The climb to the Shouka summit in southern Taiwan by bicycle is an experience that veers between pleasure and pain – something I’m discovering as I tackle the hardest stretch of Cycling Route 1: a 602-mile circumnavigation of the island that has become Asia’s holy grail for cyclists. Five days in the saddle may have primed my fitness and strengthened my resolve, but the uphill schlep is no laughing matter.
Leaving behind one-horse settlements huddled in the foothills near the coast, I subject myself to a calf-tightening test as acute hairpin bends propel the thin stretch of tarmac vertically up the forested hillside.
“Jaiyo” – an exhortation of Chinese encouragement that translates literally as “add oil” – cry cheery onlookers in one horse towns as my face passes through several shades of agony and the backs of my calves threaten to explode.
For amateurs (like me) who flock to Taiwan to sample one of Asia’s premier long-distance biking challenges, the climb – despite its near constant-supply of scenic manna – can be an ordeal: the loneliness of the long-distance cyclist writ large.
Except, if you are pedaling in Taiwan, you are rarely truly alone, given its status as one of the most bicycle orientated places on the planet.
Indeed, the island nation off the coast of China has become almost as famous for its cycling culture as it is for its night market cuisine and the National Palace Museum, the world’s finest hoard of Chinese imperial treasures.
On my recent 10-day trip to the island, I covered over 1,000 kilometers, cultivated and weaned myself off an addiction to energy drinks, and set a new world record in mumbled expletives, cursing everything from minor (and major) elevation changes to an overabundance of traffic lights.
Few adventures in Asia are as simultaneously accessible and compelling as pedaling around Taiwan – a destination whose wild beauty and network of bike-paths have earned it its reputation as a holy grail for cyclists from around the world.
The wheels were initially set in motion in the 1980s with the rise of GIANT, a home-grown bicycle manufacturer that is now the world’s largest. An abundance of affordable cycles put bums on saddles during a period when the country’s economic growth saw it evolve from a work-all-hours culture to one where more of an emphasis was put on health and leisure.
On weekends, in even the most remote corners of the island, you’ll encounter groups of Taiwanese rocking skin-tight spandex and hi-vis bike gear. For the most part, however, the nation remains a blissfully uncrowded destination for a long-form cycling odyssey.
“Taiwan has all of the raw materials to be one of the world’s premier cycling destinations – epic landscapes, friendly people, great roads and bikes, soothing hot springs and fantastic food,” says Simon Foster of Grasshopper Adventures. “It’s small enough that you can complete a ride around it within a two-week window, but the scenery is incredibly diverse. The west coast is flat and easy going with some fascinating towns and cities, while the eastern side is beautiful but it’s a much stiffer challenge.”
Having planned for the adventure with two friends for almost a year – and being a second-time visitor to Taiwan — I knew I was in for incredible food, simpatico locals and some of the region’s most striking landscapes.
I find, however, that it is the less widescreen details that make it. The long freewheels down steep inclines that mitigate the teeth-clenching climbs, the farcical mix-ups in navigation and – most of all – the clink of cold bottles of Taiwan Beer as they touch down on the table at the end of another long day.
It’s an epic trip, but it’s not for the faint hearted. As the kilometer count starts to build, so too do calf and thigh muscles, and what started as an endurance test turns into a pleasure. The west coast route passes emerald-hued paddies and ocean facing Taoist temples dedicated to the sea-god Matsu.
In big cities, meanwhile, the highlights come in culinary form at teeming night markets and as liquid refreshment at hip cocktail bars such as TCRC in Tainan, where crisp Martinis act as a reward for our exertions.
Despite the occasional swish bar, cycling around Taiwan isn’t a luxury experience by any means. It’s hard to cut a dash when more than half the miniscule wardrobe you are heaving around in your panniers consists of spandex. Lodgings, meanwhile, are adequate rather than alluring, which is not really an issue given that bedtime struggles to make it past 9pm on a nightly basis.
As Foster implies the west coast is merely the appetizer to the main course awaiting on the eastern side of the island. From the dune-backed beaches of Kenting National Park on Taiwan’s southern tip through the peak-shrouded paddies in the East Rift Valley and lush gorges that cut deep into the interior, the route offers a smorgasbord of scenic manna.
Along with the visual manna comes hardship. A nasty headwind threatens to topple us over into the ocean some way short of Taitung City while a puncture scuppers our visions of a leisurely early dinner in Hualien. After nine days and countless 7/11 stops, meanwhile, I wonder how I could ever have attached such affection to Pocari Sweat at the start of the journey.
These are but minor gripes though, forever destined to be overshadowed in the memory by the sight of jagged mountains and cliffs edging down towards pounding surf and the flavor of Taiwanese towns and their cornucopia of post-ride culinary manna.
All good things must reach a conclusion though. And when you’ve been cycling for ten days, the end of the road is as much a cause for celebration as it is for sadness. In fact, as we twist and climb up the Beiyi Highway between Yilan and Taipei – a road notorious for its quotient of hairpin bends – I contemplate hitching a lift and vow never to mount a bike again.
Soon though my perspective starts to shift as it has done many times on this grueling but incredible trip. After one last uphill grind from the tea-growing town of Pingling, we are on the homeward stretch – a long freewheel down the mountain and back to where we started. As we emerge from the forest and hit the outskirts of the city, Taipei 101 materializes in the skyline like a beacon welcoming us home. The aches and pains will come later. For now, though, full circle feels so good.