Touring Taiwan: the Formosa 900

Touring Taiwan: the Formosa 900

Even though I stood under a wooden patio, wind-driven rain pelted me from all directions. I looked out on the ocean and watched slate-gray waves pound the sand. The greenery wagged and twirled as if shaken by a child. As displays of raw nature go, it was an impressive taste of the final act of a typhoon. And if this was a parting shot, I better than to want to witness one undiluted.

My safety wasn’t at issue, but the weather was so antithetical to what most cyclists consider riding weather, I couldn’t help but wonder what I’d gotten myself into. Six days of this would be an adventure destined to teach me a lesson other than the one I’d signed on for.

I stared, laughed at the absurdity, and shook my head.

No better way to learn
As a writer who focuses on cycling, Taiwan is a place that turns up daily for me. Hardly a week goes by where I don’t read about something going on with a Taiwanese factory, or a product manager I know either flying there or home. It figures in the fabric of cycling in a way Paris never has. I’ve wanted to learn more about Taiwan, not just as a place with an abundance of bike factories, but as a place committed to cycling a way seemingly unique in the world.

After my visit to the Taipei show in November, I joined a bike tour put on by Giant’s travel company, Giant Adventures. The Formosa 900 was a trip down the eastern coast of Taiwan, from north to south. The island has a roughly oval shape, oriented along a roughly north/south axis with a spine of mountains running along its length. Those mountains, the highest of which is more than 10,000 feet high, lie closer to the eastern coast, helping to channel prevailing winds south. This side of the island is much less developed, and because it lacks the heavy industry that drove the development of the large cities, the communities on the eastern coast are much smaller.

Our tour began just as a typhoon that had swept north across the island. For two days prior light fell on Taipei, making the streets slicker than an oiled baby. When we rolled out of Taipei, the steady drizzle had been replaced by a drenching rain. To my kit I added a rain jacket and waterproof socks. I left my glasses in my bag; I knew they’d be useless in such a heavy downpour.

Less than a block after we rolled out my feet were soaked. I couldn’t fault the socks.

Riders were using anything at hand to try to stay dry(er), not to mention warmer; the temperature hovered in the low 60s, just cool enough to make each stop to regroup a shivery pause. And stop we did. With 40 riders in our group with a broad spread of fitness, we regrouped every 20 minutes or so.

Taiwan turns rural within a few short kilometers after crossing the Tamsui River, though rural is a relative concept away from the big cities. Small villages, often little more than a string of a dozen business and homes, dot the coastline. Riding south, the coast was to the left, sometimes along beachfront, sometimes water coming nearly to the road with nothing more than a stack of bollards to keep the ocean at bay.

We stopped at Fuguijao Lighthouse at the northernmost end of the island. To wrangle 40 riders Giant Adventure outfitted our group with three vans and six guides, including three who rode with us. One of our drivers stood in the empty road, blowing a whistle and directing everyone into the parking lot.

Itty Bitty
We began our second day with rain, in Keelung, with a route that mostly hugged the coast and ending in Yilan some 80km (50 mi.) later. Rain, unfortunately, cuts down on conversation. At least, it does for me. I tend to ride with my head down so the brim of my cycling cap keeps the precipitation out of my eyes.

I wasn’t the only Westerner, but I was the only white American. Lutz is a German national who hails from Hong Kong these days and was there with his two daughters. They switched between English and German the way I switch between mountain and road bikes. Another participant grew up in a town we’d pass through on day three and was there with his wife and son; the son being the only other naturalized American citizen on the trip.

It’s exactly this scenario that has made me uneasy about doing an organized bike tour in Southeast Asia. While I know how to be polite in a number of Romance languages, I’m hopeless in Cantonese, Japanese and anything else similarly related, and I simply didn’t have time before departure to try to develop a five-year-old’s facility with Mandarin. I have feared that the language barrier would leave me glued to my phone at meals. I’ve also worried that I might not find anyone to ride with. Both those fears were put to rest quickly.

Each morning we received a pre-ride route description.

The majority of our complement spoke English, some had even lived stateside long enough to have me thinking they might still own a place in the Bay Area, based on their accents. I found myself invited to eat with an ever-changing cadre of riders. As dishes arrived, they’d tell me what they were, often filling in tiny details about preparation or spices.

Better yet, I benefitted from the fact that many of my fellow riders had toured throughout Asia and the nearby islands the way I’ve seen Europe. I was given numerous tips of other places to tour, that some had amazing networks of bike paths to keep you off roads crowded by cars, trucks and scooters. By lunchtime on our third day I realized that traveling with a bunch of fellow gringos would have been the wrong move.

We had a full complement of water and snacks in one of the vans.

Same, but Different
Twenty years ago, while on a tour in Tuscany and Umbria, my riding companions and I joked about the boredom of seeing yet another stunning hillside with a thousand year old abby crumbling in the sunrise. Riding down the Hualien Coast carries a strong echo of that experience. At a certain point all the tiny fishing villages become indistinguishable. I can only tell one from another based on time stamp on the images, a handy referent possible only due to modern technology. So while I can joke that in a way they all seemed the same, with the coast to my left and mountains rising to my right, the view offered subtler distinctions than that. Sometimes, the ocean had destroyed the coast and bollards protected the road from the NFL-tackle waves dropping at the edge of the road. Sometimes the mountains rose like vertically gardened skyscrapers. Sometimes a kilometer of rice paddies sprawled before foothills eased into the distance. Inlets and bays kept the road twisting and the views changing.

The Hualien Coast is like no place else I’ve been so much as Hawaii. Allow me to clarify: the East Coast of Taiwan reminds me more of rural Hawaii than it does Taiwan. There are no factories, no huge, suspended highways, and a distinct lack of rare Mercedes, Porsches and Audis threading through narrow streets. The narrow streets part, well that was familiar enough. Hualien County, which only made up a portion of a trip, is a tropical paradise, a place less lush than overstuffed with greenery.

In my previous trip to Taiwan I’d enjoyed some good meals, but there hadn’t been anything that wowed me with a heretofore unfamiliar degree of freshness. That ended with lunch on the third day of our trip.

Sashimi Shock
When we rolled into Xinshe, I wasn’t all that hungry. I had only 29 miles in my legs, but I knew we had another 40-plus miles to go, so I knew to sit and eat. The staff at our restaurant shoehorned course after course onto our table, with people sometimes dumping the leftovers of one dish onto their plates just to make room for what was coming. Unlike any other place I’ve ever been in the world, food will arrive with the regularity of a train on the other side of the island and it keeps coming until the staff sees that people are no longer able to eat. As my new friends explained to me, in Taiwanese culture, there’s nothing worse for a host than to see all the food finished—to them it’s a sign that they didn’t make enough food. I’ve found this to be true throughout Taiwan, but because Taiwan is culturally closer to Japan than China, I didn’t have a feel for whether that practice was more one nation than the other.

Somewhere around course four or five, a woman slight as an Italian model brought out a platter of what one set of excitedly raised eyebrows announced was crab sashimi.

“Oh?” I responded.
“Yes! This area is known for its crab.”

I grabbed a couple of pieces with my chopsticks and then popped one into my mouth. I swear to you, if I hadn’t already known the taste of crab, I’d have sworn I’d never had it before. This was fresh on an order that I can scarcely fathom. The staff must have been bludgeoning the decapods as I was parking my bike. The intensity of the flavor was like a Who concert of taste and yet held subtleties that lingered like a delicate wine. I played polite with my fellow riders and when we were down to the final two pieces, I gently offered them to everyone else, and when they begged off, having moved on to a fish with bones like the herringbone of my tires, I snatched up the duo and struggled to chew as I grinned.

When they brought out a second platter near the end of the meal I began to wonder if someone had taken note of my ridiculous expression. It’s a good thing I’m not (yet) allergic to shellfish, because I was probably 200km from a syringe of epinephrine.

The staff at Giant Tours take their jobs seriously. While I’ve traveled with tour companies that were content to give you a map and note the location of a restaurant or two between one hotel and the next, the folks at Giant took chances the way I take heroin—not at all. In the morning, following breakfast, we would gather in front of our hotel and our head guide would talk us through the day’s route, noting a few of the stops, where lunch would be, what the terrain would be like, how long the route would be and any other detail she deemed necessary. We would follow that with some stretches to get us ready for our ride. We’d stretch shoulders, hip flexors, hamstrings, hands and more with stretches that here held over a count of seven. Why seven? I don’t have a clue. By the end of the trip I could count to seven in Mandarin. Today? Not so much.

Out on the road, the guiding was just as careful and deliberate. One van would zoom ahead to our next turn while a guide would roll ahead just before we arrived at the turn and at least one whistle, if not two, would announce our turn. Every 10km or so the vans would find a parking lot to pull over and a driver would flip up the back hatch to the van that held all the water and snacks. Our choices included fruit, chocolate, a drink mix called Pocari Sweat which is every bit as delicious as it sounds, and occasionally some local food. One day we pulled into Manjhou Township whereupon I was introduced to the custard apple, better known to scientific sorts as Annona reticulata.

The fruit is sweet as only can come from a tropical world. The texture is creamy, which makes identifying the seeds with your tongue simple as eating watermelon. All that said, my first experience of the fruit was a bit like juggling as it practically self-destructed as I broke it open. What is it about ripe fruit that makes it so delicate? There’s a kind of justice to unripe fruit being so durable while ripened fruit must be treated with the care reserved for loved ones. With the custard apple, I was reduced early on to licking and sucking from a great mass I cupped in my hands. With no public restroom nearby, I used water from a tank in the van to wash the sticky from my hands.

The monument that denotes the Tropic of Cancer.

I don’t consider myself xenophobic, full stop. I like new experiences and new foods—to a point—which is to say what I like even more is delving deeper into those things I know. Between those personal antipodes I’ve noticed that a truly alien food can cause the faintest flash of adrenalin to fly through my personal circuitry. The more surprising a taste is, the more alien the texture, the more my body jolts me. The custard apple was a bit like sitting on a car battery in wet shorts.

It was on the last day of our tour, several days after I’d convinced our tour leader to let me ride off the front of our group a bit so that I could elevate my heart rate into a zone that flushed me with a bit of the happy that comes from zoom that I got my biggest surprise. I’d take my heart rate into the low 120s and then just roll, and that would allow me to see animals that would disperse before our full complement of 46 rolled into the area. We’d wound our way into the highest mountains of the trip, at the southern end of the island. It was here that Taiwan was most different from the Taiwan I thought I knew.

No one on the trip was certain what was at the center of this leaf-wrapped dish, but it was delicious.

Taiwanese road builders are conservative. Unlike what happens when Caltrans is confronted with a canyon and need to send a strip of asphalt through it, Taiwanese road builders would prefer to make an entire bus-full of people nauseated from constant lefts and rights than ask the bus to torque its way  up a 12-percent grade. In that part of Taiwan, which is so mountainous at the coast that the “flatter” route is three or four miles inland, steep is only 6 percent or so.

Following lunch I was weaving through a nearly unbroken 12-mile descent and approaching the tiny village of Xuhai when three animals crossed the road at a full sprint. I went slack-jawed because they weren’t dogs, cats or chickens, which had outnumbered everything else so far. They were Formosan rock macaques—monkeys to most of us. There was a juvenile leading the sprint while a baby clung upside down to momma. Just seeing a small primate in the wild is a fascinating surprise to most of us, but what really wowed me wasn’t the speed at which they moved, which ranked somewhere between angry dog and top-fuel dragster, but the way the mom bounded from wall to branch to wall up a drainage culvert. Apparently, elevated structures were preferable to anything on the ground. By the time I got to the stretch of road where they crossed they were so out of sight as to be forgotten.

The last day of our tour was the longest of our trip. At 73.6 miles, it wasn’t excessively long, but for a group as diverse as ours, that stopped as often as we did and refused to leave anyone behind, we took the whole of the day riding to our finish town of Kenting. The southern end of Taiwan could serve as a Hollywood stand-in for any beach town on some South Pacific island. Not far from the town of Kenting is Kenting National Park, which contains the southernmost point on the island of Taiwan. There’s a lighthouse there overlooking the Bashi channel between Taiwan and the Philippines.

There, tour buses disgorge selfie-stick-bearing tourists. Clumps of high school girls moved from one overlook to another. Families escorted grandma. Couples flashed peace signs and kissed. And then there was our Kodachrome-enwraped entourage. The volcanic outcropping is uneven, jagged, and sits nearly 400 feet above the ocean below. Again, we were unable to approach the actual lighthouse, but it was late enough in the day that pink tinted the horizon, making me wonder just how much longer we’d be on the road.

Collective fatigue taxed the group and the final six miles to our hotel took the better part of an hour. As night fell, the vans were brought in to corral us for the last mile or two pedaled in the near dark. With one van to light the way ahead of us and another to light our path from behind and to keep any errant scooter (or bus!) drivers from plowing into the group, we pulled into town, passing bars, restaurants and the odd nightclub. I suspect most of us were contemplating some brightly colored slushy drink made in a blender; at the very least, I was.

The pace of the tour overall had been more sedate than is my custom. The degree to which we were herded is also other than is my habit. Those differences and any slight frustration they caused me were well worth the payoff, which was seeing Taiwan through the eyes of people for whom the island is no more alien than Virginia is to me. It might not be home, but it would be hard to surprise me all that much.

What I loved best was that this group of almost entirely Asian people, most of whom hail from fewer than 1000 miles away welcomed a white American. Never mind that the white American was me; they’d have welcomed anyone and happily talked food, discussed great cycling destinations, shared hidden gems. Rather than shut out from their experience, they made me a part of it. And as so often happens, now that I’ve seen this much, I want to see more.


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  1. Shawn

    That you were pleased by what you described in your last paragraph is an interesting comment on both the culture you experienced in Taiwan and, in contrast, what you may have expected based on what you are used to in the polarized USA. Right on, Taiwan.

    1. Author

      For all our many faults here in the U.S., this is one place where it is easy to be generous. The issue has way more to do with my fear of isolation, despite the fact that I’m an introvert. Had they been as xenophobic as most Americans are, my experience would have been quite different. That they welcomed me as they did speaks well of the entire region, not just Taiwan.

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