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Taiwan’s Cycling Route #1 Has Everything You Want in a Bike Ride

Taiwan Insider Guides Cycling
by Robert Isenberg Feb 11, 2020

I had two weeks off and wanted to bicycle through another country’s landscape. I yearned for pleasant weather and safe streets. Hotels must be affordable. The food should be delicious. As the father of a young child, I needed to call home whenever I wanted. And finally, I wanted a bike path that was long, scenic, and far-flung. Putting these things together, I set my sights on Taiwan.

Taiwan Cycling Route #1 is a network of trails that circumscribe the entire island, for a total distance of 600 miles. Taiwan is already a cyclist’s dream, with paved paths and dedicated bike lanes in every neighborhood, but Cycling Route #1 is its pinnacle. If you’re relatively fit, cycling is an invigorating way to explore this semi-tropical Pacific paradise. As convenient and accommodating as Taiwan is, though, there were a few things I wish I’d known about Route #1 before setting off. Here’s how to get ready to pedal the Formosan coast.

Get inspired by the movie.

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Few Americans have ever heard of Island Étude, the Taiwanese sleeper-hit about a hearing-impaired musician riding his bike around his home country. But the 2004 film is a big-hearted character study, and it helped inspire the Taiwanese government to build its $36 million trail system. Building the trail was, in part, a patriotic endeavor. Having endured centuries of foreign rules and decades of dictatorship, the government is encouraging Taiwanese people to explore — and take pride in — their own country.

If you can’t find a copy of Island Étude, I recommend Riding the Breeze. The latter film, about a Japanese journalist, stuck biking with a free-spirited Taiwanese teenager, is much cheesier than its predecessor, but Breeze is a picturesque introduction to the Taiwanese landscape.

Prep for weather.

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I flew to Taipei in April — one of the best decisions this traveler has ever made. Taiwan is a semi-tropical island surrounded by three distinct seas. For two weeks, the spring weather vacillated between pleasantly warm and sultry hot. The weather reported thunderstorms every single day, but I never once got stuck in a rainstorm.

This was a stroke of luck. Taiwan’s weather changes every hour, and a storm could have swooped in at any minute. Summers can be baking hot, and many travelers will tell you that winter, from December to February, is actually the best time to visit. The sun could be intense, and I endured my share of sunburn. But in general, I couldn’t have dreamed of a better climate for biking.

Rent a bicycle.

Photo: Robert Isenberg

If you’ve ever lugged a disassembled bicycle through airport security, then rebuilt it in your hotel room, you will love the Taiwanese rental system. The manufacturer Giant Bicycles is based in Taiwan, and they have retail locations in every major city. You can rent a top-quality road bike — plus panniers (bags meant for bikes) and basic gear — for a reasonable price, then return the bike to any other Giant location.

One caveat: Reservations should be made two weeks in advance, and arrangements can be confusing for foreigners before they arrive as there’s no single, centralized reservations system. You could try one of Giant’s Taipei stores. Alan’s Mountain Bike Store was also great to correspond with and had Giant bikes to rent.

Because of the challenges of organizing a rental from abroad and my odd itinerary, I ended up purchasing a cheap folding bike from Bikehome, a little bike shop in Taipei. The shop was easy to reach on the red line, and the mechanic meticulously tuned up every part of the bike before I rode it away. At the end of the trip, I gave the bike away, satisfied with my $200 purchase. Still, the Giant option is a real boon, and now that I’m better acquainted with the country, I will definitely rent next time.

The Taiwanese have thought of everything.

Photo: Robert Isenberg

I have never visited a country so convenient for travel, especially by bicycle. WiFi is everywhere. Traffic is aggressive but well behaved. Hotel rooms routinely provide vacuum-sealed toothbrushes, combs, and prophylactics, and special machines pour purified water for your Nalgene bottle. The transit system is immaculate and punctual, and you can quickly figure out any trip to any destination. Most signs are conveniently marked in Mandarin and English. To me, the most heart-warming custom was to provide free umbrellas in little stands; since roving storms are hard to predict, these umbrellas are free to borrow and take with you, like a Little Free Library for rain gear.

Taiwanese people are also famously kind. This was evident the moment I stepped off the airplane. But it isn’t just patience and generosity — the Taiwanese I encountered also minded their own business. No random teenagers asked to take a picture with me. No hawkers tried to hustle me, even in the busy Shilin night market. Each interaction felt genuine and natural; when I needed directions or advice, folks seemed happy to help.

The route is a network, not a single trail.

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As organized as Taiwan is, don’t expect a single path that leads from Point A to Point B. Like most multi-use trails around the world, Cycling Route #1 breaks off every few miles. Sometimes, you ride through entire towns, on regular roads, dodging trucks and motorbikes as you desperately seek a trail marker. I lost my way several times, especially in the northeastern mining villages, which are crowded with hills. Anyone on the street is likely to help you, but knowledge about Route #1 is sometimes hazy.

During a difficult first day, I spent many hours getting lost among the mining villages east of Taipei. Signs were few and far between, and I took several wrong turns through the rolling hills and narrow river valleys around Xizhi. When I hit an industrial park, I found a worker and told him my destination city, Keelung. He didn’t speak a word of English, and I only know a few phrases in Mandarin, but he used pantomime to explain the route. From his hand gestures, I figured out how many traffic lights I would pass through, how many bridges I would cross, and when I should make a critical right turn. I easily navigated the next few miles, consulting some additional road workers along the way, who waved and pointed my way to Keelung.

It’s hard to say exactly how long the whole route would take. Taiwanese tourism websites provide maps and itineraries for eight-day treks, but this seemed like a breakneck pace to me. Granted, most riders don’t ride cheap folding bicycles, preferring slick aluminum models designed for touring. But unless you’re in a hurry, I suggest booking at least two weeks to circumnavigate the whole island. There are just so many worthy stops, like the justifiably famous Taroko Gorge and Sun Moon Lake.

The east coast is a hidden gem.

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The vast majority of Taiwanese people live in Taipei, the nation’s dense capital, and almost everybody else lives on the western half of the island. West coast cities like Taichung, Tainan, and Kaohsiung are basically one vast megalopolis, packed with industry and culture.

But I spent my two weeks on the eastern side, riding from Taipei to the southern city of Taitung. This coast is a wonderland of cliffs, beaches, mountains, and valleys, and it’s far more rural and remote. My total passage was only 160 miles, which is a pretty relaxed schedule. Every vista was a patchwork of farms and forests, bridges and tunnels. For long stretches, I smelled the salty breezes wafting off the ocean while green mountains loomed to my right. My goal was to take it easy, to pause whenever I wanted and photograph rice paddies and mist-cloaked hills. My mileage varied from day to day: 50 miles one day, 30 miles another, plus a two-night stay in the city of Hualien.

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Hualien is a humming, seaside tourist town, packed with high-rise hotels and places to eat. The city is best known as a springboard to Taroko National Park, a 200,000-acre playground of deep ravines and 27 mountain peaks. Unfortunately, an earthquake struck Taroko during my trip, and the park was closed when I arrived, due to potential landslides. Instead, I spent a full day meandering the city’s river paths, relaxing in coastal parks, and taking in an open mic at a local pub.

The next three days, I pedaled into the Eastern Rift Valley, a lush corridor of villages and farms that extends for more than 100 miles. The landscape is a checkerboard of forest and fields, with mountain ranges rising on both sides. The roads are still smooth and well-trafficked, but the pace is tranquil. Vista after vista reminded me of Taoist watercolors, especially in the hazy mornings.

When in doubt, try 7-Eleven or Family Mart.

Photo: Robert Isenberg

Taiwan is dense with shops and restaurants, and the night markets are legendary. No matter where you go, you will always find savory delicacies, starting with the world-famous beef noodle soup.

Yet biking is a different kind of travel; you often need to stock up on food and supplies, or just find cover during a thunderstorm. Meanwhile, sweat and stench aren’t appreciated in seaside restaurants, especially if you’re riding alone. Rest assured, 7-Elevens are everywhere, along with their ubiquitous rival, FamilyMart. These shops serve as hardware stores, souvenir shops, liquor stores, and luncheonettes.

My favorite snack was a breakfast sandwich, including scrambled eggs and tiny slices of ham, wrapped into a cylinder of nori seaweed. Sushi and breakfast sandwiches are two of my favorite foods, and I had never imagined them (literally) rolled into one. These were almost always available on the refrigerated shelves of FamilyMart, along with microwavable lunches and marinated hard-boiled eggs.

Train regulations are impossible.

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Trains in Taiwan are safe, efficient, and fast. But they’re still a headache for cyclists. To start, even putting your bike on a train is a constant hassle. Certain trains allow it, but not all. The public transit website is hard to follow, even when available in English. One poor station agent helped me stuff my folded bicycle into an enormous trash bag; I paid for the bike like an extra passenger. Another agent looked flustered and did her best to accommodate, but placing my bike in a passenger car clearly stressed her out. This is a major problem because the segment between Hualien and Yuli is only traversable by train. So unless you’re fluent in Mandarin and a wiz at transit schedules, expect some awkward conversations on the platform.

You don’t have to do the whole thing.

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Most people hear “600 miles” and think, “Nope.” But the rental system makes it easy to find a bike in one city, pedal 100 miles or so, and then return the bike and do something else. Since Route #1 is a circle, it’s tempting to just ride around Taiwan until you return to your starting line. But if you don’t have the time or budget for that, you can mix and match as much as you want. And believe me, I’ll be returning to ride the western half as soon as logistically possible. Cycling in Taiwan was love at first ride.

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