In December 2018, my partner and I took a trip to Taiwan, and spent most of the time biking down the east coast. I just want to put together some of my impressions of the trip. Maybe this can be useful to someone planning something similar; I referenced other people’s blogs in preparation. But I want to save how to plan this kind of trip for another time.
The 14 Hour Christmas Eve
Our flight was 14 hours direct from Chicago to Taipei. Not the longest flight in the world, but certainly up there. We lifted off at 12:30 AM on December 24 and landed around 6 AM on December 25. I’m not good at sleeping on planes, so I was worried that, after being awake about 14 hours on December 23, 14 hours on the plane, and (hopefully) another 14 hours on December 25, that would mean about 42 straight hours awake. I was also getting over a cold, and with the help of Sudafed, I missed most of a Chinese-language heist movie.
Day 1: Train to Taroko
After arriving early on Christmas Day, we spent the morning on two trains: one from the airport to Taipei central station, and one from Taipei to Hualien. The train system wasn’t too hard to figure out, even on little sleep. The second train took us east to the other side of the island, and then south along the coast. It’s a pretty scenic route.
We arrived at the Hualien station around noon, and rented bikes from the Giant store, which was at the corner right outside the station. It was super convenient. After a couple test rides, and drinks from the 7-Eleven, we were ready to go.
Starting out, we managed to stay off the main highway using a combination of tiny side-streets and some larger roads with bike lanes. Then we had to join up with Route 9 for a while. There was plenty of bike lane to safely bike in, but it would still be a little jarring when huge diesel trucks went by. Outside the Kuang Long Museum (which I regret not visiting, now that I know what it is), I noticed the backs of my hands were starting to sunburn, and slathered on some lotion. The first day’s biking, from Hualien to Xincheng, was about 11 miles total, and very flat.
We checked into our first hotel, Starry Inn. It was a nice, modern place. There were some friendly dogs hanging out in front. They didn’t have a bike rack, but they let us park our bikes by the reception desk. From there, we walked a block over to Xincheng station. The bus system getting from there to Taroko National Park was a bit confusing. The bus took us as far as the park visitor center, which is near the entrance.
From there we hiked a trail that was almost all stairs for about 1 kilometer up a mountain. The way down was mostly switchbacks, ending where we started. It was about dusk, and we caught the last bus back to Xincheng, and got dinner in town, some really cheap, delicious pork noodles.
I was surprised at how jet-lagged I wasn’t, given the absurd timing of the flight, and how little sleep I’d gotten. I think all of the physical activity–the biking and the hiking–probably made a huge difference. After all of that, I was quite ready to get a solid night’s worth of sleep.
Day 2: Through Hualien
The Starry Inn buffet breakfast was a mix of local and western items–coffee and hot soymilk for instance. And it was very nice, especially on sitting on the hotel’s top floor, looking out towards the mountains.
We rode down the coast, with only a little bit along Route 9 at the beginning of the day. The Chisingtan Scenic Area was indeed scenic, and the weather was warm and sunny in the morning.
Getting up to the Four-Eight Highland involved walking our bikes up stairs. Otherwise it was a smooth, beautiful ride, all the way down the coast by Hualien. I’d expected to make a detour towards downtown, or at least to a market for lunch. But in the moment, we didn’t really feel like leaving the coastal path, and we weren’t sure how long the weather would hold up.
We did eventually have to stop for lunch. There was a park with horses, deer, and various birds. At an apple stand by the park, we bought a grilled sausage. At that point, I needed a bathroom and a caloric drink and some time sitting still out of the sun, so we stopped at a Starbucks that seemed like a popular Instagram spot because it was made from stacked shipping containers.
We continued on the coastal path until it ended, and then rode next to a major road over a river. I missed the turn I was aiming for. The next road heading the right direction ended up being a worryingly-overgrown dirt track, so it was a relief that it did actually go through. Though there were some dogs that bothered us along the way. In all, I think that leg of the trip was about 27 miles.
In Zhixue, we checked into a hotel called Yueting. The place seemed recently constructed, but in a sort of baroque 1980’s style. The proprietor didn’t seem accustomed to getting English-speaking customers, but he was very kind.
Day 3: The Upper Valley
For breakfast, we rode to a place in Shoufeng called Shoufeng Breakfast. Sort of Taiwanese diner food. From there, we took a side route up to a cherry blossom trail. But getting up there involved some tough climbing, and when we got there, there wasn’t anywhere to lock up and hike. Maybe that place is only open when the cherry blossoms are actually blossoming.
Then we were back on Route 9 for a while. It was really impressive how there was some kind of bike accommodation the entire way. Sometimes it would be a bike lane right next to traffic, sometimes there would be a marked buffer, sometimes the bike lane would be off away from the road, behind a row of trees. But there was always something. In Fenglin, we had buns and bubble tea for lunch in the city park.
Near Guangfu, we took another scenic route away from the main road, and spent some time birdwatching and feeding fish at Fata’an Wetlands Ecological Park. After that, it was about 4 PM and was getting a bit dark and rainy, so we headed to Sapientia Guest House. It was a good idea to get there by daylight, since it was down a twisty country road, and not easy to spot. I had to stop literally right in front of the gate to check the GPS to be sure. But the guest house doesn’t make dinner–it’s just run by a couple–so we ended up biking back into town after dark in the rain. When we got back from the Vietnamese restaurant, the host treated us to some of his home-roasted coffee, which was a treat. He had clearly invested a lot of time and equipment in getting it just right.
I think after the extra excursion for dinner, this leg of the trip wound up being about 31 miles.
Day 4: The Long Day
It was cool to wake up out in the countryside, with a ton of birds singing just beyond our balcony. And the guest house folks made a great breakfast.
When we started biking, the guest house’s dog joined us, probably for about a mile. Danongdafu Forest Park was beautiful and serene to bike through, and would be a good place to spend more time. From there, it looks like the road cuts straight across from there to Fuyuan, but at least when we were there, a couple blocks were unpaved, and too bumpy and overgrown to bike.
Next to the Fuyuan station, we picked up a bike path going almost all the way to Ruisui. It included a really nice bridge over a river, and a cyclist rest stop. Have I mentioned how much I want infrastructure like this? That whole morning might have been the best biking of the whole trip.
I knew there was tough terrain ahead, so we stopped for ramen in Ruisui. We joined up with Route 9, crossed a bridge, and then where the highway turned to go up switchbacks, we took the local road straight up. We ended up walking our bikes most of the way, but right next to the road there were fields of coffee and tea bushes, which was really cool to see and to smell. At the top of the hill, we stopped at a cafe to drink some coffee and tea and to rest. Then it was back down the other side, which was a very fast and exciting ride.
We followed Route 9 all the way to Yuli. There we stopped for a few things. I got biking gloves to keep my hands from sunburning. Sylvie got some tissues, because she was dealing with a cold. And for dinner, we got some large scallion pancakes with egg and hot sauce filling from a street cart. I’d thought Yuli would be a good place to stop for dinner, but I hadn’t counted on Taiwan also having early sunsets in winter.
From the Yuli station, we took a bike path out of town and across the river. It was an unlit path, and the wind made an eerie noise against the bridge. On the other side, there was, as I’d hoped, a way to get from the bike path up to the intersection with Route 30. But it was very dark, so I have no idea if cutting through there was legal or not. It wasn’t a bad climb to the Antong Hot Springs Hotel, and there wasn’t much traffic on the road at night, which was good because there isn’t a designated bike lane along that road.
Soaking in the hot springs was the best, after a long day of biking. Sylvie even tried the in-room hot spring. I think I was trying to read. Rather than bring bulky physical books that wouldn’t handle getting wet, I had loaded some Kindle books onto my phone. But I didn’t end up reading nearly as much as I’d expected to, because with all the physical exertion, I was finding it hard to keep my eyes open past 10 PM.
Day 5: Up and Over
Total distance: 21 miles
The next morning was going to be the most challenging climb of the trip, going up 224 meters in only 3 miles. We ended up walking a lot of it, which was unsurprising. And the views were spectacular as we went further up.
Then we rode through a tunnel. It was about 1.5 miles long, and it was downhill heading eastward, the way we were going. Inside it felt plenty wide to bike safely.
On the other side, we got more breath-taking views, now including the coast, as the road wound towards sea level.
We cycled down the coast to Sanxiantai, where we got a hot meal and waited out the worst of the rain. Even so, the wind was threatening to whip my glasses off my face when we went out on the eight-arched bridge to the island. The scenery out there is really stunning, especially climbing up to the lighthouse. It felt like something out of Myst, or possibly an old Bond film.
Another bike path brought us most of the way into Chenggong. At that point it was rainy and night time. The hotel, called Jou Lin Ger, wasn’t clearly marked. Fortunately one of the owners was out front with a small dog. Like Yueting, this place didn’t seem like it gets a lot of English-speaking customers, but the folks who run it were very nice. They shared some local fruits. Shoes basically weren’t allowed inside, but there were a lot of loaner vinyl slippers. The place seemed very empty–there was a second floor common area that was left unlit.
That night, Sylvie noticed she had bite marks on her legs. Though we still don’t know what they were from, or when and where she got bitten. We searched the room for bedbugs and took every precaution we could, but didn’t find anything there.
Day 6: Beach-bumming
Total distance: 30 miles?
For breakfast, we got hot drinks from 7-Eleven and steamed buns across the street. We rode down the coast, getting off the highway where we could, with stops at the Amis Folk Center, and the Donghe Bun Shop for more steamed buns. The bun shop was very popular, but worth it. This whole section of the coast was very nice, but there was also more traffic.
In the afternoon, we went to the Dulan Sugar Factory, and then checked into Pasa Homestay. Our room was actually further inland from the main road than I’d expected. The guy who built and ran the place was really helpful, and drove me into town for cash and snacks. Then we hung out on Shanyuan Beach, where a big resort complex had been abandoned. Dinner was pizza–one takoyaki, one curry.
Day 7: New Years Eve
Distance: 12 miles?
The homestay provided buns to heat up in a toaster oven for breakfast. Then we biked into Taitung, got some snacks, and went to turn our bikes in near the train station. What I saw of Taitung wasn’t all that impressive. The biking was a bit more hazardous than elsewhere, with parked cars narrowing the bike lane. After turning in the bikes, we took a six hour train back to Taipei. The train went back up the coast, so in about two hours, we rewinded a full week of biking. It was also cool to get another look at all the towns we had passed through.
In Taipei, we checked into a hotel next to the train station. Options were scarce because it was New Years Eve, and the Cosmos Hotel is sort of luxurious in an outdated way. The room had an elaborate control panel for all the lighting options. After dinner, we basically passed out, and didn’t make it to midnight, completely missing the fireworks.
Day 8: Taipei
After an elaborate breakfast, we walked to Da’an Park. It had recently rained, and even in the downtown area, Taipei seemed fresh and verdant. Trees along the streets wore little identification tags with QR codes. We met up with my college friend Stella, who had the day off for New Years. While we waited for a table at Din Tai Fung, we walked around the neighborhood behind it, and tried scallion pancakes, soypresso, and more. After a feast of dim sum, we walked back to the train station, and it was pretty much time to catch a train to the airport.