Taiwan Bicycle Tour 2013: Prologue

I moved to Taiwan in early 2013 without much of a plan or any idea of whether I would stay. While doing research prior to departure I encountered several blogs detailing bicycle trips all around the main island. I was intrigued—and soon found myself dreaming about long-distance bicycle travel, something I’ve never attempted before. Now I am on the road, living out this dream, moving forward into an uncertain future. I never expected to be touring so soon after arriving in Taiwan but the timing feels right and everything came together exactly as it would have to for such a journey to be possible.

There is also a psychological dimension to this trip: I am unsure exactly what I am doing here and whether I should remain. I also have other questions on my mind that will no doubt percolate through my subconscious during those long, meditative hours on the road. It is my hope that taking the time for such a journey will have the fringe benefit of providing some insight into weighty matters that I have been wrestling with for some time now.

Giant bicycle
This is the bike I rented from the Giant bicycle shop in Datong.

Most expatriates from “the west” come here to teach English or work a corporate job, both of which would give someone a sense of purpose and belonging. My reason for being here is a little more ambiguous since I can work anywhere I like. I chose Taipei 台北 for its low cost of living and high quality of life. Taipei is an easy place to live, very safe and convenient, and there is much to do.

That being said, my experience in Taipei seems to be lacking in some way that I find difficult to put into words. I had the same trouble with the last few places I have lived so I hardly think this is a problem with Taipei itself—hence I speak of “my experience in Taipei” and not the city itself. It might be me for all I know, something that I need to figure out about myself before I can be deeply and genuinely happy with where I am. (Then again it might just be where I am; I’m really not sure about this.) At any rate, while I mull things over I may as well see the rest of this beautiful island nation up close!

This trip will undoubtedly be the most physically demanding thing I have ever attempted. I can’t think of anything else I have done that will come close to cycling all around an entire nation over the span of several weeks. I look forward to the sense of accomplishment I expect to feel at the end but will also accept if circumstances do not permit me to finish this ride. I say this because I am wary of the potential for injury, particularly since I have spent the last month recovering from a bruised rib. Cycling shouldn’t affect my rib at all and other injuries I suffered in Taiwan have abated so I think I’ll be fine. I am not accident-prone—it is just that I’ve been trying a lot of new things since moving to Taiwan, and if you don’t know what you’re doing you might end up hurting yourself.

I am not that worried though. I have been relying on a bicycle as my primary means of transportation for many years now and feel confident about my ability to handle the equipment. Plus I am feeling as fit as ever, more or less. I most recently lived in Vancouver, a rather hilly city, and enjoyed a good workout just about every time I left home to go anywhere at all. More recently, in Taipei, I joined an old school weightlifting gym and started to get serious about strength training. Although I’ve been off for a month due to that bad rib I am still feeling good and look forward to the challenges ahead.

From reading various blogs it seems like people of average fitness can manage the trip around the island in two weeks. Avid cyclists can, without much difficulty, finish in just over one week. Some true athletes even do a one day endurance race from Taipei to Kaohsiung 高雄, the main city in south Taiwan. I do not have any ambitious plans to circumnavigate Taiwan in record time, however—I am more interested in exploring deeply instead of just passing through. I am giving myself until the end of the month to see as much as I would like to see.

Preparing for this trip has been a breeze. Taiwan is home to a culture of convenience the likes of which I have never experienced elsewhere. Everything is made to be easy—including renting a decent bike for a round-the-island tour. I stopped by my usual bicycle shop next to Daan forest park and got directions to the Giant bicycle shop that handles rentals. I then took a trip out to Dàtóng District 大同區 and placed an order for an appropriately sized bicycle with about five day’s notice. The price works out to about 200 NT a day, give or take a few, and includes panniers (bags mounted on the rear rack to hold stuff), spare tubes, a pump, tire irons, and lights. They agreeably allowed me to pick up the bicycle before closing on the night prior to the beginning of my trip. I left a 1,000 NT deposit and went on my way.

When I returned to the shop I learned that I would be paying for the trip whenever I returned. All I had to do was leave a piece of ID as collateral. This is for a bicycle retailing at about 14,000 NT. How’s that for trust? Also curious: no lock was included with the rental, nor did any of the three shops offer anything decent for sale. I ended up dropping 200 NT on a crappy lock just so I’d have something. It looks like it could be pried open with a butter knife but I’m told bike theft isn’t a big deal here in Taiwan. I hope this much is true.

The big day came and I totally failed to leave in the early morning as I had planned. Actually, I still had no helmet—the places I had visited during the week did not seem to stock a helmet with a good fit. I went to another bunch of shops but came up empty. Eventually I ducked into a hole-in-the-wall shop next to the forest park and found an extraordinarily cheap (600 NT) helmet that at least fit properly. With a late breakfast in my belly I returned to finish packing.

The beginning of my bicycle trip around Taiwan
Where I began my tour… at Liberty Square in Taipei.

I departed at around 3:30 pm, late in the afternoon on Sunday, September the 8th, 2013. With panniers filled to bursting I halfway expected to feel some drag from all the extra weight. Thankfully, my bicycle glided effortlessly across the asphalt en route to my first stop, the gateway to Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial Hall and Liberty Square 自由廣場, a suitably epic location to mark the beginning of I hope will be an epic trip. Every journey needs a point of origin: this will be mine.

And so it begins