Biking Taiwan’s East Coast: Guide and Trip Report

Biking Taiwan’s East Coast: Guide and Trip Report

I’ve hated biking my whole life.

Chances are it’s because I always owned $50 Walmart cycles that were heavy as they were ugly. Not a great combo when your cardio is lackluster.

This, though, is a guide about biking across Taiwan’s East coast. Obviously I don’t hate it anymore, so why bring up the fact that I once did?

Because you, intrepid holiday-er, need not consider yourself a biker to tackle this itinerary. Hell, you don’t have to consider yourself an athlete (though you should have at least basic conditioning).

Biking Taiwan: The beach

Cycling 200 miles over the course of a few days isn’t easy, but it’s not grueling. The sights, the people, the everything more than make up for it. Why?

Because Taiwan is awesome in a very specific way. I don’t want to overgeneralize and say it’s like a Chinese Southeast Asia, but… well, I do actually, because that’s totally what it’s like.

Biking Taiwan: More ocean

Imagine China in all it’s stereotypical glory; you know, the kind purported by Disney and whacky oriental mythos.

Imagine China without the population, the visa haggling, the smog (don’t get me wrong now, I live in China and love it by ayyoooh there are problems) or the noise.

Taiwan is steamy, dramatic mountain vistas brushed against a joint of ocean and blue sky. It’s the relaxation of island culture mingling with stalwart Chinese work-ethic.

biking from taitung

It’s just small enough to get a feel for on a bike and train, and local hearts are big enough to help you through any hurdles you’ll face along the way.

Without further ado, let’s dive in to the specifics of putting your butt in the saddle and heralding you across the bike-friendliest island on the planet.

First Steps in Planning a Bike Trip Across Taiwan

The first thing you’ll need to do is figure out which city you want to start in: For information about that see below.

Next, you’ll need to reserve your bike. The bike company Giant is big in Taiwan and is your best bet. You can email or call the shop in your city of choice and tell them how tall you are and your dates of arrival. This is important if you want a bike that fits your frame instead of one with a frame you don’t fit on.

Where to start?

If you’re a little more hardcore and have time then you can bike the whole island in 10 – 15 days. Plenty do.

However, Taiwan’s urban West coast, though offering much in terms of culture, entertainment, and flat roads, is just that; an urban coast. You can work your way into nature along the way, but much of the ride will take you through cities and industrial zones.

View from the train before biking started in earnest
Leaving the West Coast on the train

I’m not saying don’t do it, but if you’ve only got limited time or stamina than the East coast is your best choice.

The usual, casual itinerary starts off in Taitungif you’ve ignored certain meteorological realities. According to locals and expats it’s a great city. Shame, then, that my two friends and I spent no time there.

Picking up the bikes

Regardless, there’s a Giant bike shop right next to the train station and enough 7/11 goodness to keep you fueled until the next 7/11.

Wait, what was that about ignoring stuff?

Well, the prevailing winds in Taiwan tend to blow North-South, making the South-North route, which ends triumphantly in the capital, a giant wind tunnel that you’ve now decided to ride against.

More on that later.

Now’s also a good time to plug that you shouldn’t overestimate yourself if you’re not a regular cyclist. I perused, in my gusto, many a site proclaiming the glory of racing to Hualien (the next major city along the coast) from Taitung in a day.

Setting off from Taitung, the beginning of our journey
The beginning of Cycling Route 1

Said gusto fostered a few delusions about just how possible this was.

Spoiler: it wasn’t (possible) and we ended up riding in the dark and staying in Chenggong town (which, happily if ironically, translates to ‘success’).

If you’re looking for a local ‘pick me up’, then you can stop at one of the many ‘betel nut’ kiosks scattered throughout the island. Betel nut is a stimulant that’s wrapped in palm leaves with lime and ‘daka’ to help siphon the psychoactive elements into your bloodstream. It’s fully legal but is most certainly a drug, corrosive to health with long-term use and addictive. The buzz isn’t very nice, in my personal opinion (I’ve had a few buzzes in my day). My arm went numb and senses wobbled a bit, but I kept on and chewed a great many nuts along the way. The buzz did not become more fun with experience.

Betel nut helps you stay jazzed to bike
Betel Nut – Cheap and anything but delicious

Random interlude: How does Taiwanese food compare to the savory delicacies of the Chinese mainland?

The food in Taiwan is unusually sweet. That doesn’t mean it’s not good – just know that you’re likely to be surprised when something that’s usually savory or salty is quite the opposite.

Waffles in Taitung
Sweet and delicious

Also, 7/11 has great food. I first uncovered this phenomenon in Thailand and was glad that it rang true in Taiwan as well. Full meals on the cheap and snacks for days + decent coffee.

End random interlude

If you choose to do Hualien in 2 or 3 days, then on the second day you’ll be making a choice.

Biking Route 30 starts easy enough..
The start of Route 30

You can continue upon the scenic, coastal Route One (or 11 as the highway is called – there’s ‘cycling route one’ and ‘highway 11’ but they’re the same) or you can dart up into the sub-tropical hills and finish off this leg with a challenging but rewarding uphill pass.

Looking down from route 30

The junction at road 30 leads up to the pass. It’s a few kilometers of brutal high-gradient cycling. The rewards for this are obvious: great views of the ocean and the route you just came from and break-up of (admittedly stunning) coastal monotony.

Into the hills - biking on taiwan's route 30

Once you’re over the pass you’ll be in a valley for the rest of the ride, with two more significant hills to crest after descending toward and passing the next large township of Yuli.

We made the turn for two reasons.

One: I convinced the guys it was better to go hard and that we had plenty of coast left after Hualien.

Two: I suspected (wrongly) that the wind would be more forgiving in the valley.

Biking from Route 30 Onward

It was slow going to the top of the pass, which was signified by a large through-going tunnel. The views were, as advertised, spectacular.

on route 30

The dense jungle among the hills was punctuated by waterfalls and screeching wildlife, spiders recumbent against shining webs and birds shrieking through the heavy sky. Worth it? Maybe. Difficult? Definitely.

The downhill part of the excursion was a treat. You’ve got to lose all that altitude, after all. Cars were sparse on that side of the pass and we got away with hauling some serious ass.

Near the top of route 30

I won’t say that the town of Yuli was a pleasure. One of my riding companions pointed out that it seemed to be the capital of Taiwan’s rust-belt.

Another curiosity that delineates Taiwan from Mainland China: Vietnamese food. Vietnamese immigrants are plentiful in Taiwan and they’re privy to opening restaurants. It’s a good way to get some spice into an otherwise over-sweet and 7/11 resplendent diet.

Few kilometers out of Yuli

We kept up the pace we’d had going before getting to the second climb. The views now consisted of misty hillocks and the endless fields of blooming paddies, rapeseed, lavender, and other color-laden delights of subsistence agriculture.

This injection of palette was a great way to offset the gunmetal sky, which threatened some serious precipitation that didn’t come to pass on this our second day.

Rolling fields
Not a happy sky, this

After encountering another hill we became despondent. Chances weren’t high for making it Hualien before night fell. Or at all.

There’s tea and coffee at this obvious second hill’s crest, and we imbibed. The tea-house owner didn’t charge us a penny and was simply happy that we were able to converse with him in Mandarin.

There are tea-houses all along the way when you bike Taiwan
Parking for the tea house

There’s a town by the name of Ruisui that straddles the border between Hualien and Yuli. It’s known primarily as a resort for hot-springs. With darkness and fatigue baring down we decided this as good a place as any to call it quits for the evening.

Unfortunately, I can’t recommend the hot-springs except in the abstract because we didn’t try them. Instead, morning saw us on the road again, anxious that an objective which supposedly took one day was now taking 3.

Paddy fields along the way
Truly a wonder we weren’t yet getting rained on

Taiwan’s weather patterns call for a dry and a wet season. though we weren’t riding in the wet season, this didn’t mean we were going to get a free pass forever.

There’re a great many trip reports describing rain-soaked misery, day after day. Our karma dictated we couldn’t always get lucky.

And so the ride from Ruisui to Hualien was punctuated by waterlogged misery. The rain would soak us all the way through and then drip out the back of wherever it’d entered. However, this leg of the trip was especially interesting for the landscape.

Biking in the rain
Yeah, it was bound to happen eventually

Valleys yawned across the inescapably rugged terrain and made us forget the pain for a while. When Hualien finally presented on the horizon we could hardly believe it was a real place that was actually possible to cycle to. To say we were a little spent would be an understatement.

Bike lanes
Bike lanes of the usual ilk

Hualien and Taroko Gorge

Hualien is fine as a city. It’s just big enough to keep you entertained all small enough not to overwhelm.

Taroko gorge from Zhuilu Old Trail
Taroko gorge

What Hualien really does is serve as the terminus for Taiwan’s premier national park. Taroko Gorge follows a single, precipitous road between mountains and river and is studded with trails and the occasional jewel of traditional architecture.

I’ve got one tip for everyone who travels to Asia and wants to get around with ease: rent a motorbike. They’re easy to ride and fuel-efficient. There are obvious dangers, however, that go along with scootering through busy streets. Every person in my old study-abroad program in Thailand had crashed their motorbike at least once (with the exception of myself). By all means take my advice but please be safe and take it slowly at the beginning.

We’d decided to rest and hit up Taroko the next day, so we found an inviting hostel and rented two motorbikes (I can’t remember why we didn’t get three, to be honest).

Cliffs in Taroko gorge

There are a few shops beside the train station’s back side that rent motorbikes. Walk around and ask about prices until you secure a deal. Bargaining is expected. You’ll need your passport and possibly your driver’s licence from your home country, so bring both.

Accommodations come easy in the city and you’ll have no problem nabbing some that are suited to your interests.

Hualien city
Hualien

The ride to Taroko took roughly an hour. Apparently I was, to quote one of my buddies, ‘trying to break the land-speed record’. So if you’re dodgy on a scooter then budget more time for the ride there.

If you’re not sure what exactly to do in Taroko than fear not; plenty of options present themselves directly off the road. However, I’d advise hiking Zhuilu Old Trail.

From Zhuilu old trail

Zhuilu Old Trail was not engineered for hiking. Actually, the Japanese built it during their occupation of Taiwan to more easily navigate the hardcore terrain and keep tabs on the locals.

The sign on Zhuilu, advising caution

Because of this, the trail may seem pretty extreme…

Zhuilu old trail
Kinda steep eh?

Though it’s mostly safe. You’ll not want to wander too close to the edge, though.

You can’t just show up and hike the Zhuilu Old Trail. While planning your trip you’ll need to head over to the national park’s website and sign up for a spot on the trail.

Looking back from zhuilu
Taking a break from biking for hiking is not exactly relaxing, but is nice

The government does this with many attractions in national parks in order to both control the crowds and lower the ecological impact. Head over to the official, government website of Taiwan’s national parks and then click to Taroko gorge.

From Zhuilu trail

Cycling to (and through) Taroko is certainly feasible. We chose to forsake it because it wasn’t on the route to Taipei (unless we wanted to take the hard way, which we didn’t).

There is a hotel and a hostel in Taroko should you choose to cycle to it/stay there.

We buzzed around Taroko on our scooters after doing the hike so we could find some nonsense to get into. Upon crossing a bridge that looked to lead over a dry riverbed we found it.

The bridge
This here bridge

It was forbidden to go past the road into the river bed. Safety issues, you see. Fortunately I’m not very good at following these sorts of regulations and am thus free to have a good time.

All we ended up doing was running, ducking, and hiding. I think we noticed, once inside the riverbed surrounded by house-size boulders, that any trail up would actually be dangerous.

We mostly crawled and hit the deck a dozen times trying to avoid the tourists and rangers off onto the bridge.

Hiding from rangers
Made for a good pic though

If you also want to take this pointless risk, then ride until you see the bridge next to the (currently closed) entrance of the Zhuilu Old Trail.

the gorge's river

It’s also pretty cool to get down by the actual river. There’s a good descent path near one of the tunnels up a ways (near the entrance) from the Zhuilu Old Trail. You’ll not want to go swimming, but it’s worth a look.

Finding the river
Down near the river

The Road to Yilan

Another decision must be made Hualien. You’ll need to figure out whether you wish to continue biking to the city of Yilan or to take the train.

The land gets mighty precipitous between these two cities, and there is only one highway. That highway is plagued with blind corners, high-grade inclines, semis, and other obstacles.

The ocean, because you should imagine nice things
To ease your imagination, here’s the ocean

There’re more than a few tunnels without bicycle respite. In fact, it’s one of the most dangerous roads to cycle on one can imagine.

Thanks to this, the train becomes ever more enticing. Bringing your bike isn’t a problem; you simply need to inquire about a special ticket at the station.

We elected to take the train. Upon boarding we noticed that the car was late getting off and that the doors were shut tightly. It was at this opportune moment that one of my riding companions related an anecdote about Taiwanese trains.

View from the train to Yilan
Decent views from the train

Apparently, a train just like ours had been late to take off and hadn’t radioed anyone about it. The other train poised to take it’s place at that station had no way of knowing the train was still docked. Lo, they collided and everyone on the waiting train was killed.

It was a great relief when the train started to move.

Yilan to Taipei

This last leg of the journey leaves you with a final choice at a fork in the road.

Road to Yilan - Biking Taiwan
Not here, but you get the idea

Most people make it to Taipei from Yilan in one day, and thanks to time constraints we needed to do that as well.

You can:

A: Take the more direct route and fork off from highway 11 (cycling route 1) or

B: keep on it to skirt the corner of the island and get to Taiwan’s Easternmost point.

Easternmost point??
Which is here. Maybe. We were never quite sure.

We went around corner to stay with the sea, which would have been stupid if we didn’t have a plan.

on the beach
Plans are dumb, go to the beach instead

Luckily, there are a few train stops along this route and you can load onto the train every dozen or so kilometers and steam your way to Taipei should you choose.

Biking taiwan
Nice weather finally

There’s a lighthouse and large cemetery full of mausoleums near the island’s Eastern terminus. I would say that the views going this direction were the best we’d had on the whole trip, the vistas more dramatic and the sea closer to the road.

Finding the cemetery was a gem

There’s nothing particularly alluring about being that far East, though; we didn’t even know where we were until the proprietor of a restaurant told us.

There’re a few beaches and townships to stop at for refreshments, so pack out a little early to get some swimming (or even surfing – at one beach they had boards for rent) in along the way.

Biking taiwan is pretty throughout
One of the prettiest sections

Taipei

Pressed for time as we were, we decided to take the train to Taipei a few kilometers from the peninsular tip. The city came into view around nightfall and we rode onward toward the center to find a giant store and return the bikes (you can return your bike to any Giant retailer on the island).

Last leg before Taipei

Something quite troubling happened next. I reached into my pocket on a crowded street to snag a pic and realized my phone was gone. It had fallen into the road.

My buddy Phil reassured me right away. Since before we’d begun the biking Taiwan project he had opined about how nice the people in Taiwan were. He told me now that certainly someone would turn it in to the nearest cop-shop.

And he was right. We rode around looking while calling my number, and eventually someone picked up. A police officer.

Biking Taiwan - monastery near Yilan
Not Taipei. Why? Because I was too scared to pull out my phone again for pics

Fifteen minutes was all it took for someone to pluck my phone off a dangerous road and turn it in to the police. Taiwan thus exceeded my expectations in both the beauty of it’s scenery and the friendliness of its people.

The city was vibrant and fun. We stayed at Ximen Duckstay Hostel and found it satisfactory, with a large sitting area that included a bar and beds that pulled shut with large curtains.

This would be the end of the road for us.

Taipei 101
Also you should see Taipei 101. Big, evil -looking sucker.

Biking Taiwan had been more of an adventure, and much harder, than I’d imagined. This made the trip far more worthwhile. I’d advise anyone who eventually wants to cycle long distances to bike Taiwan, as all the infrastructure is already there to get you across the island safely. From sights to people to (over-sweet) food, it’s a place that doesn’t disappoint in the least.


One Reply to “Biking Taiwan’s East Coast: Guide and Trip Report”

  1. Great article, lots of great adventure and facts on Taiwan. Also, hilarious in parts. I felt like I was in your story. What a ride.

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