In Taiwan, a quest to reach Sun Moon Lake

Taiwan’s most gruelling cycling challenge heads from the depths of the dizzying marble Taroko Gorge to the KOM summit, ending at a green- and blue-hued lake surrounded by leafy hills.

Taiwan is a striking natural paradise of forest and parkland. Dotted with hot springs and lakes, the country is almost divided in two by its rugged Central Mountain Range, which culminates at the legendary King Of Mountain (KOM) summit, Taiwan’s highest at 3,275m. Crowning Taroko National Park, one of six national parks in the country, KOM is also the centrepiece of Taiwan’s most popular annual cycling race.

Not one to take on a gruelling one-day cycling challenge with more than 100km of elevation myself – I chose instead to cycle to the national park, and mirror the competitor’s route from the comfort of a car: riding down into the depths of the national park’s dizzying marble Taroko Gorge, up to the KOM summit and back down the other side, ending at the idyllically named Sun Moon Lake, the largest body of water in Taiwan.

From bustling Taipei, I first cycled 22km north to Keelung City, where the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area road runs for about 200km south to the Taroko Gorge. Thick grey skies hung above as powerful waves crashed onto the coastline’s jagged cliffs; on the other side of the road, green hills towered above, peppered with small cemeteries of colourful shrines. 

About 40km south from Keelung in the beachside town of Fulong, an off-road bike trail took us through glorious leafy countryside to the entrance of the 2km-long Caoling Tunnel. Reopened in 2008 as a cycling path, the former railway was used between 1924 and 1945, during the time that Japan occupied the island nation. Before, Taiwan was governed by China, which regained control in 1945 and has regarded Taiwan as a Chinese autonomous territory ever since.

The longest railway of its time, Caoling is one of the many reminders of the country’s past. Humid and dark, we heard the old Taiwanese folk song Diudiudang playing in hidden speakers as we passed through; on the other side of the tunnel, a bike trail linked back to the main coastal road.

The entrance to Taroko National Park is located about 200km south of Fulong, between the counties of Yilan and Hualien. Established in 1986, the 227,000-acre park is dotted with prehistoric sites and aboriginal villages. But the top draw is the soul-stirring, 19km-long Taroko Gorge. Suspension bridges – some more rickety than others – reach across gorge’s dramatic depths, leading to numerous hiking trails, including the 5km Shakadang (Mysterious Valley) path. Partially lined with delicate white flowering Tung trees, the trail leads to deep pools of clear water. Picturesque shrines hide behind low-hanging clouds in the mountains. The Changchun (Eternal Spring) Shrine, one of the most accessible from the roadside, features two narrow waterfalls that run into the gorge like trails of white lace.

Standing on the edge of the gorge, close to the red Cimu Bridge, I was held in the grip of an unsettling sensation vacillating between flight and vertigo. Surrounded by the elements – the rain pounding down on the craggy peaks, the river rushing through the milky marble canyon below – it was easy to see why the Portuguese gave Taiwan the name of Formosa (beautiful) when they discovered the East China Sea island in 1544. 

Continuing up to the KOM summit, the road became a network of pitch-black one-way tunnels, called the Nine Turns of the Coiled Dragon. The peak offered views of the valleys and mountaintops, circled with halos of fog. 

The drive down the other side of the mountain, through the Cingjing countryside, can unsettle even the most stable of stomachs due to its hairpin bends. But the rewards once you reach the township of Puli, about 50km south, are incredible. Serene and very still, the mirror-like, green- and blue-hued Sun Moon Lake is surrounded by leafy hills and scenic parkland. Sun Moon Lake is best seen early in the morning for its crisp colours and fragrant jasmine-scented dew – and to watch the local rowing teams practice. Finish your trip off by biking the 12km route around the lake – it’s one of the most charming cycling routes in the country.

Sun Moon Lake’s verdant banks and Taipei’s bright neon lights might be worlds apart, but they are only an hour’s high-speed train away from each other, so even travellers who are not keen on cycling can get around without too much difficulty. For cyclists, a number of companies, such as Giant, organise biking tours throughout Taiwan, running from nine-day island tours to slower-paced scenic itineraries. Make sure to ask for a guide who speaks your language.