Endless climbs, unrideable descents and torrential rain: One eventful lap of Taiwan
A little earlier this year Australian ultra-endurance rider Jack Thompson was looking for an adventure and a challenge. After considering a few possible locations for a multi-day ride, Thompson settled on the island of Taiwan. The ride that followed was five days spent battling tough local terrain, and even tougher weather conditions.
One of my major goals going into 2017 was to set a new Unsupported Trans-Australia World Record. With the unfortunate passing of close friend and fellow ultra endurance cyclist, Mike Hall, during the Indian Pacific Wheel Race, the idea of crossing Australia in such close proximity to the accident just didn’t feel right. I will certainly tackle the record in the future, once the impact of these tragic events has passed.
With my plan being to tackle the record in May, there was an opening in my schedule to tackle another adventure. I thought long and hard about where I could ride. My initial thoughts were to explore India, a country which appeals with its bright colours, friendly people and rugged landscape. But where to start and finish, given the country is so incredibly vast?
That got me thinking: where could I ride and complete a loop of an entire country? The answer: Taiwan.
I knew nothing of Taiwan, other than it was an island off the coast of mainland China, and that they held a bike race there each year: the Taiwan KOM Challenge. The more I researched the country the more excited I became.
The majority of the Taiwanese population lives along the west coast of the island while the central highlands are far less populated and incredibly mountainous, with 286 peaks in excess of 3,000m.
Keen for a challenging adventure and incredible scenery, I planned a route that took me through the central highlands and then looped back along the east coast. This would provide a change of scenery while also avoiding the heavily populated west coast. The statistics were as follows:
Elevation Gain: 28,320m
On arrival in Taiwan was a flight departing the country. I knew which day I was going to leave Taipei and start my adventure, but where I was going to sleep each night was an absolute mystery. It’s the unknown on trips such as these that really excite me.
Rather than provide a chronological recap of events I thought I’d concentrate on some of the more memorable moments and try to give some insight into what adventuring around Taiwan with no plan is really like …
Steep Mountain Roads
Believe it or not, leaving Taipei is incredibly simple. The cycling infrastructure in Taiwan is the best I’ve seen, with all major roads having a dedicated scooter and bike lane. I’m not entirely sure what the law is and how heavily it’s policed, but cars don’t dare venture into the scooter or bike lane and as such, riding in Taiwan is incredibly safe.
Twenty-five kilometres to the South of Taipei my Garmin had me turning down a very small road into thick jungle. I weaved around a few tight bends and was met with what looked like a wall of bitumen so steep that when I actually started ascending, my Garmin indicted I was riding at 1km/hr. At this point, I began to realise that I was in for some incredibly long days in the saddle and slow average speeds.
Over the next four to six hours I ascended some of the steepest roads I have ever ridden, my Garmin later showing me that at the steepest point, one of the roads I had ridden was at a 45% gradient … hard to fathom. The funny thing (not at the time) about the steep ascents, was that the descents were just as steep and this meant heavy braking.
Being in dense jungle, in a tropical climate with a high annual rainfall, the small mountain roads are often covered with a thin layer of moss. I’m embarrassed to admit this, but at times, the descents were so steep and slippery that I had to dismount the bike, and clamber down the road on foot.
I look back and laugh at this now, but at the time I was swearing and cursing and wondering what the hell I had gotten myself into. Getting through 340km of this each day was going to test me. Thankfully, this lasted for only 6-8 hours and after this I was back to normal bergs and a far more respectable average speed.
Shared Mountain Bunks
Arriving in Xinyi at 5pm with no plan for the night’s accommodation, I decided that I better pick a town to aim for later that night and get moving. The weather was forecast to deteriorate and with a 2,800m mountain pass to conquer before the next decent-sized town, I had some ground to cover before I could rest for the night.
As I began the ascent from Xinyi to Tatama, I passed through multiple small construction sites at the base of the mountain. I can recall that on three separate occasions, workers leaving the site for the day signalled (using universal sign language: two crossed arms) that I shouldn’t continue any further. At the time, I was listening to a good playlist and thought to myself ‘What would these guys know…’ I would later find out.
As a rule of thumb, I don’t generally like to have elevation or speed displayed on my Garmin screen so I had no idea how far I’d climbed and how much further I had to go. Switchback after switchback the sky got darker until it was pitch black and the weather started to close in. A light sprinkle of rain turned into ice-cube-sized drops, coupled with ferocious thunder and bright lightning.
The playlist I was listening too had slowly transformed into very dark and trippy trance and at times the voices from deep within the music were spooking me. At one point I was convinced someone was following me … I turned the music off and continued to climb, deeper into the storm.
I’d been climbing for close to four hours and the weather was so bad that I was actually beginning to get a little nervous. I’d heard about landslides high in the mountains during heavy rain and with each clap of thunder I was convinced that the land above me was going to slide down and crush me. Just when I thought things couldn’t possibly get any worse, I noticed there was a large gate across the road ahead.
My initial thought was that I was going to have to descend and then re-ascend in the morning. Sleeping in my bivy was not an option — it’s hard to describe exactly how harsh the weather was at this point. Off the side of the road I spotted a vehicle hidden beneath the trees, so I approached and to my amazement there was someone inside.
Shocked to see me, they quickly turned the light on, opened the door, muttered something in Taiwanese as they put their rain coat on (I’m guessing it was something like “What the f&$k is this idiot doing up here in this weather at this time of night?!”) I was in luck and they opened the gate so that I could pass through.
Three hundred metres beyond the gate and up to my left I spotted a small hut with lights on. A little nervous for my safety I approached and was greeted by a Taiwanese worker who quickly ushered me indoors and out of the rain.
The Taiwanese worker offered me some hot green tea and showed me to what looked like a giant bunk bed. At first glance, the bunks looked empty and I thought I’d hit the jackpot. It was 10pm and having re-evaluated my position on the Garmin I’d realised I was now at the top of the pass.
Descending in this weather was not an option and so a big empty bunk was looking like a great option. That was until the worker shook the bed and I noticed that it had five other men in it … This is something I will never live down. My mates are still giving me a hard time about this and telling me I had planned my night here, but I swear it was not planned!
I quickly changed into my evening wear (shorts and singlet,) hung my cycling clothing up to dry and jumped into bed (with five other men …) Believe it or not, I actually had a great night’s sleep, and the following morning, to most people’s disbelief, I had no trouble waking at 4.30am and setting off down the mountain in search of the next town and a 7/11 where I could replenish my food supplies.
I later found out that the hut I had slept in was designed for hikers who are mountaineering in the area. In order to take advantage of the views as the sun rises, the Taiwanese camp in huts at the top of the pass and then wake just before sunrise to explore the mountain side in the early morning sun.
I thanked my lucky stars that I had stumbled across the hut, as had I not, I would have been in some serious trouble at 2,800m in the midst of an enormous storm, late into the night. It’s certainly not an ideal situation to find yourself in, but all part of the adventure cycling unknown.
Wuling Farm itself isn’t all that exciting. If I’m being fair, it’s no different to any other farm I rode through while in Taiwan. However, it’s the way you get to Wuling Farm that sets it apart from others like it. That’s because Wuling Farm is located at the top of the Mt He’Huan Peak, 3,417m above sea level, high amongst the clouds.
The Wuling Climb is home to the Taiwan KOM Challenge, a giant hill climb race that is run annually and attracts WorldTour riders from around the globe.
I had planned to climb Wuling on the fifth and final day of my trip, however due to bad weather and copious amounts of rain, the risk of landslide up on the mountain was high. As such I decided I would hold out for a day in Hualien, and push on the following morning in the hope the weather had passed.
With 340km to complete in order to reach the finish point in Taipei, and 120km of climbing, I was keen to get on the road early … or late, however you see it. My alarm went off at 2am, I checked the weather and found I had a nine-hour window to summit and commence my descent before the weather closed in again. I was dressed, fed and out the door by 2.30am.
What followed was like something out of a Jurassic Park movie (minus the dinosaurs). Climbing from sea level to 3,400m over 120km is incredibly interesting, for a number of reasons. The vegetation changes drastically as you climb, from jungle down in the lowlands, to alpine-like vegetation three-quarters of the way up, to barren grass at the peak. In addition to this, the temperature change between sea and summit is huge, so much so that at the summit, although sunny, I had to re-dress in all of my clothes before tackling the descent.
The climb itself was spectacular — you are quite literally surrounded by a sea of mountains. Although the road to Wuling is the main throroughfare connecting east and west, it is incredibly quiet. Throughout the duration of the entire 120km climb, no more than 10 cars passed me from behind, with the majority of these filled with local Taiwanese construction workers who were being transported up the mountain to carry out routine road/rock face maintenance.
My decision to take a day away from the bike the previous day and let the weather pass paid off, not only for the fact that I reached the summit with blue skies, but because I narrowly avoided a landslide on my day spent in town. I discovered this as I climbed around a switchback at around 1/3 the way up the pass, the road completely covered in rocks and debris. A little startled, I picked my way through the mess and continued up the mountain, fingers and toes crossed that I wouldn’t encounter anything more sinister the higher I climbed.
At around 11am and nearly nine hours after I set off from Hualien, I reached the peak. The standard finish point is on the paved roads at the café, but because I’m obsessive and had seen a dirt road which could take me higher, I pushed on and climbed another 100m of vert. I was now at 3,417m, with blue skies above me, surrounded by green mountain-tops, short of oxygen due to a minor case of asthma, and smiling ear to ear. I had just ascended Taiwan’s highest paved peak, and I had 120km of descent to follow. I was winning.
Bags packed, enjoying my ‘last supper’ with close friends and family before my trip, my old man decided to raise the issue of snakes in Taiwan. Dangerous wildlife is not something that even crossed my mind when planning an adventure and so when the topic of snakes was brought up it didn’t bother me.
My dad went on to explain that Taiwan has in excess of 50 different snake species — from small green tree snakes, to pythons and vipers — which generally inhabit the central highlands. My ears pricked up and I began to listen a little more closely …
On day 1 I saw five different species of snakes. I saw bright green, I saw bright red, I saw black and I saw patterned brown. I made up my mind quite early on in the piece that I wouldn’t be sleeping in my bivy bag, only because the idea of waking up to a snake slithering nearby makes my palms sweaty. I was not going to be a snake’s breakfast, nor it’s cuddle buddy.
Throughout the five days, I began to get more accustomed to seeing snakes slithering across the road. That was until late on day 3. Passing through a small village with my drink bottle out, ready to squirt overly friendly/vicious dogs, I spotted a snake so large and so close that I almost collided with a dog running in the opposite direction. Coiled up on the side of the road, was an enormous python, brown with patterned black detailing, just like you would see at an enclosure in the zoo.
It’s difficult to explain the rush this gave me. If I wasn’t already ‘alive,’ travelling through remote Taiwan on two wheels with nothing but food and a change of clothes, this really woke me. Interesting fact: On various web pages there are warnings about the bamboo viper being a danger to cyclists as it strikes from the trees. I will admit that every low-hanging tree I passed beneath had me holding my breath in case of ‘sudden snake strike.’
In addition to big snakes, I saw spiders the size of my hand in carefully constructed webs deep within the jungle. I had wild dogs chasing me down the road, and monkeys jumping out in front of me on long descents. The wildlife in Taiwan is incredible, the tropical climate and abundance of lush rainforest and greenery home to some weird and wonderful creatures.
Safety when out on the road is at the top of most cyclists’ list of priorities (aside from dressing in black and looking like Batman.) Having been lucky enough to ride all over the world, I feel comfortable in saying that Taiwan is the place I have felt safest on two wheels.
Riding through Taipei, although incredibly busy, never had me feeling unsafe. The best way to describe riding through the major cities, is ‘controlled chaos’. The general rule is that you watch what’s in front of you. This sounds simple and no different to the roads anywhere else in the world, but, in Taiwan, it actually works. There’s no tooting of the horn and no aggression. The traffic just flows. Almost all roads have a designated scooter lane and a designated bike lane. It’s almost as if the island has been set up with cyclists in mind.
Following my trip, I met with the Taiwanese Cycling Federation (TCF) to share some stories and discuss cycling around Taiwan in general. The TCF is incredibly proud of the fact that the road network in Taiwan caters for cyclists to such high standards and is in the process (in collaboration with the Taiwanese Government) of setting up various large scale cycling specific events throughout the year.
Not only does the road network cater well for cyclists, the infrastructure in each of the towns is also very impressive. Each of the police stations and many of the 7/11 supermarkets have bike pumps and tools available for use. There are small huts midway up mountains with fresh drinking water and hot tea, all for cyclists!?
One final note on safety: Almost all roads in Taiwan are safe to ride on, except the giant motorway from Yilan on the east coast to Taipei on the west. The motorway takes you via a 30km tunnel through the guts of the central highlands.
I was unfortunate enough to snap my Campagnolo rear derailleur cable 100km from my finishing point of the trip and as such, wasn’t loving the idea of climbing the 500m of elevation to get me home on two gears. So I planned a route, unknowingly, on one of Taiwan’s busiest motorways.
It wasn’t long before I heard the howl of a police siren and was halted on the side of the road. Using Google Translate I tried to explain to the policeman that rather than have him order me a tow truck — or two for that matter, one for me and one for my bike — he should order me a taxi. Google Translate was obviously not working, and five minutes later, two tow trucks arrived. Trying to hide my amusement, I jumped aboard and got a lift to the train station for the final stretch home.
I was expecting to have to pay for the tow trucks, but was pleasantly surprised when the driver (who spoke great English) explained that the policeman had ordered that the tow truck service be free of charge, all in the name of me safely getting back to Taipei. How good is that?!
If you get the impression that I’m excited about cycling in Taiwan, its because I am. Taiwan is doing everything right with respect to cycling. The traffic is understanding, the road infrastructure is amazing, availability of tools from town to town is of no issue (Campagnolo aside … but I think this is a trend worldwide), and the abundance of quality food and water from both 7/11-style supermarkets and small family-operated street vendors is second to none.
If you want to climb mountains for days on end, but don’t want to sit on a flight for 17 hours and change time zones six times, Taiwan is the place to go.
If you enjoy delicious food and friendly people but also like the challenge of navigating by way of a foreign alphabet, Taiwan is the place to go.
If you’ve always dreamt about spending weeks at a time living in the jungle, surrounded by wildlife and breathtaking views but also don’t mind the risk of being strangled alive by a python, then Taiwan is the place to go.
Jokes aside, Taiwan is an incredible place to ride and I’m confident that it ticks all of the boxes for your next cycling holiday.