With two of the Bucket Lists rides the small island of Taiwan gained an even stronger lure as a place to bicycle. A little research revealed even more reason to bike Taiwan. Thanks to the 2006 Taiwanese movie "Island Etude" about a young man with a guitar who biked around the island, it has become a popular local undertaking. The executives of Giant, the world's largest manufacturers of bicycles based in Taiwan, did the ride and have become strong advocates of bike touring. Its string of shops around the island rents fully-equipped touring bikes that can be returned to any store.
The information desk at Taipei's airport had a 64-page pamphlet on the route around the island and other recommended rides, including Sun Moon Lake, but not the highly demanding climb through Taroko Gorge. My flight arrived in the early evening, too dark to begin riding. I had been in transit for over twenty-four hours with a nine-hour lay-over in Istanbul. I was exhausted and ready to throw down my sleeping bag in a quiet corner at the airport, but first I was eager to read what this brochure had to offer.
It had highly detailed maps listing sites to see along the way and convenience stores and also police stations that serve as rest stops and provide service. It also dispensed a wide range of advice. Some might have been inspired by Confucius: "If you want to succeed, you need to be determined," and on tackling a tough climb, "If you keep a positive attitude and believe you can do it, then you'll soon be at the top." On a more practical nature, it advised, "Massage your legs before sleep, so you will feel better the next day," and "Highway 1 has heavy traffic, so it's important that you are aware of what's going on at all times."
It advised to eat well and to avoid greasy food. It warned that one's focus shouldn't be on trying to lose weight, but later on endorses riding as "a great way to get your body looking nice," adding, "one shouldn't have trouble losing a couple of kilograms." It said nothing about maintaining one's tire pressure, but made the outlandish suggestion of lowering one's tire pressure by ten psi before descents to get "a better grip."
I couldn't stop reading and finished the entire booklet before burrowing into my sleeping bag off by a vacant children's play area. Though the booklet emphasized the challenge of biking around Taiwan, it also mentioned the "fun" of it several times. I was sensitive to the word "fun" as it was used an inordinate number of times in the "Lonely Planet" guidebook I had been reading during my transit, much more than in any other guidebook I have read, implying that it was part of the Taiwanese culture. A water park is called Formosa Fun Coast. My first impression of the Taiwanese came in the waiting area in Istanbul for my flight to Taipei. It was nearly all Taiwanese and they were surprisingly light-hearted and talkative, a marked contrast to the usual quiet and reserved airport etiquette. These seemed like a lively, fun-loving people.
The children's play area I had chosen as my bedroom for my first night in Taiwan was one of several nice amenities at this busy, first-class airport that provided a nice welcome to the the country. Another was a small pavilion at the arrivals area offering assistance to guest workers. Despite a population of 25 million, Taiwan has to import workers, partially because there are not enough people willing to do factory work to maintain its economy, the 21st largest in the world. Twenty per cent of the two thousand workers at the Giant factory are from Thailand and Vietnam.
After a solid sleep I was awoken by someone opening a shop near where I was sleeping. The sky was just beginning to lighten. I was eager to begin biking before the morning rush of traffic. The airport was twenty-five miles outside of Taipei along the west coast. It is recommended to bike down the industrial west coast and back up the less settled and rugged east coast. I could avoid going into the urban morass and begin my circuit of the country right there. But there was no escaping the urban sprawl and industrial blight that covers much of the flat coastal region. The interior is very mountainous with more than 150 mountains of over 9,000 feet, making Taiwan the most mountainous island. But the country is still quite densely populated, second to only Bangladesh.
It was cold and dank, not even sixty degrees, but my heart was singing as I pedaled out of the airport wearing tights and four layers on my torso. I was soon on a road with a bike lane that was also meant for scooters.
But better a scooter than an automobile. It somewhat thinned the traffic on the roads, making the urban riding more bearable than if all those scooters were automobiles. I have encountered hardly any cyclists though other than a daily dose of two or three Taiwanese touring cyclists, none of whom have spoken English, affirming that touring here is taking hold.
With a tailwind and flat terrain I pushed 92 miles down the coast on my first day past an unrelenting succession of buildings. There was an occasional patch of wild that gave me hope of finding a place to camp, but no break from the urban mayhem of more than a speck that could allow me to take a deep breath and calm my senses. It wasn't as stinging of a slap in the face as China had been with its chaotic fast growth that went on for days until I headed into the interior of the country. This was more like Japan with some semblance of order, though riding on the right side of the road rather than the left. In Japan it went on for three hundred miles north from Tokyo until I neared Hokkaido. Taiwan has a length of only 245 miles, so it couldn't go on that long.
I finally gained a reprieve on day three when I ventured into the interior and climbed up to Sun Moon Lake, 2,500 feet high and surrounded by thickly forested mountains. Businesses lined the road all the way there, but the twenty-one mile circuit of the lake was almost like being in a wilderness. I didn't see much of the lake, partially because it was blocked by trees, but also because a thick cloud cover descended upon it shortly after I arrived. I was lucky to get a glimpse of it at all.
There are no beaches on the lake and swimming is prohibited other than in the Annual Across the Lake Swim held in September. The road was constantly undulating, fluctuating a couple hundred feet at a time. It was more demanding than leisurely. The lake earned its name from its configuration--its eastern part resembles the disk of the sun, while the west side looks like the crescent moon. The temperature plunged from the 70s to the 50s when the clouds descended. I was happy to descend back to the coastal plain. I remained in my shorts, but added a vest and windbreaker for the descent. Those on scooters were all bundled in heavy jackets. There were a few other cyclists around the lake, but none with panniers taking a detour from their island circumference as I was doing.
I had thought I might want to linger at the lake and have an easy time of finding a place to camp, but not under these conditions. I've still managed to wild camp each night so far without too much strain. Night one was near a quarry beside an abandoned and collapsed house.
My second night was in a private forest of a dozen trees and night three in a bamboo forest beside a river.
I have a national park to look forward to at the bottom of the island, though I may have monkeys to contend with as I pass the Tropic of Cancer.