“Where did you two come from?” asks a husky voice in Mandarin. I squint up at the slightly hunched old Taiwanese lady who’s shuffled over from the shed we’ve stopped at, its pastel-painted wooden slats cracked and faded from the sun, high in its midday perch in a washed-out blue sky, casting shadows in the wrinkles of our inquisitor’s face.
“We came from Taipei,” I reply, my grip on the lingua franca of Taiwan serviceable but shaky.
“Taipei is far away,” she grins, exposing two rows of gapped, crooked teeth like the keys of a smashed piano.
“True. We’re riding down to Taitung.”
“To Taitung?” Her eyes widen. “On this scooter? Taitung is very far! Please be careful,” she adds warmly.
By now, I’m used to this sort of exchange. Even before setting out on our impromptu road trip from Taiwan’s buzzing northern capital to its sleepier southeastern cousin, I’d fielded incredulous looks from locals and expats alike, aghast that anyone would be foolish enough to ride that distance on a scooter. “It’s only 350km. I’m from South Africa; we drive that distance for weekends away,” I’d bragged, ignorantly. (Measured tip to tip, Taiwan is under 250 miles, or 400km, long.)
Now, on day two, just south of the coastal city of Hualien, my hubris has come back to bite me in the posterior. The dinky 125cc Kymco we rented in Taipei is more of a city runaround than a countryside cruiser — more Vespa than Harley — but with the benefits of neither. It’s going to be a long day.
We departed Taipei the day before, crawling eastward through the traffic on the outskirts before puttering through Shenkeng, Shiding and Pinglin districts, each growing steadily less urban, edging away from the ugly, pragmatic architecture of the cities towards rural traditionalism. Soon I could open the throttle up a little as the road wound beneath heavy canopies of evergreen trees, their leaves bathed in gold from the midday sun. We wended up formidable jungle-covered hills and down through tiny agrarian communities where cross-hatched crops grew in orderly lines surrounded by scatterings of wild, untamed spring flowers. We shot through the flat coastal basin of Yilan City before skirting the Philippine Sea down to the popular seaside town of Hualien to rest our weary behinds for the night.
The main attraction today: Provincial Highway 11, which links Hualien with Taitung via 100-odd miles of well-maintained, undulating tarmac that carves the edges of precipitous white cliffs, slices inland through lush green valleys before diving back down to follow the coast. Highway 11 is also a popular cycling route — we see families, tour groups and solo cyclists, their back wheels flanked by panniers laden with gear, resolutely carving a path by the strength of their legs while I flick my wrist to pull on the throttle.
After bidding our concerned citizen at the shed farewell, the highway winds inland through impossibly vibrant terrain where the air smells dustier and the long grass growing on the embankments is frosted yellow at the tips. An hour south of Hualien, we pause to wander the surreal Xinshe Rice Terraces. They fall from the road to the shore like great reflective steps shot through with parallel rows of rice shoots, their mirror-like surfaces deepening the blue of the spring sky and blurring its puffy, whipped-cream clouds into white smudges.
Over and under
Spring skies in Taiwan see more sun, but they also see more change. “Spring is like a stepmother’s face,” says an old Taiwanese proverb — meaning it’s prone to swift, cruel looks at any moment in the form of sudden rain or temperature changes. Pushing on south, the road straight and smooth, clouds knit together ominously on the horizon, like a blanket slowly being drawn across the sky.
The day feels later than the hour by the time we reach the Baxian Caves (or Eight Immortals Caves). Though relatively shallow, the caves have been found to contain relics of the Changpinian Culture, suggesting they were inhabited up to 25,000 years ago, making it one of the most significant archaeological sites in the country.
We climb the steep wooden boardwalk that leads to the upper caves, wiping away the sweat pouring into our eyes in the stifling afternoon heat. Though the highest is set into the cliffs 430ft above sea level, these are in fact sea caves, formed by tidal erosion millions of years ago and forced upwards by tectonic movement. At the little shrine at the top of the trail, a wooden shutterboard roof perched on a yellow-painted steel frame, incense mingles with the humid air as we gaze out over black-sand beaches rising over scrubby hills into peaks.
On towards the darkening horizon, by the time we enter the final stretch to Taitung, the road is black and slick with rain. The streets are darker and their fringes more expansive than those of Taipei or even sleepy Hualien, as we skirt the edge of town to our guesthouse which is set among orchards of fruit and chillies.
After a day soaking up Taitung’s laid-back atmosphere, the inland Highway 9 takes us back up north, passing the Tropic of Cancer mark before plunging down into a wide-open basin of paddy fields and dotted settlements, pumping the throttle once more to zoom through Guangfu and Fenglin, Hualien and then west inland to Taroko Gorge.
On the trail
The gorge is a 12 mile-long marble canyon that stretches like a great scar through Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s premier natural wilderness. Having secured permits in advance (a must if you want to attempt any of the more interesting trails in the park), we rise shortly after dawn to hike the notorious Old Zhuilu Trail. Although a round trip of only four miles, the trail is one of the most hair-raising in the country — a steep two-mile ascent from Swallow Grotto leads to a 1,600ft-long path cut into a vertical cliff, its widest point a metre, narrowing to two feet in places.
Creeping gingerly along the path, always leaning to the right, I gaze down an unfathomable distance to where the Liwu River winds its way between imposing, landslide-scarred buttresses of rock that rise up to challenge the clouds for their place in the sky, their peaks flickering in and out of view as the grey pall crawls by. By the time we edge back along the ledge, the gorge has disappeared, lost in a sea of fog.
Two hours later and back in the real world, I’m lying on my back in Wenshan Hot Spring, my still-spinning head resting on a flat stone, my aching backside submerged in a rocky pool of hot, sulphurous water, my feet dangling in the icy water of a gushing river that splashes cool relief into the pool sporadically. The experience tugs my nervous system in various directions, but the overall effect is one of utter relaxation — a far cry from the stress of navigating the smooth, steep, perilously slippery sandstone steps down to the river’s edge. Here there’s no roar of traffic, only the buzz of cicadas and birds jostling in the trees, of the rush of water and rustling of leaves on the breeze that sweeps the sulphur from the air.
Getting there & around
Air China flies Heathrow to Taoyuan Airport from £450 return. Regular trains and buses run between Taipei and Taitung, departing from Taipei Main Station.
When to go
Taiwan is affected by two monsoon seasons: the northeast monsoon runs from around October to March, while the southwest monsoon runs from around May to September. April is the best time to visit, with average temperatures of 23C. Winters are largely mild (16C) but cold in the mountains, while summer is stupefyingly hot (30C).
How to do it
Motorbikes can be rented in Taipei from Bike Farm from £12.50/day. They can also be rented from Taroko Gorge from just outside the Xincheng Taroko train station from £15/day. Highway 11 is a highly popular cycling route; bikes can be rented from £12.50/day through Giant, which also organises personalised cycling tours.
Published in the Adventure guide, distributed with the September 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)