It is by riding a bicycle that you learn the contours of a country best, since you have to sweat up the hills and coast down them.”
– Ernest Hemingway
While I took a break from Taiwan’s capital city, I decided I’d take a coastal bike ride during my stay in Taitung on the east coast. This was the farthest south I had been in Taiwan and I wanted to see the landscape and breathe some fresh air.
This is the part where things didn’t go as planned because I once again did not do enough research. I checked some maps to see about riding a bike from the center of Taitung along the coast — there’s a large stretch of park to the north and I figured there’d be plenty of bike paths to enjoy a view of the Pacific Ocean on one side and the mountains on the other. I also figured it’d be easy to rent a bike, just as it was when I visited Hualien and took a long bike ride along the coast.
My hotel had free bikes for guests and I was told to help myself to one should I desire a ride. I found no staff available after check-in, but I was able to contact them via LINE. My questions included “Is there a lock for the bike?” and “Do you have any bikes with adjustable seats because all of these are much too short for me?” The answer to both questions was “no.”
As I certainly wasn’t about to kill my knees riding a bike with a seat that was at least five inches too low, I wandered around in search of a bike rental shop. It seemed that all the shops opened much too late in the day (this was early morning) or only rented to guests of hotels attached. I was directed to the oBike, the bike-sharing program of Taitung that is also available in Singapore and Malaysia (and now Taipei).
Unlike the lovable YouBikes in Taipei, oBike does not have a specific station. It uses an app to unlock and lock the bikes and users can leave the bikes anywhere. After throwing down a $30 deposit, I was ready to take the bike for a test ride.
The first thing I noticed was that the bike is fixed gear, which isn’t so great for someone who’s at least used to a three-speed public bike on the flat roads of Taipei. “Well,” I thought, “at least the coast is mostly flat.” I regret that thought.
The second thought I had as I began riding the quiet streets of Taitung was “Damn, this bike is heavy.” That is an understatement. It felt like riding a two-ton behemoth…through wet cement. These bikes weigh about twice as much as the YouBikes, and the YouBikes are not at all light. And yet, I figured it’d be fine for a leisurely ride along the coast.
That’s when I discovered that the bike path was a lane along the highway set a decent distance from the coast. Sure, there were a few rest stops where I could take in the view, but it was a long ride with trucks, cars, and motorbikes and absolutely no shade in sight — did I mention it was hot and the sun beat down on me the entire way? I’m proud to say I remembered to cover myself with plenty of sunscreen before heading out on the ride.
The ride from the old train station in Taitung began leisurely — the traffic in the small southern city was light and the drivers obeyed traffic laws (it made me wonder what the hell is wrong with drivers in the rest of Taiwan).
I was forced to take Highway 11 over Taitung Forest Park, and that’s when I realized that this was not the ride I had expected. I turned off before crossing the Zhonghua Bridge as I search for a more bike-friendly path. I took in the views from the turn-off–a man-made lake and some shade to relax for a few minutes before heading back to the road.
As I looked at the map, the one-lane highway I was on appeared much closer to the shore, but the view was entirely obscured. This wouldn’t have been a problem if it wasn’t for the sun blinding me.
I rode for a while before seeing a turn-off for Xiao Yehliu. I figured I’d have a look because I had already been to Yehliu Geopark in northern Taiwan and it was beautiful. The problem with this coastal viewpoint was the lack of bike trails and additional oBikes — I was a bit worried that I might lock the bike, walk around a bit, and return to find I had no ride back to town. As the main lookout point wasn’t all that impressive (certainly not as impressive at Yehliu), I didn’t feel like I missed out on much.
I continued riding in the heat because I thought sooner or later I’d find an actual bike path along the coast and be able to enjoy the scenery of southern Taiwan. As it was, I could admire the mountains to the west — the views kept my tired legs from giving out.
I finally stopped at an aboriginal rest stop with some sculptures and vendors. Most importantly, I found shade. Despite sweating profusely, I decided it would be wise to attempt to reapply some sunscreen to prevent my skin from turning to bacon.
After a short break while admiring the sculptures and scenery, I headed out on the road yet again — there were beautiful mountains and a rocky coast ahead of me that I wanted to reach. Unfortunately, I then noticed that the road took a long, gradual descent toward those scenic views.
“No,” I thought, “There’s not a chance in hell I could ever get this two-ton bike back up the hill and manage to make it back to Taitung.”
I turned around and headed back to town where I could take some other local roads to see some sights (though I was too exhausted to appreciate much of the scenery at that point). It was time to find lunch, which consisted of noodles across the street from my hotel, and then take a nap in the comfort of air conditioning.
A bike ride around Taitung and even the surrounding area would have been a great experience if I had planned ahead and rented a decent bike. Public bike-share programs are not intended for 20-plus-mile bike rides.