A Rite of Passage
A strange phenomenon is sweeping Taiwan, slowly but steadily embedding itself in the minds of the island’s students, capturing the imagination of foreign residents and tourists, and making a generation of parents fearful of being unable to reply in the affirmative to their children’s question: ‘dad, have you done a circuit of the island?’ Ask your average resident of Taipei whether they have been to Taitung, Pingtung, or Green Island, and the answer is still likely to be a characteristically optimistic ‘no, not yet.’ Yet, as a relatively small place, criss-crossed with some of the world’s best-kept roads and railways, Taiwan’s population is rapidly becoming aware of how easy it is to get around the island both quickly and cheaply. Doing a circuit of Taiwan’s main island is possible by (but by no means limited to) train, car, bus, motorcycle, boat, scooter, bicycle, kayak, unicycle, and foot. Legends abound of those who pedaled like the wind and completed a full circuit in only 48 hours, or of leather-bound bikers pushing their gleaming hogs (and themselves) to the limit and growling their way to the finish line in less than a full day and night. Films like Hua Tian-Hao’s (華天灝) Go Grandriders (不老騎士) are made about adventurous octogenarians fulfilling their dreams of riding scooters almost as ancient as themselves into the sunset on a last tour of their island home. Taiwan, in keeping with the emergence of a national identity, is on a voyage of self-discovery, and doing a circuit of the island (‘huan dao 環島’ in Chinese) is fast becoming a rite of passage on that journey.
This is undoubtedly a good thing. It’s important, after all, that people get to know the place they call home, where they play their part as citizens. Whoever said familiarity breeds contempt had obviously never travelled in Taiwan. Familiarity, on the contrary, sews the seeds of appreciation, understanding, and awareness. This kind of travel helps the next generation of voters make choices that might move beyond their own narrow interests and take their compatriots in other areas of the island into consideration, for example. A rite of passage like this serves to unite people, creating a shared sense of identity and a common culture. Sticking some kit in a backpack and setting off on a modest odyssey that takes in great swathes of one’s country has the potential to open minds, to provide a sense of freedom and accomplishment that is one of the chief joys of travel. In an economic climate where we are constantly bombarded by the special offers of airlines and travel companies, by cheap tickets here, and all-inclusive packages there, by leaflets and fliers that are united in portraying anywhere but home as a form of earthly paradise, there is a strong but very quiet undercurrent hinting that many of the things we are looking for are actually within easy reach, much closer to home.
Mode and Method
Caught up in this wave of enthusiasm and swept along by the myths and legends surrounding these island circuits, Love Taipei decided to set aside some time and embark on a tour of the island. The choice of transport didn’t involve a great deal of deliberation; as a place that is steadily establishing itself as a paradise for cyclists of all abilities, and whose government seems desperate to let the world know all about this new-found pedal power, two wheels appeared to be the perfect choice. After all, we live in an age of ascendancy for the humble bicycle, whose health benefits and environmental-friendliness puts it on the moral equivalent of the Tibetan Plateau compared to the cars wallowing in their exhaust fumes in the distant, dark valleys far below. Of course, cycling has its disadvantages, as the account of this journey will show, amongst which the most obvious are the lack of roof, windscreen, airbags, and horsepower. Yet travelers tend to be of a generally optimistic temperament, and thus our visions of cycling with a light breeze at our backs, haunted by the beauty of the last rays of sun setting over the ocean, won a resounding victory in the planning process. The romance of propelling oneself over one thousand kilometres powered by nothing but grit, determination, and enough bananas to feed a troop of starving monkeys, was too much of a temptation to resist.
Mode duly decided upon, our thoughts turned to method. There are enough different roads and routes, particularly on the island’s west coast, to provide endless variation when planning a tour of Taiwan. The longest possibility – our choice this time – follows the coastline in a relatively straightforward loop from Taipei and covers some 1,078 kilometres in total. Despite being the longest option, however, this route is thankfully not the most difficult. As those familiar with the island will know, Taiwan’s central mountain range is the highest in East Asia (outside Tibet), crowned by Yushan’s majestic peak at 3,952 metres high. This creates climbs that would challenge even the Tour de France’s King of the Mountains, and thus our coast-hugging strategy thankfully meant that while covering a greater distance, the altitude involved in our tour was kept to a reasonable level. The coastal route also has the benefit of passing through Taiwan’s most populous areas giving an interesting insight into the island’s past and present as a place whose culture and economy is intimately connected to the sea. Yet not all of the coast is flat, and the geography of Taiwan’s spectacular east coast presents some challenging climbs. With a time budget of nine full days, a route finely balanced between mountain and sea, poised to take in some of Taiwan’s most iconic natural and cultural sites, and presenting enough of a physical challenge to justify a pat on the back, we were mentally ready to embark on our Tour de Taiwan.