Taiwan Bicycle Tour 2013: Taipei to Zhubei

Leaving Taipei behind
Looking back along the riverside park in Wanhua on the way across the bridge to Banqiao.

I began my first tour of Taiwan at the gateway to Liberty Square 自由廣場 in Taipei 台北. I wasn’t sure how far I’d make it, never having undertaken such a long ride before, but successfully made it all the way to Zhúběi 竹北, a newly-built city just outside of Hsinchu 新竹, covering a distance of approximately 80 km, most of that after nightfall.

Leaving the city in the stagnant heat of the late afternoon was largely uneventful. Mostly I was intent on making good time since I was covering familiar ground. I have adapted to the pulse and rhythm of traffic in the big city by now and forged ahead with preternatural ease, aggressively owning the road whenever necessary, cutting over to the sidewalks whenever prudent. I angled west through Wànhuá District 萬華區 and ascended the right scooter and bicycle ramp to the bridge over the river into Bǎnqiáo 板桥, navigating by instinct.

Midway across the bridge I stopped and looked back. Taipei 台北 has been my home for the last four months and I felt a hint of melancholy turning my back on it. I keep leaving anyplace I start developing a relationship with. It has been three long years since I last felt a sense of place—and a place called home. I have not planned much about this trip and have no idea where I will be in the coming weeks and months. All I have to look forward to is the road. I turned around and continued on my way.

On the other side of the bridge I was hoping to find an exit to the riverside park but saw nothing that looked promising. I did, however, see a set of stairs leading down three flights to the surface streets below. I cut to the right and hauled my fully loaded bike down to the asphalt, fully intending to find a break in the wall somewhere nearby.

The wall deserves commentary. Taipei is girdled by a massive system of concrete flood walls that often double as pillars for the elevated roads that ring the city. Finding a break in the wall has been a regular challenge for me as a cyclist living in Dà'ān District 大安區 in the central part of Taipei. I actually enjoy the challenge, mind you. There is something about the symbolism of it that I appreciate on a deep level.

Unsurprisingly, finding a break in the wall is also difficult in Banqiao. I cycled on for quite a while before finding an access point: a ramp leading over the wall to the recreational wonderland on the other side. I then exchanged scooter and automobile traffic for the usual cast of characters: old men in white undershirts riding around with radios blaring music, entire families out for a recreational spin, teams of serious bike fanatics flashing expensive gear, and the occasional pack of hipsters loping about on custom fixies.

Riding the riverside in Banqiao
Blue steel columns looming over the riverside path deep in Banqiao.

As I travelled further west the crowd thinned out. I stopped for a rest under a highway overpass. Back home we consider overpasses to be unsightly and generally avoid them but here in Taiwan they are often put to good use for sports and recreation or simply shade. While I sat on a concrete bench people played catch or practiced tennis on wide pillars. In other parts of Taipei you will find skate parks and basketball courts beneath inner city highways. Out in the country overpasses are sometimes used as roadside marketplaces. Why not? All that concrete provides shelter from the sun—and the more of it there is, the cooler it feels. It probably won’t be the last overpass I’ll be resting under before this trip is over.

Under a bridge along the riverside in Banqiao
Resting under a bridge along the riverside in Banqiao.

I made decent progress riding out of Taipei in the late afternoon heat but it was not without issues. I kept overheating under the sun, possibly because of the helmet I bought. I kept taking it off to air myself out and that seemed to help. I hadn’t really thought much about what distinguishes a good helmet from a bad one. I suppose breathability is an important consideration. I already dread finding out what riding at noon will feel like.

From the spiral mound
The view from the spiral mound in the far west of Banqiao.

Eventually I found myself in a remote segment of the riverside on the outskirts of Banqiao. Here I noticed a spiral path winding up a small hill. I decided to take a break and climb the hill to take a few photos, one of which you can see above. Riding down the spiral was lots of fun, all turns and a rapid descent. It was a good opportunity to assess stopping distance and the quality of the brakes, important information that my muscles must learn for the journey ahead.

Afterwards I crossed out of the park and onto some kind of highway leading into Sānxiá 三峽. Motorbike traffic was manageable and I did not find myself feeling hemmed in by other users of the road. Taiwanese drivers have an awful reputation among the expat community but I’m of a mind to adapt to local conditions. It took some getting used to local ways but there is a method to the apparent madness: most people focus on whatever is in front of them and don’t bother to check if someone is coming up from behind. This works, after a fashion, as long as everyone is responsive to whatever is in front of them. Knowing this, I tend to swerve out into traffic a little bit when I feel like my space is restricted. This has the effect of causing motorists behind me to either slow down or provide more room.

Zushi Temple, Sanxia
Zushi Temple in the heart of Sanxia. I navigated here on intuition.

After following the highway along the river into Sanxia I navigated by intuition to the old bridge that leads directly to Zushi Temple 袓師廟, originally built in 1767. The public square in front of the temple was ringed by street food vendors and full of people. Although I enjoyed the carnival atmosphere I did not linger, for the day was already coming to a close and I meant to put a lot of distance between the city and I.

The wind-sculpted river leading into Yingge
Crossing into Yingge I pulled to the side of the bridge to capture the beauty of the sculpted riverbed below.

I crossed the river into Yīnggē 鶯歌, a town known for its ceramics, and quickly made my way up a set of switchbacks to Bade Road. For a while I paralleled some train tracks but soon cut across and pushed myself to climb into the hills leading out of New Taipei 新北.

A winding hill up to the main road out of Yingge
The climb up to Bade road.
Sunset over the train tracks in Yingge
Sunset over the train tracks along Bade Road in Taoyuan County.
Welcome to Taoyuan county
Crossing into Taoyuan County.

After a tiring ascent I crossed into Táoyuán 桃園 with the sun low on the horizon. Taoyuan is reputedly an industrial wasteland but I didn’t see much of that on the high country roads at sunset. I passed by warehouses and corporate estates but my surroundings were increasingly obscured by the gathering dusk.

The serenity of steel warehouses
A bleak warehouse just over the Taoyuan county line.

The needle-thin sliver of a crescent moon rose over the horizon as I crossed through Taoyuan County. I will watch the moon in the nights to come. When it is full it, nearly two weeks hence, it will be time for the Mid-Autumn Festival 中秋節, a public holiday here in Taiwan. I wonder where I will be and what I will be doing? Time will tell.

After night falls I focus on riding. The need for rehydration lessens as the heat of the day dissipates. My keen interest in documenting my journey on film acquiesces to the need to make haste. I travel swiftly along country roads, checking the map on my phone now and then to ensure I make no wrong turns.

Thank my lucky stars, Daxi
An eye-catching betel nut stand outside of Daxi.

On the approach to Dàxī 大溪 I notice a particularly striking betel nut booth. Betel nut is a psychoactive drug regularly consumed by working class men all over south and southeast Asia. In Taiwan betel nut is usually sold from roadside booths illuminated by garish neon lights and flashing LED displays. Inside these booths one will sometimes see a betel nut beauty 檳榔西施: an attractive young woman in heavy make-up and skimpy clothing. This is not always the case, however—oftentimes the women will be older or more conservatively dressed than the stereotype. At any rate, these booths are extremely common—I already passed by dozens of them and will see hundreds more before long.

After Daxi I hit a long stretch of open road on the way to Lóngtán 龍潭. I expected little from Longtan—it didn’t look like much on the map—but it turned out to be quite a decent-sized city with a lot going on. While cruising down the main road I heard a loud bang, like a gunshot, and nearly fell off my bicycle. Taking stock of the situation I turned down a side street to investigate and witnessed some kind of street party in action. Loud electronic music was blasting out from a cheap stereo and people were setting off firecrackers and shouting excitedly. I whipped out my phone to take a few quick photos as a bunch of cops stormed in. Was this illegal? Apparently not—they were just there to keep an eye on things and watch the show.

Longtan street party
An impromptu street party in Longtan.

Back on the main road I cut through the rest of Longtan, angled north, and began the hardest climb of the day into the hills above town. My energy level was low and I was feeling very depleted. Sweating profusely in the darkness, I stopped several times to catch my breath and have a drink. Apart from being the steepest grade it was also the most dangerous stretch of road that day. Motorists weren’t giving me very much space on some of the tight turns leading up the hill. Still, there were no close calls—I was present, focusing on what I was doing and pulling off to the side anytime I felt alarmed.

The experience of weaving through Taiwanese traffic after dark
Riding through rush hour traffic in Longtan.

At the top of the hill I made my first real mistake of the day: I turned left instead of going straight. I noticed my error about halfway down the hill I had just climbed. Back up I went, ashamed. I know this won’t be the last time I make a wrong turn but I tend to be pretty hard on myself, particularly when I do something wrong out of carelessness. Something interesting came of this small detour, however. Partway down the road I noticed an enormous building looming in the darkness. I don’t know what it was—a factory, or some kind of power plant perhaps? At any rate, a security guard directed traffic out the front gate. Evidently it was closing time. I marveled at the scale of industry in such a remote place, took a photograph, and carried on.

In the middle of nowhere, a monolithic enterprise
I took a wrong turn down a country road and chanced upon this monolithic industrial plant.

Most of the rest of my ride was a white-knuckle descent down the long country road leading to Xinpu 新埔 in Hsinchu 新竹. The road emptied out and I passed few motorists. There were no settlements along the way, only rice paddies along the riverside, faintly illuminated by the crescent moon and occasional streetlights. Eventually the USB-charged light on the front of my bicycle ran out of charge and I slid down the gravity well in near-total darkness, gripping my brakes the whole way. It was like flying through space.

Riding down dark roads at night
No lights, only darkness on these lonely mountain roads.

I ended up in the heart of the small town of Xinpu 新埔 and stopped at a bakery for a quick snack. I haven’t been eating any bread or sweets or other junk in Taiwan so it was a real treat to snap up what looked to be a sugar bun only to discover it was filled with chocolate! Delicious fuel for my journey. 加油!

Dropping into Zhúběi 竹北 was a real shock after coming out of the hills. Bright lights, big city! While stopped at an intersection leading into town I saw a betel nut girl walk over to a truck to make a delivery wearing nothing more than lingerie (not the one in the photo below, mind you). That was a first—I regularly see betel nut girls dressed up but never to such a salacious degree.

Betel nut beauty in Zhubei
A betel nut stand in Zhubei.

I made my way to a friend’s place, showered, and enjoyed a huge dinner and good conversation at Merry, a Western style restaurant. It was delicious and filling and exactly what I needed after the long ride.

Afterwards I expected to collapse into bed and sleep for days but my mind would not rest. I stayed up late into the night and worked on post-processing photographs to tire myself out. Eventually I got the sleep I needed—but I was surprised. I expected all that work to finally cure my insomnia. No chance of that, not on the first night anyhow. Perhaps I will have better luck after tomorrow’s ride.