Discovering Taiwan’s scenic east coast
It’s day three of our cycling jaunt down the east coast of Taiwan. My knees are starting to ache as a result of peddling yesterday’s mountains. My bum is pleading for extra padding, relief from the unforgiving bike seat below. My mind is admonishing me for committing to a multi-day bike trip with no prior cycling experience. But my heart is content, at peace, inspired by the world around me.
Mother Nature has been watching over us the past few days. Rather than Taiwan’s predictable gray clouds and rain showers, we have been gifted with crisp, cool breezes and endless blue skies. It’s the kind of sky that merges seamlessly with the expansive ocean, inviting our gaze to stretch farther than is possible. Perhaps it is compensation for the sore bum.
Three days of persistent cycling has rewarded us with frequent opportunities to connect with the Earth, a welcome respite from the hours spent in front of a computer on a daily basis. We began our cycling trip in Hualien, the largest city on the east coast of Taiwan. The vibe here is noticeably different from the west of Taiwan; the traffic is slower, the morning markets less chaotic. The locals take double, even triple takes at us on our bicycles. Most tourists only stay in Hualien for a night, using it as their base to explore the country’s number one attraction: Taroko Gorge. We, too, were guilty of departing Hualien prematurely, but with 80 kilometers of cycling ahead, an early start to the day was necessary.
Our first day of cycling took us from Hualien to Ruishui (a rustic hot springs town in the mountains) via Highway 11. It didn’t take long for us to discover why this is one of Taiwan’s most popular cycling routes; almost immediately after leaving the city traffic behind, we found ourselves cruising past the Pacific Ocean, urban sprawl nowhere in sight. Taiwan’s coastline is characteristically rocky and jagged with few sandy beaches. While this might not be conducive to sunbathing, the dramatic coastline is as picturesque as they come, ideal to enjoy from the cycling lane.
Unfortunately the mountainous coastline guarantees hills to traverse, and our first morning was spent wearily hauling our bodies and belongings up the unpleasant inclines. Luckily we weren’t the only crazy souls determined to use the power of our legs to carry us. The more fit, experienced cyclists raced past, encouragingly calling out, “Jia you!”—Chinese for “Let’s go!” Taiwanese are as friendly as they come – cyclists and non-cyclists alike consistently go out of their way to make foreigners feel at home.
Biking made the day pass quickly, and before long our journey steered us away from the ocean breezes and toward the cool, crisp air of the East Rift Valley. A long and narrow valley bordered by the Central Mountain Range (to the west) and the Coastal Mountain Range (to the east), the East Rift Valley is home to a variety of natural landscapes. Waterfalls, river terraces, hot springs and badlands are just a few of the sights to be seen. Although our arrival at the valley coincided with dusk, our second day of cycling would provide ample time to observe the change of scenery around us.
Pedal to the Metal
The next morning began pleasantly along a welcome flat road, better known as Route 193. The journey was now quieter, with only the verdant rice paddies and occasional village houses to keep us company. We found ourselves daydreaming, imagining what life would be like here among the rice farmers. It didn’t seem like such a difficult scenario, leaving everything behind in favor of a simple, grounded lifestyle. But then the moment was gone, and all too soon we had left the paddies and wistfulness behind. Little did we know that we were now approaching the most challenging – and rewarding – segment of our journey.
Out of the rice paddies emerged grassflanked mountains and colorful wild flowers, the stunning result of the East Rift Valley and humid weather that perpetuates it, and a reminder of how truly diverse Taiwan’s landscape is, so much more than the urban skyscrapers of Taipei that most people think of. Coinciding with the lush backdrop was the steepest climb of the trip thus far. The hills from yesterday were merely speed bumps compared to this fiend. We mentally prepared ourselves for the climb by internalizing our yogi mantras, but it didn’t do much to combat
the sweat that poured down us. Finally, finally, after reprimanding ourselves for not training adequately, we made it to the climb’s peak. With no time to say farewell to the mountain range that embraced us, we speed on into the darkness of an awaiting tunnel.
Out of the darkness brought the highlight of our cycling trip: a bird’s eye view and striking snapshot of the far-reaching Pacific Ocean colliding with the adjacent mountain ranges – plus twenty minutes of downhill coasting to enjoy it. Taiwan’s wide-ranging landscapes effortlessly came together, seemingly stretching out to eternity. Suddenly the uphill climbs were but a minor fee for the prize they awarded.
As we near Taitung on our third day of cycling, I’m clearly exhausted, ready to trade in my bike for the power of something automated. However, I’m also incredibly grateful. I’m grateful for the ability to power my body over 200 kilometers. I’m grateful to live on such a beautiful island of contrasts. I’m grateful to experience the harmony of the world – sore bum and all.
Bio: Casey and Dan Siemasko are two lovebirds slowly and indefinitely traveling the world. They share practical travel tips, top-notch travel photography and inspiring travel tales at www.acruisingcouple.com. They’re also the authors of 101 Tips to Living in Taiwan, a free ebook available on their blog.
Images by Daniel Moore