Huan dao ! - The lap around Taiwan
A short article on the tour of the island of Taiwan by bicycle. You will find a brief account and especially some information that may be useful to plan your trip.
Huan dao in Mandarin can be translated as the tour of the island. People will often give you a thumbs up and shout "Jia you" to encourage you.
You won't look like a fool in Taiwan, as cycling around the island has become quite famous, and you'll even meet a lot of cyclists.
The narrative here is not necessarily exceptional. Instead, I concentrate a bit more on the information that I think is useful, at the bottom of the article.
Moreover, the map below gives the points of the places where I slept, that gives you a pretty precise idea of where to camp ;)
First part : West coast Intro
To go down the west coast, there are more or less 3 solutions: stay as much as possible on the coast, go inland or flirt with the mountains.
You can also do a mix of all these and create your own route.
Route 1: Far from being the most interesting part, but the best known and fastest, this is the "official" route. It's flat, with plenty of room for bikes on the side of the road and a disconcerting ease to find water and food.
A bit too much so. It is by far the least adventurous option.
There are three reasons why I chose this option most of the time: to get away from the weather in the north of the island as quickly as possible, to get past this least interesting part of the country as quickly as possible, and to visit the cities.
The interest is to visit the cities on your way and to have a glimpse of the temples, museums and the local cuisine with the night markets and other famous restaurants.
You follow the signs and blue markings, it is almost impossible to get lost.
The coast: It mixes a bit of route 1 with alternative routes to fit in with the coastal sections as much as possible.
If the weather is good and you have time, this is a good option. It avoids the main road and you pass through a lot of small villages.
It involves quite a few detours, so you need to be patient and determined to spend more time on this part of the country.
The mountains: Probably the most beautiful option. Longer and with a lot more difference in altitude. But the quietest and most authentic. Between the plain and the high roads in the centre, it is possible to sneak in and head south.
Lots of lakes and small villages to discover, as well as the coffee region. It's more physical and therefore longer, but if you have the time, it's probably the best option.
I didn't go too much to that side because the weather was rainy, and I preferred to keep some sun over my head.
Taoyuan - Kaoshiung
I headed south to escape the rain and find the sun. It was finally a good idea. Especially since it's not the most beautiful part of the country, and starting there allows me to save the best for last.
From the airport, I caught up with the coast and followed the cycle track which quickly turned into an industrial road. For the first forty kilometres or so you have to cross the industrial zone. Full of noise, dust and trucks. All cyclists agree that this is the least interesting part of the country.
I stopped for two days, and I recommend the little stop at the little beach bar called Super Duper. Beer, mexican food and good vibes!
Say hi to Libby for me! You can easily camp right next door, and enjoy the beach like toilets and beach showers! A perfect first stop.
The next few days were uneventful. Two days stop in Taichung to visit a bit. Not my favourite city. I'm hosted by Hengo and have a great time, learning a bit more about Taiwanese history and culture.
It was good to use Warmshowers again, because I realized what we miss when we travel alone, head in the handlebars.
Descent to Chiayi via route 1. Flat, a bit boring. But the town of Chiayi is really cool. Temples, street food, coffee. A nice place to spend a couple of days.
On to Tainan. Probably my favourite city.
I've been here a few years before, but it's a pleasure to wander through the narrow streets that make up the city's tourist reputation, from one temple to another. The architecture of the buildings too, with the little shops, tea rooms and restaurants tucked away in little corners of this big, bustling city are really nice.
Without much interest either, I follow this road that passes through Kaohsiung and finally reaches the coast and the southern part of the country, the one I really wanted to see.
Well, as you can see, it's neither the most interesting part, nor the one where cyclists spend the most time.
Second part : south Kaoshiung - Taitung
Here the route is rather obvious, although it still allows you to deviate from the main road. I for one abandoned route 1 and followed the road that followed the coast as closely as possible. This allows you to get off the main road, to swim, to pass through fishing villages and to camp easily on the beaches.
It was a good decision. See the map above, but I took the longer route, but it was really nice.
This way, you pass by black sand beaches, still wild and deserted places. Kenting too, one of the most touristic places in the country. The water is turquoise, but the human activity is far too intense. A few kilometres further on, in either direction, you will find deserted places.
Plenty of options around to pitch a tent or find a dormitory. Nice cafes and restaurants. A sort of Taiwanese seaside resort.
My favourite part of the country comes next. The climb from the southernmost point back to the main road in Daren. The place where I could have stayed longer for sure.
I really loved Gangkou, Gangzhi and finally the whole way to Daren.
Surfer/fisherman village atmosphere. Villages a bit ravaged by successive typhoons. Atmosphere of the end of the world.
Then, from Daren to Taitung, the road is quite nice, really going along the ocean.
It's a bit hilly, and it's a big road, so there's a lot of noise and traffic.
I didn't linger in Taitung, I continued, too obsessed as I was by the idea of finding the small deserted beaches.
Third part: Upstream Taitung - Hualien Nice piece of road this one. I chose to follow the coast, until the headwind became too much for me, so I turned off into the mountains, a wise decision.
Again, I really liked this road. Lots of little fishing ports, beaches just for you, and a really special landscape, as the road is literally wedged between the mountains and the ocean. If you have good weather, it's quite impressive and fun to drive!
Dulan and Donghe are probably the two most touristic places in the area. Well-known for surfers, you will find everything here too.
Again, a few kilometres away from these tourist centres, you will find some very peaceful places to pitch a tent. Sometimes with beach toilets and showers, ideal.
I didn't find anything special about the city of Hualien, which I only fly over for a few hours anyway. However, this is where all cyclists make a choice.
Fourth part : the northern loop Hualien - Taipei From there, you either go up through the Taroko Gorge and cut through the mountains to Yilan, or you cycle along the coast, or you take the train to Yilan!
I took the train, I confess. But I'll tell you why.
Taroko is apparently beautiful, but in the east-west direction, it's really brutal. So physically, it's something. And above all, the weather. Because you finish at an altitude of more than 3000 metres, and if the weather is bad, it's not going to be very pleasant.
The weather wasn't crazy, and I was starting to look past my flight date. So I decided to go up north.
Why the train?
It's a well known part of the tour of the island as you go up 1800m in 70 kilometres, which is no mean feat, but on top of that through a tunnel and with a lot of trucks, all without having too much room on the road. It's not the safest place in the country.
They say it's worth it if the sun is shining. Which was not the case for me.
I woke up in Hualien without much motivation and went to see the conditions to take the train by curiosity.
There was one leaving in 30 minutes and it cost a few euros. I got on it. And if I usually feel a bit guilty about missing a part of the journey by public transport, I have to admit that this time I was more happy.
That's how I arrived a bit south of Yilan, and then I decided to follow the coastal road, which I was sold as one of the most beautiful in the country.
There is a mountain road that cuts through and apparently is really beautiful as well as peaceful. It's number 9, it goes straight to Taipei. But I didn't want to go directly to Taipei and miss the whole northern part of the coast, so I followed the road.
It's really nice, sometimes you feel like you're on the Adriatic Sea, in a small fishing village on the coast. It's a road that is worth taking if the weather is good.
The traffic on the other hand is rather catastrophic, with few places on the side of the road for a good part of the loop. From Yilan to Keelung, it's full of trucks and some tunnels. To tell you the truth, there are a few times when I felt a bit limited in terms of safety.
There are alternative routes, but all have their little hiccups. Tunnels, gradients, weather. But all are valid I think, and the traffic will be much calmer I think.
Anyway, that's how I got back to Taipei. Part of the road on the last day, between Keelung and Shimen is quite well protected by a bike path. From there, it's a bit more chaotic until the bike path that starts in Tamshui.
This was my tour of the island.
A few numbers : Days : 20
Distance : 899km
Total spent : 291€ (Taxi included)
Average/day : 14€/d
Puncture : 0
Days cycled : 14
Days chilled : 6
Nights outside : 10
Nights hosted : 8
Nights paid : 1 Infos - Cycle route
Route 1 runs around the country. It often has a strip of road to share with scooters. The signage is impressive, between the signs at all the intersections and the blue line on the asphalt.
Alternative routes are also indicated, and allow you to leave the main route.
It's quite impressive in terms of organisation, but don't expect a dedicated cycle track like in Korea for example. You share the road with everyone else, and the cycle lane is shared with scooters.
Recommended stops for water, toilet, bike pump and even train station are indicated.
Probably one of the safest countries in the world, so no need to worry about that. You won't be bothered in any way, in town or in the country.
I did not tie up my bike or feel unsafe at any time.
One of the reasons why this country is perfect for starting out in the world of bicycle travel, whether you are a beginner or not, solo or with a woman!
- Cost of living
It's clear that it's not the cheapest country in the world, but it's not as bad as you'd think.
First of all, it's very easy to camp, so you don't have to pay for hotels or campsites. Then for food, I think you have to understand how things work and target the places you go to.
I managed to live on about 12 euros a day, with a few small luxuries included like coffee and a few beers.
On a bike and camping, there's little left but food expenses. This can go up very quickly too, but if you're a bit careful, you're still on a decent budget. I had in mind to be around 10 euros, and I think that without too much effort, I was not far from it.
However, it's clear that you're breaking that budget if you surf, take a few hotels and do some sightseeing.
Good luck :)
It's largely in Mandarin and Taiwanese in some parts of the country. But apart from in the big cities (and even then!!!), English is used as a matter of course.
It's always useful to be able to translate on the phone, but it's also nice to learn a few words of Mandarin. It can be useful in a lot of situations, and it's more fun to interact with the locals than to show your phone screen.
As for the writing, good luck with that too.
However, it's really interesting to look at the ideogram system. It's fascinating, and you can easily learn some of them.
Look at how to write 10, and mime it with your fingers, it works!
With a few exceptions, there are supermarkets everywhere. The famous 7 eleven and family mart are the most numerous, then some others a little less warm and less well supplied.
As for 7 Eleven, it is a real institution, and for good reason. Jokingly, we think we could almost live there. Toilets, water, air-conditioning, varied food, wifi, electric plug.
The wifi is unlimited in 99% of the 7 where I went, and for the plugs it's more random. Some even have bars with beer on tap.
Prices are pretty much the same everywhere. Whether in a small grocery shop or a large supermarket.
In the big Carrefour stores you can find a lot of products that you can't find elsewhere, but the prices go with it.
You can eat there. It's not great food, but they heat up the food for you. There are even self-service tea eggs, tofu, hotdogs and sweet potatoes. Basically, you can find what you want, as long as you don't look too hard.
Some supermarkets on the main cycle route even have bike pumps.
I chose not to take a sim card, so I was able to experience the country's wifi offer.
Some shops have free wifi. Some cities and tourist spots have an easy, free and unlimited connection.
Taipei buses too, train stations, libraries. Most cafes and restaurants too.
In the end, it was quite easy, and I don't regret not taking a sim card.
- Sim card
For one month, it's the equivalent of 30 euros, with an unlimited connection. If you're not within 30 euros, it's pretty handy. To be able to translate, read menus, look for information, keep in touch with the outside world.
There are hotels and hostels everywhere. Count 15-20 euros for a night in a dormitory, and most likely triple for a double room. There are enough of them all over the country to even think of riding without a tent.
Some campsites too, relatively expensive for a campsite but it allows you to sleep outside with the luxury of amenities.
For wild camping, it's quite well perceived, and even legal. So no problem there, as long as you stay consistent with the place, ask if you feel you have to. And then obviously, limit the noise, don't make fires or leave rubbish.
On the coast, I try to sleep near the beach, and if possible public beaches and surf spots to take advantage of the toilets and shower.
You can also freely camp on the beach and make a fire. Beware of the tides!
Around the cities there are always parks with small shelters and toilets, perfect. I saw very few signs saying "no camping", and if I didn't see one, I thought it was a green light.
Parks are a lot of your daily opportunities. Otherwise, temples, schools, police station, fire service.
Be prepared, because everything is wrapped or about to be wrapped in plastic. This is not the only country, but it is true that when you arrive from Australia and especially from the progressive Melbourne, it is a cold shower.
The best thing is to have a container so you don't have to use a takeaway box, chopsticks to reuse, and then, good luck.
- Vegetarian/vegan diet
It takes a bit of organisation and research, but it's actually quite easy. It's worth learning to say it in Mandarin, and to say vegetables for example.
It's a bit of a departure from the street food culture of the country as many dishes are meat or fish based.
Buddhists in the country are vegetarian, and even don't eat onions or garlic. The restaurants around the temples are often vegetarian.
In general, here as often, being vegetarian or vegan does not allow one to enjoy what Taiwanese cuisine is famous for.
It can be a bit chaotic in the city. The main roads have the advantage that there is room for you to ride safely. But the many scooters sometimes pass too close, always too close.
And when the road narrows, people don't hesitate to brush past you. It's not vindictive, but it is surprising. In these cases I try to relax and ride as obviously as possible to avoid surprising people coming up behind me.
In other words, this is not the country where I felt safest on the road.
Gross coffee culture in Taiwan, you can find coffee shops and even roasters just about everywhere.
Specialty coffee is rather expensive. More than in Australia or New Zealand, that's for sure.
If what you want is coffee without too much fuss, you'll find it pretty much everywhere and all the time for about 2 euros. In more specialised cafés, and of better quality, an espresso can easily cost 5 euros...
If you want to make your own coffee, in the cities and sometimes even in the middle of nowhere you will find roasters. So bring your grinder, because there is plenty to do!
There are a few chains too, and the one I found quite nice is Cama café. They roast on site, unlimited wifi and the prices are really reasonable.
The traditional tea houses are beautiful. With a little research you can find the one that suits you best, but I remember doing a tasting ceremony around Taipei. It was quite expensive (20 euros from memory, but glad I did!)
You can find cold tea everywhere, and it's bubble tea heaven, which apparently is incomparable with what you can find in the rest of the world. If you want to buy fresh tea, there is no doubt that you will find excellent quality tea if you look hard enough.
Around mid-March-mid April seems to be a good time. Before that it rains a lot more often, and it was cooler. After that, it's hot and humid.
It rains half the year in Taipei and the north, while the south has a much milder climate.
The rainy season is from June to September.
- The people
The people are quite friendly, although I find them rather distant. This is what I call a lukewarm country. Not too friendly, not too defensive or aggressive.
Don't expect to make too many friends on the road, the language barrier doesn't help.
Nor will people spontaneously invite you home as they do in many other countries. In other words, if I found people quick to help, I also found them quite cold. And if I met people, it was often through the Warmshowers network and often expats.
A time that I found important in local life. Indeed, there are establishments all over the country that only open from early morning until noon. This is where many Taiwanese go to eat.
It's cheap and quite delicious. Rice, noodles, peanut butter sandwiches and especially the famous Dan Bing, a kind of traditional pancake to which you can add whatever you want.
If the signs are not always clear, the word breakfast is often written in English.
- Mountainous part
I think this part of the country is the one that is really worth a visit. And it's the only one I haven't been to. Because of the weather, actually. It climbs, and the temperature drops. So if the weather is bad, rainy or cloudy, some say it's not worth the diversions.
Make time for this part, and try to aim for the right weather window.
- Other activities
You can do a bit of everything on Taiwan. Climbing, mountaineering, hiking, surfing, kite surfing, kayaking... It costs money.
It seems to me that entry to national parks, hiking and climbing require a permit and reservation. Check beforehand, as some places and at certain times are booked well in advance, and other places require a minimum number of nights to enter.
- Public transport
There is a wide network of buses and trains covering most of the country. Without a bike, it's easy, but with a bike it takes a bit of planning.
On the railways website you can find a list of trains that take bikes.
Some buses and trains ask you to pack your bike and remove the wheels. Others do not. It's up to you to find out, but anything is possible.
Hitchhiking is apparently not common at all, and you may be left on the side of the road.
- Access to the airport
So, on arrival, you should know that you can't ride your bike into the airport, and therefore can't ride your bike out. There is a small bus that goes around the airport buildings, and I had almost mounted my bike when they told me it was forbidden. So I was kindly put on this bus and told to be dropped off at the exit. From there, I took the road.
Otherwise, the taxi, or try to get on this famous bus with your cardboard. Either way, it's not ideal at all.
The train comes directly to the airport, but bikes are not accepted, and the bike boxes are mostly bigger than the dimensions accepted by the train company.
If you try and find someone who is lenient, it can be done. But I've heard that they scrupulously measure with a small meter as soon as the boxes seem too big. Taiwanese people like rules.
For the return journey to the airport, good luck too. For the same reasons, it's a little bit awkward to arrive directly in the airport by train with your cardboard, and certainly not directly by bike. So I gave in and took a taxi.
With the help of the Warmshowers who hosted me, I got a great taxi for the box and myself at a good price, about thirty euros.
I leave the internet address here: https://www.airportfrstcar.com/
Knowing that it's better to get help from someone who speaks Mandarin to make everything clear, but considering the price, and coming from Tamsui, it was a good surprise.
Fun fact :
- Taiwan, like many East Asian countries, is tetraphobic, the fear of the number 4. So no fourth floor, no four button in the lifts. The number is avoided in addresses, telephone numbers and any professional interaction. And the concept goes far beyond our perception of the number 13.
For the number four is very close to the word dead in many Asian languages (Mandarin, Korean, Japanese, Vietnamese, Cantonese...)
- There are some public bins, but people don't have bins. A truck passes by, with an ice cream parlour bell, and people go out to throw their garbage directly into the truck. If they miss it, they'll have to do it next time.
- The country has a proportion of its population that is aboriginal. They are mainly in the east and south of the country. They have their own languages, their own communal structures and use the Latin alphabet!
My little conclusion
Let's say that I wasn't looking for adventure when I came to Taiwan. Fortunately, because this is not the place. There is too much asphalt, too many supermarkets, too many rules, too many scooters.
I think it's really ideal for a first bike trip, for a first solo trip or a female trip.
It's not a very funky country. It's quiet, and it's not a party at every corner. However, it's really easy to find a place to camp, find food and drink. As well as the fact that it's one of the safest countries in the world. So no stress, no need to tie up your bike or keep a constant eye on your stuff. That's a fact, but it also feels like it.
So yes, it was cool and it was beautiful. After that, no great discoveries, especially if you have travelled extensively in Asia.
The country depends a lot on its weather, and therefore on your route and the landscape that passes by. The coast, which is really nice, can be quite dull under the grey light, clouds and rain.
The towns are nice, there is a lot to discover. But it's nice to get out of the urban chaos, the noise and the pollution.
If you look up, you can see that heavy grey cloud of pollution.
There are plenty of things to do on the side, like surfing and hiking. But everything has a price, and everything is expensive in Taiwan. So I didn't take advantage of this side of the country, especially as it takes time.
I stayed for 3 weeks, and that was not nearly enough. Let's say it was enough to slowly ride around the island, without pressure. But when you're enjoying things to do besides cycling, it takes much longer than that.
Anyway. It was cool, simple and it allowed me to reconnect with the dirtbag side of things that I had lost a bit along the way lately. However, it was a bit too simple, a bit too smooth.
It can be a great experience, but maybe not for a world traveller who has already seen a few continents. Peeps are nice, but it's not the reign of hospitality and friendship. That was probably a one shot for me, but still, enjoyed it !