By Willie Weir // Photos by Willie Weir and Kat Marriner
Kat and I had been pedaling all day in low gears, our loaded touring bikes making slow, slow progress. The climb up into Taiwan’s Yushan National Park stretched 28 miles with nary a downhill.
And now, after pedaling and sweating for the whole day, it appeared Mother Nature would play a cruel joke. The clouds moved in, obscuring the view we had worked so hard for.
We were both on the verge of bonking, and the air at 8,000 feet was cold enough to send shivers down our sweat-soaked bodies. Sunset approached. The area was described as a roiling cloud forest, and true to form, the breeze shifted and magnificent peaks appeared. The mist-filled valleys below us glowed orange with the setting sun. We jumped up on some boulders and watched the most incredible sunset display I’ve seen in all my years of travel. At one point the mist shot up like a geyser from below, obscuring everything. And then two minutes later, it cleared and the mountains around us burned orange-red again.
Perfect timing. Absolutely, stunningly, memorably perfect.
An hour later, we were bedded down in our tent with the calls of monkeys and birds as the soundtrack for our dreams.
Most of our bike travels have been spontaneous. We would land at an airport and wing it from there.
But Taiwan was different. Our initial interest in the country wasn’t about cycling at all — it was dogs. Our adopted dog, Tiva, had been rescued from a garbage dump in the city of Taichung, Taiwan. Her breed was listed as a Formosan Mountain Dog.
Mountain Dog? I thought Taiwan was just an overcrowded island overrun by industry. Oh, and I thought it was flat.
Taiwan has 286 mountain summits over 3,000 meters! That should be fun.
We decided to make Taiwan our next touring destination. Kat made some connections and arrangements to visit people in Taiwan who were involved in rescuing dogs, and we both looked into routes.
Most cyclists do a loop around the island. Riding around Taiwan has become a rite of passage for many locals. The 2006 movie Island Etude, directed by Chen Huai-en, about a young hearing-impaired musician who cycles around the island, captured the hearts and imaginations of countless Taiwanese. There is now signed Cycle Route No. 1 (600 miles) that is on many a bucket list.
That had looked like our probable route until we bumped into a cycling friend in our Seattle neighborhood. During our conversation with Ryan, we mentioned our upcoming trip to Taiwan.
“You need to talk with my cousin Andrew,” Ryan said. “I think he’s cycled every road on the island.”
He wasn’t exaggerating. Andrew Kerslake has lived and worked in Taiwan for over 20 years. An avid cyclist and historian, he maintains a blog, Taiwan in Cycles. We contacted him and he soon sent us three GPS routes labeled “easy,” “moderate,” and “spectacular.” I had the feeling “spectacular” was code for “insanely difficult.” I was right.
We flew into Taipei and spent a few days wandering around the city. Taipei’s public transportation system is awesome, and we used it to travel with our bikes through the city to the Xindian District, where we met Mary Christine Choi, a tireless champion of abandoned dogs.
Mary began rescuing the stray dogs in the hills where she lived. She spent weeks and months gaining their confidence — feeding them, training them, getting them veterinary care, and housing them in her residential home turned rescue kennel. The final step they must pass was sleeping on the bed with her son. That way she would know they were ready to be adopted by families with kids.
She drove us up into the mountains where we visited a “no kill” shelter that housed over 500 dogs. There were dogs of all shapes and sizes, mostly Formosan Mountain Dogs, with other breeds mixed in. Some dogs were missing paws or legs (often from traps). Most were black. Mary looked through the enormous pack, taking notes and searching for dogs most likely to be adopted if she brought them home for training and socialization. But it breaks her heart that it’s impossible for her to work hard enough and long enough to place every dog with a family.
We left Mary’s place and contacted Andrew, who had already made some adjustments to our route knowing that we would be visiting another dog rescuer in the city of Toufen.
This became a pattern that made for a wonderful (and physically challenging) trip. Andrew loves the mountains and the small, lonely roads, but dog rescue organizations are mostly in the cities. So rather than take the direct, flatter, faster route between cities and our next dog connection, Drew would route us via his favorite mountain climbs.
This gave us a unique “best of” tour of Taiwan. If we had stayed up in the mountains our entire trip, my knees would have blown up and Kat would have divorced me. Taiwan’s cities are large and crowded, but completely bikeable. You need to spend time in both to truly experience Taiwan.
We finally met Andrew and his family in person in Taichung, an industrial city of 2.7 million people, where we also attended a dog adoption event. Andrew has the classic look of an alpine cyclist — slender, sinewy, and without an ounce of fat on him. His bike is the same. I think it weighs less than my handlebar bag. He and a friend escorted us out of the city on backroads and tiny paths along rice fields.
It’s easy to assume that, with a population of 23.5 million on an island not much bigger than Canada’s Vancouver Island (population 750,000), all the roads would be crowded.
But the vast majority of Taiwan’s population lives in the cities. And per capita motor vehicle ownership in Taiwan is much lower than in the U.S. (32 per 100 inhabitants in Taiwan, 80 per 100 in the U.S.). This leaves many of the small mountain roads with little to no traffic.
It was slow climbing on our fully loaded bikes, but our friends were graciously patient. Around 2:00 pm, we all stopped for coffee and snacks at 7-Eleven (Taiwan has more than 5,000 of them) and then parted ways. Andrew and Domenic looped back to Taichung while Kat and I continued up into the mountains.
Hours later, exhausted, we pulled into a small village and went to the police department to ask about camping. A friendly officer got on his scooter and escorted us to a campground (closed), a school (no one available), and finally a local temple, where we were invited to stay.
We laid out our sleeping bags in an empty classroom when we heard loud music and drums. It was a group of young men. There was some sort of ceremony going on. An older, bare-chested man repeatedly shouted (and occasionally laughed maniacally) at a young boy.
We had no idea what was going on so we texted Andrew (whom we were by now referring to as “Drewpedia”).
He replied, “The guy without the shirt is a spirit medium or dang-gi. He is channeling some ghost or god to help change the fate of the boy. This is quite common in Taiwanese folk religion. Though that area is inhabited by assimilated Hoanya and Papora people.”
This loop up into the mountains brought us back down to Sun Moon Lake, considered by many to be the most beautiful cycling destination in Taiwan. But after following Andrew’s routes in the mountains, it felt too much like just another crowded tourist destination, albeit an incredibly beautiful one.
This was followed by our epic climb up into Yushan National Park. Andrew had more climbing planned for us, but we were spent. After tweaking my knee, I’d had a three-day stretch where I pedaled all hills one-legged. We coasted down to the city of Tainan for some R&R.
We then hopped on a train to cross over to the east.
The east coast is the rural, wetter, and more popular cycling destination of Taiwan. The largest city on the east coast, Hualien City, has a population of 106,000. Only a little more than a million people live in the counties east of the mountains.
We didn’t visit any shelters on the east coast, but every day we encountered Formosan Mountain Dogs, with their straight, alert ears and tails raised in the arc of a sickle. They are a cautious breed so they often kept their distance. We were never chased by a dog, but we had the chance to feed many a hungry stray on the side of the road. We even had one adopt us on one of our mountain camping nights, sleeping a couple of feet from our tent.
Cyclists and travelers come to the east for the slower pace, the gorgeous coastline, the Rift Valley (sandwiched between the Coastal and Central Mountains), and, most dramatically of all, for the Taroko Gorge.
The bike ride up — and back down — the gorge is jaw-droppingly awesome. The gorge has been carved out of granite by the Liwu River. The twisting, turning road is a marvel itself, with dozens of tunnels and bridges. I’m not sure the roadwork ever ends along the gorge, as nature often erases a section and a new tunnel or bridge is built. There is great hiking as well (we’ll do that next time). We turned around after 12 miles, but this is part of the Central Cross-Island highway so one could continue to climb up 10,700 feet in elevation and then coast down to the west.
Running out of time, we took a train to Keelung City, where we experienced the Northeast monsoon. The rain rarely let up for 48 hours, which gave us an excuse to wander the alleys and stairways, looking for unique eating opportunities. Another easily accessed train delivered us back to Taipei.
Taiwan is a gem. It has an easy-to-follow national bike route that circles the island, but it also has enough lonely, steep, winding, beautiful mountain roads to keep any athletic, hardcore cyclist eternally satisfied.
Taiwan is progressive. It has a woman president. It has single-payer health care. It leads Asia in LGBT rights. At last count, 38 percent of its legislators are women.
Taiwan is small. This island has the feel of a continent squeezed in a vise. The elevation and ecological diversity makes for a constantly changing countryside. On any given day you can begin your ride in a jam-packed city, pedal through rice fields, and then climb several thousand feet through orchards and small villages up into the cloud forest. Weather getting too cold? Turn around and coast down several thousand feet. Too hot and humid? Shift to your low gear and climb.
Above all, Taiwan is kind. It comes in the big smiles and thumbs-up from people passing in scooters, trucks, and cars. It comes in the patience of workers at restaurants and food stalls who went out of their way to help us order meals without any shared language skills. The small gifts and acts of kindness kept piling up, so much so that we joked that our panniers were full of kindness.
Here are a just a few examples:
A mother and daughter selling savory rice packets wrapped in banana leaves gave us two more for the road, gratis.
Outside the city of Toufen we were unsuccessfully trying to book a hotel via our phone. A young woman left her business and came to our aid. She called three hotels, got the rates, showed us where each hotel was on our map, and suggested which one would be best for us. She booked our choice. As we were pedaling away, she came running back out of her shop to give us a parting gift of candies.
It was the seventh game of the World Series! Where would we watch it? We parked our bikes outside a roadside restaurant, and inside the game was already on. It dawned on us — baseball is the national sport of Taiwan. We watched the Cubs win the Series, and the owners of the restaurant, delighted to have American guests, refused to let us pay for our meal.
Our taxi driver in the city of Tainun gave us a parting gift. I repeat: our taxi driver gave us a gift.
In Taichung, a couple in their 60s admitted to stalking us. Why? They were following us while debating whether or not they had the language skills to assist us somehow. They finally worked up the courage to approach us. We were looking for a store to stock up on supplies, and they were our escorts.
After another long day of steep mountain roads, we were exhausted but energized knowing we were headed for a campground with hot springs. We arrived at a completely boarded-up facility and no hot springs. We backtracked to a resort (that we knew we couldn’t afford) and asked at the front desk if we could camp. The manager was all smiles. He’d passed us on the road. He loved cycling (and dogs). He welcomed us to pitch our tent on his manicured lawn and use the facilities free of charge. He handed us the fluffiest towels on earth and asked when we could meet him for breakfast in the morning.
The crazy, wonderful reality is I cannot think of a single rude or unkind encounter during our entire monthlong stay.
As we left for our return flight, we noticed our panniers were heavier than usual. I like to imagine they were packed with kindness.
Willie Weir is a contributing writer for Adventure Cyclist.
Taiwan in Cycles (taiwanincycles.blogspot.com). This is Andrew Kerslake’s site. It is a wealth of information, from routes to history to culture. Want to know about taking your bike on trains in Taiwan? Andrew has you covered.
This is going to be hard to believe, but trust me, Taiwan’s best cell phone deal is at the airport. Visitors can purchase a SIM card with unlimited data for a month for around $30. If you head into Taipei thinking you’ll find something cheaper, you’ll be wrong (like we were) and find yourself back at the airport.
Taiwan’s cellular networks are amazing. The two main carriers are Taiwan Mobile and Chungwha. Choose Chungwha if you plan to cycle the remote mountain roads.
There are plenty of hotels, guesthouses, and Airbnbs in Taiwan (especially if you are planning to cycle the popular No. 1 Cycle Route). We always enjoy the flexibility that packing a tent brings us, but you can get by without one.
Google Maps has Taiwan massively covered down to “street view.” If you want to check out the awesome, tiny, well-paved backroads before you go, surf on over.
As in so many things in life, it’s about timing. If you want to pedal Taroko Gorge, make sure to avoid weekends and holidays. Lots of bus and tourist traffic could turn this magical bike ride into a drag.