Cycling in Taiwan

Spiritual assistance on our very last climb.
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I had a hunch that Taiwan would be a good country for cycling in, and I’m glad to say that I was right – I did an end-to-end ride with my friend Rob, from Taipei up to the northernmost point, down the east coast to the southernmost point, and on to the suburbs of Kaohsiung, and it went very well. The key to our cunning plan was that Giant, Taiwan’s largest bike manufacturer, has a very affordable (at £100 for 15 days) rental programme that allowed us to collect bikes at one end of the country and drop them off at the other end, rather than having to schlepp them back by train (possible, but quite a hassle). The Giant bikes were fine apart from the lack of mudguards (mine had an aluminium frame, Rob got upgraded to carbon fibre) but their panniers were terrible – too small, and the clips on all four of ours broke – bring your own, or bring bungee cords to lash them on top of the rack.

There are plenty of cyclists in Taiwan, both local utility riders and lycra-clad road-riders – but there are far far more scooter-riders. By and large, road conditions are excellent for cycling, with virtually no potholes, and many main roads in the north seemingly reduced from two traffic lanes each way to one and a wide shoulder-cum-scooter/bike lane – but beware the drivers who park right across the shoulder, and often pull in and out with a blithe disregard for cyclists – they probably assume that cyclists all pootle along at 10km/h and are happy to wait, and are not aware of hard-riding touring cyclists who are moving twice as fast and assume they do have priority. There’s also a lot of undertaking – it seems entirely normal to use the shoulder to overtake on the inside. And in any case, when you reach a hill, generally the shoulder ends instantly and you’ll find yourself having to concentrate on holding your line between vehicles fairly close to your left and a concrete drain (as often as not) to your right. But we never felt that drivers didn’t respect us or felt we shouldn’t be there. And we also liked the way that all footways and pavements were open for cycling (with priority for pedestrians), and again everyone got on fine and there was never any sense that we weren’t wanted there (but we are very polite and considerate cyclists, of course…)

Left: Beware Bats! nearly half a million common bent-wing bats give birth in disused mines near here. Right: Cycle parking at the new, elevated, version of Taichung railway station.
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There are plenty of routes marked for touring cyclists, and by and large they follow the main roads (with their wide shoulders), rather than seeking out quiet parallel lanes. These also have ‘cycle rest stops’ signposted every 10 or 20 kilometres, which often turn out to be a police station where there’ll be a stirrup pump, maybe a few tools, and some police officers who probably won’t speak English but will be delighted to help. You’ll also find a steady succession of 7-Elevens and similar shops (FamilyMart, OK-Mart) that provide snacks and hot drinks, and usually toilets and ATMs. There’s also plenty of cheap, tasty street food, and the night markets in bigger cities are a delight. There are plenty of Latin-script (‘English’) roadsigns, but be aware that there are two (at least) different transliteration schemes in use. Also, be aware that marked distances are to the township limit, from where it can easily be 10 or 15km more to the centre of the actual town. On tourist maps north is often not at the top, and the ‘You Are Here’ marker is usually wrong.

Cycling map of Taiwan.
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Our route

We were doing an End-to-End, so we started from Taipei along the excellent riverside paths (outside the massive flood defences) and rode along the coast to the northernmost point, Cape Fugui, and on to Keelung for our first overnight stop. From there it was just a matter of keeping the sea on our left as we rode down the east coast (apart from when we cut through the abandoned Caoling railway tunnel). A week later we were at the southernmost point at Eluanbi and then rode to the outer suburbs of Kaohsiung where we were able to put our bikes on a local train. In fact, if we did it again we’d ride along the Eastern Rift Valley rather than the coast between Hualien and Taitung, but there’s no avoiding the Su-Hua Highway, to the north between Su’ao and Hualien. This runs below some huge cliffs that are very prone to landslides and is narrow and busy with tour buses (all heading north, to be nearer the sea) and gravel trucks. In addition, the first half of the Su-Hua includes two fairly long climbs and one shorter one, while the second half includes various tunnels in which cycling appears to be banned, despite this being a national cycle route. In fact the sign is to forbid cycling on the narrow and obstructed footway in the tunnel (actually a drain cover). In any case I recommend bringing an extra tail-light that you can attach to your luggage (as the one on your seatpost may well be obscured).

We booked accommodation in advance (about £10 per person) on account of Chinese New Year, but at other times you could just busk it – there are plenty of options, and apparently you can go to a police station and ask for help finding a bed for the night. We were always able to store our bikes safely under cover. We found the ‘winter’ weather just fine for cycling, and I even got a bit of sunburn one day. The wettest time is April and May, but it can rain in the north at any time of year, whereas the south is tropical and can be very hot. Typhoons occur between June and October and would be a serious impediment to cycling.

Left: Baffling No Cycling signs on this national cycle route. Right: Giant bike shop, Taipei – they have a nation-wide network, and you can rent excellent bikes at one and return them to another.
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Left: On the notorious Su-Hua Highway. Right: Shared-use footway in Tapei.
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Left: The Caoling Old Railway Tunnel, Taiwan – part of a very popular loop route, and also a way to avoid riding around a sizeable headland. Right: Former station, now on a cycleway.
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And what of the cyclist’s worst enemy? I don’t mean the wind, but dogs. Taiwanese dogs are all scrupulously polite, just like the people, and caused us no trouble at all, even though there clearly are feral populations here and there.

Tim Burford – this is taken from his blog at unraveltravel.org