Taiwan Cycle Route 1: What English-speakers need to know to bike around Taiwan.
11 things you need to know to have a great time on Taiwan Cycle Route 1.
This article is a “Part 2” of a series on Taiwan Cycle Route 1. For the first article, click here.
Taiwan is a very hospitable place to cycle, with genuinely remarkable infrastructure.
There are a few things worth reviewing though if you’re an English-speaker and thinking about biking around Taiwan on Cycle Route 1. Here’s the nitty gritty “must know” information, in no particular order.
1. A link for the day to day guide
First, let me rudely explain how I’m not going to help. I’m not providing a map or a day to day breakdown of the trip, primarily because we veered off of Cycle Route 1 when we felt like it, and there are existing guides to the exact route available already. A good official rundown is available as a PDF here. Mathewbike also has the trip broken down into 9 stages.
I give an overview of the route we took in the first post in this series if you're curious.
2. Bike shops along Taiwan Cycle Route 1
I mentioned in the previous article that we rented our bikes and gear through Mathewbike in Taipei, and they were great. They spoke English. They oriented us to the route beforehand, then provided good support through the trip and were responsive to questions.
You can also rent from any of the Giant shops around the country, but contact them ahead two weeks to a month because they don’t necessarily keep an excess stock in store so likely won't have a bike for you if you just turn up (the same is true with Mathewbike). If you rent from Giant you can also return to a different store, which is a huge bonus. Here’s a helpful rundown if you want to rent from them.
I can’t speak to the rental experience with Giant, but we did have a few bike issues, so we did use them for basic repairs and supplies. They tuned up our transmission and balanced our tire for free. We consistently had really great service. There was a language barrier and because you’re trying to speak in technical terms it’s particularly challenging to navigate. We worked with Mathewbike who helped translate over the phone and they reimbursed us for the repairs. Everyone involved was awesome.
Giant shops are plentiful on the West Coast. On the East you’ll only find them in the bigger towns and around the Central Rift Valley which is a popular cycle tourism destination.
3. Traffic in Taiwan
To summarize the on-road experience, Taiwan’s infrastructure and roads are genuinely incredible. They’re some of the best I’ve ever seen, personally. There were literally no potholes. There were often separated bike lanes. There were dozens of marked cycling routes all over the country. The cities have great bike trails - miles of them. Taiwan has clearly invested in cycling and it’s common to see locals on bikes for transport. The east is in fact a cycle touring paradise, with multiple beautiful options along the coast, through the mountains and down the Central Rift Valley between Taitung and Hualien.
Mostly cycling in Taiwanese traffic is manageable and not that terrifying. People generally follow traffic laws. You don’t see a lot of red lights run, for instance, and most people stick to their lanes. Important signs are in English as well as Chinese, and things are generally well-marked and orderly. Roundabouts and major intersections can be nerve-wracking, but people tend to behave in predictable ways. There’s a bit of chaos, but it’s generally not too overwhelming. You’ll notice that I’ve hedged a lot in this paragraph. On the ground you’ll probably see why. On the East Coast it’s fine. In the western megacity it’s mostly generally not that bad.
Seriously though: Traffic is busy in the west. All of it. These are major cities you’re passing through and it’s basically one large urban area from Taipei to Kaohsiung with an occasional rural break. The east is quite a bit less stressful.
A tip for navigating cities: watch the scooters. If they’re doing it, you likely can as well.
Cycle Route 1 itself is mostly a marked lane on the edge of busy streets. That can be stressful. Scooters share the lane frequently. In the cities people park in it, forcing you into the flow of traffic. It follows busy highways with big vehicles. Drivers are generally mindful of cyclists but it’s not exactly the ideal biking environment. Think more a highway than a pleasant trail.
Outside of the central cities (where the 1 was usually a decent option), side routes were very frequently less stressful.
My opinion is that the best way to use the 1 is as a guideline. You’ll enjoy it more if you find alternates along the way and get off the main route when possible because it’ll give you a break from the traffic. Think of an interstate in the US. It’s convenient and direct, and is nice to have as a reliable option, but it’s often not the most enjoyable path.
4. Accommodation along Taiwan Cycle Route 1
Going into the trip, we expected to camp a fair number of nights. In the end, we didn’t even take the tent out of our panniers. Why? Two reasons.
1) While we did pass the occasional campsite, we were never anywhere that felt anything like wilderness.
There are actually a lot of possible places to put up your tent. I’ve heard most temples will allow camping on their property, as will rural police departments. “Bandit camping” on public land seems to be widely tolerated though technically illegal, and even our bike rental told us it would be fine to put up our tent in public parks if we want. However, on the West Coast there were almost zero options to camp that looked like they would’ve made for a pleasant night’s sleep. Think the side of the highway or the middle of urban sprawl. On the East Coast, the settings were rural and it would’ve been easier to make a tent work, definitely, but you were still following the highway and by then we had our routine down anyway. Which gets to my second point:
2) Guest houses are affordable, pleasant, and everywhere.
There are a lot of accommodation options the entire route. Hotels and hostels are common, but we found the sweet spot were guest houses/homestays. In general, these weren’t Airbnb type experiences. They were more like small hotels where the owners lived on site. They were typically listed on Booking.com and Hotels.com, and they were almost always better value than hotels. Plus, you get a bit of interaction with the locals worked in. The only hangup is that you have to arrange a specific time for check in and (often) navigate a language barrier, but they were always accommodating and this was never a real issue for us. If you download their apps, you can message directly via Booking or Hotels and specify that you don’t speak the language. That in combination with Google Translate worked well for us. Online ratings on Google or Booking will guide you reliably. In general we paid around $30 - 50 US per night for very high standard accommodation and occasionally breakfast and coffee included. By our third or fourth night, we had figured out that these were our preference.
Reading other reports on cycling in Taiwan, you’ll hear stories about love motels - roadside accommodations that are traditionally used for a discreet night away with your lover of choice. They are very common, and some cyclists basically hop between these and 7-Elevens the whole way around the island. I’m not sure that’s the best way to experience Taiwanese culture, but they are convenient and budget friendly. Bikers like them because you can ride in to your private garage, close the door, and be in for the night. Perfect for discreet trysts. Perfect for peace of mind that your bike’s locked away. Most of these are cleaner and less seedy than you might imagine, from what I hear. We only went to one - our first night on route. It had a crumbling Roman aesthetic, lots of neon, nice free snacks and breakfast included, and a bedside catalog where we could order sex toys to the room just in case. But, it was very clean and quiet. I’ve stayed in plenty of worse places.
As with most places in the world, you can also just pull up to roadside motels. There are a lot of them, and on a cyclist’s pace you will normally have lots of options throughout the day, even on the less populated East Coast. We used Google Maps and reviews to plan ahead so we wouldn’t end up in a dive.
5. Taiwanese Food Culture
Food is a major X-Factor when traveling in Taiwan. There were a lot of great things about the country but this is one of the first things that stands out in my memory when I think back on the trip.
You’re going to like it, I’m sure of it. Taiwan is one of the best food countries I’ve ever visited. 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 delicious and 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 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.
Even 7-Eleven and it’s competitor Family Mart sell passable meals. For cycle tourists, it’s inevitable that you’ll end up there - probably at least once a day. They’re everywhere, and they’re quick, cheap, convenient and don’t require mental or emotional energy. Their sweet potatoes make great endurance fuel, or you can buy a meal and a beer and have it there. They have ATMs and coffee. If they rented beds, they’d have everything you need. It’s great, in a functional sort of way.
Street food options are endless but the quintessential experience is to go to the night market, which exist in every city and many smaller towns. For me there’s a sort of carnival atmosphere to a lot of them, with games and stalls selling varied fried foods, crowds of people and a general festive vibe. They’re great places to go if you don’t want to deal with selecting from a menu because most stalls only sell one or two things. You’ll hear talk of stinky tofu, which does in fact smell like feces. At some point I’ll tell you our story about chicken ass. Don’t let those things put you off. You’re bound to find good stuff. Taiwan is full of amazing street food, and the vast majority of it isn’t too unfamiliar for the Western palate. Night markets are so good. The sausages are great, as are the donuts and bao and scallion pancakes.
There’s a big language barrier issue in most restaurants, especially outside of the major cities. Occasionally you’ll encounter a picture menu, where pointing works, but generally the best strategy we found was to use Google Translate’s photo option, take a photo of the menu, and select from there. Many restaurants will give you a paper menu and pencil, which you can use to mark what you want, which really helps. Prices are all in Western numbers, which also helps.
6. Drinking Water in Taiwan
The summary story about drinking water in Taiwan is that most people drink either bottled or filtered water, but you probably won’t die drinking out of most taps.
My understanding is that Taiwan’s municipal supply is great - totally fit for drinking. The issue is that in a lot of older buildings, corrupted pipes are a problem and can lead to tainted water. So, you can’t always trust what comes out of the tap.
Nobody wants giardia on their bike tour, and it’s easy enough to take the cautious approach and avoid tap water. We never carried more than 2 liters each, and didn’t have problems finding water. Hotels all provided bottles or filtered options, convenience stores are everywhere with multitudes of tasty drink options, and most temples have clean water available (seriously - there are a lot of temples). Our trip was in February so we drank less than you would in the warmer months, but clean water access was never an issue.
7. Communication and language barriers in Taiwan
The language barrier is significant. Chinese is very difficult to read or speak for a non-native, and while English is relatively widespread and is now being taught universally in school, most people aren’t confident speakers - especially the older generation.
It is navigable though. People were remarkably patient and hospitable. Transit and road signs tend to have both Chinese and English characters. Google Translate is a complete travel game changer, and locals often use it themselves, particularly if they work in hospitality. Tourist attractions almost always have some amount of English signage.
For booking accommodations, we found that pre-arranging things online was helpful because both sides could use translation features to send messages. Booking.com and Hotels.com are in widespread use so they were a great resource. In a pinch, we never had any real issues when we just showed up at hotels. It was just a bit awkward with the Google translation back and forth.
For train tickets, I also never had an issue just showing up at the desk. Most people working in these types of roles have some English language skill, but they are also used to navigating the language barrier.
The biggest challenges for us came when we had bike issues that we needed to explain. There are Giant shops everywhere, but the intricacies of bicycle wheel alignment are hard to explain through gestures and short translations. Plug for Mathewbike because we were able to call them via WhatsApp, explain our situation, and allow them to translate for us with the local mechanics.
I should say again that I genuinely cannot believe how patient and helpful people were despite our bumbling inability to understand even the most basic Chinese.
8. Money in Taiwan
While credit or debit cards can be used a lot of places, especially in the city, enough of Taiwan operates primarily on a cash economy that we defaulted to paper money. Many restaurants and the majority of street stalls didn’t take cards. A lot of the guest houses we stayed in also strongly preferred cash. The good news is that there are ATMs in every convenience store, and there are an unbelievable number of those in Taiwan, so it was no problem staying cashed up.
In general Taiwan is a place that you can travel cheaply. Beer, wine and coffee were similar prices to the States but everything else was cheaper. A very nice hotel room cost about $100, but nice guest houses were in the range of $30 - 50/night. Street food was very cheap - you could fill yourself up for $5. Restaurants were a bit more expensive but it was still normal for Angel and me to both eat for around $20. The most we spent on a meal was around $70 US but that was a downtown Taipei place where we also bought multiple drinks.
Transit was always a bargain and you could cover huge distances for $10 on their national rail system. Pro tip: For transit payments, Taiwan has a nice integrated system where you can purchase an EasyCard and use it for metro trains, buses, bike shares, ferries, and even some taxis and vending machines. Get one at the airport, train station or any convenience store.
Our bike rental shook out to around $20/day each so with that a budget of $75/day was possible if we were careful.
9. Technology tips
Cell service and data coverage was solid, and as far as I remember it was literally everywhere with the exception of a small gap in the mountains when we crossed from West to East. Wifi is common but we bought SIM cards at the airport and it was totally worth the ~30$ for the month for unlimited data. We used navigation and Google Translate and Maps multiple times a day, and it made booking hotels and sorting out trains ahead much easier. This site has a nice rundown of the SIM options.
10. Navigation along Taiwan Cycle Route 1
For navigation, I downloaded the GPX for Cycle Route 1 to Maps.Me. We also used Google Maps and the Gaia App at times to identify local cycle trails. I downloaded the whole of Taiwan for offline use on both Google and Maps.Me before we left but cell coverage was really good and almost always available.
Cycle Route 1 was very well-marked but it was possible to get off track at times, particularly in the city, and I consulted the GPX a lot. I wouldn’t want to do this trip without it. It’s easy to miss turns in busy traffic, and the GPX gives you the confidence and information you need to follow alternates when it’s an option.
[Pro-tip: When we were trying to navigate around a busy or unpleasant section of highway, we plugged our destination into Maps.Me and selected the “walking” option. That tended to identify the calmer routes for bikes while the cycling option would often send us onto busy streets. This trick worked on Google Maps as well.]
11. Alternate forms of transportation
Having bikes answered most of our transport questions, but it did mean that we had to sort out how to use transit to transport our bikes as well as ourselves at times.
A couple bits of orientation: Taiwan has a high speed rail network, but you can’t take your bike on it unless you break it down and bag it up.
That’s fine though, because you can take your bike on the standard rail system (the TRA), which is easy to navigate.
The key thing to know is that not all trains allow bikes, so you have to sort out which ones do. The two easiest ways to do this are to 1) just ask at a desk at a train station (if you have time to spare) or 2) check the English language version of the Taiwan Railways Website.
Checking on the website is relatively straightforward. You go to the site and enter your starting point and destination. It’ll give you a list of trains. If the train has a green bicycle symbol next to it, it means you can take your bike along. If not, you can’t. It’s possible to book online (a little confusing) or just walk up and purchase at the station. You have to purchase separate tickets for your bike, which are half the price of a passenger.
Trains in the city operate according to a different system - the MRT. You can’t take bikes on most of these trains, although some routes in Taipei do allow cycles. Don’t forget to buy an EasyCard at the airport, MRT station or convenience stores, especially if you’re going to be in Taipei for any amount of time.
Buses typically do not allow bikes unless they’re deconstructed and bagged up, although there’s reportedly some discretion on the driver’s part.
That’s it. That’s what I think you need to know.
What haven’t I covered ? What are you still wondering? Send me a message! I’ll answer you and add it to the article!
Want more about Taiwan Cycle Route 1? Go to Part 1 of this article: Why our month of biking in Taiwan was a virtually perfect trip.