Cycling Around Taiwan: West

· 13 min read

I arrived to Kaohsiung at dusk following a long afternoon of uncertainty. I was a bit disappointed about having to resort to a train but relieved that I had reached civilization with a plan for moving forward.

The idea of walking far with my bicycle was not palatable. I lucked out with finding a hostel just a short walk from Formosa Boulevard Station — a visually distinctive station that brought back fond memories of my visit almost exactly three years prior and only one MRT stop from Kaohsiung Main Station.

I took some welcomed rest and woke up early with intention to get my tire repaired and relax for the rest of the day. I’m learning to understand when I need it.

Franchised stores vary greatly by ownership but I had a good experience with Merida in Taitung and their hours suggested that they open early. I was feeling a bit skeptical — every other store in the area was closed. I arrived to an open garage smaller than a typical North American double car garage. The three walls held roughly one hundred bicycles in just moderately better condition than mine. An elderly couple sat patiently behind a small desk in the center of it all.

The man stands up and asks how he can help. My troubles the day prior had taught me new vocabulary — 爆胎 (flat tire). Armed with this knowledge, I pointed at my rear tire to verbally identify the problem. He pulled out a small wooden stool and invited me to take a seat.

I had expected him to simply replace the tube — that’s all any shop in Vancouver had done for me. He found the hole and patched it up. It was beautiful to watch. Every step was performed calm, focused, and with intent. The man was a master of his craft.

A cockroach slowly approached the heel of his right foot as he took his finger to the inside of the tire, inspecting for the sharp object that punctured my tube. He was so calm and focused on the task at hand. Do I interrupt him to tell him? What would I say? Would he even care? This is common here, right?

He located a shard of glass and leaned forward to closer inspect the point of puncture. As he leaned back, he planted his heel on the cockroach without reaction. I never saw him take his eyes off of my tire. Firm and with a twist — the action was deliberate enough to be confident of his intent. He remained calm and focused, inspecting for further shards. I knew I was in good hands for my next ride.

I spent the rest of the day decompressing while exploring the city and the next hard at work on my software product. The purpose of my trip was to explore new parts of the island. I was eager to get to Tainan.

I left Kaohsiung amidst a sea of scooters during morning rush hour and made it to Tainan for lunch.

Things felt so laid back. I instantly fell into what felt like a very healthy balance of work and play. I’d wake up and read before exploring random alleys and diverse architecture. I’d grab a bite to eat and then head to a cafe to deal with personal tax matters and work on my projects. After a solid day, I’d grab more food and head to a craft brewery to speak with locals increasingly aided by translation software.

I learned that the brewery owner and his family speak English exclusively in their home. His kids, in elementary school, have no interest in speaking Mandarin. I asked why, but there was no clear answer.

I stayed in Tainan for a week. I could have stayed much longer — I was really happy there — but I had to cut my visit short. I was running out of time to make it back to Taipei for the course that I registered for back in Hualien.

I was struggling to strap my oversized backpack to my bike outside of a Family Mart near Tainan Station. A man came over to help support my bike and advised how to secure it more tightly through a series of gestures. I told him that I was heading to Chiayi and he pointed me in the right direction. The kindness of strangers never goes unforgotten.

I powered through the ride to Chiayi without breaks. This was the first time my accommodations wouldn’t allow me to check-in early or at least take a shower. I had five hours before check-in. I grabbed some lunch and built out a sizable chunk of the account page for my product.

Chiayi was laid back. I felt a sense of home though I could see myself getting bored if I stayed too long. It’s tough to say. I didn’t explore too much. I was on a coding wave. When it comes, I ride it. I’d read a little, code a lot, find a new restaurant, code more, find another new restaurant, and then relax for the evening. I couldn’t ask for better days.

That said, I did make it out to Fenqihu on a day trip. I had planned to explore Alishan but ran out of time with the limited transportation options and lack of planning on my part. Chiayi is only a short high speed rail trip away — or maybe I’ll go to Alishan by bike next year.

On my way home I saw a group crowding around a tree. I stood idly by for a while to simply observe. Curious, I used my translator to learn more. The woman had dropped one of her wireless headphones and suspected it was under the iron grate protecting the tree roots. I stuck two fingers from each hand into the grate and tugged but it was a bit too heavy. I signaled for help with a gentle nod and another spectator joined me. We held the grate lifted while the woman located and retrieved her headphone before carefully setting the grate back in place. A little communication — verbal or otherwise — can go a long way.

I saw a large 素食 (vegetarian food) sign on my way out of Chiayi. I’m getting better at reading. I definitely didn’t need any more food but it called me. The restaurant took over a large parking lot and was surrounded by traditional markets. I ordered foods that I saw the locals eating.

I usually say 好吃 (good to eat) when leaving a restaurant but I’ve developed the ear to know they weren’t speaking Mandarin to each other. I assumed they were speaking Taiwanese given what I knew of the area. I told them 後甲 (tasty, in Taiwanese) on my way out and their faces lit up.

Taichung was a highly anticipated destination for me. I booked eleven nights in a hostel. I heard that almost everything would be closed for Chinese New Year and so I thought I better extend my stay.

There was a potluck dinner party the night of my arrival. A Korean woman working at the hostel — now my friend — translated the event advertisement in the elevator just an hour before it started. She said that she was going to be making some vegan Korean food. I was ready to go to bed but I went out and bought some mushroom takoyaki balls to bring and ended up having a late night anyway.

I had wanted to visit Rainbow Village for years. Aptly named, the 中 in 台中 (Taichung) means “middle” and so I never made it having only been to the north and south on short visits — now was my chance.

I’m aware that one needs to signal buses a desire to board in some places of the world but it slipped my mind and I was left standing there as the bus blew past me. I went back to the hostel and had a coffee before my next attempt.

Rainbow Village is really a special place. A man saved a small part of a village from being entirely taken over by new building developers. He painted the buildings out of boredom as the final remaining resident and locals petitioned to preserve the village. I generally find most tourist attractions underwhelming — not Rainbow Village.

I stumbled across a new restaurant on my way to an intended repeat visit. I was looking at the menu and another foreigner — a regular there — offered to help me with recommendations. I took him up on his offer and then sat down to wait for the food to arrive.

I don’t normally interact much with other foreigners here. I’m trying to make local friends and better learn the language. But, he seemed like a nice guy and I was kind of curious about his story. We got talking and actually had a lot in common. He happened to be a cyclist and had done a few rides around the island.

His friend arrived a bit later. We all talked for a bit and then they advised they were meeting up to go to the pool and invited me to join. I was intending to go to a cafe to work on my projects but this seemed fun. I exchanged my laptop for a bathing suit and went to the pool.

The pool had an interesting crowd — mostly seniors and white people. Not exactly what I thought I was signing up for but it was a good experience nevertheless. There was a spa with hot and ice baths along with all sorts of high pressured water fountains. My personal favourite was the under water massage chair.

One of my favourite restaurants was still open on New Years Eve so I stocked up on frozen curry dumplings and lions mane mushrooms to cook at the hostel as needed throughout the week where many shops were closed. I brought them back to the hostel and the staff invited me to their dinner party as I put them in the freezer.

I woke up the next day and biked to Dakeng mountain to go on a hike with another friend I made at the hostel. New Years firecrackers exploded under us as we biked through the streets of Taichung.

The rest of my stay in Taichung was during the week of Chinese New Year closures. I took the time to work on building out some of the billing and refund work for my product and hung out with my new friends a bit more.

My new cyclist friend was a bit dismayed as I revealed more about my bike and the clothing I was wearing for my journey. He greased my chain and hooked me up with some proper padded bicycle shorts and a shirt with tight pockets for my phone and snacks to help me make it through the final quarter of the island.

I took Highway 3 per his recommendation. It was said to be a bit more strenuous but a lot more scenic. This was my longest and most difficult route yet, but the scent of strawberry farms paired with breathtaking landscape views kept me motivated.

I stopped in Dahu for lunch — well, two lunches. I told the staff that I was extra hungry and that I needed the energy to cycle to Zhubei as I ordered my second dish. They gave me a fresh orange and a bottle of water to show their support.

The news was playing on a TV at the restaurant. This was my first time seeing local news in Taiwan. I had only used my TV to block the sun from the window of my place in Taipei. They were playing a video of a dog running around with New Years fireworks exploding out of it’s mouth. The dog was fine but I don’t think I’ll forget that image — certainly not now that I’ve documented it.

Disgustingly full, I hit the road, ready to power through for several hours. Approximately 10 kilometers in — almost exactly half way between Dahu and Shitan — I feel another flat.

Once again I searched Google Maps for “bicycle repair shop” and I’m notified with “No results found. Try panning or zooming the map.” Hardly a surprise — I’m in the middle of nowhere. Unlike last time, I still had a chance to make it to my destination before sunset if I could get my issue resolved within two hours. I wasn’t giving up!

I stuck out my thumb, attempting to hitch a ride with a trucker to the next city with a repair shop. I gave up after about 20 minutes and started walking towards the next town, Shitan. I only walked maybe 10 minutes at most before discovering another strawberry farm.

I took a seat in a shaded area outside of the farm and started looking through my phone to see my options. Staff noticed that I was having difficulties and asked what I needed. I explained that I had a flat tire. Suddenly the entire front staff was on the case!

They pulled up a truck with a compressor to fill the tire to confirm a hole. They tried calling friends, but nobody was available. The youngest kid was translating the communication along the way. I was told to sit for a while while they find someone that could drive out to the farm and replace my tube. I bought some strawberries to eat while I waited.

Someone eventually came to replace the tube. The people at the farm offered me more water for my ride and sent me on my way. I was racing sunset.

Minutes later, my gear shifter fell off of my bike, dangling into my spokes as I was riding downhill. It was never working anyway but my GPS tracker had clocked me in at up to 60 km/h on previous descents and I realized this could be the end of my life if it got caught. I pulled over and tied it up before continuing.

The hills were treacherous but I made it out of the mountains before the sun fully set. Thankfully I had my new reflective biking clothing my friend from Taichung hooked me up with. It took me an unexpectedly long time to find my accommodations. There were so many turns — I had to pull out my phone every few minutes.

The accommodations I booked for Zhubei had an unusual booking procedure. I had booked it on a common travel platform but it was a homestay that manages their own payments outside of the platform. I received an email advising that I needed to pay by bank transfer and message back the last four digits of the confirmation number within 24 hours. I’m lucky I even translated the message. Usually it’s just boilerplate notice like WiFi information. A friend offered to help me out.

Zhubei was a short visit — a stopover on my way back to Taipei. I had to be back the following day to complete the registration for my Mandarin course. I took off to Taipei with an afternoon in Daxi. Daxi is famous for 豆干 (dried tofu) but there were a lot of great foods. I had food and conversation with a few vendors before continuing my ride to Taipei.

Many people warned me about the wind I would encounter heading north along the west coast this time of year. It was intense! North of Daxi was mostly flat but the wind resistance felt akin to some of the hills I had conquered earlier on my journey.

I made it to New Taipei — just 10 kilometers from my Taipei hostel — when I felt yet another flat tire. I was so close. I saw people riding around on YouBikes so I looked up the closest station and upgraded my ride.

I finished the last 10 kilometers of my 環島 (around the island) on a YouBike.