Bikepacking in Taiwan

Bikepacking in Taiwan

Huandao (環島) is Chinese for a roundabout and typically refers to cycling around the perimeter of Taiwan. The SIRC seniors, Peter Langslow and Bo Kratz did something similar during 10 magic days in October 2023.

Wednesday 1st November 2023

Firstly a bit of background. Both of us were part of South Island Road Cycling in the early noughties as this group was in its infancy. The idea of doing a longer ride in Taiwan was hatched very early when we realised that we were both connected to Taiwan by marriage. We are now retired and are spending a good part of each year on this beautiful island.

We could write detailed descriptions of all the amazing views that just kept coming. We could also describe all our encounters with friendly locals who paid for our bananas or gave us directions. We could try to describe the smell in our palms from kneading fresh tea while staying at a tea plantation. We could also praise the hotel manager who drove down from his eagle nest to find us, fearing we would get lost or how English charm and Swedish persistence (or was it the other way around) outdid silly hotel policies with regard to taking bikes into the (carpeted) hotel room. But that would be too lengthy, so instead we will share a few practical pieces of advice, relating to Taiwan in particular and bikepacking in general.

So, zip up and clip in...

  • Seasons: As in Hong Kong, the autumn is the best time to ride in Taiwan. It’s drier and cooler, but before the significantly colder January and February. Also, in October and November the wind, sometimes strong, will typically come from the north, so riding from north to south will do magic for your self-esteem.
  • East or West: Many organised trips will go down the west coast and up the east. But if you are planning to ride on your own, you can do whatever you want. The east coast is amazing and offers some of the best cycling in the world. You will be spoiled with stunning views of the Pacific Ocean on roads carved out high up on vertical rockfaces. The west coast is flat and easy, but you will be riding through the industrial heartlands, offering a less scenic ride and occasionally poorer air quality. In 2015, the Cycling Route No-1 was launched by Ministry of Transportation and Communication. The route is well advertised, with a sign every 2km and detailed maps are available, but as far as we know only in Chinese. We came down the east coast but then rode north on the lower slopes of the mountain range, largely sheltered from the northeast wind.
  • Navigation: Unfortunately, downloading a Taiwan map to your non-Taiwanese Garmin device is not straight forward and even the friendly customer service desk in Taipei gave up. More tech savvy cyclists might have solutions to this, and other brands can have a better platform. This was not a major issue, but we ended up using our iPhones and Google map a lot more, so a handlebar mount like Quad-Lock and an external battery in the top tube bag came in handy.
  • Accommodation: There are camping sites all over the island, but hostels or smaller hotels offer affordable high-quality accommodation. International online booking platforms have excellent coverage, making reservations easy and hassle free. We typically, but not always, set out each day with a destination in mind, but only booked our rooms around lunchtime depending on how the day progressed. This gave us some flexibility depending on weather, body, mind and machine.
  • Services: As mentioned in a previous SIRC blog about Taipei, Taiwan is hooked on convenience stores and a 7-11 is never far away. Ready-made delicious dishes can be bought, heated and consumed in the shops. We strongly encourage you to try the local delicacies, but for a quick re-fuel on a long day, the convenience stores are great. They also have a good selection of plant-based foods, if this is your thing.Giant has a huge network of shops in Taiwan. Peter needed a new tire after 4 days and a young mechanic in Hengchun township stopped whatever he was doing and helped him on the spot at a very reasonable cost.
  • Payments: International credit cards are increasingly accepted, but some smaller outfits will only take cash. It is a good idea to load a local stored-value ‘YoYo’ card with some TWD, for easy payments in convenience stores. The weight of coins can add up.
  • Railways: You cannot take your bike on the Taiwan High Speed Rail, unless you disassemble it (views differ on what that practically means as some just wrap the frame and wheels in black rubbish bags). The normal trains, however welcome bike travellers with open arms and you can book a space for you and your precious bike in purpose-built railway car, with bike racks and seats. All this can be done on the Taiwan Railway website in English. You can then pick up your ticket at the station, or any 7-11 store. To say that this is convenient is an understatement.
  • Road Safety: Taiwan roads can be busy, but drivers are used to a wide range of road users and the behaviour is generally pretty good. If you do some independent research, you are bound to come across comments about cement trucks on Route 9 between Yilan and Hualien. To be fair, it only refers to a few short sections where they cannot go through the new highway tunnels. Most of the road is now largely car free and it also happens to be the most gorgeous stretch of road on the east coast, or dare we say, the world. Our advice is to equip yourself with a powerful taillight or two (for the tunnels) and keep your head cool. Hold your line and don’t wobble, pretty much like Hong Kong in other words. Also, heavy commercial traffic will be less during weekends.
  • Detours: Depending on how much time you have and what the weather conditions are, there are a few iconic climbs you can add to your route, or just go up and down (with or without luggage). Wuling, 3275m, from the east coast (the Taiwan KOM route), or from Puli on the west side. You could also consider Alishan from Chiayi on the west side, or from the north starting in Sun Moon Lake. From halfway up the Alishan road Route 3, turning north at the 1300m level towards Sun Moon Lake, we discovered that routes 169 then 149 were also quite spectacularly beautiful.
  • Hygiene: This might be self-evident to experienced travelling cyclist, but for the novice let us share some tricks. Roll your newly washed cycling kit in a dry towel and then dance vigorously on the “sausage” for a few minutes. The kit will be almost completely dry, and you will be guaranteed to wear a fresh dry kit each morning. Also, don’t forget to wash your water bottles. Body wash or shampoo are both perfectly fine. In his iconic book, French Revolutions, Tim Moore gave a graphic description of his stomach turning inside out, due to bacterial growth in his unwashed bidons. And, he was riding in France, not the tropics. Yikes.
  • Mindset: Our recommendation is to agree the format of the ride in advance. Is this a record attempt for an unsupported ride around Taiwan? Or is it an opportunity to enjoy the country and allow yourself the freedom to make things up as you go along (and drink some beer). We were in the latter camp, as retirees in our early 60s with a miscellany of disabilities, we have reluctantly realised that our KOM days are behind us and the opportunity to enjoy Taiwan was much more important. Finally, although the completion of the whole loop is a big thing in Taiwan, together with climbing the Jade Mountain and swimming across Sun Moon Lake, we would encourage you to cherry pick.

Please don’t hesitate to reach out to anyone of us if you want to hear more or get specific ideas.

Peter and Bo