Published on Monday, January 27, 2020

Taiwan on two wheels

By Tina Thorburn

At the beginning of last year I headed to Taiwan on an Eat-Pray-Love-like mission to heal a broken heart by pedalling my push bike around the country. I'd been told of a friend-of-a-friend's healing trip to Taiwan the previous year. There was promise of gorgeous vistas, yummy food and safety as a solo female traveller. After two weeks and 1,400 kilometres I headed home with a healed heart and a newfound love for Taiwan. My only regret was not getting into the formidable Taiwanese mountains to navigate the ancient peaks.

So you can imagine my delight when I was invited on a Giant Adventure trip to Sun Moon Lake in November. The itinerary guaranteed five days of mountain vistas, good company and great food. I excitedly packed my bike and returned to Taiwan. Travelling solo offers a unique lens to see a country and culture; people are disarmed by single cyclists and I found myself in countless quirky and intimate situations. For this reason my second trip to Taiwan was worlds apart from my first.

Upon arrival, I was quickly whisked off to Yuanlin, a city on the west of Taiwan, to meet the rest of the crew. Giant Adventure runs a range of supported bike tours, with knowledgeable mechanics on hand, friendly ride leaders and set routes. The trips are predominantly tailored to local Taiwanese riders (in fact one of my Airbnb hosts from my first trip had done one of these customised rides around the country!). My experience of the Taiwanese culture is that people are inherently kind, rule abiding, unquestioning and generous of spirit. The motley collection of foreigners that made up my Giant Adventure group did not fit the usual clientele, and the Taiwanese cultural gentleness was most evidently in contrast here.

When in high school I was a goodie-two-shoes; I followed rules, enjoyed structure and thrived on a timetable. For this reason I found the Giant Adventure programme to be informative and helpful. Some of my peers clashed with this way of doing things. On my previous trip I sourced my own food, shelter and routes (the last often with mixed results!), so I relished the care and attention of the schedule offered by Giant Adventure. The four days of riding typically went like this: breakfast, load van, group stretch and ride brief, ride, stop for snacks, ride some more, bountiful lunch, ride, snacks, arrive at accommodation, rest and recover, dinner, down time. The only time we had to look after ourselves was when riding, and even then we were in the capable and diligent hands of Min, the ride leader. I absolutely loved it. However, some of my fellow riders found the routine straining on their independent sensibilities. At times this was a distraction from the stunning scenery and charming interactions with locals.

That said, it will take more than a few rude foreigners to tarnish my high regard for Taiwan. The first day's ride was 73 kilometres and ~1,000 metres vertical climbing and a perfect way to acclimatise to the Taiwanese humidity, and the diverse group of riders. The group contained hardcore cyclists who cover 100s of kilometres per week, to the holiday rider who would rent a bike to explore an area when on vacation. The types of bikes were equally varied; we had Giant electric bikes (for our holiday riders), carbon road bikes with slick tyres (for our quick pro-like riders) and I was on a charming steel Soma Wolverine with gravel tyres that I'd brought from Australia. In matching lycra jerseys we would have been quite a sight to behold!

And yet that's what I love about Taiwan so much. Despite our almost cringeworthy collection of bikes, outfits and abilities, no one ever gave us a judgemental look. The fact that we were on bikes and exploring their country was enough to warrant many a cheer from passing cars. Perhaps it is because I have predominantly ridden bikes in Melbourne, Australia, where you are judged for what you wear and ride, I was ready for the side glances and the chuckles. But no, Taiwan is not only where many bikes are manufactured, but I believe it is the most bike-loving place on Earth. The French have the Tour de France, the British have Chris Froome, but they do not have this collective, pure adoration for cycling. There are no rules for what constitutes the 'right' cycling kit; there's no judgement whether you're on an ultra-light bike or a rickety old boneshaker. The Taiwanese people live and breathe cycling.

Day two cemented my hunch that Taiwan is the most ardent bike nation. We woke overlooking the Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County. This national treasure and tourist hot spot is 748m above sea level and with the mountainous terrain at the lakes edge, it truly is gorgeous. The air was electric as we hit the road. Thousands of tourists were arriving with their bikes to take part in the government organised 'Come! Bike Day!'. The crowds grew at the start line where there was a stage with performers and an MC directing the thousand-strong group stretch! The buzz was tangible and everyone was so happy.

As I don't speak Mandarin I had little idea of what was going on, but what was not lost in translation was the sheer joy of thousands of people, ready to ride their bikes. Again my only comparison is large group events back home, where cliques exist and it seems everyone is only really there to get the perfect selfie to put up on their socials. This was so refreshingly different. After countless stretches and various performances we were off! We'd been informed it was a 30km race around the lake, but it soon became clear that only a handful of people were racing, and most of them were part of the Giant Adventure crew!

The route was so enjoyable a few of us did it again. To explore the lake from all angles allowed a unique perspective, and something about seeing things by bike makes everything more memorable and vivid. Later that same day we explored the lake by boat and the surrounds by foot, but riding stood out as my favourite way to see what the Sun Moon Lake has to offer.

The following day we headed further east into the mountains to QingJing. Over 54 kilometres we climbed ~1,800 metres, crossing over the exact centre of Taiwan and dropping by a local tea house. It is cultural touches like this that made the Giant Adventure tour so enjoyable. Our ride leader, Min, worked tirelessly to show us that Taiwan is a bike loving nation, but also a melting pot of cultural interest. As I remembered from my previous trip, the mountains are formidable. The road quality is better than anywhere else I have ridden and the smooth tarmac made the 13%+ gradients bearable.

The best part about climbing on a bike is the views. It's a trade-off of lactic acid for vistas that make you rub your eyes in disbelief. The final day of riding was a brutal 1,400 metres climb in 20 kilometres from QingJing to Wuling, a peak that finishes at 3,275 metres above sea level. This was the only day I was genuinely jealous of the electric bikes! But I pedalled, stopped for photos and pedalled some more. Climbing is a personal challenge and its best done at your own pace and cadence. I found the ride extremely challenging but the views were worth it.

Once at the top it quickly clouded over and we were shuttled back to Taipei. To go from being on top of a mountain to the hustle and bustle of a metropolis is close to culture shock. But the tour included a final day spent on a cultural tour of Rueifang and a very special tea ceremony in the Shiding District. Despite my personal preference to be out riding, this educational day proved really helpful in framing the Taiwanese culture and my experiences from both trips. Taiwan has a rich history and although this is evident in the food, architecture, and temperament of the people, it can be overlooked for all the natural beauty and affection for cycling.

I left Taiwan this time having tasted the sky and seen the ancient peaks, but I know deep down I'll be back with my bike to further explore the culture


Tina Thorburn was a guest of the Taiwan Tourism Information Centre in Sydney


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