Top tips for visiting Taiwan and planning a cycling tour

Whether you're planning a gentle ride along the riverside trails of Taipei or planning a round-island-tour, here are my top tips for planning a cycling trip to the island of Taiwan:

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The country is criss-crossed by a comprehensive motorway network.  Subsequently the minor roads and country lanes are surprisingly quiet and a pleasure to ride.  Roads in cities and towns are busy all of the time.

Take a good GPS with maps and instructions in characters you understand (ie English)  Taiwanese cities are dense and can be disorientating.  Road signs are normally in English as well as the local language, but Anglicised spellings of places can vary from sign to sign.

Bike lanes are more often than not also the home of motor-scooters.  Be prepared to travel with them, stand your ground and keep your wits about you - especially in towns and cities.  If you don't need to go through an urban area and can plan to go around it, go around it.

Don't worry too much about the local language.  You should, of course, try to make an effort and learn the basic phrases to be polite but you'll find the Taiwanese are warmly welcoming of foreign visitors, and English is widely spoken, especially amongst younger people.  Don't worry if the person you address doesn't speak English, an English speaker won't be far away.

If you like your home comforts at the end of each day and a western-style breakfast in the morning look for hotels which are classified as "International", but be prepared to pay a premium for this pleasure.  "Domestic" hotels will usually have smaller rooms than western visitors may be used to, with limited international options on televisions and non-western options for breakfast.  International class hotels come with an international class price tag - for those who are more money conscious camping is safe in the countryside whilst most towns have a handful of budget hotels.  Don't be afraid to ask to see rooms before checking in if you are at all nervous about quality.

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Food is fantastic in Taiwan!  There's a variety of styles available and generally the cuisine is lighter and uses more fresh ingredients than you might find in the People's Republic of China.  Taiwanese specialties include hot pot, Taro cakes and Oolong tea.  If you're desperate for calories at the end of a day's riding every town has a 7/11 which is open till late and sells snacks, 'pot' noodles and serves hot (and cold!) drinks.  Late night snacks - usually of the cheap and greasy variety - can be found at every town's night markets which are open till late.

For a relatively small country Taiwan has a varied topography to offer cyclists.  The north of the island is relatively flat whilst the central region is mountainous with some 300 peaks over 3,000 metres high offering challenging routes for even the most discerning climber.  The east is less populous and offers gentler cycling conditions whilst the south of the island has a more tropical temperament.  A round-island-tour will cover around 1,000KM and take 10 to 14 days, depending on how fast you want to take it.

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Spring and summer bring tropical heat when it is likely to be too warm for all but the most enduring of riders.  Autumn offers almost perfect temperatures for riding, while winter is cool but dryer.  It can rain at any time in Taiwan so take a decent set of water proofs with you and you'll be fine!  You should keep an eye on the long-range weather forecast throughout your trip - Typhoons are serious storms and certainly not something you'd want to be caught out in on a bicycle.

Police stations outside of big cities also act as local information centres.  They'll often provide water to touring cyclists, as well as inform you of any road closures in the local area (especially useful in the mountains where roads can close due to mud slides and landslips).  They can usually also recommend the best spots to camp safely in the vicinity.

Sun Moon Lake is a popular destination for tourists and Taiwanese alike, and the famous round-the-lake 33km ride is an extremely popular bike ride.  But be warned; the roads become very busy in the afternoon with coaches taking tourists for a drive - make like the local roadies and get up early to enjoy the best the lake has to offer in the safety and quiet of the early morning.

There's a wealth of bike hire stores across the island, many of which are run by bicycle manufacturing behemoth Giant.  At Giant stores you'll be able to hire the best bikes in their range but if you're going to be riding any kind of distance at all you may want to call ahead to book a bike in your size.  Most hire stores only have a limited number of frames which aren't on the more compact scale!
Most Giant stores have English speaking staff - be prepared to provide identification and a credit card as a guarantee.

You can take your bicycle on Taipei's metro system (the MRT) and special bicycle symbols show you the best place to wait on the platform.  Taiwan's national rail system is extensive and efficient, and includes a number of high speed routes, however taking a bicycle onboard can be challenging.  Taiwan In Cycles blog has a comprehensive post on how to do it for those who dare!

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 National Day Celebration rehearsals in Taiwan
This is the Republic of China, not the People's Republic of China! There's no bureaucratic worries here - British tourists will receive a one month visitor's visa on arrival so long as they have six months and two blank pages remaining in their passports.

Riding with traffic presents challenges where ever you are, and Taiwan is no exception.  Whilst motor scooters can be a noisy and dirty menace I think the biggest threat to cyclist's safety probably comes from betelnut chewing wired lorry drivers and impatient tourist coach drivers - avoid trucks and buses where you can, specifically at junctions where it won't hurt to hold back and keep out of their turning area.  As with riding in any location that you are unfamiliar with be assertive without being over bold, and keep your wits about you.

For more information check the Taiwan tips on the World Touring website.  Travelling Two has a useful Q and A section with a resident cyclist full of hints and tips, whilst the fantastic Taiwan In Cycles local blog offers plenty of cycling tips, hints and tours and keeps its ear to the ground of bicycling politics on the island so that you don't have to.

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1 comment:

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