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
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.
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