Taiwan’s Easy Rider Goes Into the Wild
Taiwan’s Easy Rider Goes Into the Wild
Taking a Motor Scooter Down to the Sea and Up into the High Mountains
In the summer of 2009 I succumbed, after over a decade of procrastination, and made the terrible mistake of getting a nine-to-five job. Most sane people get fed up with their work, their alarm clocks, their monotonous lives, and their routines, but I’ve made a religion of it. I’ve worked very hard to avoid working hard, and I wasn’t at all happy with my new situation. The stability left me feeling lifeless and unoriginal.
My restlessness and fear of responsibility soon caught up with me, and in mid-August I asked my boss for a couple of weeks off. She agreed, and I excitedly raced home to plan a journey. After fourteen cups of coffee I’d reviewed all my Taiwan maps and guidebooks, and had a rough plan for my Taiwanese motorcycle trip. I watched the iconic flicks Easy Rider and Into the Wild, and decided to combine the two – minus the uglier scenes, of course.
On a sunny weekend morning, I loaded a tent, sleeping bag, and small backpack onto my jalopy of a motor scooter and started my adventure. It took me about an hour to navigate my way out of the chaotic maze of Taipei City, but by lunchtime the lines of buildings had disappeared, the eight-lane boulevards had become sleepy mountain roads, and the rocky coastline rolled out in front of me. For the first time in months, I felt free…no schedule, no alarm clock, no expectations, no hurry. The thought of the unknown, the intoxication of freedom, the new-found oxygen; within two hours, life had become exciting again!
My first stop on my excursion along the east coast was the seaside town of Fulong. Known for its long, sandy beaches, phenomenal bicycle trails, and proximity to Turtle Mountain (Guishan) Island, Fulong and neighboring Daxi are both popular weekend destinations for Taipei-ers. After finding a good campsite (Longmen Camping Resort), I started on my quest to become "raisin colored" and napped on the beach all day. Next day I embarked on the Caoling Historic Trail; this is one of northern Taiwan’s most popular historical routes. The trail can be completed (one way) in a few hours, and it offers a unique look at Taiwan’s history as well as incredible views of the coast. I went through valleys of reeds, past meadows and rice fields, and even got to see grazing water buffalo. On this trail, absent of motor vehicles or crowds, I was able to imagine this island through the ages – times before trains and flashing lights, when it was inhabited by simple fishermen and farmers.
After one more day of lazing on the beach I headed further south, meandering through Yilan County. This section of the trip ended up being one of my favorites; the highway took me slightly inland, passing rice farms, lakes, mountains, and more rice farms. Here, you get a feel for the "real Taiwan" – a region where life has stayed the same for generations. Everywhere I went, people saw my gear tied onto the scooter and couldn’t help but smile. Everyone had the same questions:
You are a foreigner traveling alone? You have no itinerary? You’re gonna be on the road for how long? You don’t mind that your skin looks like that of a raisin?
Everyone encouraged me, letting out a jiayou (keep going!) as I passed by. They drew maps on napkins and offered tea or fruit, thrilled at the appreciation I had for their beautiful country.
The next few days took me through the bustling port town of Nanfangao (famous for fresh seafood) and down the (in)famous Suhua (Suao-Hualien) Highway. This treacherous section of highway is the gateway between the northern and the southern part of eastern Taiwan, and a staple of any "been there, done that" visit to the island. The highway climbs to 350 meters above sea level and often takes you along sections precariously close to the edge of cliffs. Zigzagging along the coast is a great adventure, offering some of the best views in all of Taiwan.
After pumping myself full of adrenaline and taking a couple hundred photos, I made my way into Hualien County, where I spent the next few days enjoying the beaches, tracing rivers, and cycling along the coast.
After three days of rest and large meals, I was ready to start the real adventure. Up to that point my trip had been fun, but I’d been on a path traveled by many, a path traveled by tour groups and elderly people. Most of the sights I’d seen had been in Lonely Planet’s "not to be missed" section, meaning that – for me – they weren’t exciting enough.
Finally I’d be venturing into the central mountains, an area seldom visited and a true departure from modern-day Taiwan. This meant: no 7-Elevens, no 24-hour gas stations, and no people to draw maps for me. The plan was to ride through Taroko Gorge and then follow the highway up into the mountains and the north-south "spine" of Taiwan.
Taroko National Park has been the subject of a million travel articles, and for good reason. It is INCREDIBLE! With its vibrant blue river, psychedelic rock formations, and vertical walls on both sides of the highway, this marble-laced canyon is truly a must-see.
I got there with time enough for some trekking and souvenir shopping before the only town in the area, Tianxiang, went to sleep. I found a small campsite (Taroko National Park has several areas to camp for free) and set up for the night. As the last of the vendors and tourists disappeared, the gorge became eerily quiet.
The next morning I woke up at 6 am, unable to hide from the glaring sun. After a quick breakfast I headed inland along Highway No. 8. As I traveled higher and higher, the climate changed. The marble walls and tropical plants disappeared and I was greeted by big, fat pine trees! Three years in Taiwan and I didn’t even know they had pine trees here. I felt as if I’d made it to the top of the world, looking down on Taroko, looking down on the ocean, on the rice fields and busy urban areas far away. I reached the clouds, nearly drowned in the clouds…and then surpassed them, riding across a narrow bridge, surrounded by white on all sides. As I neared the little town of Lishan (2,000 meters above sea level), it got cold, then really cold and then…unbearably cold. In August, flatland Taiwan is a sauna, often 30 degrees Celsius or more with 90% humidity, so this weather came as a bit of a shock. I was not at all prepared.
The thought of the unknown, the intoxication of freedom, the new found oxygen; within two hours, life had become exciting again!
As I’d been moving ever higher I’d been putting more and more layers of clothing on, until I was wearing everything I had brought with me, including a raincoat and a garbage bag that I’d been filling with dirty laundry. I had long been praying for a huge cup of coffee to jump into.
Finally I found myself in Lishan, and thanked God for the chance to get a hot bowl of soup and get out of the cold for a while. The tiny town intrigued me. What was life like up here? Did they ever get to wear shorts? Had they ever seen a foreigner before? After a quick lunch and as much hot tea as I could down, I headed north – this time on Highway No. 7A – for another couple of hours.
Miles and miles from any city, the stars shone brighter than I’d ever seen before; I fell asleep gazing up at the Milky Way, feeling truly blessed to have made it this far
My final destination for the day was Wuling Farm. This large farm and recreation area was really pleasant. With beautiful trees, waterfalls, and rivers for fishing, I felt as if I’d arrived in an American summer camp. Wuling was hot and dry during the day; the air was crisp and "piney." I camped there, though the area has ample accommodation of other types, from simple hostels to lavish resorts.
After a couple days in Wuling I continued heading north, back toward Yilan County. The descent took me almost a full day, with majestic forests gradually left behind and the thick, stagnant summer air of the lowlands entered.
After a night in flatland Yilan County I finally turned back home to Taipei. As I headed down my final mountain road and entered the city, I felt the heat of rush-hour traffic, smelled the exhaust of a million motor scooters, and heard the beeping buses and chattering masses. Yes, it felt good to be home!
In the end, I couldn’t have asked for a better trip. Though most opt for trains and buses when traveling around Taiwan, I was happy with my decision to take a scooter. The freedom to explore any road and go (or stop) at any time gave this vacation a different flavor. Roads were good; inexpensive (or free) campgrounds were easy to find; and I never drove too far without coming across a small town. Though I was traveling alone, I never felt at risk and I never felt lost. On the contrary, every corner brought new local friends, excited to offer advice or warm conversation.
Taiwan is smaller than most of the states in my country, but it really does offer a dozen climates, a hundred cultures, and a thousand experiences. Visitors often excitedly speak of Taiwan’s busy night markets and soothing hot springs. My advice to them is now always the same: "You need to get a map (and a warm coat) and explore the rest! Go swim in the Pacific, hike through a marble canyon, and sway with the palm trees. Breathe the thick fog of the pines and travel above the clouds, peering down at this intriguing little island."