Pedalling Taiwan's National Cycle Route #1 has become a local rite of passage, but also offers a way to connect with this remarkable country like never before...
Leaving behind the bright lights of Taipei City, I cycled through fragrant oolong tea plantations and tropical forest, cruising dark-sand beaches and stopping only to eat a bowl of mackerel noodles near a shrine decorated by writhing dragons. My first day on Taiwan’s National Cycle Route #1 – fast emerging as one of Asia’s finest two-wheeled adventures – ended that night in Suao, where my generous host, B&B owner Chung-Ming Lee, treated me to chilli cuttlefish and sour chicken in wine, and insisted on paying for every morsel. It was all a far cry from most people’s vision of Taiwan as a bustling industrial nation.
‘Made in Taiwan’ is the image that this turtle-shaped island struggles to shake off. It suggests a manufacturing powerhouse modernising at all costs and with little concession to nature or its past. Admittedly, first impressions upon arriving at Taipei City do little to disavow this; shiny glass edifices and designer-goods-stocked malls reflect the rampant consumerism of a tech-obsessed city where even the dustcarts pipe out Beethoven’s ‘Für Elise’. Several previous visits, though, had taught me that Taiwan possesses a pleasingly green underbelly, far removed from near-neighbour China’s conquer-nature-at-all-costs approach.
The island is certainly not short of wondrous landscapes. It isn’t for nothing that when the Portuguese first arrived here in 1544, they christened it Formosa, meaning ‘beautiful’. Taiwan is rugged beyond belief, with 286 mountaintops tipping 3,000m while 20% of its landmass falls within protected areas.
Most pleasingly, the country retains an almost museum-like reverence for heritage and the cultural attitudes brought over by its historic waves of Chinese migrants. From ancient superstitions (God forbid if you ever write a person’s name in red ink) and syncretic religious beliefs to traditional medicines featuring borderline cure-alls for everything from limp libido to male pattern baldness, all thrive here. There’s even a code of behaviour, haoke (the essence of being a good host), that ensures the Taiwanese are among the friendliest people you’re likely to meet in Asia.
So what’s this got to do with cycling? Well, within a few generations, Taiwan’s ‘Asian Tiger’ miracle of economic growth bestowed great wealth and leisure time upon its people; this coincided with the global success of local bicycle manufacturer Giant and the island duly went cycling crazy. The government has since developed Asia’s best network of cycleways, including the granddaddy of them all, the National Cycle Route #1 (known locally as the Huandao), which circumnavigates the island in a glorious 900km loop.
The popularity of this particular ride became enshrined in the national consciousness with the release of 2006 cult coming-of-age film Island Etude, about a young man who cycles the country in an act of self-discovery. The movie became a universal metaphor for good health and freedom. For Taiwan’s youth, the Huandao means one last adventure before careers and relationships take over; to the elderly, it has become a post-retirement bid to maintain their vitality.
“Route #1 is becoming very popular with Taiwanese and Chinese,” confirmed local tour operator Stephen Chen, who arranged my hire-bike and fitted my panniers in Taipei City. He also said that I was the first Briton he’d done this for.
For me, the Huandao promised to be the road trip of a lifetime. Besides the romance of circumnavigating an island relying on human power, I saw cycling as a way to get deep into the countryside and seek out the real Taiwan. I would not be disappointed.
Prior to departure, I respected the Taiwanese custom of seeking a blessing before undertaking something new. The capital’s famous 18th-century Longshan Temple seemed as good a place as any. Amid the stucco dragons and serpents coiled around red-lacquered pillars, the utilitarian nature of worship was evident by 6pm, as Longshan heaved with visitors. Suited businessmen implored greater profits, schoolchildren entreated better grades, young women begged fertility… or perhaps a little more lead in their partner’s pencil.
With a pick 'n' mix jamboree of Taoist Gods and glittering Buddhas, I asked a temple orderly which deity might best serve my needs?
“Try Guanyin Buddha, the Goddess of Mercy,” she advised. “She will bring you luck on your travels.” So, at an altar garnished with stargazer lilies, I mimicked the locals and clasped lit incense sticks to my forehead, beseeching my deity the energy to complete my quest.
Such divine protection didn’t quash my reservations about Taipei City’s maelstrom traffic, though, so next morning Stephen dropped me outside the urban centre. The capital is located in northern Taiwan, and Stephen advised that most cyclists tackle the Huandao in an anticlockwise direction: starting down among the flat western seaboard to build-up stamina for the mountainous east coast. Yet I stubbornly insisted riding clockwise, tackling the east coast first because I was impatient to get among the mountains.
All the herbs in China couldn’t numb the lactic acid I accrued in my first few days. Yet my yin and yang remained in harmonious balance, nourished on my second morning by the Central Mountains rearing like an impregnable ancient citadel, high above the inky-blue Pacific Ocean. The Taiwanese have engineered a miracle here. Following the Suhua Highway, Route #1 adheres like a Madeiran levada to the mountainside and frequently plunges through dark tunnels many kilometres long.
Such is the precipitousness of these cliffs, a landslide blocked a section of the road that morning. Yet Plan B was never far away because Route #1 often runs parallel to a scenic railway circling Taiwan. I boarded a local train and restarted beyond the landslide at Heping Railway Station, riding thereafter amid the pallid purity of the limestone Taroko Gorge National Park. Here, a pinched cliff road took me through Yanzikou Gorge, a streaked marble chasm that has been whittled away by the milky Liwu River. The word ‘taroko’ (‘beautiful’) emanates from the Atayal people, an indigenous minority of Austronesian ethnicity now largely assimilated into mainstream Taiwanese society. They named the area well.
Heading south in sultry temperatures, along the way I resorted to ocean dips at black beaches and embraced the air-conditioned refuge of 7-11 convenience stores offering cold drinks and treats such as egg tarts and sushi. Keeping my spirits high throughout were frequent shouts of encouragement from pedestrians of ‘Jia you’, literally translating as ‘add oil’.
By my third afternoon beyond the Tropic of Cancer, it was actually extra gas I desired, not oil, when facing a fearsomely steep-looking mountain road. Fortunately, the merciful Goddess Guanyin answered my prayers. An indigenous man with betel-nut-stained teeth pulled up in his truck. Very few people speak English in rural Taiwan (or perhaps more to the point, I wasn’t fluent in Xinshe dialect) yet our simultaneous gestures, pointing uphill, were mutually understood and he drove me to An Tong’s hot springs.
Taiwan’s Central Mountains are something of a geothermal colander, leaching hot mineral-rich waters. Here, an eggy, sulphurous odour wafted around check-in at the New Life Hot Springs Resort, where the owner, Leo, explained that he’d drilled 300 metres underground to tap alkaline springs bubbling away at 66ºC. To avoid guests simmering like lobsters, the water is tempered by a cool mountain stream. This mixture not only boiled my trout supper but enabled me to luxuriate outdoors long after nightfall in a hot spring, serenaded by hidden tree frogs.
I met other cyclists attempting Route #1, but all were from Taiwan and China. When crossing a plateau of rice on a decommissioned railway-turned-cycle path the next day, university student Yua-Hao Huang stopped for a chat.
“I wanted to see my island while still young and with no commitments,” said Huang, as dragonflies swarmed the fields. “You see more on a bike and have time to think about your future,” he added, before an inevitable exchange of selfies.
I swapped selfies again hours later in Chihshang with a police officer. Requiring a bike shop to tweak my misfiring gears, I sought the local police station for directions. The duty officer jumped into her sedan patrol car and, with lights flashing, offered the largesse of a police escort. Naturally, the cycle repairman – random acts of kindness having now coalesced into the norm – refused to charge me. I did, however, pay for my meal at Mrs Mei’s Hakka kitchen restaurant later without a hint of regret, because dining out in Taiwan is incredible value. For £8 (with beer), I feasted on kung pao chicken and salty morning glory: a cuisine bequeathed to Taiwan by the migratory Hakka agriculturalists, who started arriving around the 17th century after enduring persecution in China.
Thereafter, the mountains lost altitude as they headed towards Taiwan’s southernmost tip at Eluanbi. From Chihshang I rejoined the coastal route via a deserted back road, heading towards Taitung through montane forest with endemic macaques for company. Small coastal towns, deserted beaches and aboriginal communities came and went. The finest expression of the latter was Jinlun’s St Joseph’s Church, where the bright murals of the indigenous Paiwan culture fused cowrie shells and fishy frescoes with standard Catholic icons. But I would soon leave it all behind.
Taiwan’s southernmost peninsula narrowed towards its tip and I eventually hit the buffers of a wide Pacific Ocean horizon, its wind blown dunes curling around the coast. It had taken me exactly one week to reach here and I was ready for the flatter west.
In all honesty, the final four days of cycling back to Taipei City and up the west coast was, scenically, a bit ‘after the Lord Mayor’s show’. Taiwan has a bipolar geography and its western flank is prodigiously flat and crowded with industry and urban developments that concertina into a continuous conurbation. Care is required here because the cycle lanes are often delineated from heavy traffic by little more than painted lines. Yet, at the end of long, flat days, something delicious or stimulating usually awaited my arrival.
That all seemed unlikely when pedalling into the outskirts of Taiwan’s second-largest city, Kaohsiung. Here, I was greeted by a dystopian view of industrialised refineries. Yet beyond this harsh exterior, the centre of Kaohsiung has transformed in recent years from an industrial behemoth of 2.7 million inhabitants to a city for the people, all by way of modern architectural projects and public art. Kaohsiung’s centrepiece, Love River, was once toxically polluted, but it is now a funky strip of riverside bars, cafés and – just as importantly – safe cycling lanes. It was here, after all that pedalling, that I sought two of Taiwan’s signature ‘pleasures’.
The country is crazy about reflexology. In a warehouse-sized salon, I flopped onto a couch to join dozens of locals enjoying, or possibly enduring, foot massages. I told my masseuse I was cycling Route #1.
“You crazy,” she barked, “where have pain?”
“Just about everywhere,” I confirmed.
“This help legs and back,” she said, burying her knuckles into my soft soles as if kneading dough. My feet throbbed so much that when I left, I forgot how weary I felt. I guess it worked.
Pleasure number two was mixing with a hungry foodie crowd at Liohue night market, where among the dizzying aromas of blended fruit smoothies, grilling meat, and medicinal hotspots, the most pungent smell was that of the fermented stinky tofu, wreaking uncomfortably like the unwashed clothes in my panniers. I settled for lamb in herb broth because the vendor promised it offered ‘vigorous good health’.
Rainstorms swept across my path throughout the next few days, sometimes creating a phantasmagorical light under leaden skies that caused the rice paddies – frequently shoehorned between urban developments – to fluoresce an electric-green. Best of all, my favourite Chinese festival, to mark the annual harvest full moon, was taking place.
I joined the celebrations in Dajia, inside the town’s ornate 18th-century Jenn Lann Temple, dedicated to the sea goddess Matsu. Waves of devotional chanting drifted among sweet burning incense while a flotilla of red lanterns warmed the interior. Outside, beneath a fully waxed moon, a smoky aroma hung courtesy of the festival tradition of sidewalk family barbecues.
It took a nanosecond to get invited to one, joining James and his family for grilled prawns and roasted bamboo. He earnestly explained the ‘Harvest Moon’ legend as if it had happened yesterday.
“An archer called Hou-Yi shot down nine of the ten suns and was a hero. He married Chang-Er but became corrupt, so his wife swallowed an elixir and floated to the moon to escape him.”
To mark the occasion, families share small round cakes. “They symbolise the moon and family unity,” explained James.
Only Hsinchu lay ahead, from where I would catch a suburban train back to Taipei City. My last 17km followed a scenic cycleway where ibis probed stranded sandbars with their curved bills and boardwalks spanned mangroves and muddy tidal creeks. Fatigued and sun-baked, I felt satisfaction at not only completing a challenge of a lifetime but also getting under the skin of Taiwan. I finally understood through Taiwanese eyes why Route #1 is a cherished quest of a lifetime.
Stephen Chen’s Panagoe Professional Cycling Tours will arrange tailor-made self-guided cycling trips with B&B accommodation and bike hire. Contact him for a quote. He also offers group tours.
Hundreds of kilometres of cycle lanes and cycleways exist across Taiwan. Taipei City and Kaohsiung have public rental bikes called YouBikes; these can be rented using either a credit card or a local EasyCard, which can be topped up and also used on the MRT rail system and bus network (pick up at MRT kiosks or convenience stores). The MRT rail route now extends out to Taoyuan International Airport from Taipei Central Railway Station.
Plan B is an excellent round-island train network, which runs alongside much of the National Cycling Route #1. An additional ticket is needed to take bikes on board (applied for at the station). Some services request your bicycle to be in a lightweight bike bag, which we were supplied with but never used.
Amba Songshan (Taipei City) is a contemporary new offering conveniently located by a metro station and Raohe Night Market. It has huge, tech-savvy doubles and a lavish breakfast buffet.
Jim’s charmingly spacious Green HAS B&B (Suao) is a suburban house as homely as it is comfortable.
Classic City Resort (Hualien) is a corporate tower block with spacious rooms and a fine carbo-loading breakfast buffet.
New Life Hot Spring Resort (An Tong) has character-filled wooden chalet rooms that include in-room spa tubs or use of an outdoors hot spring.
Fuji 111 (Chihshang) is a really pleasant family home near the city centre; doubles and a traditional breakfast.
The Howard Plaza (Kaohsiung) is a plush skyscraper hotel in downtown Kaohsiung with excellent low-season double rates, including a fabulous breakfast.
Maohua Commercial Lodge Hotel (Dajia) is a buzzy town centre motel with mediocre breakfasts included, yet it has excellent-value doubles.