I think cycling is starting to become weirdly ingrained in me. I was pushing a trolley at the supermarket yesterday and began thinking that it felt a lot like clutching handlebars. It was only when I reached for the brakes that I realised I might have a problem.
Day 1 – Taipei to Bitou (77 km)
The first major stop on our two-wheeled debut into the east coast of Taiwan, was a cat village. Houtong Cat Village was a slight detour from our planned path, but the idea of a village presumably run by cats proved too irresistible to refuse. We ambled about the hilly cluster of houses, an attraction that regularly dumps trainloads of tourists at its gate, and saw at least five cats, not counting the four in a cage and the one tied to a pole next to a dog behind some safety tape. The rules were different in Houtong: in any normal town, a passing cat would be ignored, but here all cat sightings were met with groups of people crowding and snapping photos. One particularly obese cat was sprawled asleep, open-mouthed on the desk of a shopkeeper playing on his phone. High-pitched meowing music, which the owner had either been desensitised to or had long ago traded his sanity for, played softly but audibly from speakers hidden in the walls of his cat-themed trinket shop.
During Japan’s occupation of Taiwan, Houtong Village had been prosperous due to coal mining, but like so many boom towns the money dried up and the younger generation moved to the big city. Everything went catward in the early 2000s when a kind-hearted local set up a care centre for forgotten strays and gained notoriety posting up cat photos on the internet – a sure way to get attention. With that said, here are our cat photos:
We cycled onward, through lovely old tunnels refurbished from the area’s mining days, and eventually saw that most beautiful of sights: the ocean. We hugged the coast under the intense sun, passing peculiar rock formations (‘Peculiar Rock’ read one sign) and various trekking paths which led south up into the mountains. My New Zealand-strength sunscreen had to be liberally applied at regular intervals, but my arms still browned up like overcooked bread.
We had a rough plan to camp at an elementary school at Bitou Cape, the most north-eastern tip of Taiwan, but when we arrived it was clear that the fortress-like school (with possibly the best schoolyard view in the world) would be closing its gates before we could sneak in under darkness. By this time it was around 5 p.m., so finding a spot to camp had to take priority over visiting the Bitou Cape Lighthouse. We cycled south through a tunnel to the little diving town of Bitou proper. The young divers were lining up for $20 showers (Taiwan dollars), so we made a note to come back and use them once we’d found a suitable camping spot.
The caretaker of Bitou’s second elementary school had just finished feeding his five bunnies, and we called him over to ask if there was any camping in the area. He told us to try a park over the other side of the inlet – a spot that we’d already had our eyes on as a last resort. This solidified the idea in our minds, and we decided to set up our tent as inconspicuously as possible after dark.
It was only upon entering the park that we noticed the ‘No Camping’ sign. We chose to ignore it, and left no trace of ourselves the following morning.
Day 2 – Bitou to Taroko Gorge (95 km + 100 km by train)
We began a trend on that fateful morning of day 2: setting the alarm for 4.30 a.m., a time when only trucks prowl the roads and elderly people are already halfway through their morning walks. The sun sat low over the Pacific as we journeyed south, and as it quickly rose, bathing everything in an orange glow, we pulled up to a concrete seawall overlooking a mussel farm. The sun which now seemed so beautiful in the early light would be the cause of our suffering for the duration of the trip.
“You can get a photo with three suns,” said a man who had just taken one. He wasn’t wrong:
As we neared Cape Santiago, a cycleway caught our eye. Cycleways are always a welcome diversion from the truck-filled roads, and this one happened to lead to the Old Caoling Tunnel. This tunnel is open exclusively to cyclists and pedestrians (and only to cyclists during holidays), and is a refurbished, 2 km passage through the mountain. It was built by the Japanese during their occupation, and was intended to be used as a railway tunnel. After not very long it was decided that the tunnel wasn’t big enough ($$$!) and so another one, which is currently still in use, was built beside it. We were the only people going through it at this early hour, and enjoyed the slightly ominous, refreshingly cool, slight decline in our favour.
When we returned to the tunnel’s exit area about two hours later, after a detour to and from the Santiago Lighthouse (the first landing point of the Japanese when they invaded), it was overrun with Taiwanese tourists on rented bicycles and sausage vendors. Cycling early had paid off.
*note – I reread that last paragraph and it sounds like the tourists were physically riding on the sausage vendors. Sadly, This was not the case.
We biked for several more hours through seaside towns, all the way down the coast to Yilan train station. There, we bought a ticket to Hualien. We’d read online, and had also been verbally warned from the guy at the Merida bike shop, that the 100 km stretch of highway between Yilan and Hualien was particularly dangerous with narrow roads and screaming trucks. The train, we had been assured, was the safer option, and the added bonus is that we are both fond of train travel.
It all happened rather fast. We didn’t know when a train might be leaving, but there was one at the platform when we arrived. We hastily bought tickets for ourselves and the bikes (about 430 NTD), and rushed through the underpass – having to remove our right-hand panniers to get down the stair ramp – to the waiting train on platform 2. We shared our carriage with three other cyclists.
Halfway through the 100 km train journey, a section of tunnels, forests, and occasional sea views, we made an impulsive decision to get off two stations early – Xincheng – which was closer to the Taroko National Park. We had been told that the gorge running up through the park was one of Taiwan’s most beautiful places, and the internet told tales of scenic mountain camping.
At the information centre of the busy park HQ, a friendly, helpful man gave us an English map of the area and pointed out the nearest camping area. It was already around 5 p.m. (it gets dark at 7) and the man told us the cycle to the campsite might take us an hour or two. We ventured forth.
The Taroko Gorge was stunning. The road was steep and difficult, especially after the amount of cycling we’d already done that day, but the views were worth the effort. Sheer, flat walls rose hundreds of metres from the fast-flowing river and formed peaks. Aesthetically pleasing bridges and tunnels had been constructed or simply hewn from the rock itself. Temples high on cliffs straddled waterfalls which cascaded down into valleys leading back to the ocean. The ever-present chitter of darting swallows joined forces with a symphony of cicadas and the gushing river in an attempt to drown out the lumbering tour buses. As darkness crept into the gorge, the buses thinned to nothing and the only disturbance was the occasional car; a family on tour who couldn’t yet bear to leave.
The camp site was only moderately full when we arrived, and there were still a few wooden platforms available. Our single-pole tent is not freestanding, but we thought that maybe we could bash the pegs in between the wooden slats and join our fellow campers on their raised, snake-resistant perches. Success! We washed our clothes and showered. Bliss.
The written price to camp was 200 NTD per site, but when Caroline walked around with a handful of money she couldn’t find anybody to pay. There was no visible honesty box. In the end we camped for free.
Day 3 – Taroko Gorge to Ruisui (113 km)
Once again, our day began at 4.30 a.m. The other campers were still sleeping as we packed up, and by the time we reached the bottom of the gorge (nearly all downhill!) it was three hours later. Turns out that the sun rising through the Taroko Gorge is another level of amazing, and the beauty of it all kept making us stop to take photos.
With the valley behind us, we joined an unexciting highway and followed it to Hualien – the city we would have stopped in if we hadn’t exited the train two stations early. It had been a fortuitous last-minute desicion to do so, because we probably wouldn’t have gone up the gorge otherwise. I have Caroline to thank for that.
The sun was sweltering by about 9 a.m., and we arrived at a beach beside an army base. A green helicopter was doing rounds and the sounds of a jet could be heard taxiing behind a tall, barbed wire-topped wall. The beach was quickly filling up with tourists who, rather than swimming in the cool sea, chose to sit in the scorching heat under umbrellas eating chips. We chose to eat a very refreshing dessert which was a twist on tau fu fa: silky tofu in a slightly sweetened syrup, mixed with crushed ice and plenty of fresh lime.
A cycleway took as another few kilometres before we had to join a main road, and the next few hours were a mixture of skimming the edges of towns and climbing light hills through plantations of pineapples, dragonfruit, rice, wheatgrass, and coconut palms.
It was a long, very hot day, and once again we had no idea where to camp. An officer at the police station outside Ruisui pointed us towards a nearby camping spot as darkness was approaching, but when we got there the owner wanted 1000 NTD from us. This far and away exceeded the cost of camping in New Zealand – which is already on the high side – and seemed like an awful lot to pay for a patch of ground and access to a bathroom. We left in search of other options. Wild camping didn’t seem possible in these hilly farmlands.
As we rode it became dark, and tiny beetles started inhabiting the air in large numbers. I got one in my eye, and countless wriggling black bastards slammed into my arms only to drown in my sweat. Finally, with help from a guy in a private house that we mistook for a guesthouse, we found another camp site.
“1,400 dollars,” said the cheery owner. We must have looked upset, because she asked, “Too expensive?” She offered 1000 dollars. Caroline offered 800. The owner remained cheery and agreed.
It was very expensive by our standards – more than some hotels – but it was very fancy as far as campsites go. We had a platform with a roof and fairy lights, a private bathroom with a hot shower, and access to a kitchen and washing facilities. The owner bought over a kettle full of water, and in the morning (at 5 a.m.) she hurried over with fresh milk, soy milk, and some delicious bread made with walnuts and cream cheese.
Day 4 – Ruisui to Doulan (110 km)
This was quite possibly one of the most tiring days in our short cycling lives. Our early rise was once again beneficial; we had cool, empty roads as we rolled over gentle hills with expansive vistas of the valley. We saw the way new rice is sown (by a tractor towing a magical planting machine, not by hand), and watched gangs of white egrets looking ridiculous as they ran after the harvesters to collect frightened morsels.
After half a day of this kind of thing, we arrived at the foot of road 23. Road 23 connected the inland Highway 9 to the coastal Highway 11. This connecting road ran through the shallowest part of a mountain range that separated the two highways, but even here it was a long, difficult slog high into the hills under the punishing sun. It was a quiet road, which made it more manageable, and the views from the top were vast and impressive. Near the coast we found some monkeys hanging around some statues of monkeys. They were Formosan Rock Macaques, which are basically fluffy sideburn macaques, and they are native to Taiwan.
We hit the coastal highway and found ourselves sharing the road with lots of other cyclists (jia yo!), tourists, and trucks. We slogged on this road for a couple of hours before reaching the little town of Doulan. The police station here, the internet had correctly informed us, contained free camping platforms. Sadly, all the platforms were full. The friendly officer wanted to help us, so he had us follow him to his friend’s hostel. The hostel was reminiscent of a party flat, stinking of old booze; it was gloomy and lifeless. The owner offered a couple of dorm beds for 900 NTD and we politely declined.
Searching the town, we found a little park where children ran amok. We inquired about camping and were told to return at 9.00 after the kids were gone. We did, and were told to set up anywhere. After the tent was erected, the cheerful girl we’d been dealing with came over and said, “It’s 600 to camp here.”
Foolishly, we hadn’t asked about the price first (it may be prudent to note here, since all this talk of worrying about prices might sound finicky to the casual reader, that we are essentially traveling on our savings and try to keep our costs as low as possible. Also, I am half Scottish, and apparently the Scots are notoriously frugal). I suggested the price instead be 400, and so it was.
A group of Taiwanese people in the park drank and sang and talked loudly until after midnight. I believe this was (part of) the world slowly getting revenge on me from my days as a 19-year-old, flatting with friends in a quiet suburban street and ruining our neighbours lives with excessive wall of noise jams (these go to eleven) and bonfires at unholy hours of the morning most weekends.
We rose at 4.30 a.m. after not much sleep.
Day 5 – Doulan to Dawu (79 km)
There isn’t an awful lot to write about this day. We followed the coastal road in the ever-scorching summer heat, up some rather steep and exhausting hills, and along roads too narrow for comfortable truck-bicycle relationships.
Something eminently visible on this ride was the destruction caused by the recent ‘super typhoon’ Nepartak. Coconut trees were broken in half, signs were upturned at the side of the road, and plenty of corrugated iron had peeled back from the roofs like an open tin of cat food. Now the ocean was flat all the way to the horizon and the sky was a clear blue, but if we’d been here only two weeks before we would have been right in the middle of the chaos.
The road went on and on until it just kind of ended, and we arrived at a hotel in Dawu. After four days of camping in the heat of a stuffy tent, several long rides, and layers of sweat upon layers of sweat, we fell into the cheap room like it was a luxury resort. Air conditioning and a shower? You spoil us, Dawu.
Day 6 – Dawu to Hengchun (87 km or slightly over 90 km if your name is David)
Early in the morning, long before the hotel owners were awake, we packed our things and headed along the coast following highway 9. The giant burning ball of pain looked rather pretty as it quickly rose up from the horizon, and it gave the gathering clouds an epic back light. It also illuminated the thousands of ‘tetrapods’. All along the coastal areas in Taiwan, these large concrete, triangular lumps sit guarding the walls. They act as breakwater to reduce surface erosion and soften incoming waves.
If you’d like your very own tetrapod, they are available for purchase on Alibaba. Just make sure you have a big enough yard to contain it, and a small crane should you ever wish to change its location for aesthetic reasons.
As we neared the base of our first mountain, the clouds mercifully overtook the sun and saved us from a morning sweat bath. We took a break at the top, and then continued down the empty, windy road 199. Halfway down we stopped to look at a tree which attracted butterflies like a candy shop attracts fat children, and I realised that my buff (the material thing that goes over my face) had flown off somewhere. I backtracked to find it while Caroline took photos of butterflies, and eventually I found it at the top of the hill where we’d taken our break. Formosan Rock Macaques huffed angrily at me as I passed, but they could be taken about as seriously as one might take a fluffed-up Bichon Frise.
We followed 199 all the way to the coast where it met up with 26. There, the rugged shoreline looked almost exactly like the south coast back home in Wellington.
Two guys walking the opposite direction called out to us as we passed. They were walking with trolleys and backpacks, and appeared to be on some sort of quest. Their planned route for the day was to head all the way up the mountain we’d just finished cycling down. One could speak English, and asked if we could deliver a USB charger to their friend in the next town. We agreed, and cycled off as they continued to walk the other way. We made the delivery to a shirtless guy at a hostel as we cycled through.
After two more long climbs up hills in the heat, it was lunch time. The man who ran the small drink shack where we stopped was crazy, as indicated by one of his own patrons pointing to his own head while shaking it. “Brain not good,” was what Caroline could understand from his heavily accented Hokkien. The table we sat at was a strange one. Five men – rough, harsh in manner – and one girl who seemed out of place due to her careful level of grooming. They called us over when we pulled in for a drink, and now they shared their food with us.
“Snails,” they said, as they dipped tasty land-snails in chilli and put a few into the bowls we were suddenly holding.
“Snail eggs,” they said, dumping large spoonfuls of larva into our bowls.
Medium-sized fish, freshly caught, and a selection of smaller snails were also dumped into the bowls for our consumption. One of the guys told me he wanted to swap noses with me. A great deal was said that we didn’t understand followed by laughter. Photos were taken.
A few hours later we arrived at camping area. An internet tip had put a campsite in this spot at 100 NTD per person per night, but reality confirmed that the campsite didn’t actually exist and the next closest one was 800 NTD (for two). It had been a very long, quite difficult day, so we just paid the man at the gate entered.
紅柴水鄉 campsite, which directly translates to ‘Red Firewood Region of Rivers and Lakes’, appeared to have had its heyday several years before we arrived. The idea of twin swimming pools with twin waterfalls filtering them, several unique camping areas, a full restaurant and related facilities, and a setting right on the beach front with an unobstructed view of the sunset, would have been a perfect description, say, twenty years ago. Now it was still those things, except the waterfalls were little more than trickles with vines overtaking them, the pool – while still perfectly swimamable – had quite a few leaves to wade through, and the restaurant and related facilities were now empty buildings with a vending machine that was half out of stock.
The state of disrepair seems to have lead to more than a few one star reviews on Google (all written in Chinese), but the many campers present didn’t seem to mind. Everybody was enjoying the warm afternoon in this family-friendly site, the showers were hot and plentiful, and the sunset was spectacular. It was possibly the first time in my life where I’d witnessed both the sunrise and sunset in the same day. To celebrate the last night of camping of the trip. we fired up our stove once more and made mushroom soup (by shaking sachets into boiling water). It was rather tasty.
Day 7 – Hengchun to Kaohsiung (106 km)
This was a purely functional day. We essentially just hunkered down and blitzed 100 km up the west coast through uninteresting towns until the city of Kaohsiung slowly surrounded us. We checked into a hotel with a blissfully comfortable bed, sent our bikes on a train back to Taipei, and booked a bus to Taipei for ourselves for the following day.
It was our final cycle in Taiwan, and apart from the 50 km stretch between Kaohsiung and Tainan, we completely circled the country. Not bad at all.