Rediscovering Taiwan the Slow Way
By Douglas Habecker Translated by Sho Huang
Photos by Douglas Habecker and courtesy of Giant Adventure Co.
A seminal moment in Taiwan's on-going "bike revolution" took place in 2007, when the local film "Island Etude"--about a young hearing-challenged man discovering the people, culture, beauty and traditions of Taiwan after he sets off on a solitary bike journey around the island--captured local imaginations and inspired riders of all ages, from teenagers to housewives and senior citizens, to head off on similar rides.
Since then, the number of bikers taking up this challenge seems to only be growing. A large part of the credit goes to Taichung-based Giant Bicycle Co., whose Giant Adventure Co. travel agency (also based in Taichung) organizes round-island bike trips almost every month, not to mention a variety of other shorter trips, from a Keelung-to-Kenting east-coast jaunt to a day-rides around Sun Moon Lake, plus customized journeys to travelers' specifications.
I experienced this personally this past November, joining the international group of Giant's annual "Formosa 900", nine-day, 900-kilometer ride. This adventure was a bargain, with its roughly NT$30,000 price tag covering everything--eight nights in nice hotels; all meals, with most lunches/dinners being multi-course Chinese table meals; five Giant support personnel; two support vans for luggage, repair gear and snacks/drinks; and the use of a nice Giant bike. This means that all you have to do is ride and leave all of the rest to Giant, which runs these operations with a friendly and personal, but military-like, efficiency.
An American friend and I joined 26 other male/female participants, mostly from Hong Kong and Macau, ranging from a group of fit 20-something guys who brought their own expensive Italian Colnago road bikes to a retired Hong Kong policeman who told us he biked up Victoria Peak every day.
Our special ride for foreigners, which Giant organizes annually around the same time, was just one of several Giant round-island tours departing simultaneously from different cities around Taiwan. We left from Kaohsiung and headed down the coast to our first night in Pingtung county before crossing the mountains the next day to the east coast and Taitung. Most of this ride up Taiwan's most beautiful side followed Rt. 9, from beautiful coastlines to the even more beautiful, quiet, rural East Rift Valley between Taitung and Hualien. From Yilan county, we crossed the mountains once again to reach the modern, urban sprawl of Taipei before continuing down the western coast. While the mountains presented the toughest challenge, the entire trip was designed to be do-able for any reasonably-fit participant.
Days started early with breakfast, a group stretching session and briefing on the day's route from our female Giant overall team leader. Our riding leader, another young woman, was a rock-solid rider and completely in command every inch of the way, keeping a good pace for the group, ordering the two male Giant assistant riders up and down the pack, signaling every stop and turn, and unerringly steering us through remote rural roads and congested urban traffic alike. If there were any bike-related problems, including flat tires, the support van and Giant personnel--working like a Formula 1 pit crew--pulled up and things fixed within 30-60 seconds. At group rest stops, usually every 20-25 kilometers, a support van provided an endless supply of fruit, candy, snacks, water and sports drink. Rides would usually end about 4 p.m. each day at a hotel, with another warm-down stretching session and our luggage awaiting us in the lobby. Our luggage, helmets, bicycles and even water bottles were all labeled with personalized Formosa 900 tags issued to everyone on the first day.
In nine days, we saw and experienced Taiwan like very few ever can, the slow way, passing through the quietest, smallest east-coast farming towns and west-coast fishing villages, along coastlines, through mist-covered mountains, congested big cities, broad plains of rice paddies and narrow forested valleys. When not riding, we soaked in hot springs, explored the alleys of historic towns and squeezed through jam-packed night markets. Besides the great meals, the Giant folks were constantly treating us to local specialties, from 'mochi' glutinous rice cakes to pineapple popsicles and honey-infused tea.
My biggest regret was that it all had to end. Arriving in Kaohsiung around sunset, our ride ended with a small ceremony by the Giant leader, who presented each participant with an attractive Formosa 900 achievement certificate, complete with a nice photo of the rider and their name. Bidding sad farewells to each other, many of us were already agreeing that we would probably be doing this unforgettable trip all over again sometime in the future.
For more information about Giant Adventure Co., check www.giant-adventure.com.tw or call 0800-717-333.