Tuesday, 9 April 2013

Taiwan Travels: Cycling Taiwan's East Coast

For some time prior to heading to Taipei for the annual Tern International Distributor Conference, we had been relishing the idea of cycling the infamous East Coast Cycle highway in Taiwan.
Cycle touring is a massively growing activity in Taiwan and the expanding network of dedicated bike lanes throughout the island sparked our imagination and need to explore them.

In Taipei we borrowed a Tern Link P24h and a Tern Link P9 from the Taiwanese distributors and bought a couple of Tern CarryOn covers so that we could take the bikes on public transport. On the Taipei MRT system they prefer to have your bike bagged when using the trains, so the bags came in very handy.

We took a train down to the coastal city of Hualien, where we cycled the Taroko Gorge amongst other things.

On the Monday morning at 06h30 we started our journey via the coast road of Highway 11. Our original plan was to ride our bikes the roughly 70km to the town of Shitiping and stay there for the night. The distance seemed reasonable for us to then complete the rest of the journey to Dulan (an alternative artist community near the city of Taitung) the next day.

All started out well enough. After an early morning coffee at the trusty 7-11, a few encounters with the notorious packs of wild dogs and feeling a little unsure as to where Highway 11 even started - we found the road and made our way south on the beautiful dedicated cycle lanes which are on the side of the highway. The weather was a bit cold and overcast, but we had a slight tailwind and the road was practically car-less.

Kilometre markers line the whole route down to Taitung City, so as you make your way along you are constantly informed of how much effort you've already put in.

At around 20km from Hualien City you go through a series of tunnels and then start the long 5km climb just before Jici Beach. Our research on the route didn't really throw a lot of emphasis on big hills, so grinding out the accent came as something of a surprise. Thankfully it was over fairly quickly, and as a reward, we enjoyed the view of Jici Beach at the top of the mountain overlooking it.

From Jici Beach onwards it was pretty much plain sailing. It started to rain and get more miserable, but nothing a poncho and a coffee stop couldn't fix. The scenery all along the route is spectacular and with a dedicated bike lane and almost zero traffic you have to pinch yourself when thinking that you're doing this on a national highway.

We got to Shitiping Harbour before lunch time and were immediately unimpressed with the options there, so we made the snap decision to carry on going. Where we were going was unclear, but the day was still young and after 50 kays we sit had lots of cycling in the legs.

Another 20kms later our new route presented itself to us. If you look on the map of the region and squint your eyes slightly, you can just make out a mountain road that seemed to get you to the town of Ruisui - about 22kms from Highway 11. It looked do-able enough and so the choice was make to ride the R64 a.k.a. Ruigang Highway.

Alarm bells should have started ringing when we passed massive iron gates at the start of the R64 highway (probably used to close the road when typhoons make the road impassable). Beautiful is too bland a word to describe it. The road was complete deserted apart from a few construction workers at the beginning and an increasingly boisterous population of wild monkeys all along the route. It felt like we were entering a secret world of voodoo that doubled up as a set for a Stanley Kubrick movie. Green snakes lay dead on the tarmac at regular intervals and you had to make sure you didn't rest too close to the wall of jungle on the side of the road in case you became something's dinner.

And so started 22kms which could easily be included in the Tour de France as a mountain stage. The climbs were relentless, the downhills literally mineshafts back to the bottom of the valley and the Xiuguluan River.

In total, the pass took us 3 hours to do - but is an experience that will never be forgotten. We fell off the mountain into the town of Ruisui and the Ruisui Hot Spring Resort where we spent the night in 41 degree pools and clutching ice cold Taiwan Beer.

In total, we'd travelled about 100kms on the day, but had seen some of the most spectacular scenery and cycled one of the world's most iconic routes. It was tough, but hugely rewarding. And strangely enough at the very highest peak jokes were made which included the words 'dare' and 'Epic' ... we'll have to see what comes of that.