I checked my inbox in late July to find an email from StudentUniverse with the subject “You’re going to Taiwan”. I had no idea of what I was getting myself into but knew that it would be an experience of a lifetime.
“You’re going to Taiwan”
As an avid cyclist and president of the Columbia University cycling club, I have a passion for bicycle racing, but had never participated in a multi-day bike tour, let alone one that circumnavigated an entire country over the course of nine days, as is the case with the Formosa 900. Formosa is the former name of Taiwan and 900 refers to the number of kilometers biked during the event, which is part of the annual Taiwan Cycling Festival. – http://followersguru.net/
Before I knew it, three months had passed and November 3rd, the night of my departure, had arrived. After taking my last midterm of the semester and packing my bags, I was off to New York’s JFK Airport for a non-stop, overnight flight to Taipei on EVA Airways, Taiwan’s national carrier. Covering over 13,000km, this 16-hour flight is the fourth longest scheduled flight from JFK. This afforded me plenty of time to relax and get ahead with school work for the three days of classes I would be missing.
My flight landed early Saturday morning, November 5th, and after a 45-minute taxi ride to downtown Taipei, I arrived at the City Hall just in time for the opening ceremony. I met my fellow StudentUniverse Fly n’ Bike contest winners, Eric and Amy, as well as the rest of our cycling team.
We were designated the Overseas Youth Riders, a diverse group of 15 students, travel bloggers, and other young professionals hailing from the United States, Canada, Singapore, Italy, Czech Republic, Hong Kong, India and Germany. Three of my teammates brought their own bikes, while the rest of us rode on flat handlebar road bikes provided by Giant Bicycles, the trip organizer and the largest bike company in the world, headquartered in Taiwan. Over the next nine days, our group would grow to become a close-knit family.
Day 1 – Taipei to Jiaoxi
On our first day, we covered 96 kilometers, from Taipei, Taiwan’s capital at the northern edge of the island, to Jiaoxi, a hot springs town on the northeastern coast. We departed under the shadow of the Taipei 101 skyscraper with sunny 25ºC weather, about 15ºC warmer than the cool fall weather of New York. We had four leaders: two on bikes and two driving our luggage and supply vans. Averaging a little over 20km/hr, we took breaks every 15 to 20 kilometers to regroup and refuel. It took about 30 kilometers of urban riding before we left the Taipei metropolitan area for quieter roads in the countryside. Our first major challenge was a climb up a mountain road, ending in a long tunnel that sliced through the rest of the mountain range and a descent into the Shifen valley for lunch. This meal was typical of all meals during the trip, shared dishes with an abundant and tasty variety of local cuisine. Meat, fish, rice, soup and vegetable dishes were piled high onto a lazy Susan at the center of a large, round table.
After lunch, we rode through the Old Caoling Tunnel, a railroad tunnel turned bike path, and followed Cycling Route Number 1, which runs between the Pacific coastline and railroad tracks, to reach Jiaoxi by sunset. Natural hot springs served as the water source for our rooms’ showers, a well-deserved treat after a long day of riding. After dinner, we were keen to explore the town. Taiwan is known for its outdoor night markets with food vendors and other stalls lined up along pedestrian-only streets. That night, we went to our first of many night markets, where we got fish spa treatments, sampled spicy ice cream, and dipped our feet in public hot springs. I hadn’t slept in a real bed for 48 hours, so I fell asleep immediately upon returning to the hotel and had overcome my jet lag by the following morning.
Day two began with a two-hour train ride to Hualien to avoid riding on a dangerous stretch of highway. We regrouped at the local Giant Bicycle store, adjacent to the train station, where we purchased extra cycling gear and snacked on mochi, before starting our 75km ride to Ruisui. I started to get accustomed to the nature of cycling in Taiwan, having spent hours on end on the open roads. It’s hard to go a few kilometers in Taiwan without encountering a convenience store, the most common of which are 7 Eleven and Family Mart. My go-to snacks were milk tea and seafood-filled Japanese style rice triangles, both of which cost a total of 40 New Taiwan Dollars, or just over 1 USD. Other common sights included stray dogs, fish farms, rice fields, and construction worker mannequins with mechanical arms to alert drivers of road work. There were also open drainage canals on the side of the road to handle the influx of rainwater during monsoon season, an obstacle to be avoided.
Another sight to behold was the sheer number of motor scooters on the road. The bike lane would often be shared with scooters and at traffic lights, they would surround us in front of the line of cars. Cities outside of Taipei lack sidewalks, so it was a challenge to navigate between passing scooters and cars on our left and oncoming pedestrians on our right, but there was order to the mayhem. I was most surprised, though, by the garbage trucks, which play music we are accustomed to hearing from ice cream trucks in the United States. The highlight of Day 2 was our visit to East Rift Valley Park, where there are 10-foot tall wooden letters that spell out Taiwan. The latter part of the ride was mostly on bike paths, which brought us to Ruisui, another hot spring village where we spent the night.
Day three was the first of two long, 125km days of cycling. Our first rest stop was near some rice fields with narrow paths running through them, which made for countless photo and video opportunities. We also visited the geological fault between the Eurasian and Philippine Sea Plate and the Paradise bike trail, a stretch of straight, flat road running through pristine grasslands with tall mountains in the distance. Rather than the typical banquet style lunch, we opted for bento boxes, which we ate at an old railroad station that was converted into a Giant Bicycle store in Guanshan Township. After lunch, most of the ride was downhill into Zhiben, the last of three hot spring towns we’d be staying in. We arrived just after sunset and treated ourselves to the hotel’s elaborate hot springs, which included pools of various temperatures, jets of water to massage various body parts, a steam room and sauna, and even a tub of hard-boiled eggs that had been naturally cooked in hot spring water. The tour staff truly spoiled us with the luxurious accommodations they arranged.
The fourth day was characterized by steep inclines as we crossed the mountain range that separates the rural countryside of the east coast of Taiwan from the industrial port cities of the island’s west coast. The first half of our ride ran south, parallel to the ocean, as the road hugged the windy, undulating contours of the Pacific coastline. A right turn off the main road marked the beginning of our 14km uphill climb to Shouka peak. This was the one time during the tour when we were allowed to pass our ride leader, James, and race to the top of the mountain. My teammate, Eric, a fellow collegiate cyclist from UCLA, was determined to beat the fastest time up the climb as noted by Strava, a performance tracking app for cyclists that keeps leaderboards for popular roads. I was able to follow his wheel for the first five minutes of the climb before easing off and continuing at my own pace. Eric ended up taking the “King of the Mountain” title after reaching the top in just under 27 minutes and I followed about 10 minutes behind, having been slowed down by a flat tire about one kilometer from the summit. The final 40 kilometers to Checheng were downhill. We began our descent on a narrow, one lane wide road with two-way traffic. Thankfully, all of the blind corners were equipped with rounded mirrors which allowed us to see oncoming traffic. We took a rest stop at the Mudan Elementary School, where we had our first chance to interact with local schoolchildren. Our arrival coincided with their dismissal time and my teammate, Steve, brought candy for us to distribute to a school bus full of students.
Our fifth day of riding marked not only the halfway point of the tour, but also Election Day in the United States. Steve wore an American flag jersey as a display of patriotism. Due to the time difference and sporadic internet connection, we were able to receive election coverage in three distinct streams of information. By the time we left the hotel in the morning, it was about 7 pm on the east coast and polls were just beginning to close in certain states. We faced strong headwinds during the first part of the ride and took a scenic rest stop at a beach on the Taiwan Strait.
By lunchtime, most of the polls across the country had closed and Trump had a good chance of beating Clinton, contrary to what most people had predicted. The winds died down during our afternoon of riding, but the landscape became more and more industrial as we approached Kaohsiung, the first major city we had passed through since Taipei. We saw the silhouette of factories in the distance and a faint skyline beyond that. As the road expanded to a full-fledged highway, the shoulder became a separated bike lane, shared with motor scooters. We passed an airport, shopping mall, and sports arena, all indications of our arrival in the city, before reaching our hotel. By then, the election had been decided, and to most of our team’s surprise, Trump was victorious. It was about 3 am New York time and his victory speech was being broadcast as breaking news on the Taiwan television networks. I spent the rest of the night finishing an essay for school, while the rest of my teammates explored Kaohsiung’s most famous attractions, the Love River and Lotus Pond, as well as its numerous night markets.
Day 6 – 8
The next three days of riding seem to blend together in my mind as most of it was spent on flat roads through Taiwan’s most populated areas outside of Taipei. We upheld the mental stamina needed to spend six-hour-days on the saddle, while also facing the physical challenge of having accrued hundreds of kilometers in our legs while still having hundreds to go. Our leader, Aya, and my teammate, Daphne, always gave motivational speeches at the beginning of each day of riding, which helped us push through to the finish.
We stayed overnight in the cities of Chiayi, Taichung, and Hsinchu as we made our way north toward Taipei. Along the way, we met another team of Formosa 900 riders from Korea, crossed one of the longest bridges in Taiwan, and paid a visit to the Giant Bicycle worldwide headquarters. Countless temples, 7 Elevens, windmills, and Family Marts later, we made it on our eighth night to Hsinchu, the last city before our return to Taipei.
Rather than having a banquet style dinner, as we had become so accustomed to, we were given a red envelope with a meal’s worth of New Taiwan Dollars to spend at the local night market. Some tried local specialties, like oyster omelets, while others had pizza to satisfy their cravings for western food.
On our last day of riding, we encountered hills once again reminiscent of the east coast terrain, which we thought was long gone. The mountains immediately surrounding Taipei are conducive to farming, which was evident in the abundant offerings at a local indoor farmer’s market. We said our first of many emotional goodbyes at lunchtime to our teammate, Marie, who was headed back to Hong Kong. After lunch, we enjoyed a high-speed descent from the mountains and experienced more and more traffic as we approached Taipei. Just when I thought it couldn’t get any more crowded, we made a sudden left turn onto a bike path that followed the Dahan River into downtown Taipei.
At our final rest stop, Aya asked for volunteers to deliver a speech at the closing ceremony. I offered to do it in Chinese, hoping that my college language requirement would help me live up to this task. I spent the rest of the way to Taipei City Hall thinking of what to say and practicing with my Singaporean teammates, both native Mandarin speakers. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by our tour guide, Lily, who had left us nine days earlier after handing us off to the Giant Bicycle staff. I arrived back in Taipei not only a few skin tones tanner and with 900 more kilometers in my legs, but also with 20 new friends. Tears of joy were shed, hugs were exchanged, banners were signed, medals were awarded, speeches were given, and many photos were taken at the closing ceremony. We bade farewell to our four leaders from Giant and boarded a tour bus to head to the last of ten hotels we’d be staying in over the course of the trip. Not only were we treated to single occupancy rooms, but also ones with king sized beds, decorated with a chic New York aesthetic. After having dinner at a traditional Taiwanese restaurant, I visited the famous Longshan Temple and ate delicious shaved ice from the Guangzhou Street Night Market. We regrouped back at the hotel and spent our last night together exploring Taipei nightlife, dancing until sunrise.
Our tenth and final day was a tour of Taipei, led by Lily from the Taiwan Tourism Board. Our call time was at 11 am, the latest it had been on the entire trip. We headed straight to lunch at Five Dimes Restaurant, which served traditional Taiwanese food in a whimsical, artistic setting inspired by Spanish architect Antoni Gaudi. After that, we traveled back into the mountains surrounding Taipei to Yangmingshan National Park, where we hiked past a geothermal hotspot and across rolling grasslands.
Having worked up quite an appetite, we traveled back downtown to the Michelin star dumpling restaurant, Din Tai Fung. We commenced our meal with truffle filled dumplings, and about a dozen courses later, ended with chocolate dumplings for dessert. Our waitress explained the surgical level precision with which the dumplings are made and we even got to see the chef’s artistry for ourselves by looking into the open kitchen. Each wrapper is rolled to paper-thin consistency, a weighted amount of filling is added, the dumpling is given exactly 18 folds, and then it’s steamed for a precise amount of time before being served. The meal undoubtedly lived up to our high expectations. Our final stop on the trip was a visit to the observatory on top of Taipei 101, the tallest building in the world from 2004 to 2009. The express elevator took us from the 5th floor to the 89th floor in about 35 seconds. Its extreme speed is matched by extreme stability; if you put a 2.4mm thick 50 New Taiwan Dollar coin vertically on the floor of the elevator, it will remain perfectly upright during the ascent. The high-tech nature of the tower is also exemplified by its 660-ton pendulum, which is suspended from the 92nd floor and serves to reduce the building’s movement in typhoon winds. The skyscraper served as a point of reference for the entire trip. It was the first landmark of Taipei I spotted while traveling from the airport, it was in its shadow that we started and finished the Formosa 900, and it would be on its rooftop where we would say goodbye to Taipei.
That night, we returned to the hotel to pack our bags and say our final goodbyes, and by the following morning, I was on a direct flight back to New York. It was so hard to say goodbye to my teammates, having shared such a unique and challenging experience together, and knowing that it would be long before I’d see everyone again, considering that our hometowns are spread across the globe. There are so many people to thank for this experience of a lifetime. I would have never known about or had the chance to participate in this event if it weren’t for the outreach and support from Student Universe, the Taiwan Tourism Board, and Giant Bicycle Adventures. Furthermore, my trip wouldn’t have been the same without the 20 awesome individuals who shared this experience with me: Amy, Aya, Daphne, Eric Lee, Eric Roger, Ervin, Gerard, Jackson, James, Jerry, Juan, Lily, Marie, Ms. Lee, Nic, Priyanka, Roberto, Steve, Veronika, and Weiwei.
Please check out my video montage of the trip.