Biking Around Taiwan
Biking around an entire country seems out of the realm of possibilities to someone living in the USA. Riding around just my home state of California would be treacherous. But other countries are not like America: some are smaller, some flatter, and some are even islands.
Compared to California, Taiwan is one-tenth the size, has half as many people, and contains approximately the same number of Din Tai Fung locations. I spent two weeks in Taiwan, mostly biking around the country, and, unlike my last trip, this time I went with a group. Here are some useful tips on biking and photographing in Taiwan.
- Biking with a touring company is way different compared with biking on your own. You don’t have to worry about where to stay, what to do if you get a flat tire, or at which landmarks you should stop. I recommend using a touring company if you are going somewhere you don’t speak the language.
- The perimeter of Taiwan is flat and easy riding. The west coast contains farmland (aesthetic fields), small and large cities (countless stoplights), and some refreshing coastal views (cool sea breeze). The east coast is more remote and is mainly farmland and countryside. The north and south tips are mountainous. The path is well marked, assuming you want to stay on the recommended Bicycle Route 1.
- Biking around Taiwan in a group is, in some ways, like getting trapped in a glass elevator: You get to meet new people under treacherous conditions, there is not much elevation change, and if someone passes gas, everyone behind you will know soon enough.
- Check the season. Taiwan can be hot, rainy, comfortable, or typhoon-y. Be sure you know what season you are traveling in so you can prepare. Although the hot and humid weather was worrying before the trip, it turned out to be not so bad as long as we stayed hydrated.
- Because our planet is careening through space, even when you are stationary on your bike you are covering a great distance. Unfortunately, due to a bug in their system, my cycling recording app didn’t capture this distance.
- Pros of riding with a tour group: worry-free travel, meet new people, tips on places to see, unlimited snacks and water, good drafting opportunity.
- Cons of riding with a tour group: harder to go at your own pace, stay on the road most traveled, risk of getting stuck with someone you don’t get along with, you have to look at someone’s back the whole time unless you’re leading.
- You cannot eat rice directly from the plant, no matter how pristine is the farm from which you picked it. There are multiple non-obvious reasons for this: (1) rice needs to be cooked, (2) you are probably stealing, and (3) there is a saying: Early to bed, early to rise, makes a man healthy and avoid uncooked rice.
- Add Oil! Many residents know that biking around the country is one of the few essential Taiwanese adventures. Because the bike tour is general knowledge, sometimes people who see you passing by will get excited and shout words of encouragement. The most common exclamation is “jiāyóu” (加油), which literally translates to “add oil.” Don’t get too excited, though — nobody will ask for your autograph.
- Take a day or two to do something different. If you are visiting Taiwan for the first time, the bike tour is an excellent way to see what seems like the entire country. Even so, the trip covers only the perimeter of the island, and mostly lowlands. Take a day or two before or after the bike ride to go into the mountains at the center of the island, or visit the parks on the coast of the northern tip. I visited Yilan park afterward, and it was among the highlights of the two weeks.
- The roads are smooth. The government construction agency paves their roads out of the same material that makes up clouds; biking over them is a pleasure.
What is there to photograph?
The streets in Taiwan are exciting. Some have trains in the middle, some have buses going against the rest of the traffic, and some are split into many sections with tree-lined medians. In bigger cities like Taipei (as one might expect) there are lots of people on the sidewalks.
Among my most poignant memories from Taiwan are the streets. They are unlike streets in America because they are vibrant with people, shops, and illuminated signs. Most of the shops specialize in a single craft: a specific kind of fried food, open-toed sandals, or brown sugar milk tea for example.
In night markets, the streets are lined with food vendors with all kinds of juices, desserts, fruits, buns, and unhealthy deliciousness. A good idea is to go here with someone who knows what they’re doing. I visited several night markets and the only time I went without a Taiwanese person I was too sheepish to buy anything. One benefit of Taiwan is that there is no haggling. In fact, many vendors throw in extra produce after the sale because they are nice.
If you are biking, don’t forget to look up and enjoy the architecture and people on either side of that silky smooth road.
Taiwan is full of colorful and photogenic statues, figurines, and lights. Damper babies surround Taipei 101’s mass damper. Seemingly every waypoint has a mascot that is just as fun to see as the attraction itself.
The forests are lush and deep green, and the white clouds will hug the tops of mountains, hiding how tall the mountains are. Rice fields are a different color green from the trees and produce a delightful contrast to the surrounding mountains. Although tempting to frolic through the fields, one must hold back if one wants to stay dry.
The Natural Wonders
The Taiwan coast is full of beautiful islands, interesting rock formations, and enormous manmade anti-erosion jacks. At the geopark in the photo, these fascinating rock formations were just one type of interesting thing to explore. You can venture into the tall rock forest — just don’t touch the rock or a yellow-vested rock-watcher will whistle at you! And yes it’s crowded, but only near the footpath; as you explore further away, the crowds taper away.
After circling the mountain peaks on a bike, driving a car up to the top is a must-do (coincidentally, a “must-do” is the hairstyle achieved from putting on a dirty helmet).
Staying in Yilan for a night was like staying at a summer camp. There was a bus to a fabulous nature walk. The guide shared lots of information, however because she did not speak English I only learned what my travel buddies deemed worthy to translate, which was plenty to complement our walk through the stunningly massive cypress trees. Follow that up with a short path through rock gardens, landscaped waterfronts, and enticing boardwalks and this place in the mountains was a magical stay. Our host booked the place for us (Thanks again!) because this place sells out seconds after the rooms become available. No, really: seconds as in less than a minute.
Many towns we visited had different personalities, as you might expect in any country. Some are new and have beautiful, modern buildings (e.g. Kaohsiung), some are known for their rice fields (e.g. Chishang [if a place in Taiwan is known for their rice fields you know those fields must be awesome]), and some are known for their festivals (e.g. Shifen). Capturing what makes a place unique is what I enjoy about photography.
Giant Adventure: Giant Bicycles is based in Taiwan and they operate an “adventure” organization that runs cycle tours.
Route 1: Information about the cycle path.
Mingchih Resort: Where we stayed in the mountains
Yehliu Geopark: A nice stop on the north coast. Note that the bike tour does not pass this.