Taiwan Bicycle Tour 2013: Donggang to Kenting

On the outskirts of Donggang
On the outskirts of Donggang.

Eleven days into riding all around Taiwan I reached Kenting 墾丁 at the southernmost tip of the island. I started my day in Kaohsiung City 高雄市 but had to retrace part of my route to reach my bicycle in Dōnggǎng 東港. I had left it there the night before after a rainstorm struck on my way back from the lovely little island of Liúqiú 琉球. This ensured I’d be off to a late start—but I was in no particular rush. I had around 70 kilometers of road ahead of me and few stops planned.

After a small but expensive Western-style breakfast near Kaohsiung Arena 高雄巨蛋1 I went underground to Xiaogang MRT to catch a bus back to Donggang with all my stuff. Since it was a holiday I also went to the trouble of booking a hotel in advance, something I hadn’t bothered doing for most of the trip thus far. So much for going with the flow: on this particular day I had a specific destination about 80 kilometers down the road!

Overlooking Kaohsiung
One last look at the Kaohsiung skyline before setting out for Kenting.
The bus back to Donggang
Taking the bus back to Donggang.

I disembarked into the swampy late summer heat around two hours after leaving Kaohsiung and immediately sprung into action. My first task was to locate my ride. I had locked it to a fence not far from the bus stop and was relieved to see it again—with a bag of garbage hanging from the handlebars, oddly enough. I started to unlock the bike but the lock came apart in my hands. Either I hadn’t locked it right—which would be unusual, for me—or it was a particularly crappy lock2. And then it dawned on me: I had left an unlocked 15,000 NT rental bicycle leaning on a fence along a main road in a small town in southern Taiwan for almost 24 hours—and it was still there, exactly where I left it. What dumb luck!

Feeling rather foolish, I rode over to the ferry terminal, dropped the kickstand, and went inside. My second order of business was to search for my missing bicycle shorts. I assumed—correctly, as it turned out—that I had left them hanging in the washroom of the ferry terminal while changing back into civilian clothes the previous day. I had rehearsed what I might say to the staff to make myself understood but it wasn’t necessary—my bike shorts were hanging exactly where I left them in one of the washroom stalls. I got changed, embarrassed about how badly I had botched just about everything the previous day, but also fortunate that everything had gone so smoothly. I suppose that on some level I had been probing just how spontaneous I could be on this trip. Even without any adverse consequences I resolved to do a better job of planning in the days ahead.

Road work on the way to Kenting
Construction work on the way to Kenting. Strange looking droids are a common sight on the roads of Taiwan.

Riding south through rural Pingtung 屏東 I kept to highway 1 until it turned into highway 26 way down in Fenggang. I did not have as much time to spare for side trips as I would have liked on this leg of my voyage, a consequence of leaving late in the afternoon, but still managed to have a number of interesting adventures worth sharing.

Poultry truck on the way to Kenting
Poultry truck on the way south.
A rest stop on the way to Kenting
The first of many rest stops catering to passing cyclists.

As the day wore on I made steady progress through the industrial and agricultural sprawl of the lower Pingtung Plain 屏東平原, watching the distant mountains on the far horizon rise with every passing minute. A little south of Jialu the plain narrowed to a thin sliver where it meets the foothills of the Central Mountain Range that form the bulk of the Hengchun Peninsula. I would be spending the next couple days traversing this peninsula, doing my best to outrun an oncoming typhoon.

Ring around the sun
Ring around the sun.

Yes, a typhoon! The prospect of battling extreme weather on the roads of Taiwan filled me with a mix of excitement and dread. I’ve always been keen on weather but my level of interest exploded while studying climatology (among other things) under an IPCC contributor in university. Since moving to Taiwan I have avidly followed the Central Weather Bureau, Wunderground’s severe weather forecast and somewhat more technical blogs like this one for fun. By this time I had already survived typhoons Soulik3 and Trami so I figured I had some idea what to expect. (Spoiler: I was dead wrong.)

Blue pipe under an orange sun
A blue pipeline stretching across the mouth of a river in Pingtung.

I first caught wind of the storm that would become Super Typhoon Usagi the night before. By midday, just before setting out for Kenting, Usagi had been upgraded to a category 1 typhoon and was likely to land a direct hit on the southern tip of Taiwan—exactly where I was riding—in two or three days time. I kept a close eye on the public advisories from that point forward, pulling up the latest info anytime I made a pit stop on the way down south. At some point I figured I might have some tough decisions to make.

Railway tunnel on the way to Kenting
A false tunnel leading toward the southern link.
The road to Kenting
On the open road to Kenting.

Beyond the grotesque factories and gaudy betel nut booths of the western plains I entered into a new country: the Taiwan of glossy tourist brochures. The smog-choked sprawl gave way to long stretches of coastal highway with beautiful vistas in every direction, all lit by the golden light of late afternoon. The air was clear and pristine for a change, the landscape infused with a warm glow.

The low hills to my left grew steeper and more imposing as I put miles behind me. To my right a small strip of grass and a guard rail was often the only thing separating me from a rocky beach and the glimmering waters of the South China Sea. At times it seemed like there was a pure distillation of elemental forces taking shape all around me: sky and ocean, mountain and shore. I was hypnotized by the motion of the landscape, frozen in time as the world wheeled beneath me. In these long, drawn-out moment of meditative clarity it was difficult to imagine what magnificent violence was gathering not far offshore.

The gateway to Fangshan on the way to Kenting
The gateway to Fangshan, a small community on the way to Kenting.

When I reached Fāngshān 枋山 I made a brief detour, cutting through town by way of a modest páifāng 牌坊 (a Chinese-style archway) to see what there was to see. It looked much like any other town at a glance so I did not stay long. Fangshan is somewhat notable for being the southernmost railway station in all Taiwan. From here the South-Link Line curves inward, toward the mountainous interior, eventually reaching the eastern coast at Dàwǔ 大武, where I would be battling gale-force winds two days hence.

Vibrant signs in Fangshan. Taiwan
A vibrant building along the main drag in Fangshan.

Not long after entering Fāngshān 枋山 I encountered one of the nicest 7-Elevens I have seen anywhere in Taiwan, a country that seems absolutely in love with convenience stores. And no wonder—convenience stores in Taiwan are the very definition of the word “convenience”. Pretty much every major chain store is open 24 hours a day and reliably offers the same goods and services as any other location. 7-Eleven in particular has a machine that lets you call a taxi, buy concert or train tickets, print and fax, and probably a million other things4. At the counter you can ship and receive packages and pay bills, something you’ll regularly see people doing if you stick around long enough.

Of course, convenience stores in Taiwan also have food and drink, from the usual unhealthy snacks and instant noodles to fresh salads, biàndang 便當 (Taiwanese lunch boxes), and hot food like Japanese-style oden (guāndōngzhǔ 關東煮 in Chinese) and the ubiquitous tea egg. Not long after I moved to Taiwan many convenience store chains began offering soft-serve ice cream, a delightful treat. Depending on the size and layout of the shop you might find an actual dining area with tables and chairs, stools lined up along a bar at the window, or a small patio under an awning outside. Washrooms are common, wireless is universal, there’s an ATM in every shop, and you can buy alcohol at any time of day or night. Probably the only thing missing is power outlets or a charge station for electronics.

After grabbing a small snack and a drink I wandered out into the parking lot. It was still incredibly muggy but a light breeze coming off the ocean offered some respite. Captivated by the view, I stopped to shoot a few photos of the setting sun before hitting the road again.

A fancy 7-Eleven on the way to Kenting
An unusually fancy 7-Eleven on the way to Kenting. Many families had stopped here to enjoy some ice cream and take in the view of the sunset over the South China Sea.

With dusk approaching I saw a cyclist up ahead—a first for this trip. I had seen cyclists, of course, but they had always been going the other way, waving and smiling as cyclists in Taiwan always do. There is a real sense of camaraderie out on these roads but I hadn’t yet had a real conversation and wasn’t sure what might transpire. Maybe nothing, for I hadn’t yet developed anything close to a good grasp of conversational Chinese. Actually, I struggled to do much more than order familiar foods at a restaurant but that wasn’t going to stop me from trying to communicate—if I could catch up, that is!

I had done no training for my bicycle trip around the island. Actually, I hadn’t been exercising at all, having injured myself while attempting to surf out in Waiao slightly more than a month before starting this trip. Prior to that I had been working out fairly regularly at a somewhat more serious gym in Dà'ān District 大安區 and also riding along the riverside in Taipei 台北 for exercise. I had abandoned this routine after sustaining that surfing injury and quickly put on some weight, a consequence of eating something close to the typical carb-heavy Taiwanese diet. I was feeling a bit out of shape when I left Taipei to embark upon this trip—but by this point, eleven days into the ride, I was feeling strong and capable.

In any case, having a goal put some fire into my pedal strokes. I wanted to meet this mysterious stranger, whoever they were, and the very fact that they were already in view suggested that I could make it happen. I pushed myself, casting doubt aside, and kept a steady pace. Over the course of the next ten minutes or so I slowly crept up on the rider ahead of me in the gathering gloom. I began to notice details about their appearance: definitely male, likely Asian, with a bulky backpack full of gear and no panniers. I couldn’t tell much more—at no point did he look back at me. He was singularly focused on the road ahead.

Golden sunset in Pingtung county
A golden sunset in southern Pingtung county.

When I was close enough for conversation I rang my bell, so as to not cause alarm, and shouted a greeting. A young man, his jet black hair cut short, turned around with an expression of surprise written on his face. Slowing to meet me, we began to chat, haltingly, between deep breaths. He introduced himself as Gerald and demonstrated a decent grasp of conversational English, projecting strength and determination as he spoke. He revealed himself to be Chinese, not Taiwanese, and informed me he was out for his second huándǎo 環島 (round-the-island tour). His bicycle, which he had brought with him across the Strait, was also a Giant, albeit a much nicer model than the one I was riding.

Having dispensed with the pleasantries, Gerald, with a glint in his eye, challenged me to keep up with him as we rode to the next town. I had already given just about everything I had just to flag him down the first time so it was difficult to keep that same pace. Half an hour into the hardest riding I had done on this trip I began to run out of steam. Gerald was competitive but also encouraging. Seeing that I was tired he circled around me, spry as a fox on two wheels, and, riding next to me with a devilish grin shining in the gathering darkness, placed a hand on my back to give me a forceful push. That threw me off balance and I had to pump my legs hard to straighten out, recover, and continue onward. It was unnerving. It had been a while since anyone crossed into my personal space uninvited but I knew Gerald meant it as a friendly gesture.

Let darkness take us all
The darkness sweeps the day away.

Eventually we made it to a 7-Eleven on the outskirts of Chēchéng 車城5 after racing down most of the peninsula. I was totally exhausted and immediately downed an orange juice and some electrolyte-heavy sports beverage before regaining my composure. My muscles ached like crazy—especially my wrists, which for whatever reason had sustained a lot of punishment over the course of the last week—and I felt a touch of heatstroke creeping in.

Back outside Gerald and I continued our conversation from before. I attempted to draw him out about cross-strait relations and was surprised to learn that as a Chinese national he was only allowed to be in Taiwan for two weeks at a time. This might explain the rush—while the round-the-island tour can be done in about ten days it doesn’t leave very much time to explore!

At one point Gerald mentioned that he was touring with a Taiwanese friend of his by the name of Chris6. I hadn’t seen any evidence of anyone else on the road with us. Turns out that Gerald had gotten ahead of his friend—and I must have inserted myself between the two of them when I set out from the fancy 7-Eleven. Gerald had messaged his friend on WeChat, a Chinese messaging app7, informing him of our whereabouts, and said we should be expecting him soon. Before long Chris cycled out of the inky darkness that had tumbled down from the sky. He slid off his bike with wobbly legs and greeted us both.

I regret that I did not have much of a chance to get to know Chris at all. I could not tell whether his English was limited or if he was tired or just shy, as many Taiwanese people tend to be. Probably a combination of all three. At any rate, Gerald carried the conversation, gesturing wildly and speaking with enthusiasm about whatever it was we were discussing while Chris blankly looked on. I was curious about their friendship—how they had met, how they interacted—but there simply wasn’t an opportunity to divine any grand insights8. Gerald certainly seemed to relish playing the part of a brash mainlander whereas Chris had a tendency to fade into the background. This isn’t necessarily much of a fair assessment, however, as our time together was far too short.

Eventually it was time to part ways. Gerald invited me to join them the rest of the way down south but I knew for my sake that I was better off going at my own pace. There was no sense in burning out when I had so many challenges to face in the coming days and I figured our paths would probably cross again—we were all going in the same direction, after all. We spoke briefly about the possibility of a typhoon striking Kenting but they didn’t seem overly concerned. I wished them the best of luck and they slipped into the dark night. I never saw either of them again.

I rested for a while after stepping back into the air conditioned embrace of the convenience store. With some strength restored I cycled south along highway 26 through the broad valley that opened up after Chēchéng 車城. Night had fallen and there was almost nothing to see but the moon rising over the shadowy outline of the distant mountains. The road curved around the airport and after riding another 8 kilometers or so I arrived at the outskirts of Héngchūn 恆春, the gateway to Kenting National Park and the setting for Cape No. 7, a record-breaking Taiwanese film that has drawn many tourists to this small historic town.

I knew absolutely nothing of Hengchun at the time—it simply wasn’t on my radar despite all the Taiwan-centric blogs I had been keeping up with9. At the crossroads at the edge of town I consulted a map and considered my options. I was keen to arrive at my hotel at a reasonable time but saw that it wasn’t much of a detour to cut through the old town. I crossed the highway and headed down Shěngběi Road 省北路.

The moon and the western gate, Hengchun
The moon over the western gate in historic Hengchun.

Within minutes I found myself at the foot of Hengchun’s impressive western gate, a remnant of the old city wall built in the late 1870s during Qing dynasty rule in response to a Japanese incursion10. I had already seen several fortifications around Taiwan but none so extensive. Not only that, but this gate was still in active use by both pedestrians and motorists!11 I hopped off my bicycle and waited for a break in traffic to take a picture. Scooters zipped to and fro and at one point a car gingerly pulled through the archway, its headlights illuminating the jagged contours of the old brickwork.

In a quiet moment, when all the traffic had passed and I was finally alone, I looked up to watch wispy clouds ripple across the moon’s halo. Was I seeing things or were those clouds passing with alarming haste? Tomorrow would be the peak of the Mid-Autumn Festival and the halfway point in my journey. I would be turning northward to continue along the eastern coast—to confront the tempest.

I put my concerns aside and continued to stare skyward, momentarily moonstruck. I had been riding under the ripening moon for nearly two weeks, watching her transform, becoming brighter, more resplendent, closer to becoming. As a lifelong city-dweller I haven’t experienced many extended periods of time in the great outdoors. Sure, I’ve escaped for the occasional weekend camping getaway in my homeland, and I’ve certainly gone out stargazing many times before—but this was different. I was no longer merely sneaking a peek now and then, darting back inside after momentarily satisfying my curiosity. I was out on on the land night after night, far removed from the everyday concerns of the civilized world, present in every moment. I cycled for hours on end across the moonlit landscape of the desolate western plains of Taiwan, silently observing the slow precession of the heavens, the orbital clockwork of the astral plane. By cycling along these alien shores I was beginning to perceive the passage of time in a new way. I was becoming more closely attuned to rhythms of the universe that must have always been there, unobserved until now.

Hengchun south gate
Hengchun’s southern gate is now just a monument in a roundabout.

Eventually I snapped out of my reverie and undertook passage through the western gate, emerging into Hengchun Old Town. My curiosity piqued, I went for a short spin around the old city. It looked to be a charming, romantic place, but most storefronts were already shuttered for the night. I resolved to return some day—to see Hengchun by day and learn more about its history. And with that I exited by way of the southern gate, the moon over my shoulder, my constant companion.

A bizarre roadside attraction on the way to Kenting
A bizarre roadside attraction between Hengchun and Kenting.

South of Hengchun I encountered an unusual sight: a haunted house by the roadside. Mystified, I pulled over to take a closer look. How does a place like this stay in business? Then again, Kenting has a reputation for being the place where Taiwanese people let loose. Maybe a corny roadside attraction like this does well enough to stay afloat? In any case, I puzzled out the name of this place: Èlíngguǐbǎo 惡靈鬼堡. I couldn’t find an English name but Google informs me that “Evil Spirit Ghost Castle” might serve as a reasonable approximation. Have a look inside if you dare.

The rest of the ride to Kenting took much longer than I figured it would. Distances can be deceiving without fixed scale bars on a map. When I finally crested the last of the low hills at the southern end of Hengchun Valley I halfway expected to see the neon lights of the main street through town but still had a ways to go—about 4 or 5 kilometers more. Mabel, a Taiwanese friend I had stayed with the previous two nights in Kaohsiung 高雄, was already in Kenting to meet some friends. We had plans to meet sometime in the evening whenever she was free.

At last I arrived in Kenting 墾丁. I was feeling completely drained but very satisfied about my ride that day. The southernmost tip of the island was within easy reach and the night was still young. Mabel was waiting for me, alone, just outside my hotel for the night, a strange establishment perched overtop a Family Mart at the western end of town. We entered the lobby, which was connected to the convenience store by a swinging glass door, and admired the huge hunks of sculpted driftwood decorating the space. Throwing down my bicycle helmet, I checked in, trying to keep beads of sweat from dripping onto the countertop. With business out of the way we climbed up a set of stairs, me with my bicycle over my shoulder, as it was safer to keep in my room rather than down on the wild streets of Kenting. My room that night was adorned with nautical kitsch—frayed hemp ropes, old wooden steering wheels, mock anchors, and the like. Satisfied with the accommodation (a steal at 900 NT), I took a shower, changed, and went downstairs to explore Kenting with Mabel.

Kenting is Taiwan’s answer to mid-sized beachside resort towns like Playa Del Carmen or Ao Nang. There is no equivalent to Cancun or Pattaya in Taiwan—Kenting is about as big as it gets, and it’s not very big at all. The problem is probably linked to Taiwan’s remarkable lack of good beaches. For an island of its size and location it is almost uniquely cursed in this regard. Kenting has perhaps the best beaches on the island—and good weather year-round. For this reason Taiwanese flock to Kenting on holidays, especially for a notorious festival by the name of Spring Scream, and to get away from the miserable winter rain up north whenever they can.

Since it was a holiday the streets were filled with a mix of different people: boisterous high school and university kids, entire families on vacation, and an odd assortment of westerners, many of whom were young men decked out in Chang Beer muscle shirts and the like, probably wondering where the action was. The main thoroughfare featured a motley collection of quirky restaurants, boutique hotels, massage parlours, tiki bars, souvenir shops, and yes, even ladyboy shows, something I have seen nowhere else in the country. Kenting may be a bit racy by Taiwanese standards but Thailand it is not.

Not the usual night market stall; Kenting has pop-up bars on the
Not the usual night market fare: a bar not far from one of the ladyboy shows.
Kenting night market video loop
These corny video loops are one of my favourite night market things. They usually consist of C-list celebrities fawning over grilled chicken butt on a stick or whatever.

The night market in Kenting was the tackiest I had seen anywhere in Taiwan—but I say this with affection. Many vendors put on a big show, grilling meat skewers in a theatrical fashion, for instance, with big bursts of flame while terrible commercial dance music blasted out of cheap, tinny speakers. The line-ups for anything famous on social media were excessively long, the prices unusually high, and there’s tons of novelty snacks—things you would never consider eating were you not a little liquored up and letting loose. There were even a few pop-up bars setup among the night market stalls, a rare sight in Taiwan.

At any rate, if your expectations are properly calibrated Kenting might end up being a lot of fun—just don’t hope for anything world-class (and be prepared to pay for the privilege). Then again, you can just as easily stay outside of town in any number of resorts, hotels, vacation rental homes, or bed-and-breakfast joints. There’s plenty of awesome stuff to see around Kenting—it’s only the town itself that might disappoint foreign visitors12.

Mabel and I wandered through the night market, perusing the options and snacking on whatever looked delicious. As before, she was an invaluable guide to local culture and never tired of answering my many questions. I would see a stall like the one above—serving some kind of custard, or dànnǎi 蛋奶, as I now know—and ask, what’s the deal with “QQ”? I learned that QQ usually means chewy, what we in the English-speaking world might call al dente.

Texture or mouthfeel is far more important in Taiwanese cuisine (and most other culturally Chinese cuisines) than in most western cuisines. Taiwanese people will eat things that have hardly any taste at all simply because it has an interesting or appealing texture. Large intestine, for instance, is prized more for its texture than its taste, which is usually just the taste of whatever sauce it was cooked in. The same might be true for grilled squid and octopus tentacle (though I’ve never asked anyone directly). And of course there’s the tapioca balls in bubble tea—a perfect example of how Taiwanese people highly value chewiness, or “QQ”.

Kenting night market stall
A Kenting night market stall serving some kind of chewy custard.
This is the only hitchhike sign I have seen in Taiwan
This is the only hitchhike sign I have seen anywhere in Taiwan.

Mabel seemed a bit cold that night, our third time meeting at night markets in southern Taiwan, but I didn’t give it much thought. Had I really pondered the situation I likely would have realized what was going on: despite plainly stating I wasn’t interested in anything more than friendship she was hoping for more. I suppose that since I was moving on the next day she may have felt like I was slipping away. From my perspective I was just being my usual friendly and enthusiastic self. Having set some boundaries early on I naïvely assumed everything was cool. I certainly appreciated her company. She spoke fluent English and it was such a pleasure to engage in meaningful conversation after days of virtual silence on the road. In hindsight, and with the benefit of some outside input, I suppose I had been giving her false hope.

Anyhow, Mabel and I wandered the night market from end to end before heading down a side street in search of a decent place to eat. We ended up having a rather disappointing meal at an “Arabic” restaurant with a nice patio. Taiwan tend to put an, ahem, original spin on most foreign cuisines so I really wasn’t sure what it was we were eating.

Later on we retired to the hotel to catch some shut-eye. I kept checking the weather report, somewhat obsessively. By midnight Usagi had begun its rapid slide toward super typhoon status, strengthening to a Category 2 storm with sustained winds of 160 kilometers per hour. As I drifted off to sleep I was gripped by doubt—was I really going ahead with this? The storm wasn’t due to hit for a couple of days. Enough time to make it up and over the mountains and down to Taitung 台東 in one piece, right?

  1. Arena in Chinese is Jùdàn 巨蛋, literally “giant egg”. It has slightly different connotations in Taiwanese, or maybe it was Hakka? At any rate, it’s a term that amuses Taiwanese as much as foreigners. 
  2. The rental shop saw fit to provision me with panniers, spare tubes, lights, and a repair kit, but no lock. I purchased one on the spot for 200 NT (~CAD$7) despite their assurances that one would not be needed. I wasn’t about to risk losing an expensive bike that wasn’t mine even with the state of bicycle security in Taiwan
  3. I did more than survive Soulik—I partied in the midst of it! 
  4. Operating these machines require a certain level of Chinese proficiency—or a little help from the staff—as there are no English translations available. 
  5. Chēchéng 車城 (“car city”) in Pingtung 屏東 is easily confused with Checheng (“car yard”) in Shuǐlǐ 水里, Nántóu 南投. If you look closely you’ll see that the second character differs. 
  6. For this series I have swapped most names for comparable substitutes i.e. same-sounding English names for English names. It is fairly standard for Chinese-speaking people to introduce themselves with an English name when speaking with westerners. 
  7. Just about everyone in Taiwan uses Line, a Japanese app. 
  8. This is a good setup for a Taiwanese road trip film. Several exist already, among them Anywhere Somewhere Nowhere 到不了的地方 and the eponymous Huandao
  9. A distinct nothern bias is easily discerned in the English-language Taiwan blogosphere. Most of the people writing in English are expats and most expats live in and around Taipei 台北. As a result we tend to hear more about all the interesting things up north and correspondingly less about attractions down south. 
  10. Héngchūn 恆春 has a fascinating history and an interesting role to play in the dreams and aspirations of imperial Japan. If you’re curious, start with the Mudan Incident and check out this excellent post by Taiwan In Cycles. I fail to elaborate on this in the text as I was completely ignorant of it when I first visited Hengchun. 
  11. Most old city gates in Taiwan end up isolated in a traffic circle or some such thing. To find one still in use is relatively rare. 
  12. Michael Turton published an excellent cycling travelogue of Hengchun and Kenting that should give you some ideas. I wish I had known about it prior to setting out!