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At the end of the term that served as the official tiebreaker between me and university life, I was invited by my good friend Judy to cycle the east coast of Taiwan.

Before I describe the unforgettable experience that has been the past six days, it’s best I point out that the furthest I had ever cycled in Taiwan (or indeed anywhere else in the world in the past decade) was about three or four city blocks on one of Taipei’s popular YouBikes.

For those unfamiliar, YouBikes are part of Taipei City’s open-to-public bicycle rental project. In a city that already boasts a convenient web of metro lines and (mostly) punctual buses, the Taipei City government’s response to commuter traffic is the YouBike.

Most of us—the citizens of Taipei—own an Easy Card. Similar to the United Kingdom’s Oyster Card, an Easy Card allows one to pay bus, metro and train fares, while cardholders can also use it to buy goods from any one of the convenience stores littered across Taiwan. Even motorists have a use for Easy Cards as they can pay for parking with it at specific lots.

With this truly ‘easy’ card, we can register to rent YouBikes. After simple registration and activation, a YouBike is free for the first 30 minutes (the fee has since been raised to NT$5 for the first 30 minutes) and costs NT$10 (roughly US$0.33 or €0.25) every 30 minutes after that.

As a self-proclaimed ‘first world’ country, you could say that Taipei was a step or two behind with services such as citywide Wi-Fi or bicycle rental, but with both the aforementioned conveniences slowly appearing in the past few years, today’s Taiwan is not so much a ‘first world country’ as a ‘first world city’ in the form of its capital—Taipei.

Other cities and counties lack the majority of conveniences and comforts that Taipei provides its residents—something I would discover while on the east coast. But with that comes a serenity and lifestyle that not even the largest amount of money can buy, because you just can’t turn back time, and no city develops backwards.

With that said, YouBikes have simply made an already very convenient city into an even more convenient one, and after a few blocks on a YouBike, I duly decided that the cycling trip would be a great idea.

I wouldn’t say I was completely mistaken, but the amount of challenges we were subjected to was simply unforeseeable.

I can shamelessly admit that I am nowhere close to being fit. Yes, I gym occasionally, but as I would quickly discover, “gym don’t mean shit” when it comes to long distance cycling, which requires endless hours of physical and mental preparation in order to successfully tackle the excruciating pain that comes along with it.

Endurance is also something that money can’t buy, and like stamina, it runs out alarmingly fast. At times a good night’s sleep and pure physical fitness is enough to pull you through; other times it’s a matter of sheer willpower.

“Theirs not to make reply,

Theirs not to reason why,

Theirs but to do and die:

Into the valley of Death

Rode the six hundred.”

Sunday, July 22, we rented our bicycles from Tamsui and headed south to Xindian (those sensitive to Chinese-language romanisations will have already died in the last sentence). There we started our journey along 台9—Taiwan’s provincial main road to the east.

We had planned our route out in advance of course, and knew exactly where we needed to go—a convenience afforded to us by Google Maps. However, planning from the comfort of our bedrooms, there was absolutely no way of knowing just ‘how’ we would reach our destinations, a handful of cities dotted along the east coast, ending in Taitung.

I had never been to Taitung before, so this seemed like an interesting and unconventional way of reaching the city. But we were by no means pioneers. Thousands take the journey annually, cycling not only to Taitung, but much, much further. In fact, the aim is usually to make a round trip by cycling down one side of the island and coming up the other—a journey consisting of approximately 1,000 painstaking, sweat-filled kilometres.

Friends and teachers spoke of the beauties and hardships we would encounter along the way, but nothing—I mean nothing—could have prepared us for what was quite literally the toughest challenge of my life physically and, to a certain extent, mentally.

Gym-goers will understand when I say that everybody dreads leg day. Well, try ‘leg week’ on for size.

The first thing that slapped me square in the face was the distance we had to cover going uphill. The first day was the worst, with a 20km+ climb as we crossed over the mountain range from Taipei to Yilan, our first stop in the east coast.

To be fair, the slopes were a meager 8%, but a constant 8% rise turn after turn gave me more than enough reasons to break down. But that’s the thing. When you’re cycling over 300km with friends, there’s no need to pretend you’re Superman. I can honestly put my hands up and say that I was nowhere close to the level of fitness required for a journey of this capacity. I stopped countless times as we spent the entire day tackling the hills.

It rained that first afternoon as well. Heavy torrential rain. And with nowhere to hide, we soldiered on. Amidst the frustration of being caught in the middle of nowhere on one of Taiwan’s most dangerous and challenging roads, there were odd moments of optimism when we encountered masterpiece landscapes and passing cyclists who urged us on with a heartfelt “加油!” They understood.

We stopped 30km short of our originally planned destination. We were exhausted, it was late and the rain was simply relentless.

Were we disappointed to not have reached the other side of the mountain in one go? Possibly. But did we regret stopping at 5:00pm to get some R&R? Hell no. We were dead. My quads had cramped a dozen times on the way to the small town of Pinglin, and my backside had been through a day of physical violation caused by my body weight on the saddle. All in all, I’d say we did ourselves proud.

Day two was just as bad to start off with. I thought the climb had ended when we reached Pinglin, when in fact we were only halfway to the top. With my muscles severely pulled and my quads on the verge of extinction, we battled the elements to reach the highest town between Taipei City and Yilan City: Toucheng.

Again, I was dead. If I had 90% of my physical strength to start off with on the first day, then I must have started day two with half that amount. Thankfully it was all downhill after that—a full 12km of downhill in fact. The rest of the journey south to Taitung was easy compared to what we had been through on the first and second days. There was the odd 2-3km climb, followed by relieving downward straights and boulevards.

Looking back at those hellish first one and a half days, I’d like to note this: being a long distance cyclist for a week, I understand now that the only reason we tackle the inclines is to make ourselves worthy of the declines that follow. Downhill on a bicycle is something that everyone can appreciate, especially when you’re faced with a 20km climb, even the shortest of downhills can make you look up to the heavens in gratitude.

Another thing I understood was that when I drive, I loathe cyclists. They’re reckless, road hogging snobs who think they have the run of the road, weaving left and right. I realised while cycling that I absolutely abhor motorists, and for much of the same reasons.

Every time I encounter something different or new in life, be it a trip to a foreign land or a new activity, my mind becomes just that little bit wider, and a new understanding, a new tolerance, forms. Once again, this is something priceless and unpurchasable.

By far my favourite experience cycling that week has to be the final stretch towards Taitung City. A more majestic view I have never seen.

Summer on the east coast is represented by golden rice farms and gigantic silos, the combination of which results in a patchwork-like pattern across the green grassy plains of Yilan, Hualien and Taitung counties. I imagine the view from above to look somewhat like a country girl’s chequered dress. Together with the blazing sunshine and Photoshop-blue sky, it makes for an unbelievable view.

Cycling on the roads between the farmlands is a pleasure allowed only to the most fortunate and most appreciative of people. “This, this! I want this!” I yelled time after time as we raced along another magnificent view. Being on bicycles meant that we could easily stop and photograph the scene, but sometimes I didn’t. I mentioned once in an earlier travel journal that I believe some views are meant for the eyes only, and that even the best camera wouldn’t be able to do some vistas justice.

Being on the wide-open streets of Taitung showed me just how largely unexplored the eastern coast remained to me. I knew nothing of it and had seen only the tip of the iceberg.

Under the 35°C sun, everything in Taitung looked realer. The sky was bluer, trees were greener and clouds whiter. It was as if someone had toggled the saturation right up overnight.

With this came sunburn, naturally, but that wasn’t enough to deter us from our ultimate goal of simply having one last memory-filled holiday.

From Taitung we travelled north to Taipei by train and followed my favourite provincial highway: 台9. We choo-chooed past the towns and cities we had cycled through by bike, and it seemed like everything was in rewind. What a different feeling it was seeing the same views through the window of an air conditioned train carriage.

The scenes were, of course, just as beautiful, and the mountain ranges just as staunch, just as green as when we left them. And they shall remain that way, ready for some other lucky passersby to take in.

Besides having to rush back in time for work beginning in July, the trip was also planned in anticipation that, as first-time long distance cyclists, we would have had enough of cycling by the time the sixth day hit. That day came and went, and we found ourselves on a train back to the grey and gloomy capital wishing we had time for more.

My backside still hurts and I still wince a little when I have to trudge up a flight of stairs. But what I wouldn’t do for a few more days on that trusty iron stallion. JSF.

Photos courtesy of Judy Tang.

2 thoughts on “306km of Saturation: Two-wheeling Taiwan’s East Coast

  1. John this great! I did go to the East coast this past Chinese new year, aiming to get to Kenting. I’d say OMG, what a fascinating experience that was, worth to be remember in my life. Getting to Pinglin and realizing you’re just half way until you get to Yilan sounds like a nightmare, but those 12km downhill really, REALLY pay off. Then my second best: from Hualien to Taidong, too bad got a flat tire and ended up is Dawu, still feeling proud to have reached Taidong thu. I wish I can repeat it again until my legs can’t resist.

    • Foncho, I know EXACTLY what you mean. I was so tired and worn out, but there was just this endless surge of adrenaline pushing me forward. I will definitely do this again, and hopefully next time we can go together and make the full circle. It’s fascinating that before going on this trip, I would never have thought it enjoyable: sweaty, tiring, hot, but boy, so much, so much fun! And the vistas are just incredible. I felt even more privileged then motorists—they could see the view, but I could stop and eat it.

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