14 March, 2012

Touring in Taiwan

Post by Alec Burney
Note: you can click on any photo to see it bigger.


Before the Taipei Cycle Show, I took a few days to tour around the north end of the island. It was really great to see a bit of "normal life" before all of the factory visits, meetings, product discussions, quality improvement debates, and enormous dinners...

GPS kicked in on the second day, and says my route
was kind of like this

I arrived at the airport late, unpacked and reassembled my bike, and disposed of its cardboard box. I gave my airplane reading (Blink) to a friendly security guy, who spoke excellent English with a pronounced Australian accent. I pedaled away into the night, unaware that this would be the last English speaker that I'd see until the show.

I planned to camp on the beach, and headed straight for the Strait of Taiwan, on the Western coast. Lost immediately, I bought a map at a 7-11 and tried to convince the cashier to show me where we were on the map. He called his buddies over and we all pointed at various places, scratching our heads. No one knew where we were!  We gave up, and I was pretty lost, since all of the street signs in the area, and the map itself, were all in Chinese. All the names looked identical to me, and I mean that it the nicest possible way. So, I kept heading southwest, in the approximate direction of the beach I had in mind.

It was a beautiful ride with a still night and a flat, wide road. It had an ample shoulder marked with stencils of a guy riding a bike, a good sign. Everyone else seemed to be asleep, so I took my time and enjoyed the warm air.

I found a nice patch of grass next to the beach, slept. It was a nice, calm night, and when I woke halfway though, I realized that I was in a foreign country, with a vocabulary not extending much past "hello," and "thank you." I thought maybe I should be afraid. This wasn't exactly an official campsite, I could be easily misunderstood. I was alone. But, I was completely comfortable and unafraid. I would be for the entire trip, and I'd come to realize that I was surrounded by a kind, gentle, understanding people, who despite the language barrier would feed me when I was hungry, and point in the general direction of a city for me when I squeaked out the Mandarin name for it. I get the impression that there's not much crime in Taiwan, and I never once felt threatened, not even by heavy traffic.

I woke up to a beautiful morning, finding myself on the Taoyuan Seashore bike path, as a sign in English proudly proclaimed. It was covered in dense fog, and I was comfortably alone on this Wednesday morning.

There seem to be a lot of bike paths in Taiwan, as well as small roads that serve as defacto bike paths, having only occasional, local, and courteous car traffic. This one was blanketed in fog, and I was alone, waiting for the GPS to figure out I was on the other side of the world, so I rode in what later seems to be circles on the coast looking for the road that would lead to the mountains.

When the GPS woke up I zipped up the road towards the Wulai district, the mountains, and the hot springs. My destination was the "public" hot spring, and I didn't know much about it except that I hoped I could make myself welcomed there by the locals. I didn't want to go to an expensive private spa.

First, I would get to cycle though a couple towns, the most notable being Taoyaun City. Here, I was first exposed to the ubiquitous motor scooter. The operators of these strange machines seemed to all be having a ball, and every intersection was equipped with a bike box for them. This guy seemed to be carrying milk, or something like it, and we rode together for almost the entire length of the city. The bike boxes in the intersections meant that we could outpace the cars by a good bit by filtering forward at the lights. The scooters, truly, seem to be king of the road within the Tiawanese city.

I also had the opportunity to ride some nice bike paths. This one is in the Yingge District on the far side of Taoyaun, at the edge of the mountainous interior.
After crossing some big river that I can't name, the road turned upwards for real and I pedaled through the Sansia district. I began to notice that even though I was now well out of the big cities, development didn't taken on a sprawly character the way it tends to around here. The towns were very dense, and private, freestanding homes seemed to be quite rare. The towns also seem to usually have public toilets. Listen up, bike tourists!

And then, I was in Wulai district for real. The town is cut down the middle by a wide, slow, cold river. Next to the river is the road, which turns into a public market full of indescribable and unidentifiable food, and delicious noodle shops. On the far side of the river, the public hot springs is a small park cut out of the bank of the river. It seems to be maintained by the public, with rough concrete steps, small manmade pools, and PVC pipe festooned about carrying water of all temperatures from one place to another.

I squeezed past about a half-dozen local families and found myself alone on a set of steps below everyone else, equipped with two piping hot streams of water emptying into a small lagoon in the freezing cold river. Great place for a mid-day bath!


Like many other places in Taiwan, the building was delightfully dense. Can you well which is a dwelling, hotel, restaurant, spa, or store? Some of them are all of the above!

I had some more noodles afterward, chuckling about our various states of weirdness with the shop owner, who was wearing a getup that seemed to be straight out of 80s pop, with splatter decals, stripes, florescent colors, and backwards cap. He seemed to think my bike was pretty funny, too, so we got along well.

I headed out of town then, I climbed the switchbacks, up, up, and up to the top of the mountain.

As it would turn out, the road would end a little earlier than I hoped, turning into first a large dirt road, then a small dirt road, then a small path. I bumped along the trails, climbing more and more, really enjoying a bit of offloading, but hoping I wasn't overdoing it (the wheels use VO Hi-lo hubsPBP 700c rimsand Pasela tires, and as always, they were perfectly happy to bounce around on the dirt trail, even with 25lbs of camping stuff).

Soon, though, I came to a rockslide, which I had the pleasure of carrying my bike across, and on the other side, things got narrower and narrower until I walked the final mile to my campsite.

Another half-mile on from there was the end of the trail. It was a gorgeous site at nearly the top of the mountain, where three waterfalls, one from each compass point, came together to form one big stream, flowing off in the fourth direction. I'd learn later that this was a fairly well-known trail, and one of our friends in Taiwan had hiked it as well.



After a quiet night at the top of the mountain, I backtracked and headed towards Fulong. This meant a brief trip through the North end of Taipei, near the Zoo, and then another series of mountains to climb and descend. It was full of wicked switchbacks, like this one in the Shihding district.





I had the opportunity to ride with some local roadies, as well. They seemed to all have pretty nice bikes, and I think this guy was a little bothered that I could keep up with him, the universal reaction of the roadie.

He stopped to eat at the top of the mountain, in a small town in the Pingsi district, and I kept going. It started to rain, then, and I put on my jacket before heading through some long tunnels under the peak of the mountain. Soon it was raining hard and I was wet all the way through. I had put my tent up wet in the morning, and it was time to imagine how nice it would be to sleep in a soggy tent that night.



When I arrived in Fulong, it was raining so hard I could hardly see, and the guy behind the counter at the (official!) campsite spoke enough English to tell me that I should camp under the pavilion.

I tried not to do an excited happy dance as I pedaled over and unrolled my stuff to dry under the roof. The bathroom had warm water and showers, too. I was overjoyed. Then the rain stopped, and I rode to the town center and had some noodles, and the tent was dry by the time I got back.

There was also a short bike path of a couple miles that lead down to the sea. The Phillipine Sea, this time. It was nice to spin along without my camping gear, and I was also reminded about how well this bike transitions from one role to another. The handling was impeccable both loaded and unloaded.



In the morning, I set out early and cut a zig-zag back to Taipei, through Keelung City, and then back out to the coast and around the Northern tip of the island back to Taipei.

I tend to ride straight through. I don't like to stop, and with my big handlebar bag on its little rack, I can load up my meals and eat while I'm riding.

But, on that day I made an exception and stopped in the early morning. Not for lunch, but for a haircut. It was a high-end looking salon in the small town of Nuannuan, and predictably, no one spoke any English. I pointed at my hair and my beard and made some snipping gestures and she hopped to it, giggling at my bravery. A cut, shave, and shampoo followed with few ill effects, and the charge was quite reasonable. All of our friends in Taiwan thought this story was hilarious. A haircut in a foreign language! And it looks okay!

I rode along the river bike path in the Nangang district of Taipei, crossed the river, and headed back to the coast.











The coast was rainy and foggy, but was a wonderful mix of tunnels and hills and the road wound right along the edge of the water. Some of the tunnels were quite long, but the traffic was light and polite.

Near Yunshan, in the Northeast, one of the tunnels was open on the side and had some wonderful concrete details and a sidewalk where you could look out on the ocean. This time it was the East China Sea. That's right, a third one! I think I missed one on this trip - the South China Sea.


I wrapped up my trip and headed to Taipei to get ready for the show. All-in-all, it was quite relaxing, and it felt natural and easy to ride on Taiwanese roads. Most of them had ample shoulders, and I shared even the most remote roads had scooters, so the cars knew how to behave around me.

I was warmly received everywhere, and with an open mind.

15 comments:

Matteo said...

Awesome!

Scott A. said...

Thanks for posting about your trip. It was a joy to read and is really inspiring me to consider visiting Taiwan!

Anonymous said...

Great story. Thank you for sharing it with us. -Wes Ewell

Anonymous said...

wow! That looks like a lot of fun! What bike were you riding?

enzomatic said...

Are those the Ostrich bags?

Kelly said...

Sounds and looks amazing, can't believe you did it all solo with no Chinese!

ha1ku said...

I thoroughly enjoyed your post. Thanks!

Robert said...

That looks amazing.

A question for you, though: how (much) did you plan this trip? It seems like you had no trouble at all finding suitable campsites, even though you didn't speak the language and didn't come with a map. Did you do some research before you left?

I've loved the bike camping I've done here in the eastern US, but finding suitable campsites is always a source of worry for me. Is Taiwan just better that way, or do you have a secret?

VeloOrange said...

Enzomatic:

Yes, those are the ostrich saddlebag and the Ostrich Handlebar bag (which we no longer sell - the campagne is a handlebar bag of the same style, though).

Ha1ku: thanks!

Robert: I like to use google maps to plan my campsites ahead of time for short trips. You can spot small patches of trees from around the world with a good satellite map, and after some practice, you know right away what's a good campsite and what isn't.

For longer trips, I just find a campsite at the end of the day. Sometimes this means riding farther than you planned to, as you wait for a wild area to roll past.

Taiwan is better than the Eastern US, though, because building is much more dense. When you're out of a town, you're out of the town, there's no housing tracts surrounding it, so finding a small forest is easy.

That said, the Official campsite at Fulong was very easy to find because there was a huge sign for it at the edge of town. There seem to be few Official campsites in Taiwan, and this one was quite an operation.

Bob Torres said...

Alec,

It looks like you had yourself a great time. You also got to bring your Rando bike. Thanks for sharing your trip, maybe one day I will make my way there to enjoy the sites, people and culture.

Bob

Anonymous said...

Thanks! So nice to read a ride report instead of more posts about "stuff"!

Anonymous said...

What rack are you using for the saddlebag?

VeloOrange said...

Anonymous 12:56:

it's a Rando rack with integrated decaleur - meant for a handlebar bag, but with some rebending, it makes a good saddle bag support.

Mike Wali said...

you make it seem so easy......

Dave said...

What a wonderful experience Alec! Definitely required a bit of bravery on your part. The world would be less violent if we could all visit with one another.

-Dave S. (DCR)