August 2015, Paihia, New Zealand.
The hostel I’m staying at is also renting bicycles for free. Looks like the perfect occasion to discover the city and the coastline by bicycle. I’m 28 years old and I’m not going to lie, it’s been something like 7 or 8 years since I last touched a bicycle.
It’s freaking hard by the way. So painful on the legs.
But I had forgotten about this peculiar sensation, this freedom mixed with euphoria that’s bursting in your chest while you’re pedalling like crazy and you’re feeling like you could take off and fly away like the little Eliott in that famous Spielberg’s movie.
There’s this specific je-ne-sais-quoi missing when you’re driving a car.
So I was soaring on this perfect end of afternoon, taking a bit of time to adjust again and remembering all the moves and the reflexes involved in bicycling: the legend says you never forget.
I find my balance again – more or less.
Right now I can’t even believe that I used to cycle without my hands on the handlebar!
That little sightseeing tour of Paihia on a bicycle was the beginning of an adventurous love story: it was more than time to tame again the two wheels beast. In Te Anau first, when I cycled to go to work or around the lake. In Strasbourg then, where a benevolent friend of mine lent me his fabulous bike with back-pedalling brakes. I brought this beauty everywhere, even on the muddy trails on the Robertsau Woods.
Obviously, I was enjoying cycling more and more!
And this is when I landed in Taiwan… Taiwan! The island of cyclists! I had no clue when I first arrived though, that it would be so damn easy to cycle around there! It’s possible to rent a bicycle everywhere, there are those bikes sharing services like UBike in the major cities, and the OBike system everywhere else. Many hostels are providing bicycle rentals and renting a bicycle for a day to cycle around the rice fields of Chishang or going around Lanyu won’t cost you more than 300 NT$. On the island of XiaoLiuqiu, you can even rent electric bicycles to go around at a very low price!
Most Taiwanese who don’t have a scooter will definitely have a bicycle. The electric bicycles are even widespread (fingers crossed that the electric scooter will soon be widespread too) and the country offers many cycling paths. I often met travellers on bikes, but never as many as in Taiwan! It’s like a kind of tradition for the Taiwanese people to cycle all around Taiwan after graduation, and tourists are often choosing this travelling style as well. Taiwan is clearly a bicycle-friendly island.
As for me, I was having loads of fun with my Hello Kitty bicycle in Hualien. The idea of touring Taiwan with a bicycle was tickling my brain more and more, but I must admit that it was scaring the shit out of me as well. What about going away travelling on a bicycle for a few weeks? I had never even been hiking for more than 4 days! In order to silence my fears, I compromised with myself: how about cycling the East Coast of Taiwan from Taitung to Hualien?
I had already explored the East Coast and the East Rift Valley on some other occasions, so my bike adventure would be more like a physical challenge (and certainly mental!) than a sightseeing travel. And it looked like the perfect way to say goodbye to Taiwan: I would be cycling one last time in my favourite region.
There’s no need to say that as the novice newbie beginner that I am, I made some mistakes, I got hurt (especially on my ass) and found myself in some unlikely situations… And I loved it. I never wanted to turn back, and as crazy as it sounds I never ever wanted to stop.
Next time I will dream bigger.
MY 4 DAYS CYCLING ADVENTURE
IN THE EAST RIFT VALLEY
and how I discovered the importance of Vaseline and cycling gloves.
DAY ONE: TAITUNG TO CHISHANG – 60 KM
I tried to wake up early today (before the sunrise) but failed monumentally. In the end, after taking my breakfast, packing my stuff on the two side bags (and it’s a bit of a hassle since I didn’t plan that trip in the first place, I’m carrying stuff with me which are quite useless for this kind of experience) and carefully looking at my map, it was already 7:00 am.
I’m leaving the On My Way hostel behind me, with unsettling mixed-feelings of dread, excitement, and thankfulness for those awesome days I just spent there. Now begins the last stage of my last Taiwanese road trip, and I’m already getting all nostalgic… And what a last stage! Cycling 170km with this heat – one must be closer to craziness than expected.
I’m starting to cycle on Road 45, I’ve seen a sign before indicating the Liji Badlands. The air is cool, the morning sun makes everything look so damn pretty and new. I’m pedalling joyfully. Once there, I realize there’s a little walk to get there. From the parking lot, I can see some mountains, those Badlands, but there are much more. I’m reluctant to leave my bicycle out of sight, with all my stuff packed inside… And I do care way more about my travel journals than any of my clothes. I take a couple of pictures and get back on the road.
That’s when things are starting to get tough. Road 197 is winding up the hills, and even though the trees are a welcome shade, I’m already sweating like an August’s ice cream in Firenze. It’s freaking hard, cycling up. At some point I’m stopping every 3 minutes, my legs throbbing with pain from an effort I’m not used to yet. What a view though! Overlooking the Beinan River, the farming fields, the little villages.
Butterflies are coming along with me and I pass by a few shrines on my way, broadcasting some holy music continuously. Those places make perfect rest stops as they’re just so peaceful, providing sometimes chairs and water. The people I meet on the way are all screaming at me “加油! 加油!” (“Jiāyóu! Jiāyóu!” which means “Come on!” – it’s a kind of common cheering up expression) with smiles of encouragement on their faces.
I’m reaching Luye around 10:30, getting almost emotional as I stop at the local 7/11 thinking about my night spent there with my co-worker Vincent when we went to see the hot air balloon festival there almost a year ago. Road 9 is quite busy with trucks, so I make a lot of little detours on the way: the Yuemei – Guanshan cycling path is following a former rail track.
In Guanshan, I decide to keep going, despite the heat and the sun beating up my hands, and start exploring the (empty) waterpark. And then, there’s this never-ending road (road 29) in the middle of the rice fields, with no shade at all, I’m getting weaker as I’m cycling forward. I realize my water is almost out, I skipped lunch, and my hands are burning.
But there’s no choice, is there? I just have to keep going for the next 11km until Chishang and this coffee shop I enjoyed so much a few days past while visiting the city on a day-trip. I’m cycling fast, so fast compared to what I’m used to: I’m feeling the urge to get there as soon as possible before I faint. As I’m pedalling, two ideas are obsessing me: I’m dying of sitting down and I’m dreaming of sipping a good old iced tea.
Here I am! Finally, I reach the Chishang Promenade coffee shop ( 走走池上), where the owner and her cat Didi are welcoming me with a big smile, and some delicious ice tea and a chocolate cake which is really raising the amount of sugar in my blood system. HELL, YES TO SUGAR! I’m finally relaxing a little after those crazy 60 km. Sitting down feels like a huge relief to my painful ass. I’m suddenly aware of my lobster-red hands, which I had not covered, neither with clothes, neither with sunscreen: I’m such a newbie.
All of a sudden, it’s starting to rain and there’s some rumbling thunder. I guess I’ll spend most of my afternoon in that cosy coffee shop then! I make myself comfortable and start reading. The lull only comes around 5 pm, and by the time I get out of the coffee shop, there’s a beautiful rainbow already starting to fade away in the sky.
The owner of the coffee shop recommended me a coffee shop nearby, the Gift Box Hostel where there are two cats and one dog running around me while I’m checking in. The hosts are really nice, the lady gives me some of her aloe vera jelly to soothe the pain in my hands. She recommends me a really good vegetarian restaurant nearby, unfortunately closed, so I decide to go back to the lunchbox restaurant where I know already that they have some vegetarian options. I come back quite early at the hostel, with some Vaseline and Tiger Balm to soothe all kinds of different pains/rashes/burns from this first-day cycling.
I’m half asleep writing in my diary about my first day that evening. All my anxiety is surely gone through, there’s nothing to be afraid of. Like when I was hiking long distances, there is only one way: forward.
SOME PRETTY COOL STOPS BETWEEN TAITUNG & CHISHANG:
Taitung is the second biggest city on the East Coast after Hualien. Like in Hualien, the beach is close by, as well as the mountains. Taitung has this unquestionable appeal of southern cities by the ocean: the vibe here is definitively more chill. Taitung is also a good starting point to travel towards Kenting, on the southernmost point of Taiwan, Dulan and the East Coast, as well as Lanyu and Lüdao islands.
In the city itself, it feels good to travel around by bicycle, especially in the Taitung Forest Park. There you’ll find lakes, gardens, butterflies and even a gigantic natural swimming pool where the locals go swimming and kayaking. This forest is a true paradise when the sun is about to set.
LUYE & THE HOT AIR BALLOONS FESTIVAL
I wrote about it last year: there’s an international festival of hot air balloons held every summer for about a month and a half in Luye Gaotai, on the heights of Luye. This region is also well known for its plantations and tea tastings!
BICYCLE IN THE RICE PADDIES OF GUANSHAN & CHISHANG
Both Guanshan and Chishang are known for their rice paddies. The ones in Chishang are more touristy though, let’s say they are set up and decorated especially for tourists to wander around. I enjoyed very much cycling around both rice paddies, but for sure there are more “instagrammable” (as in photogenic) points in Chishang than I Guanshang. And there’s a giant lake full of lotus flowers!
In Chishang’s rice paddies, there’s a quite famous tree amongst the Taiwanese: a tree where Takeshi Kaneshiro (a Taiwanese movie star) shot a commercial for Mr Brown’s coffees (and also for Eva Air!) There’s even a line to take a picture in this area! Luckily the rice paddies are big enough to get away from the crowd.
Chishang is also well known for its lunchboxes (bentô) and there are even vegetarian options to keep my belly happy. The restaurant close to the train station offers some retro bentô boxes and the walls there are covered of those wooden boxes where customers left a note or a drawing!
DAY TWO: CHISHANG TO YULI – 30 KM
Still didn’t manage to wake up for the sunrise this morning (the sunrise is around 5 am at the moment) and I woke up with my whole body cramped like I went through a steamroller. Oh, that’s it: MY PERIODS CAME EARLIER THAN EXPECTED – THANK YOU LIFE! I still hit the road, I luckily have some pills left in my bag. I feel really weak though, but I manage to cycle at a reasonable speed on Road 9 towards Yuli.
More rice fields, more small towns, the morning sun dancing with the mountains: cycling really does feel like being part of the landscape. When I reach Dongli, I take the Yu-Fu bicycle path which is also following a former rail track up to Yuli. There’s an abandoned rail station on the way: Antong (where you can find really nice natural hot springs) as well as the “bridge of love” which is crossing the meeting of two tectonic plates.
My friend Joan is waiting for me in Yuli, at her hostel Bliss Inn 1719. I met her randomly a few months ago on a train and came to visit Yuli with some friends just a few weeks before. She’s taking me out for a Vietnamese lunch, while I’m telling her my last Vietnamese adventures. After a welcome pineapple homemade ice cream, she’s taking great care of me: lending me her cycling gloves to prevent me from burning my hands again, giving me some kick-ass painkillers and allowing me to take a good rest at her place. I feel so cosy and comfy, and happy to be with my friend, that I decide to stay overnight. I’ve rented the bike for 4 days anyway, so I have plenty of time to get to Hualien – this is not a race, and my body is screaming for rest and hot tea.
As soon as I take my decision, it starts to rain again. Oh well, I guess that’s another sign. I feel a bit guilty though about cycling only 30km today, but I should learn to listen to my body as well as my feelings. And Joan is taking such a good care of me! She’s a free spirit, passionate. She’s so inspiring. She makes me feel at home right away. We share some curry rice dinner on her rooftop while gazing at the surroundings.
SOME PRETTY COOL STOPS BETWEEN CHISHANG & YULI:
SIXTY STONE MOUNTAIN & THE DAYLILIES
Around August and September, this mountain becomes an attraction not to be missed! The Sixty Stone Mountain is then covered in bright orange lilies, also called Daylilies. It’s even possible to give it a taste in one of the numerous stalls around.
THE WALAMI TRAIL
Here’s a day hike between suspension bridges and waterfalls… This trail had been a true coup de coeur for me! It’s possible to spend the night in the Walami Cabin in order to make it a two days trip and enjoy the Yushan Natural Park at its fullest.
One could think there’s not much to do in this little town in the middle of the mountains. But, aside from being the starting point most people would choose to hike the Walami Trail, it’s a really cool place to hang around. I especially enjoyed exploring the city by bicycle, in the rice paddies or the rive side.
There are also some hot springs in the area: the Antong hot springs, as well as THE BEST stinky tofu ever in Taiwan (and that’s exactly how you should spend your evening in Yuli!)
DAY THREE: YULI TO GUANGFU – 60 KM
I feel SO MUCH BETTER this morning! Still couldn’t manage to wake up for the sunrise, especially since I stopped for a Radish Cake breakfast before taking off. I start cycling on Road 193, going uphill, downhill speeding up to 30km/h, uphill again, but it’s way more manageable than the first day. There are some works on the road and the workers are all cheering me up. There’s no traffic at all on this road, and I’m passing by some aboriginal villages with doggies asleep on the side of the road.
I’m passing by betel nut fields, lemon trees, pineapple fields… The mountains look so majestic this morning. I didn’t know the pineapple plants were so thorny and I almost ripped my legging off while taking a picture. And those pineapple fields! I’ve never seen such a thing before!
I make a detour to cycle in the Danong Dafu Park, a huge park in the middle of the forest with bicycle trails, a big lake, and flower displays. Then I’m back on Road 9 and its traffic up to Guangfu and the Hualien Sugar Factory.
There’s nothing remarkable there, except some fancy villas in a Japanese style, and a fancy pizzeria named CASA+ where I’m allowing myself to take some lunch. The workers there are young people in difficulties that the restaurant is employing to help them and rehabilitate them.
I still have some time today, so I explore a little the Mataian Wetlands, while the mosquitoes are having a feast with my blood. But the place is wonderful, full of water plants, and a cycling path following a stream through the bushes.
I reach Guangfu’s Family Mart before it starts to rain again. I’m looking for a hostel around, and I must reach the conclusion that 1. There are only two 2. They have terrible reviews on Google Maps 3. They are non-English speakers. Oh well. I find myself in the strangest place ever, a hostel/hotel which looks like it’s stuck in the 70’s, and that no maintenance has been done since then… The dormitory was a no way, so I end up paying for a private room, which looks so gloomy I’m glad I won’t spend more than one night around. As I’m walking around to find someplace to eat I must admit that Guangfu is charmless. I’m a thousand miles away of expecting what’s going to happen that night though…
As I come back to the hostel/hotel, my host is having some tea with one of his friends. They both speak really basic English, and I’m doing my best with my really basic Chinese. Anyway, they invite me to join us. As a tea lover, I just can’t refuse a traditional tea tasting! We manage to have a basic conversation altogether, and they keep on bringing food like chunks of fresh pineapple and apple and pouring different kinds of tea all over again (oolong, black tea, Pu’er tea) as soon as I finish my cup.
I realize by now that the ground floor is filled up with vinyl records, and at least three different record players, as well as a camcorder and some VHS. The place just smells like a mix of the 70’S and 80’s, it’s thrilling! My host is showing me his collection of vinyl records, and proudly show me some English ones. Then, he plays the DJ, put the volume up like crazy and starts playing Michael Jackson, Madonna and… Modern Talking. I feel like I’ve been travelling with the DeLorean to live such a random moment with those two guys. I’m sitting there sipping my tea and beating “Beat it” with my foot while trying to make conversation with my new friends: at least I know how to name the different kinds of teas by now, and I’m confident while saying that I really love Taiwan.
And the night goes by, with more tea, more chunks of pineapple, until I see my host rummaging into his drawers until he comes back with a gift bag FULL OF TEA. And he adds up a really nice (Jade?) bracelet on top of that. WHAT THE FUCK TAIWAN? I can’t refuse the gift (even though I’m wondering at the time how on earth I’ll be able to carry that on my bicycle) and I go to sleep in my gloomy room, quite late, quite sleepy, quite dizzy, quite astonished by this unexpected night.
I shouldn’t have drunk so much tea. Now I can’t sleep.
SOME PRETTY COOL STOPS BETWEEN YULI & GUANGFU:
RAFTING IN RUISUI
Ruisui is the place to be if you want to go rafting. Many tours are offering to take you rafting on the Xiuguluan River which is snaking its way from the mountains to the Pacific Ocean and the famous Changhong bridge. Ruisui is also well appreciated for its hot springs, and I highly recommend the hot springs Red Leaf in Hongye, a place built in a Japanese style. It’s also possible to spend the night there and sleep on tatamis.
DANONG DAFU PARK
This huge park of 1 250 ha in the middle of nowhere is offering a wide range of possibilities for exploring! On foot or by bicycle, it’s a nice afternoon to spend strolling in the middle of the flowers, the forest and around a half moon shaped lake.
DAY FOUR: GUANGFU TO HUALIEN – 55KM
The sky is all greyish this morning. There’s no sunshine, so I don’t even have to feel guilty about missing my last chance to see the sunrise. I’m cycling on Road 9 today for I want to see a few sights on the way. I soon come to regret my choice: the Road 9 is kind of boring, full of traffic.
I cycle through Fenglin again, which was much more fun last time I went there, taking time to walk around the city and discover some trails up in the mountains. At least my breakfast at the local 7/11 brings me some comfort.
I cross bridges, I pass by some fields, but the magic has gone a little. I can’t wait to pass by this weird house I’ve seen on my last road trip on the East Rift Valley: Mr Sam. It’s a coffee shop still under construction that looks like a quirky hobbit house. As expected, the place is still closed, but I marvel at the windows, doors, and rooftops shapes. It looks surreal here in Taiwan: it’s like a house coming right from some kid’s imagination. I’m sad thinking I won’t get to see this place open to the public, I would have loved to get a cup of tea there, in this enchanted house.
After that, I make a little detour through the Aquafarm, and the way to get there is definitely better: I’m cycling through fish farms, and ponds, and farming fields. The farm is displaying a museum as well as a clam pool where you can fish your own clams and eat them as well. Since I’m vegetarian, I’m definitely not interested in the experience, but the surroundings are nice: there’s a big pond with a pavilion and some huge carps.
I cycle my way through the farming lands until Road 11 bis, which is even worse than Road 9. I can’t wait to get back to Hualien… But when I do, I can’t bring myself to go straight to the rental place. So I make a huge detour by the Coastal Bike Path, along the beach, Our Beach, breathing some fresh ocean mist.
SOME PRETTY COOL STOPS BETWEEN GUANGFU & HUALIEN:
GET A SLOWER PACE IN FENGLIN
Let’s be honest, there’s actually not much to do in Fenglin. Actually, it’s the first Taiwanese town which received the ‘Slow City’ label, a prize given away by an Italian association (www.cittaslow.org) whose goal is to promote a slower and eco-friendly lifestyle. Easy to understand now why the totem animal of Fenglin is a snail.
I spent a day in Fenglin on a greyish January day, a bit randomly, on a “let’s hop on a train and hop off to a random station and see how it goes” kind of day. And I loved it. I loved to stroll around the narrow alleys behind the station, those alleys with colourful old houses.
We decided to follow the river west, on that day. The cycling/strolling path needs serious maintenance, but we’re passing by fields, plantations and farms. We’re far from the photogenic rice paddies of Chishang. Here, there’s this feeling of wilderness and authenticity. The river eventually leads us to the Phoenix Waterfalls, after a steep slope.
GET A GLIMPSE OF THE PAST IN THE LINTIANSHAN FOREST PARK
Close by the little town of Wanrong, the Lintianshan forest park holds the memory of the Japanese Occupation and the timber industry.
Railways were built to transport the logs and those villages in the forest were flourishing and bursting with activity in the 1940’s, like in Wanrong, Checheng or even Luodong.
Those places had been turned into “forestry parks”, where old railways, locomotives and Japanese traditional houses can be found. Sometimes it’s even possible to hike around in those lush forests.
LET YOURSELF FALL IN LOVE WITH HUALIEN
Besides being the place most tourists stay to discover the Taroko national park, Hualien City has also a lot to offer! Its night market has an alley especially for aboriginal cuisine (flying fish, wild boar, local herbs and veggies) and in case the weather isn’t that great, there are plenty of little cosy coffee shops to hang around and get yourself a nice cup of coffee, or some delicious Taiwanese tea. Most coffee shops also bake their own desserts and have cats and dogs around for you to cuddle.
The city centre looks like most city centres in Taiwan, with malls, shops and coffee shops. There’s also a “Creative Park” with handmade shops and some traditional Japanese houses. There are also many temples, like the famous Shen An.
And behind the night market… The ocean. And a cycling path joining Road 11, where you’ll meet joggers, fishermen and families. The best time is definitely when the sun rises above the ocean. And Gosh, I had so many beautiful sunrises in Hualien!
Less than an hour cycling away from Hualien there are the Qixingtan beach, Liyu Lake, the waterfalls of the Jade Valley, and even the bucolic neighbourhood of Ji’an. I imagined three bicycle itineraries (with Google Maps) to discovered Hualien’s beautiful surroundings.
TAROKO NATIONAL PARK
Once in Hualien, if there anything to miss, that would be the Taroko National Park. Nice strolling and hiking paths will allow any type of traveller to enjoy the astonishing gorges, sceneries and the temples scattered around the Park. A trip you will remember forever to be sure!
I’ve done it. I’VE FREAKING DONE IT.
When I return the bicycle, the odometer shows 220 KM. With my detours and my little cycling trips every night to find food, I’ve cycled at least 50 KM more than expected. I pack up my stuff again in my backpack and make my way back home.
I’m still astonished by this feeling of home when I’m walking the streets of Hualien. I barely have one week or so left in Taiwan before taking off to some new adventures, in another continent. I was dreaming of this kind of cycling trip for about a year now, I’m happy and proud I managed to do it right before leaving. That’s a new experience enriching my being, filling me up with some necessary confidence.
I still can’t believe how much I fell in love with this country. I’m deeply happy about this cycling trip, for I was able to feel Taiwan on my skin, blowing in my hair, in all my throbbing muscles.
Taiwan is printed on my retina for good.
I’m not afraid of disturbing the landscape here anymore:
I’m part of it.