The other day a friend of mine posted a picture from a recent bike ride in Taiwan to a popular bike forum. "Where was that taken," posters asked, "Tuscany?"
Most visitors to Taiwan see only its crammed, anarchic cities and the dull, dirty flatlands of the island's western shelf, never realizing that one of Asian tourism's best kept secrets is the fabulous cycling in Taiwan.
It is hard to put into words what makes Taiwan so special. The island manages to combine both swift transitions from concrete wastelands to soaring mountain beauty, and intensity of experience with convenience of logistics. On the same ride you can sleep in a spa hotel, rise in the morning to race along a river gorge fringed by 2000 meter peaks, clamber up the 13% grades to the top to find a 7-11 and noodle shops, then fall a thousand meters down a nameless road through kilometers of betel nut and fruit farms, race past the shouted greetings of local aborigines, roll along a narrow strip of road that claws its way across desolate cliff faces above heartbreakingly beautiful mountain vistas, and then drop into the nearest town with a railway station to find yourself home before dinner.
Convenience is a way of life in Taiwan. Nearly every hamlet hosts one of the island's thousands of 7-11s, where you can load up on coffee and snacks. If your tires are low the store often keeps a pump, as do many local police stations, which also provide water. Got a flat? The local scooter repair shop can easily plug the hole, and might not even charge you. While the traffic may be lawless and crowded, the militant anti-bike mentality one encounters so often on US roads is non-existent here. Rather, the anarchy means that local drivers are used to anything appearing over their right front fender, including you.
The Taiwan government advertises that Taiwan will touch your heart, and for once, the marketing slogan is the bare truth. To bike in Taiwan is to experience its best side: everywhere people shout encouragement, invite you to participate in roadside BBQs, or just stop for a chat. Hill climbing in rolling Miaoli County one day, my friend and I got lost -- in rural Taiwan roads are often marked on a strict need-to-know basis -- and stopped to ask directions from a local farmer on his way to market. As we chatted, standing at the head of a pleasant little valley covered with strawberry fields and fronted by the central mountain range, the farmer reached into his sack and pulled out a couple of dragon fruit. They would have fetched a good price in the market, but he peeled and sliced them for us, and then waved us on our way.
Like all great destinations, the fun continues when the wheels stop turning. The cliff-lined east coast, considered by 19th century mariners one of the great sights of the world: "...the stupendous cliffs of the Yosemite Valley in California... the grand sea-wall of Hoy, in the Orkneys... the glories of the iron-bound coast of Norway, all fade into nothingness beside the giant precipices of Formosa," wrote one -- not only offer a leisurely ride along a coastal shelf of legendary beauty, but a vast collection of local swimming holes, beaches, archeological sites, hiking trails, and local eateries. Taiwan is studded with hot springs, and few mountain rides are far from one, or from great places to hike, camp, or swim amidst some of the world's steepest mountain peaks. And everywhere you go, you'll be able to sink your chopsticks into the island's unifying passion: its superb food culture.
What is riding Taiwan? Taiwan is going a thousand meters up a massive mountain in a single morning, and buying drinks from scantily-clad betel nut girls in their roadside stalls. Taiwan is piercing curls of smoke on a rolling dawn as the farmers burn off their fields, and speeding past the stink of mud and trash oozing from the muck of a canal next to the ocean. Taiwan is a landslide in the road and a viper lounging alongside it. Taiwan is bantering with the old women selling water and steamed buns on a chill winter morn, and exchanging hellos with farmers spraying fruit trees in the fading light of a summer's eve. Taiwan is gliding into the local fishing port for sashimi, and lapping up the last few klicks to the only noodle stand for a hundred leagues. Taiwan is looking down on the lovely Liyu Reservoir and peering up at the terrifying landslide scarp at Jiufen Ershan. Taiwan is riding next to chasms as deep as geological eras, and hearing the whistle of teapots in houses far above filling the mountains as a crisp dawn cracks across the peaks with forty kilometers of desolate mountain road in front of you. Taiwan is.
You can be too.
See ya soon on a Taiwan road!