Taiwan on Wheels

View from the Circle Sun Moon Lake cycling course.

View from the Circle Sun Moon Lake cycling course. 

One of the first impressions a visitor absorbs after arriving in Taiwan is that this is a nation on the move. Everyone in the 23 million populace in the island of the Republic of China appears to be rushing somewhere much of the time. Except during extended traffic slowdowns at workday rush hours, the wide majority is steadily mobile on a wide range of cars, motorcycles, mopeds and pedal bikes.

As explained by officials of the Tourism Bureau of Taiwan’s Ministry of Transportation and Communication, Taiwan’s government hatched a unique scheme a few years ago to harness the island’s original and still ubiquitous affinity for bicycle transportation as a national sporting pastime. The idea was to create competitive cycling events as an attraction to draw both professional touring athletes and sports-minded tourists from around the world to join Taiwan’s own fitness-focused cyclists in an annual festival. Competitive as well as leisurely touring events were designed to showcase the hundreds of miles of world-class bicycling routes, including purpose-built bikeways, crisscrossing the island’s scenic mountainous terrain.

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The result was the Taiwan Cycling Festival, run for the third annual time this past November 9-17. The festival events are run with the organizational support of the Taiwan Cyclists Federation and many corporate sponsors, such as the internationally renowned bicycle equipment manufacturer Giant, based in Taichung City, Taiwan, a major supporter of the cycling industry in the country.

At a press conference at Hualien’s Parkview Resort Hotel, where dozens of competing cyclists overnighted on the eve of the 2013 Cycling Festival’s first race, Taiwan’s Administrative Deputy Minister of Transportation and Communications Jian-Yu Chen explained the Tourism Bureau’s festival objectives.

“We have been riding bikes here for a long time, but mainly as transportation,” said Chen. “Now, because [cycling] is used elsewhere as a sport we want to develop this aspect too…At this stage we just want people to become more familiar with the island. Right now this is a semi-pro sporting event, but in the future we might want to develop a professional race.”

Although the main events of the Taiwan Cycling Festival were centered between Hualien on the east coast and the 10,700-foot summit of Hehuanshan Mountain in Wulang 65 miles inland, as well as around Sun Moon Lake in west central Taiwan, David Hsieh, director general of the Taiwan Tourism Bureau in the Ministry of Transportation and Communications, said the festival was designed to involve the entire country. “We have 1,800 kilometers [1,100 miles] of bikeways in Taiwan,” said Hsieh. “We want to show how convenient it is to cycle all around the island. On the east coast we have a lot of aboriginal tribes and this event is an opportunity to travel around and interact with a lot of these people.”

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The King of the Mountain challenge started in the pre-dawn mist at the starting point along the Qixingtan seashore in Hualien. There, 440 cyclists from 28 countries would ascend on bike through the cavernous Taroko Gorge — a national park, Taiwan’s answer to the Grand Canyon — on their way to the grueling climb up Hehuanshan Mountain.

The gorge’s narrow stone canyons extend hundreds of feet into the air above the winding Liwu River, which has carved its way through the gorge’s limestone rock walls for centuries. The scenery is marked by green carpets of ascending, vertical evergreen and deciduous forests, manmade traffic and pedestrian tunnels cut through Hehuanshan Mountain passes, and multiple narrow waterfalls descending hundreds of feet into the gorge below.

A festival highlight for our group was the family Bike Day event at Sun Moon Lake, the largest fresh water lake in the country, located in western Taiwan between Nantou City on its south shore and Taichung City to the north. The lake and its surroundings are a “national scenic area” with bikeways considered among Taiwan’s most visually attractive. The 30K (18.6-mile) Round Sun Moon Lake Challenge drew about 2,000 cyclists for the early morning start, with a second shorter course of 7.5 miles attracting about 1,500 more riders to a more leisurely family-friendly cycling experience.

On our 30K clockwise cycling ride we experienced panoramic views of the lake and its adjacent mountain valleys from elevated locations, and passed through the small lakeside villages of Provin, Shuishe, Zhaowu and Wenwu. Afterward, we received medals and completion certificates inscribed with our names and official race times. We next moved on to enjoy panoramic views from the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway cable car that soars into the mountains above the lake. Tickets for the ride were $10 per adult, and about $8 per senior or child.

We also enjoyed a guided tour on a Sun Moon Lake Dragon Boat which circles the lake for about $15 per person and passes sites including a sunken island in the lake’s center and a villa where Chiang Kai-shek, Taiwan’s first president, enjoyed his vacation stays.

Alongside Sun Moon Lake in the town of Ita Thao, home of the aboriginal Thao tribe that originally inhabited the region, the market streets and lakeside promenade attracted many more Taiwanese and international visitors to a festive carnival atmosphere. Our day on Sun Moon Lake ended with a tour of Wen Wu Temple. Built in 1938, the temple is popular with students as one of its main altars is dedicated to Confucius (551–479 B.C.), the Chinese philosopher of wisdom.

High above the temple’s red clay rooftops the scene of the lake and surrounding mountains from an outdoor terrace provided some of the most beautiful views and photo opportunities we experienced in Taiwan.

It is classic Far-Eastern understatement to say that Taiwan and its government are “all-in” on their commitment to cycling as a competitive and leisure sports tourism activity for both its citizens and visitors. The officials we met pledged that more bikeways, richer competitive cycle racing award money, larger numbers of professional cyclists and, hopefully, many more tourists will be part of its growing cycling tourism future.

The King of the Mountain challenge, one of the cycling events Taiwan hopes will draw sports-minded tourists, gets under way in Hualien.
The King of the Mountain challenge, one of the cycling events Taiwan hopes will draw sports-minded tourists, gets under way in Hualien.