargo loading area. The security guards were surprised to see a girl on a bike, but were happy enough to walk me to a cargo lift that took me to the departure terminal.
The smarter thing to have done, of course, was to check into a nearby hotel and start and end the ride there rather than at the airport. You should probably do that instead of what I did. But if you insist on riding off from the airport, I suggest you look for those 3 very helpful policemen. Oh, and please tell them I said thanks.
High Speed Rail (HSR) stations
By the way, bicycles are also not allowed on roads around HSR stations. In one of my many clueless wanderings, I accidentally rode into the HSR station in Taichung on Day 3. I had my first inkling I was in trouble when the bike lane suddenly disappeared. Then I noticed that there were no normal cars but only taxis queueing on the roads, and thought “Uh oh, this looks familiar… just like the airport!” By now I knew enough to get out of there before another 3 policemen found me and had to have another conference. I sped past the taxi queue and headed away from the building, ignoring the surprised looks of many cabbies. One of them started to move off and I thought he was going to come after me, but as I was also riding against the flow of traffic I got lucky and made my escape before causing any mayhem.
The west coast
My original intention to stick to the coastal Highway 61 all the way down the West Coast was abandoned on Day 2. The policemen at the airport had told me it was too desolate and recommended Public Road 1 instead, which passed through all the major cities where I would have places to eat and stay at night. Of course they were right, which I realised after charging down Highway 61 on Day 1 and admitting I was better off nearer civilisation in case I ran into trouble.
The west coast contains the industrial belt of Taiwan, and the views are generally not pretty. Windmills dot the coast, and as long as I saw them on my right, I knew I was heading in the right direction (south).
It took me two days to realise that there are two Number 1 roads in Taiwan that run from north to south. I had been trying to follow the wrong one, resulting in all sorts of headaches because bicycles are not allowed on this freeway, and I kept getting spit out onto smaller roads and getting lost in the confusing intersections.
Although my initial intention had been to skirt the major cities to avoid the traffic, I ended up riding through all of them just by following Blue Triangle Public Road 1, which I had learnt was the safest and most direct path to the south. In the end I was glad to have experienced the heart of Taiwan where most Taiwanese live and work. I touched the pulse of the country, and it felt so alive.
Scooters and bicycles share the same road lane, so anywhere you see a scooter go, it’s safe to follow. At major intersections, they know the side lanes that take us in a wide loop around the intersection and deposit us back onto the road when it is safe. Scooters became my friends, and I felt like I was in a Harry Potter Chamber of Secrets movie, except that my mantra was “follow the scooters” instead of “follow the spiders.”
There’s a tricky junction as you approach Kenting in the south. I was fortunate to bump into a local cyclist who told me the right way to go. By this time I had had enough sense knocked into me to stop at major junctions to figure out what to do instead of blindly blundering on. He found me munching on a banana staring at the road signs, and stopped for a chat and to offer guidance.
The east coast
The east coast is more straightforward in terms of navigation as there’s usually only one main road to follow. The weather is more cheery, the roads more hilly, the views more pretty. At the same time, the people seemed more frazzled, the traffic more dangerous, and the atmosphere more commercial.
The 7-11 counter staff were more curt than the friendly ones on the west coast, probably as they had too many demanding tourists to serve. Gone were the friendly scooters, replaced by big bad roaring motorcycles and bigger badder speeding tour buses. The pretty east coast of Taiwan is what you’ll see in publicity material, yet there seemed to be more tourists than Taiwanese here. I missed the realness of the west coast with real people rushing to real jobs and living real lives. I missed my scooters.
From Eluanbi at the southernmost point, Public Road 26 took me northwards via the east coast. The climbing starts immediately, and on the coast the winds are strong. I had to remove my cap as the wind kept slamming the visor flat over my eyes so I couldn’t see. My bike was also blown all over the road. I found that I had better control when I kept pedalling, so when going downhill I braked and pedalled at the same time to reduce speed while maintaining traction.
Soon after the windy section, the road turns inward so I was protected from the wind. The price to pay is two small mountains to climb which last for the first 80km. The first is gentler, the second steeper but also shorter. At the bottom of the second climb is a 7-11 where I had lunch, and it’s a good thing I did for there were no more refuelling points for the next 30km.
Between Taidong and Hualien, there are very few refuelling points along the 160km route. The first 7-11 appeared only 70km after I left Taidong. About 125km after leaving Taidong (or 35km before reaching Hualien), the tunnels begin. When you see the first short tunnel, turn on all your lights because there are a few long dark tunnels coming up. There are narrow bike lanes through the tunnels so it is relatively safe, but I still tried to get through the tunnels as quickly as I could.
After Hualien is the infamous Suhua Highway. Technically bicycles are not allowed, and while some cyclists risk it anyway to complete the circumnavigation of Taiwan, I decided my priority was to live to ride another day. I had seen how the tour buses on the east coast drive, often swerving into the bike lane in their hurry to get to the next tourist photo spot. The Suhua Highway has no bike lane (so vehicles won’t be expecting bicycles), many long tunnels, and narrow roads built into the cliff with occasional steep drops without protective barriers. I had promised loved ones to come home alive and so took the train instead, which takes 110 minutes cover the 97km to Yilan.
The north coast
The north coast is cold, windy, and rainy. Yet it is beautiful in a haunting, desolate way. It is remote, and I was lucky not to have any mechanical problems here, as there were only fishing villages and no cities to find a bike shop. The people ceased to understand me and I them, as the dialect was coarse and very different from the Mandarin and Hokkien spoken everywhere else.
My one day cycling in the north was my hardest, most miserable day. I stopped for a hot coffee as a respite from the cold, which was a mistake as I couldn’t stop shaking when I got back on my bike after my body had cooled down. The same thing happened after I stopped for lunch. The rest of the day I just kept pedalling to keep warm. I didn’t dare stop for more than a few minutes for a banana, and moved off before my body lost too much heat. This strategy worked quite well, though I pulled a calf muscle by the end of the day from pushing so hard for so long.
At the same time, perhaps because the landscape was so surreal and the effort so numbing, I felt transported into a different world – one where my soul was laid bare and I was forced to confront who I was. It is hard to describe without sounding weepy and sentimental. Yet as I’m writing this 10 days after the trip, it is the raw emotion of that day that stays with me.
From Yang Ming Shan, I followed the signs towards Taipei and traffic became heavy even on the outskirts. Rather than going into the city to spend the night, I decided to bypass the traffic and head straight for the airport to try to catch the last flight home at 8:40pm, since it was only 40km away and I knew I could make it if I kept riding. However, one bag strap broke on a busy bridge where I had to stop in the middle of peak hour traffic and find a way to re-attach it to my saddle. Then I got a bit lost and the other strap broke just as I found Route 15 to Taoyuan. That was another 10-15 minutes of fiddling around finding a way to re-attach the bag.
Route 15 runs almost parallel to Highway 61, and most of the vehicles are on Highway 61 so bicycles are safe on the emptier road, except that there are also no street lights on this road and it was 7pm and dark and raining by this time. As I had my heart set on catching the plane home that night, I flew down the last 20km with my eyes on the road and my heart in my mouth. It was the most frightening and thrilling ride of my life!
I got to the airport, retrieved my bike box, packed up the bike, and ran pushing it to the departure hall. I was probably the wettest customer to ever walk up to a Jetstar check-in counter. The boarding for the flight had closed 20 minutes before I got there, and it was tantalising to think of the plane still on the tarmac and having time to run to it but not being allowed to. I was so worn down that I plonked myself down to wait for the shuttle bus to the Novotel Airport Hotel which was nearest. The thoughtful driver insisted I not stay there as it was very expensive without a reservation. When I said I didn’t mind, he insisted on calling the front desk to quote me the NTD 9,800 walk-in rate. He suggested I take a taxi to the nearest car motel instead, and I finally relented and took his advice. My bank account has him to thank for saving me from a costly exhaustion-driven decision that night. It was the final act of kindness shown to me in a week filled with acts of kindnesses.