- Tim Mathis
Why biking Taiwan Cycle Route 1 was the virtually perfect trip.
Updated: Mar 26
If you’re going to devote time and money to a trip, you want it to be good. Life-changing if possible.
A lot of places in the world have that potential, but using Cycle Route 1 as a backbone, biking around Taiwan can make for a virtually perfect travel experience.
After Covid decimated our 40th birthdays in 2020, my wife Angel and I had to postpone or midlife crises. This year - turning 43 - we decided to make it happen. We scheduled the time off work and got out the world map. We share a birthday month (February), and spending it in Southeast Asia sounded about right. However, when we pulled up Google flights, we found that tickets to Taiwan were dramatically cheaper than anywhere in that region.
We didn’t know much about Taiwan, but we’d heard good things. We bought tickets straightaway.
What does the perfect trip even mean? What turns travel into pilgrimage?
Jetting off to a mysterious foreign country is fine and all, but this was our midlife crisis, so we wanted this trip to be genuinely special. What makes for a travel experience worthy of the event? I set about figuring it out.
I consulted the oracle, er, completed a few Google searches. Then, utilizing the ancient wisdom I gathered about pilgrimage and adventure, I put together the key elements of a life-changing journey:
Set aside an extended period of time - roughly a month, give or take.
Pick a physical destination or circuit.
Plan a journey, preferably human powered.
Make sure it involves some non-trivial level of adventure and a realistic possibility of failure.
Decide on your personal goals or expectations
Figure out how to work in some form of ritual
Involve the community.
Do that, the congealed wisdom of all humanity suggested, and you’ll come away with a trip that’ll change your life.
Why wouldn’t you cycle tour in Taiwan?
We decided on Taiwan hastily, but we were lucky. We didn’t have to put in much effort to make a journey like that happen. In fact, most of it fell into place naturally because of the type of place that Taiwan is.
When we started researching active things to do in Taiwan for a month, articles about Taiwan Cycle Route 1 popped up straight away. I read about great cycling infrastructure and a designated route that circumnavigated the entire island. The country has committed to establishing itself as a cycle tourist destination, so they make it easy. Long-term rentals are available all over the island through Giant shops (the brand is Taiwanese and their stores are ubiquitous), or through Mathewbike in Taipei which has developed a little cottage industry around Cycle Route 1 riders.
We obviously had to do it.
I contacted Mathewbike because they got great reviews, they’re a local operation, and they have good English-language support. They made it super easy - the rental package included panniers, lights, helmets, locks and tools, so it was very much plug and play. We emailed them our size and intentions and we were set.
We flew into Taipei, picked up our bikes a day later, and were on our way.
Pilgrimage principle 1: Set aside an extended period of time
We took the entirety of February for the trip, which it turns out is the ideal time to cycle in Taiwan, especially in the lowlands where Cycle Route 1 lives. Taiwan is shaped like an oval, and its geography consists of massive mountains down the center that stretch to a rift valley in the east, and flat plains along the West Coast. While the mountains can be very rainy, Cycle Route 1 follows the plains all the way around, and during February and March the weather is relatively dry and cool. The Tropic of Cancer runs right through the center of Taiwan, so it’s normally a balmy climate, but the weather was virtually perfect for us. We had a couple of hot days and a couple of wet days. Overall though, it was pleasantly mild. That’s not the case in Taiwan a lot of the year.
We rented the bikes for 16 days which left us with a chunk of time in and around Taipei at the end of the trip.
Pilgrimage principle 2: Pick a physical destination or circuit.
From reading the promotional material on Cycle Route 1, prior to the trip it seemed like we’d unintentionally happened upon biker paradise. The infrastructure is in place to cycle all the way around the island (minus a small section in the northeast that requires a short train ride). We read about 970 km of designated, well-signed cycle lanes, regular rest stops, and beautiful countryside. Most people take between 9 - 15 days, so it seemed like a no-brainer in the timeframe we had.
The thing was, a lot of the literature is in Traditional Chinese (which is how most people identify the language there, vs. Mandarin) or roughly translated English, and finding detailed information was a challenge. Never having been to Taiwan, we didn’t have a great handle on what the experience would look like, but it seemed like it would be manageable. It seemed like the right amount of uncertainty heading in. Adventure, right?
Plus, the train system in Taiwan is extensive around the coast, so we figured we could adjust plans if we needed to.
Pilgrimage principle 3: Plan a journey, preferably human powered.
What did our plan involve? We thought we’d keep it straightforward and just follow Cycle Route 1 in a counterclockwise direction around the island. Taipei to Taipei. That would require an average of around 80 km/day factoring in a few planned rest days in Taichung and Hualien.
How’d it shake out?
Not exactly as planned.
In the end we cycled from Taipei to Chaiyi (about ⅔ of the way down the West Coast) and stuck closely to Cycle Route 1, except to veer off into Taichung to meet friends and experience the very cool central city.
Then, from Chaiyi we took a train to the old city of Tainan, which we explored by cycle.
From Tainan we took another train through Kaohsiung to a pretty coastal town called Fangliao. We deviated from the 1 shortly after, and cycled from Fangliao to the gorgeous Kenting National Park in the far south. We cycled a loop around the edges of the park and back to Checheng.
Instead of following the 1 on a busy highway across the central mountain range, from Checheng we took the sleepy Highway 199 to the East Coast.
When we reached the East Coast, we got back on Cycle Route 1 to Taitung about a third of the way up the island. From Taitung north we mostly cycled alternates through Taiwan’s East Rift Valley, and for the rest of our trip used the 1 as a backbone rather than our main route, following Highway 193, Taiwan Cycle route 1 - 14, and random roads through rice paddies until we got to Hualien.
We finished our cycling in Hualien, essentially. We did a day trip to the Taroko Gorge from there, then took a train back to Songshan station in Taipei where we followed a beautiful riverside trail along the Tamsui back to Mathewbike.
If you’re interested in more nitty gritty details about how to replicate the trip, read Part 2: What you need to know as an English-speaker to bike around Taiwan. Don't worry - I'll share the link again at the end of this article.
Pilgrimage principle 4: Make sure it involves some non-trivial level of adventure and a realistic possibility of failure
If you want to grow in life, you have to push yourself and try things that you aren’t sure you’re capable of, right?
This trip was our first real cycle tour. Neither of us have any expertise in bike mechanics, beyond changing a flat tire. It was my first time in Asia. Neither of us spoke even a word of Chinese. Our knowledge of the route was limited. Our training to ride 80 km a day was subpar.
In short, at the start it was not clear at all whether we’d be successful on this journey.
In other words, it was an adventure.
And in some ways, we failed in our goals.
First and foremost, we didn’t do anything like the full distance. ⅓ of the way in, we abandoned our plans and used a train to skip ahead. I’m not sure that we ever actually biked 80 km in a day. We probably averaged more like 55 - 60. We had repeated bike issues and underestimated the degree to which Taiwanese stop lights would slow us down on the West Coast. (They added literal hours to every day’s ride.) We skipped the entire northeastern portion of the island, and missed what likely would’ve been some cool cycling to finish out the trip.
The upside, though, is that we failed upwards, and made adjustments along the way that made the trip better than it would’ve been had we stuck to the original plan.
When we skipped a big chunk of West Coast city riding in favor of Kenting National Park and Highway 199 in the south, we found beautiful coastal scenery, then jungle, mountains and monkeys. The 199 was an almost empty road, and one of my personal favorite days of cycling even though it involved the biggest climb and the rainiest weather of the entire trip.
We didn’t do the full distance, but that was ultimately because we figured out that we didn't want to. The route was relatively flat by Taiwanese standards. We just realized that Cycle Route 1, on the West Coast anyway, isn’t really an ideal place to spend a week of cycling. You’re constantly grunting through city outskirts and tracking along busy highway. That did have some advantages because we happened on festivals and temples and a Taiwanese opera we would have missed otherwise, but given the timeframe, the going was super slow and often unpleasant. After a few days of constant urban sprawl you’re ready for a change.
Cycle Route 1 on the East Coast - at least as far as Hualien - is pleasant by comparison but still follows a busy highway. The decision to abandon it at Chaiyi in the west made it emotionally easier to choose alternates on the East Coast too, which worked out to our advantage. We followed the 1 to Taitung but then defaulted to alternates where we could as we rode to Hualien through the East Rift Valley.
At Taitung, I was experiencing a bit of FOMO because we chose to ride the rift valley rather than following the coast, which is meant to make for a beautiful alternate. However, the valley was without a doubt worth experiencing - the highlight of the trip. It was all glistening rice paddies, mountains, small towns, street vendors, great food, and easily accessible side routes off the main highway. Despite consistent headwinds, it was ideal cycle touring.
We concluded our trip in Hualien and took a day trip to the Taroko Gorge, which was again something we didn’t want to miss. We could’ve carried on and tried to make it back to Taipei, but the Gorge is one of the more memorable landscapes in the world, so it was worth missing more urban cycling to see it.
If I had to do it again with the same amount of time, I’d probably just cycle on the eastern side of the country and loop in Kenting National Park. Or, I’d take at least an additional week on the west to have time to explore the very cool cities to make the grind through the sprawl worth it. I don’t regret the way we did it but felt that there’s so much on both coasts that you need more time to do them full justice. You can get around the island in a few weeks, but a full month would’ve been better.
In the end, we probably did about 150 km less than we’d planned, but that meant that we spent plenty of time in temples, coffee shops, restaurants, and markets. It gave us the chance to visit Taichung and Tainan properly, as well as Kenting National Park and the Taroko Gorge.
We failed, but I don’t regret it.
Pilgrimage principle 5: Decide on your personal goals or expectations
Travel that really means something - it’s an internal journey as much as external, right?
We set out on this trip after a rough couple of years. Most of us are battered and beat up these days, but my personal problems relate to working in healthcare, getting older, feeling like I’m not fit like used to be, and struggling with the never ending quest to figure out the point of it all. While I’m not the type to write out a formal list, I did have a set of personal goals in the back of my mind. I was hoping the trip would help me re-develop a sense of progress in life. I wanted to recommit to physical fitness, and to get back the sense of adventure that had been core to my identity for a long time. I wanted to test whether I’ve still got it at any level, and I wanted to learn a new skill - cycle touring - in a new part of the world.
Taiwan Cycle Route 1 made for a perfect option given our situation.
I really do think there’s something magical about this sort of trip. When life feels stale or crappy, it just works. An extended period of time on a human-powered journey reliably shifts something in you. It helps you see possibilities, remember what’s important, and expand your sense of what you’re capable of.
But Taiwan was a particularly good place to go for this sort of pilgrimage.
For cycle touring, it’s a great place to learn. The infrastructure is there. The route is well marked. There are plenty of easy bail points if you need them. The basic logistics are simple: Rent a bike. Follow the signs. Stay in hotels. Buy food at 7-Eleven. Keep the ocean on your right until you get back to where you started. As foreign a place as Taiwan can feel, it’s remarkably easy to sort out a process that will get you all the way around the island.
Taiwan is also a very comfortable place to visit. It’s incredibly safe and the people are consistently patient and helpful. The food is amazing. The transit system is extensive, the technology is cutting edge, and the society is orderly. As different as it is, in many ways it’s entry level when it comes to travel.
Regardless of how much you’ve done this sort of thing, Taiwan does present a unique set of challenges and opportunities for the Asia-naive cycle tourist. There’s the constant question of how to prioritize your time to maximize the experience. There’s the daily decision about setting your route and pace. There’s a significant language barrier to navigate. There’s the daily attempt to understand the culture and learn as much as you can. Regardless of how fit you are, on a trip like this you always have the option to push yourself to physical exhaustion. And the experience can be as rich as you want it to be. There’s so much good food to try, so many beautiful places to see, and so much interesting culture to experience. It’d take years to feel like you had a handle on it all.
The experience had its emotional ups and downs. There’s a lot of confusion, exhaustion, anxiety and boredom. There’s also a lot of cultural discovery, human connection, personal growth and awe-inspiring natural beauty .
A month in a foreign environment doing something like this - it leaves you with a lot to process and it’s impossible to gauge the real impact until well after you’re done with the trip.
But my initial impressions are that on this cycle tour, I felt like myself for the first time in a long time. I remembered what it feels like to move long distances every day. We were gone long enough to forget what it’s like to work, and to start to feel like this is what life is about. When you’re exposed to a world that you didn’t know exists, it produces a huge sense of possibility. Taiwan, ah, I fell in love with it a little bit. The combination of food, landscape, culture and kindness there is really intoxicating, and cycling was the perfect way to absorb it.
Pilgrimage principle 6: Figure out how to work in some form of ritual
I’m not sure why, but it’s true that human beings are ritualistic creatures. We like to take internal experiences and act them out to make them stick. Or put another way, we do physical actions to make ourselves feel a certain way emotionally.
Pilgrimage itself is a time honored ritual, and while we weren’t formally on a pilgrimage ourselves, this sort of cycle tour approximates the experience. There’s a natural rhythm to it that produces an emotional response. Moving towards your goal produces a sense of progress in life and the physicality of it all produces positive emotions naturally.
While this trip was only a “pilgrimage” for us, we rolled into an actual pilgrimage on our third day of cycling when we passed through Maioli County. This area north of Taichung is the starting place of Taiwan’s largest pilgrimage - the annual Mazu procession. A Taoist tradition, every year hundreds of thousands of people progress some percentage of 400 km between Baishatun and Beigang in the south to honor Mazu, a traditional goddess of the sea.
When we arrived, the festivities were just getting started and we passed through crowds of pilgrims dressed in matching orange high visibility hats and jackets. Near the town gate in a small town on the highway near Baishatun, people had set up dozens of food stalls, handing out free food and drinks to everyone who passed, including us. It was a consistent theme throughout the ride that locals would see us, give a thumbs up and shout “Jiayou!” which is something like a combination of “good job,” “keep going,” and “woohoo.” Through the pilgrimage crowd the shouts were constant.
Our route followed closely along the pilgrimage path, so we passed a series of Mazu sites as well as other Taoist and Buddhist temples. There are 10,000 temples in Taiwan, and they function as de-facto cycling rest stops, so they just as unavoidable as 7-Elevens. They’re beautiful, intricate, gaudy things. They’re also open to the public and we’d stop in at least one daily. The idea is that you light some incense, say a prayer, offer respect to the gods and ancestors and request good luck and blessings, It’s a simple, active bit of religious practice, and it’s still very much a part of Taiwanese culture.
For me, it was all totally foreign. Even so, wandering through pushes you into reflection and a sense of the big, beautiful expanse of human history and tradition. Maybe the strangeness was good for producing a sense of transcendence? Even without understanding the ins and outs, visiting the temples made you think about your place in the world. It made you think about your ancestors and your dependence on nature. It made you think about the scope of the world’s cultures and the number of societies that exist that you have no real concept of. It made you think about the fact that we’re all at the mercy of chance and fortune.
Taiwan is a religious place. More than 75% of people are either Taoist or Buddhist, and practice is clearly alive. Absorbing a bit of the Mazu pilgrimage at the beginning of the trip served as a reminder that in this physical journey - travel - there’s something sacred and transformative about it whether you intend it that way or not. Even though our own experience was almost entirely passive, consistently and frequently dipping our toes in Taiwan’s ritual life added an element of transcendence to the experience. The local spirituality - even though it was almost entirely foreign - colored the trip with a sense of pilgrimage almost by default.
Pilgrimage principle 7: Involve a community
Humans are communal creatures, and for travel to be transformative it has to involve some level of human connection.
The problem? Taiwan doesn’t give itself up easily.
It’s not that it’s not friendly. It’s the opposite in fact. It’s just that it’s hard to get to know people when you are completely hopeless at using their language.
People in Taiwan were directly and assertively helpful. When we stopped on the streets, people would ask us if we needed directions, normally through broken English. When we were ignorant about how or what to order in restaurants, someone would consistently volunteer to help us.
The country is also remarkably safe. In our month there I don’t recall witnessing any obvious public drunkenness, and the crime rate is on par with Switzerland by some measures. A lot of people don’t even lock their bikes overnight in the cities. It’s shocking.
Culturally, it’s considered shameful to express anger in public, and people are very considerate. In a month, we were only asked for money once, very politely. People didn’t stare at us despite the fact that I was sure that I was the tallest person in Taiwan for the first two weeks we were there. In coffee shops, the staff would bring us extra little gifts - pastries or samples of local blends. Within days I’d started feeling self-conscious that people might find me rude or aggressive as an American because it was so clearly a country full of pleasant, friendly people.
The problem was that we didn’t know what was going on, ever. The culture is entirely different from home and the language is very difficult. I tried learning a few basics but nothing seemed to stick. I came away understanding three words and zero written characters. English was common enough in Taipei, but outside of the cities, I’ve never been anywhere that the language barrier was higher. That makes it difficult to get to know a place.
For the first part of the trip, we had to settle for non-verbal aspects of the culture. Like food.
Taiwan is one of the best food countries in the world, no doubt. Bubble tea was invented there, and they’ve exported their dumplings to the world through Din Tai Fung restaurants. There’s a fantastic restaurant culture, along with great tea houses and bakeries, and amazingly varied street food. Because of its colonial history, there are strong Japanese and Chinese influences, with dan dan noodles and hot pot and ramen and bao are widely available. After being there for almost a month, I can count the number of meals that weren’t good on one hand. Along with the local stuff, we found amazing fried chicken, Mexican, bbq, and coffee. Taiwanese people know how to make food taste good.
We happened randomly on traditional Taiwanese operas and puppet shows and the Mazu pilgrimage and the lantern festival in Taichung, an endless string of night markets, and we visited museums in Tainan. Still, it is true that cycle touring doesn’t always lend itself to getting to know a culture intimately. A lot of your energy has to focus on physical movement and navigation and the intricacies of culture and language can take a backseat in your consciousness.
We got a bit of a cultural orientation from a couple of friends who’ve moved to Taichung from Seattle, and a few coffee shop owners chatted with us when there were no other customers in their shops, but for most of the trip I felt like my relationship was with Taiwanese sausages more than Taiwanese people.
So even though there was a lot more we could’ve done on our bikes, I was glad that we had a week in Taipei after we finished our ride. There were more English speakers around, and more opportunities to try to understand the complexity of modern Taiwan.
In Taipei, I felt like I developed at least an introductory sense of some of the major factors that shape modern Taiwanese life.
The city itself is clearly a product of Taiwan. It’s big, clean, friendly and neighborhoody. It’s full of nice parks, night markets and street food. It’s obviously tech-forward and there’s great transit. There seems to be a lot of new money around, with Maseratis and Teslas seeming as common as Toyotas. It feels futuristic with big shiny buildings - most prominently Taipei 101, formerly the tallest building on the planet - but you’ll also find people living a traditional lifestyle with gardens and chickens on the outskirts. It is a great city to visit and seems like it would be a fantastic place to live.
You do get a sense of the tension in Taiwan when you visit the museums. Taipei has a lot of them, and the official messages about history and culture read as measured because of the complicated politics of the place. Taiwan was under Japanese colonial rule until WWII, and shortly after achieving autonomy, martial law was implemented by the nationalist government. It took until 1987 for authoritarianism to break down, but they’ve been building an effective, modern state ever since. They’ve transitioned to a well-functioning constitutional democracy. They have the 22nd highest GDP in the world and a very equitable distribution of wealth. They have a huge manufacturing sector, and are the world’s most important producer of semiconductors, making them essential for every country that uses computers of any kind. By all measures they’re a major political success story.
Despite all of that, when outsiders think of Taiwan, they usually wonder about their relationship with China, who view Taiwan as a territory even though they’ve been operating independently for decades. In short, that relationship is really complicated. If you’re interested, a great way to get a sense of the history is to read up on Chiang Kai-Shek. Or, there’s a rundown of the modern situation here.
Locals genuinely aren’t in agreement about what that relationship should look like politically, but the general population is clearly wary of the threat of non-democratic leadership, having only recently emerged from a brutal sort of authoritarianism.
February was perfect time to get a sense of this because of 2/28 events in Taipei.
What was significance of 2/28? In short, in 1947 there was a small anti-government uprising which led to violent crackdown and the declaration of martial law and authoritarian leadership that lasted for 38 years. Now, February 28th is seen as a critical date in Taiwanese history and is commemorated by pro-democracy and pro-independence activists annually.
On the 27th and 28th, we visited a freedom of speech exhibit at the Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial in the center of the city, along with 228 Memorial Museum, and attended a 2/28 concert organized by local university students. My impression was of a mixed sense of anxiety about the fragility of democracy after only emerging from an authoritarian past 25 years ago, caution about the Taiwanese relationship to China, and a real sense of pride and defiance about the effective democracy and open society they’ve been able to build in relatively quick fashion.
I’d be lying if I said I’d developed any sort of nuanced understanding of the local politics, but being there for 2/28 gave me the sense that Taiwan is an island of independently minded people who’ve put together a very functional society despite constant outside interference, and would prefer to be left to manage themselves. Which is understandable.
Did I feel connected to Taiwan in the end? A lot of times when you travel, you integrate your own story into the story of a place. You feel like you become a part of it in some way or another. In Taiwan, because of the language barrier and the cultural differences, it was hard to feel like anything but a visitor. But despite that Taiwan was memorably kind, safe, and welcoming. The culture is impressive, vibrant and complex. The food is among the best in the world. The landscape is beautiful and varied. The cities are safe, clean and fun. The history is tragic but hopeful and you can’t help but sympathize with its plight. Personally, I felt like it was really nice to us and I would place it near the top of the list of favorite places I’ve traveled. So yeah, despite the barriers, in a month in Taiwan you fall in love with it.
In the end, was biking around Taiwan the perfect trip?
We set out for Taiwan looking for a trip worthy of a mid-life crisis.
Did we have specific goals? Well, sort of. We booked our tickets on a whim but we went at a time when life feels complicated. Personally, I was hoping to get some direction and some mojo back. I was hoping to use an adventure to get back in shape. I wanted to learn a new skill and learn about a new part of the world. I was hoping to experience a bit of that transcendence that you get from travel. And I was hoping to experience a relatively new cycling circuit that sounded like it could be on par with the world’s great long-distance travel experiences.
It didn’t go as expected, because we scuttled our plans to follow Cycle Route 1 directly around the island, but the overall experience exceeded expectations.
As a destination for pilgrimage - intentional or not - cycle touring in Taiwan works effortlessly. The route is intuitive: you work your way around the coast. The culture is rich and casually spiritual. There’s no formality to the cyclist/temple relationship, but the network of beautiful Taoist and Buddhist temples functions as a built in series of welcoming rest stops that naturally trigger reflection and a sense of awe. The experience demands an extended period of time and a slow approach, but the transit network and cycling infrastructure make it infinitely customizable. For a non-Chinese speaker, the language barrier is high so the sense of being somewhere exotic is constant, but people are incredibly welcoming and supportive. The crime rate is remarkably low, and travel feels comfortable even when you clearly stand out as a foreigner. Costs are low and it’s possible to be austere if you choose, but there are also as many options for comfort as you could possibly need. And there is so much good food.
It’s always difficult to gauge the personal impact of a travel experience immediately afterwards, but personally this had the hallmarks of something that’ll stand as a marker in our now 43 year old lives. It did help me remember why prioritizing activity and adventure are so important. As an entry point into Asia, Taiwan opened up a complex, beautiful world that now I really want to learn more about. The day to day spirituality of the place left me feeling reflective about my place in history and the larger universe. The encounter with local pilgrimage lent an air of significance to the trip. And the process of re-orienting our plans and coming away with a fantastic experience left me with that pleasant sensation of having successfully overcome a challenge.
I read somewhere that one of the key markers of true pilgrimage is that it persists long after the experience. It’s too early to say what that’ll mean, but ahh, it really did feel like this trip meant something.
If you’re interested in more of the nitty gritty details about how to replicate the trip, read Part
2 here: Taiwan Cycle Route 1: What English-speakers need to know to bike around Taiwan.