Cycling Taiwan (台灣腳踏車遊)

Growing up in the Michigan countryside, I learned early the freedoms afforded by a bicycle. I explored fairly fully the dirt roads in and around Metamora and occasionally struck out for longer hauls to Oxford. I thought it a pretty impressive accomplishment when I finished my first round trip to Lapeer - some 25 miles away. My gold ten-speed offered mobility, exercise and a way to get to and from summertime lawn mowing jobs.

Once at university, however, shorter distances and the prospect of worrying over the safety and health of a bike chained to a grill outside East Quad relegated cycling to an occasional activity done more to renew the feel of high school than to commute around Ann Arbor (although I did make it out to Ypsilanti once). When during our senior year one of my best friends shared her plans to spend the upcoming summer on a month-long cross-country bike caravan (Seattle to Michigan), I could only wonder at the challenges ahead.

A move to Taiwan in the early 1990s made prospects of cycling even more remote. While Taipei, mercifully, is now ringed with bicycle paths and cyclists have increasingly taken to braving city streets (where motorists have grudgingly begun to accept their right-of-way), all this came, regrettably, after my time. Our move to Keel
ung was prompted, in fair part, by the prospect of more space, green views and roads to bike.

As before, I took to exploring the immediate vicinity and first saw much of Keelung and the Northeast Coast's green interior from a bicycle seat. While the region has some of the island's most rugged coastal terrain, roads tend to follow valleys as much as possible, making for treks that rarely exceed a "moderate" level of difficulty (of course, there are also plenty of hills to navigate if one so desires).

If I have set an example for others by pedaling out on the weekends, many have since outdone me. A few of our friends now often commute by bike from their homes near Keelung to jobs in Taipei (about an hour+, over heavily trafficked roads) and several families in our church meet nearly "religiously" on Saturday mornings to cycle over increasingly challenging courses in Keelung and Taipei County. What's more, with our children now increasingly able and willing to participate, cycling is being embraced as not only a family activity, but as a way to face and beat new challenges, develop a rapport with the outdoors and give (and receive) support as part of a team.

Over the past two months, my daughter and I have had the pleasure to join in two challenging cycling activities. The first, described briefly in a previous post, was organized by the Chinese Christian Relief Association (中華基督救助協會) as an event to draw attention and donations to the CCRA's ongoing work with disadvantaged families and after-school tutoring for children with special needs. Nineteen teams of two set out early on December 14th from the Eluanbi (Erluanbi, 鵝鸞鼻) Lighthouse at Taiwan's southernmost point – hopeful that they would achieve Taiwan's northernmost point at Fuguijiao (富貴角), 700 km away and 9 days later. The challenge of the trip was enhanced by our riding tandem (2-person) bicycles and the participation of primarily non-seasoned cyclists (including us). Nearly half the teams had pre-teens on the second seat. Quite a few in the group were over 60. The youngest was five.

The route was planned so as to pass through major towns, where brief PR events, often attended by local officials, helped publicize the CCRA cause. We stuck largely to main county roads, which took us through Taiwan's industrial heartland. Actually, getting away from industry along the western coast is difficult without either navigating the awkward web of roadways that skirt the Taiwan Strait or heading into the Central Mountain foothills. Both present challenges best left for another cycling trip.

The weather cooperated to a surprising degree, with sunshine following us nearly all the way to Taoyuan County. Tara's initial nonchalance about the challenges ahead (she'd heard that kids could ride in the chase car [小蜜蜂] if their legs gave out) turned into impressive determination. She biked behind me the entire 700 km, growing in self-confidence and experience.

We reached Fuguijiao on the North Coast late on December 22nd after a day under overcast, occasionally drizzly skies. Tara proudly remarked that she wouldn't mind continuing on down the East Coast – mostly because she wanted to continue traveling with this tremendous group

and partly because she felt that more biking beat, hands down, the prospect of returning to school in another two days. Thirty-eight individuals had come together as strangers and were to part as friends. The support team fielded by CCRA handled the difficult logistics necessary over the entire trip, which included escorts from county police, event organization, overnight arrangements, rest stop and lunch arrangements and the handling of myriad details of which we could only appreciate the results. Their dedication, given to help ensure the CCRA can continue in its main mission, testifies most strongly to the value of CCRA work in Taiwan.

Soon after returning home, we were invited by the abovementioned group of weekend bikers to join in a planned cycling trip in February from Keelung to Taitung (Taidong, 台東), down the East Coast. We agreed, but with consternation over the weather – which had (and has) been atrocious (rainy and cold) for the past month across northern and eastern Taiwan. As our departure on February 1st drew near, the weather simply got worse.

It had not improved by the time we gathered in Guogang (過港 / 暖暖) outside of Keelung on Friday morning. Two families, including ours, opted for the warmth of the chase cars, in which we followed those (three families, including 5 kids!) who had elected to brave it out. We met up in Fulong (福隆) for lunch, after which the bikers followed the coast southward to finish up the 95 km scheduled for Day One at Wujie (五結鄉), south of I-Lan City, and we surrendered to an afternoon at the hot springs in Jiaosi (礁溪).

The rains petered out, and everyone, including Tara and I, made the remainder of the 5-day journey by bike (although we all opted out [per plan] of biking the 100km-long Suhua Highway (蘇花公路) – known for its dramatic scenery, sharp curves and careening gravel trucks).

The East Coast from Hualien City down through Taitung is a wonderful ride. We took the relatively level Rift Valley (mostly down County Route 193 [193縣道]), passing mile after mile of newly planted rice paddies before heading into the Coastal Mountains south of Yuli (玉里鎮). After a steady, but manageable, uphill climb of 5 or so kilometers, we passed through a newly completed 2km tunnel on Yuchang Road (玉長公路) that opened onto Taitung County and marked the start of a brisk downhill ride to the Pacific shoreline. We ended our journey at Sansiantai (Sanxiantai, 三仙台) north of Taitung City, piled the bikes into our two vans and headed northward the next morning toward home.

Unsurprisingly, in light of eastern Taiwan's unpredictable winter weather, the day we drove back was the first to see sunny blue skies. We stopped off at several places, including the coastal scenic area at Shihtiping (石梯坪) and a special bed & breakfast place (Houhu, 後湖水月) that serves up great views of the coast and wonderful morning coffee – thanks Wendell (!).

Tara and I look forward to continued biking adventures. Our two experiences this winter have taught us that distance biking around the island is both doable and fun. Passersby were always ready with a thumbs-up and a smile. We saw many other biking groups on the road as well - most traveling without a support vehicle and their gear and travel essentials strapped across the back tire and under the seat. No matter where you find yourself in Taiwan, chances are you aren't excessively far from civilization – particularly if your definition of such covers 7-11s, ... which truly are everywhere.

- JM

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