The beautiful island of Taiwan, just off the southeast coast of China, hasn’t yet become well known as a bike touring destination.
It’s not for lack of potential though. With plenty of mountains to test your thighs, visas on arrival and a vibrant culture, this could be your next great winter get away.
Canadian Paul McMurray, who lived in Taiwan for 11 years and did six bike tours around the island, tells us more about bike touring in Taiwan in this week’s 10 Questions.
1. Since Taiwan isn’t yet a well known touring destination, can you tell us more about the bike touring potential there?
Taiwan is a subtropical island just off the coast of China. It is 35,980 square kilometers in area, slightly larger than Vancouver Island. The geography of Taiwan is very mountainous, with 100 peaks over 3,000 metres. The highest is Jade Mountain (Yu Shan). It comes in at nearly 4,000 meters. This small country has massive cycle touring potential. Taiwan’s low international profile means that there is little foreign tourism, but the beautiful scenery and great roads make it ideal for cycling. If you are looking for a challenge, try one of the three cross-island highways that go over the Central Mountain Range.
2. It’s easy to think of places like Taiwan as overcrowded and possibly hectic on a bicycle. Is this true or can you ‘escape to the countryside’?
The east coast is the best place to beat the crowds, and it is very popular with local cyclists. However, since most Taiwanese people only travel on weekends, anyplace outside the cities will be very quiet throughout the week. Hotels are discounted on weekdays as well.
3. What kind of budget would you need to tour there. Is it expensive?
The standard of living is relatively high, so it will cost more than Southeast Asia. It’s still pretty affordable by Western standards, though. I spend approximately $2,000-2,200 Taiwanese dollars (currently about $65-70 U.S.) per day for decent hotels and meals in local restaurants.
4. Is there any potential to camp or is it best just to leave the tent at home and stay in hotels?
Although there are some campgrounds, a nice hot spring hotel to cap a long day of riding is heavenly if you can afford it (from $1,500 Taiwanese dollars).
5. What are the roads like? Can you usually find a secondary road with little traffic?
Most people tour on the county highways, which are wonderful. Taiwan is full of scooters, so the roads generally have a scooter lane and a paved shoulder. Roads will narrow a bit in the mountains, but there is a lot less traffic as well.
6. What is the traditional food like and is there a ‘street food’ culture that’s readily accessible?
Taiwanese food brings together influences from all over China. In the cities, street food has been raised to a fine art, but there is plenty to eat when you are riding as well. The food in the mountains is particularly good and relies heavily on locally grown vegetables, free-range chicken, and mountain pig (boar).
7. Are there any bureaucratic hurdles to overcome?
Canadians, Americans, and people from most European nations receive a one-month visa upon arrival.
8. What’s your favourite ride in Taiwan?
My favorite ride starts in Kaoshiung on the west coast. You travel south to Kenting and then ride north until you reach Hualian on the east coast. Along the way, there are several island side trips you can make (Xiao Liou Chiou, Green Island, Orchid Island). There are also numerous little hot spring towns with reasonable rates. In addition, travelling along the coast gives you opportunities to feast on lots of cheap sashimi in harbour towns.
9. What’s one challenge people might face and how do you recommend they deal with it?
Outside of the larger cities communicating can be a challenge, but it’s no worse than anywhere else where English isn’t widely spoken. Taiwanese people are very friendly and helpful. The key is to remain patient; getting angry is considered impolite and makes everyone lose face.
10. Can you give us one phrase in the local language that might come in handy for a cyclist?
Ni you pijiu ma? You pronounce it: ni yo pee jyo ma? It means ‘do you sell beer?’. If you are cycling in the countryside, Taiwan Gold Medal Beer is the beverage of choice after a hard day.
Thanks to Paul McMurray for answering the questions and providing the photos.
Need more information? Check out these helpful resources for cycling in Taiwan:
If you’d like to answer 10 questions about a favourite cycling destination, read the guidelines and then get in touch.
7th June 2010 at 6:30 am #
Taiwan food has a lot more influences than just China! The local food heavily influenced by Japanese food during the Japanese colonial period, and there has been a massive influx of American influence since the 1960s. Also, boar is an aboriginal specialty.
Good article, all around. Some additional details:
Little hostels, found everywhere, are cheap at $300-800 a night depending on where you are.
Bikes may be rented at Giant shops in most major cities with reasonable lead time.
The mountains offer fantastic touring opportunities. We’ve done many rides in both the mountains and the foothills and are always struck by the high quality of the overall experience.
The East coast used to be good but it is slowly being destroyed by buses full of Chinese tourists and construction to accommodate them. Hurry and see it before it is overrun.
Blogs that blog about bicycling in Taiwan include:
The View from Taiwan (mine)
Taiwan in Cycles
Biking in Taiwan
Cycling Satin Cesena
The Daily Bubble Tea
Fixed Gear Girl Taiwan
Fixed Gear Taiwan
A few picture posts from my rides
Foothills in central Taiwan
Rural Area/NE coast
Tea Farms in Nantou
The Northern Cross Island Highway
7th June 2010 at 9:46 pm #
I wouldn’t say that Taiwanese food is “heavily influenced by Japanese food.” Taiwanese people do like Japanese food, and there are many Japanese restaurants in Taiwan, but it doesn’t mean our food has changed significantly because of Taiwan being a colony of Japan. American food is also popular, but it would be hard to claim it as an influence!
18th July 2016 at 4:02 am #
They’ve certainly soured my likings to anise seed, it’s added to almost everything, including fish sticks they’ve finally got here in grocery stores. Must be like cinnamon to them that we only add to most desserts, most Taiwanese do not like cinnamon.
Beware the intentional pollution that is caused by them as they worship daily, it is thick & disgusting smell, a definite choke hazard (they have no qualms about critisizing mainlanders polluting), so innocent, yeah, right!!!
If you like them a few weeks, just stay here 18 months, I guarantee you’ll rather live in a cell “cause here you’ll have to keep your doors and windows closed with a air filter going along with an A/C, as the neighbors have no regard as to where or whom their worshipping smoke goes, just as long as it don’t go into their home or face.
I’ve been living here since November 2011, that’s how I know. As even hinting to them about their habits won’t change them, You, I am doomed to suffer/choke on their habit. It Is Daily and terribly bad on their celebration days & holidays.
And to know that in both 1992 & 1996 I had been onboard an American vessel & ready to give m life for them, as our ship was intentionally assigned near their Island for possible assistance.
Thank You, The People of Taiwan for Your so Welcoming & Appreciative Gratitude.
18th June 2010 at 5:26 am #
Taiwan IS a great place for bike touring – especially if you like mountain roads. It’s a beautiful place with friendly people, a fascinating culture, great food, and tons of places to explore. However, in my experience, it’s not all smooth sailing for anyone on a bicycle.
Weather can certainly be a challenge here. It rains a lot, and anyone planning an extended tour would be wise to take that into consideration and do a lot of waterproofing. You might get lucky and have sunny skies, but chances are it will rain on you on some days – if not on many days.
Winter (December – February) can be very cold and wet, particularly in the mountains. I definitely wouldn’t recommend cycling here at that time of year. But if you do, bring warm clothes and wet-weather gear. Buildings are not heated as a rule, so even hotels will be cold, and a good sleeping bag would be useful even if you’re staying indoors.
Spring can also be very wet, and summers can be extremely hot and humid. Then you have to consider typhoon season (maybe July – September?). A typhoon parked off Taiwan can result in an entire week or more of rain and wind. And if a typhoon hits the island, the whole place shuts down, and you won’t be doing any cycling until it moves on. The real problem with typhoons is not the wind so much as the rain. The heavy rain causes flooding and mudslides, and mountain roads can be blocked for some time after a typhoon. In fact, landslides and falling rocks are something to be wary of year-round. Many of the mountain roads have barriers in place to stop falling rocks, but not all of them do. Signs also warn of potentially dangerous areas, and it’s a good idea to pay attention to them – not just rocks falling but of rocks on the road.
Traffic has also been an issue for me. Motorcycle clubs are popular, and on the weekend some mountain roads are filled with racing motorcycles taking corners at top speed. I’m talking about the guys wearing leather from head to foot with sliding pads on their knees so they can take corners with the motorcycle leaning all the way over. Fifteen of these motorcycles in a pack passing you several times a day can fray your nerves a little bit.
Cars are also a concern in the mountains. They often take blind corners very wide or cut them really tight. People often drive with little or no concern for anything else on the road. Defensive cycling is the rule for sure.
The busier coastal roads offer up their own unique challenges, gravel trucks among them. They thunder along at high speed and cut very close to the side of the road. These trucks (and cars) will make left and right turns with little warning and with little regard for any cyclist that happens to be in the way. It’s your job as the cyclist to anticipate their moves and get out of their way. Paul mentions scooter lanes, but on my trips they were the exception and not the rule.
You can also encounter very long tunnels cut through the mountains along the east coast. There are often signs on these tunnels saying that bicycles are forbidden, but people ride through them anyway. You have to, since there is no other route available. It takes nerves of steel to get through these tunnels with the heavy traffic passing you in the dark. It’s fun, but something to take into account if you’re going to take a long bike tour here. For safety, you should have very good lights on both the front and the back and make sure you turn them on in the tunnels. Drivers hit the tunnels at high speed and it takes a long time for their night vision to kick in. The brighter your rear light, the better.
Wild camping never seemed like much of a possibility in Taiwan. There simply isn’t much unoccupied land. And in the mountains, the slopes are far too steep to offer up much in the way of flat land for camping. The vegetation is also very thick and jungly. There are campgrounds, but the ones I’ve come across didn’t have much appeal. They were intended more for large groups, like a graduating class of students, than the individual cyclist. I did stay in a couple of campgrounds, but they cost as much as a cheap hotel, so there didn’t seem much point.
As for hotels, I found those to be less than straightforward as well. There is very little backpacker type tourism here, so the hotels cater more for local tourists on package tours. There are some cheaper hotels (NT$1,000 or $31 US) and it seems that more hostel-type places are popping up, but you kind of have to know where they are in advance, especially if you can’t read or speak Chinese. In every other country I’ve traveled in, I just show up in a town or city or village and look for a place to stay and I always find something. That has rarely worked out for me here. Perhaps I’ve been unlucky.
After saying all that, I do think Taiwan is a fantastic place to explore, and a bicycle is the best way to do it, but only if you, like me, actually prefer riding in mountains. You can follow the coast where the roads are not as hilly, but then you will miss a lot. Any tour has to include one of the cross-island highways and some of the tiny backroads going to out of the way places.
I’d say come in the fall (September-October), and unless you are a serious wilderness person, leave the camping gear behind and keep your load nice and light. You can camp here, but you don’t have to, and I don’t see any advantage to it unless you go deep into the mountains on foot.
One last thing. When I went on my first cycling trip in Taiwan (they’ve all been short ones) years ago, I was practically the only cyclist on the roads. In the last two or three years, this has changed dramatically. Cycling has exploded as a pastime in Taiwan. Thousands of Taiwanese head for the mountains on their bikes every weekend now. So if you’re out there on a bike tour, you will have plenty of company. This also means that public transporation is very accomodating when it comes to bicycles – more accomodating than anyplace I’ve ever heard of. It takes some digging to get all the facts and procedures, but you can take your bike on lots of trains, for example. Many of them have new cars dedicated to bicycles. You simply have to take the wheels off and wrap it somehow. Then you can just walk on the train and carry your bike like luggage for free. Folding bicycles are super-popular here for that reason. Other trains have special baggage cars, and you can put your bike on those trains just as they are complete with pannier bags attached. You just ride your bike up to the train station and hand it over. Then you just ride it away when you get to your destination. Bus companies will also go out of their way to help a cyclist put their bicycle on the bus. In many ways, Taiwan has become the most bike-friendly place I’ve ever encountered.
10th December 2015 at 3:09 am #
That was super-helpful, thanks!
14th January 2012 at 9:33 am #
Getting to Taiwan from Mainland China is now very easy with two direct ferries going to Keelung and Taichung.
Xiamaen, China to Keelung, Taiwan departs Thursdays at 18:00
Xiamaen, China to Taichung, Taiwan departs Tuesdays at 18:00
The ferry arrives the following morning around 8AM.
Return ferries from Taiwan to Xiamen, China are as follows:
Keelung, Taiwan to Xiamen, China departs Sundays at 19:00
Taichung, Taiwan to Xiamen, China departs Wednesdays at 19:00
Cost is about USD $100 for a berth in a 4 person cabin.
Tickets can be bought the day of departure or in advance at the ferry terminal.
Comfortable conditions including free breakfast, bathing facilities and Karaoke if that floats your boat.
10th February 2014 at 2:34 am #
I’m Japanese engineer, living in Taiwan.
Taiwan is a mecca of the bike.
10th February 2014 at 2:33 am #
I’m Japanese engineer, living in Taiwan.
Taiwan is a mecca of the bike.
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