Taiwan nabbed a spot on Lonely Planet’s 2012 list of top ten destinations. After almost three weeks exploring this tiny island nation, I can assure you it deserves the recognition.
The Taiwanese are embracing bicycle touring like no other nation in Asia, and that’s one reason it earned a coveted spot on LP’s top ten list.
Even before we set foot in Taiwan, I realized what an honored spot cycle tourists occupy in Taiwanese society.
a little love for two-wheeled travelers
Tawian’s love affair with bicycles, and those brave enough to do the pedaling, was evident from the moment we entered the terminal in Xiamen (on the mainland) where we were to board the ferry to Taichung (in Taiwan).
The place was a madhouse of tour groups in funny hats queuing up to board the boat. Our bicycles were our ticket to first class service and we were whisked to the front of the line to board the ship first. The crew bustled around stowing our bikes and bags, then lead us up to a comfy cabin complete with dazzling lilly- white bed sheets and a fluffy pillow. After setting sail, I wandered around the ship and discovered not only karaoke and a dining room, but a sauna and Japanese-style bath house.
Expectations vs. Reality
Now when I first envisioned an overnight ferry, I’d imagined rolling out my sleeping bag on some filthy and cramped deck surrounded by a couple hundred Chinese men on little bamboo mats who would all be smoking like chimneys while simultaneously snoring, spitting, farting, belching and/or puking if the seas were rough. I‘d conjured up images of overflowing toilets and a boat laden with everything from rooting pigs and clucking chickens to crates of rotting fruit and giant satellite dishes.
Reality was something more like the Love Boat.
It was a very civilized crossing made complete by a free breakfast served just after sunrise. When the ship pulled into port, a sailor dressed in a starched uniform ushered us off first like true dignitaries and lead us quickly through the efficient immigration procedures.
I was pleasantly surprised and already loving Taiwan although I’d yet to pedal a single stroke.
7-11 at your service
Taiwan’s love affair with bicycle touring was evident from the very first 7-11 convenience store we wandered into. 7-11? Yes, 7-11. There are 4,790 of them in Taiwan and I pop in to several each day just to take advantage of the super clean restroom facilities. Not only can you take a pee, you can also amble over to 7-11’s special cycle service stations to pump up your bike tires, check out bike route maps or borrow tool kits to tinker with your machine.
Designated Police Stations all over the country are festooned with Bike Stage signs. These are spots where you can fill up your water bottles, get first aid and even camp for the night. Along the coast, spots are designated as special bike rest stops where you can take a break and even pitch the tent for the night.
Not that finding a safe place to sleep is ever a problem in Taiwan. On one of our very first nights in the country, we got hopelessly lost in the tangle of super highways that is Greater Tapei. Night was falling, but no worries. Temples dot the entire country and the Buddhists don’t seem to have a problem with itinerant cyclists catching a little shut-eye in their sacred places.
Life couldn’t be simpler for a cyclist
No temples around the bend? Try a school or the fire station, you’ll surely be welcomed warmly.
Biking Taiwan means you’ll be sharing the road with plenty of two-wheeled Taiwanese out exploring their island. Most are loaded with nothing more than a couple of scrawny saddle bags holding a change of clothes, a few snacks and perhaps a puncture repair kit. Their jaws drop in absolute awe and bewilderment when they see how much stuff we carry.
Applause and arm pumps throughout the day keep us thoroughly motivated as do the shouts of “Jia yo” which I’m told is the Chinese equivalent of Go, go, go!
It’s not just friendly people and great cycling infrastructure that make Taiwan such a fun country to bike in. The island may be small, stretching to about 390km in length and 140km wide at its broadest point, but there’s an amazing variety of scenery and even climate zones.
The east coast is lined with cliffs that literally drop off into the ocean. Road crews are constantly out fixing highways that threaten to slide into the Pacific. Where there is no way around the mountain, the Taiwanese have tunneled through the mountain. Scary at times, but we got used to tunnel riding after we knocked back the first dozen or so.
You can’t miss it
Taroko Gorge is Taiwan’s biggest tourist draw and despite sharing the place with the crowds, we didn’t want to miss it. Taroko means “magnificent and splendid” in the local aboriginal language and magnificent and splendid this steep marble canyon truly is.
Our Taiwan tour was all about crashing waves and rocky beaches, beautiful temples tucked away on steep mountainsides and thick tropical forests once we headed inland.
It’s been a relaxing few weeks. More like a cycling holiday than a hard-core tour. Just what I needed to re-energize before we sail back to China for another round of insane cycling on the Mainland.
I don’t agree with everything Lonely Planet spins, but they were spot on with Taiwan. It does deserve a place in the top 10.