17 Nov

Motorcycling near JinGuaShi

Motorcycling is something that I never imagined myself getting into.  Given that I’m a bit of a coward and the inherent dangers of riding a motorcycle, I figured that it was something I would always steer well clear of.  The first six months that I lived in Taiwan I didn’t touch a scooter or motorcycle.  I would see them fly past as I walked down the road and more often that I would have liked, saw them lying broken in the middle of the road after an all to common accident.  That was enough to put me off trying one out.  But one day, a friend inviting me on a trip to Taroko Gorge and naturally I jumped at the offer and took the train down with him and the rest of the group.  It wasn’t until we got on the train that my friend mentioned we were going to be hiring scooters and riding them to the gorge.  For those who have driven in Taroko Gorge before you will know that it isn’t the ideal place for a beginner to start out learning to ride a scooter.  Just the thought of the winding, narrow roads, coupled with sheer, near-vertical drops a matter of feet to the side of the road (not to mention to the tour buses or trucks that go through)  was enough to make my stomach churn with anxiety.

As afraid I was of riding a scooter, it was nothing compared to how afraid I was to tell me friends and new aquaintences that I was too scared to do it, so I just bit the bullet and got on the bike.  And I loved it.  Every single minute of it.  Despite the fantastic sights and wealth of tremendous hiking that Taroko Gorge offers, I was only interested in riding my scooter up and down the gorge.  When nightfall came and I finally decided to call it a day, I could barely walk and sitting down was extremely painful!   I bought my first scooter a few weeks later and then a couple of years later I bought a Legend 125cc motorcycle and have never looked back.

Stu rides through Taroko Gorge

People always ask me why I continue to live in Taiwan and although the answer varies somewhat everytime, being able to drive my motorcycle everywhere is always pretty high up on the list.  Almost two-thirds of Taiwan, the eastern and central part stretching from North to South, is entirely composed of rugged foothill ranges and massive chains of high mountains.   The mountainous areas are well-supported by a vast network of roads, that are forced to wind and snake through the rugged terrain, steeply gliding up to the tops of mountains and then sloping back down to the valleys below.  These roads a a motorcyclist’s (and hardy cyclist for that matter) dream and the fact that these mountain roads are matched with some of the most astonishing natural scenery Taiwan has to offer, every time I take my bike out on one of these roads I know it’s going to be an unforgettable experience.

My All Time Top Five Favorite Roads to Ride on in Taiwan

1.  #21 From Alishan to Sun Moon Lake

View from Alishan road

The ride starts at the Alishan National Scenic Area and goes all the way down to Sun Moon Lake and beyond, but it is the first hour or so of the ride that makes it truly memorable.  At an altitude of around 2500 metres above sea level and the forest that surrounds the beginning of the road has a very alpine feel to it.  As you ride up to the highest point of the road the forest soon gives way providing incredible views of the enormous mountains that lie here, right in the very heart of Taiwan.  This is were most journeys to Taiwan’s highest peak, and the highest peak in South-East Asia, Jade Mountain (Yushan) begin.  But for those who are don’t feel like making that strenuous journey to the peak (or who are unlucky enough to never get permits) this road provides, without a doubt, the best views of Jade Mountain that you can get without having to do any walking! 

A friend of mine, an avid motorcyclist and photographer, said of this road that he felt like the views offered were just too spectacular.  The road itself makes it worthwhile coming here just for the ride, but he was unable to just enjoy the ride because the scenery compelled him to stop and admire the expansive views and capture the beauty with his camera.  Perhaps the best way to take on this road, is to ride down once and enjoy the scenery, then go straight back up and do it all over again and just enjoy the ride!

2.  #20 Southern Cross-Island Highway

I have been on the Southern Cross-Island Highway three times now and although I have only rode my motorbike over once I still felt like it deserved second place.  In fact, the time I did ride over ‘Nan Heng’ was a thouroughly miserable experience, but that hasn’t put me off!  It was the middle of Winter, lashing down with rain and a temperature that would be more suited to Northern parts of Scotland than a sub-tropical island.  My other trips were far more pleasant so I’d recommend you check the weather forecast before planning a trip up there and bear in mind that if it is raining (and even most afternoons when it’s not) it gets very misty up there and you will not be able to see a lot, which is not only dangerous but kind of defeats the whole point of going.

Me Riding in Kaohsiung County (Normally I'd wear a helmet, but here I only rode 10 metres to pose for the photo)

I chose ‘Nan-Heng’ in second place simply because there is a little more to do along the road than on it’s Northern counterpart.  I’d recommend a few (2-3 at least) days to spend on this road as there really is that much to do.  There are several natural hot springs that can be reached fairly easily if you have a good map and a sense of adventure, most people seem to rate LiSong as the most interesting, not least for the mulit-colored vapors that rise up and have stained the rocks nearby.  XiangYang and YaKou at the very top are the starting points for some fantastic hikes and an easy chance to make it to the peak of a 3000 plus meter mountain in a few hours.  The road itself is fairly well-maintained (see typhoon note below) and you will find yourself navigating through tunnels cut out into the rock face, past quaint aboriginal villages, teetering on the edge of sheer drops and in vast open space with nothing but the ever-inviting sight of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range in sight.

3.  #7  North Cross-Island Highway

The North Cross-Island Highway, also known as ‘BeiHeng’ is so close to Taipei that is absolutely incredible, and shamefull, that so few people have actually been there.  The road is slightly shorter and less dramatic than it’s southern sister, but still incorporates some fantastic driving and immense scenery.  There is no lack of hot springs here either, with the SiLeng Hot springs almost in the middle, the FanFan hot springs located at the Eastern end and a plethora of others located near the western end of the road. 

There is a section of the road, near the beginning (from the West side) that is just so much fun to drive that it is impossible to not start grinning inanely to oneself as you steer your bike through the sharp, chicane-like bends and through tunnels and past the sheer cliff faces that the road has been cut into.  The change in fauna is also quite spectacular to witness, as the road progresses from a few hundred metres above sea level, to over 2000 metres (near MingChi) the sub-tropical jungle gives way to a forest of sweet-smelling pine trees.  The difference in temperature is also another excellent reason to head up here, especially in the hot, sticky summer months.  Expect temperatures a good 5-10 degrees cooler than Taipei at the top, this combined with a refreshing breeze makes summer drives here a pleasant relief from Taipei’s onslaught of heat.

4.  #9  BeiYi Road

Those of you who know me, may be surprised that I included the number 9 in my list of favorite roads.  I often complain about having to ride this road, not least because of the scooter-posses that fly up and down on it with no regard for their or anyone else safety.  But really, it is still a great road and after living in Xindian for so many years, it feels like it is my road.  The number nine leads out from Taipei to the East coast and all of the wonders that it brings – fantastic hiking in Ilan, the beaches of FuLong anf WaiAo, not to mention the SuHua highway and WuLing farm road.

The road itself is fairly unspectacular upto the tea-growing village of PingLin and generally, the traffic up to there is often quite bad (although at lot better than before the XueShan Tunnel opened and all the cars had to drive on the number nine to get to Ilan).  After PingLing however, the road is much quieter and much more interesting particularly the final section that descends onto the LanYang plain.  On a fine day, which let’s face it is pretty rare in Yilan, the views of the plain, the ocean beyond and the imposing Turtle Island are truly stunning.

LanYang Plain

5.  #122 and surrounding roads

Finally, I wanted to choose something a bit less obvious and in the last year or so I have become particularly fond of this little-heard-of area of Taiwan.  When most people think of Hsinchu, they will thinking of the Science Park and perhaps the windy weather that is associated with the city, however there is much, much more to the county than this.  JianShi and WuFeng Counties have some of the best hiking available in the north of Taiwan – the Sykora Trail and NiuZuiShan to name but two.  WuFeng county is also the gateway to XuePa National Park (GuanWu) and the trail leading to the mighty DaBaJianShan.

I love the roads in this area because save for a few cyclists, there is no traffic to speak of at all, yet there are miles and miles of great roads going off in all directions.  The weather just seems to be better here as well, countless times I have driven through drizzle and clouds from Taipei to NeiWan and as soon as I reach the top of the mountain near XX the clouds are left long behind and all that I can see in front of me are clear, sunny skies.  I should also mention the hot springs, this area has plenty of places to give yourself a rest when riding through and a soak in the relaxing hot spring water.  I’d personally recommend the riverside hot springs at XiuLuan and QingQuan.


One Response to “Motorcycling”

  1. pei March 10, 2010 at 2:39 am #

    only 10 meters? Hahaha. Love that photo full of motion! I’m really impressed that you keep both Mandarin and English blogs about Taiwan! Keep rolling! Hope your residency gets a good end in the end 😀

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