Cycling Taiwan: Taipei

I must confess, I’d never really considered putting Taipei or Taiwan on my 100-places to-see-before-I-die list. I am after all, a Malaysian who has a healthy exposure to Chinese culture back home. It wasn’t until I was sent there to cover the Taipei Cycle Show 2017 for Cycling Plus Malaysia, that I realised this was a country I could very well retire in. No joke!

 Running around the Taipei Cycle Show on the last day to squeeze in as many last minute interviews as possible. E-bikes and E-MTBs seem to be the upward trend!

Running around the Taipei Cycle Show on the last day to squeeze in as many last minute interviews as possible. E-bikes and E-MTBs seem to be the upward trend!

Some folks say the food is a bit bland if you’re coming from Malaysia or Thailand. It’s also a little tricky for travellers with some food constraints (I don't eat pork), but there’s actually a lot to look out for cuisine-wise. In fact, the food that we've tried has been quite tasty! If you don’t speak Mandarin, there will be a language barrier too, especially if you’re going off the tourist path. But I digress.

The reality is that for cyclists, Taiwan or Taipei at the very least, MUST BE on your bucket list. With everything else? You’ll manage.

So there we were having to hastily plan a somewhat last minute trip to Taipei, with a few days set aside to cover the trade show. Eka and I had to take into account another big touring trip we are doing later this year, so we had to be smart in our planning. Traversing all of Taiwan was out of the question because of the short duration of our visit, so we would have to make do with exploring Taipei only.

We literally had 2 days and a half (more like a quarter) to get our cycling fix in. Needless to say, we were determined to make it work! Read on to find out what our 2-day cycling itinerary was like.

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The 11th hour itinerary

  • Day 1: Nadiah’s late evening arrival and check-in to hotel, prep for Taipei Cycle Show 2017

  • Day 2: Interviews and meetings at Taipei Cycle

  • Day 3: Interviews and meetings at Taipei Cycle, Eka’s late evening arrival

  • Day 4: Last day at Taipei Cycle, check out of hotel and check in to Airbnb, quick night ride

  • Day 5: Easy city exploration ride

  • Day 6: Circle Trail ride with Odi, our Airbnb host

  • Day 7: Fly home

As you can see from the itinerary, the first two days I was on my own at Taipei Cycle, with my colleague who isn’t a regular cyclist and had just sprained her foot. The day Eka arrived he was barely in time to have dinner and hit the sack. Day 4 was spent wandering around the trade show (it is open to the public on the last day) for my last few interviews, more photos, and basically to spot anything else that I may have missed.

Pro tip: For the traveling cyclist, Taipei Cycle’s luggage room can hold big items until the end of the event, and this includes your own bicycle be it in a bag, luggage case or bike box. Eka and I often travel with a carry-on approved backpack, and our bikes packed for check-in, so everything went to temporary storage while we did a sweep of the exhibition hall booths.

Breaking out the bikes

By the evening of Day 4, we’d assembled our bikes for a quick jaunt to the nearby Raohe street night market. There was a slight sprinkling of rain which quickly turned into a steady drizzle by the time we were halfway there. I was quite miserable on the extremely wet ride, but if you have the right rain gear this is the best weather for exploring the night markets because the crowd lessens considerably. I eventually picked up a dry fit hoodie at a sporting goods store there, to go over my thermal inner layers.

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The rain is pretty common for spring weather in Taipei, and remember that temperatures drop significantly when this happens. The wind also picks up quite a bit, rivalling even the coastal winds we battled cycling in Noto, Japan.

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Days 5 and 6 were when we really got a chance to explore the riverside bike lanes. This is where our real cycling adventure around Taipei began. Our 2-day city cycling itinerary below.

Exploring the sights and sounds around the Keelung river

On Day 5, we opted for a shorter ride along the Keelung River, to get acquainted with the riverside bike paths.

Our cycling route around the Keelung river. Approximately 30km for the day.

From our Airbnb location, we first rode to the Rainbow bridge in order to cross the river. When we arrived at the Rainbow bridge, we met a really nice old man who offered to take a photo of us despite not speaking a word of English. In fact, we found that people in Taipei are all genuinely really nice and helpful.

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We proceeded to cross the bridge and the quickest way was to take the stairs. Luckily, the stairs had a built in ramp that helps cyclists wheel their bikes up and down. Almost all stairs that connected to bridges had this feature, and some of them also have long ramps for you to cycle up into the bridge as well.

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It was mostly a very drizzly morning, and the hoody I bought from the sports shop the evening before was being put to good use. Despite the drizzle, we enjoyed a leisurely pace along the river path.

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Our ride crossed many basketball courts and baseball training grounds that dot the riverside parks. The bike lanes also branch off closer to the river, running parallel to inner lanes that flank the wall separating the parks from the rest of the city. At some points we came across graffiti, which told us that Taipei has a thriving youth pop culture.

The first stop on our route was the Lin an Tai Ancestral Home, where we took a lengthy break for photographs and to wait out the rain. The mansion has an elaborate courtyard and was originally built in 1754 by a wealthy merchant in the southern Fujian style, in accordance with Feng Shui and Taoist principles. The house is now a museum, and is the best preserved and maintained heritage home in Taipei city and northern Taiwan. Stepping into the expansive complex was like literally taking a stroll through time.

With no let up in the weather we continued on our way, stopping at a bike shop called Bikehome to have mudguards fitted to my bike, since my jeans were getting wet from the puddles on the roads. If you don't speak Mandarin, look for Murphy, who speaks fluent English. You can see him hard at work on my bike in the picture below, and I must say he did an awesome job. If you drop by, tell him Nadiah and Eka from Malaysia say hi :)

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Next up was the magnificent Bao-an temple, which was founded in 1760 by Fujian immigrants. We parked our bikes in an alley beside the temple and proceeded into the temple compound, which is pictured in the main photo at the very top of this page.

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The Baoan Temple received the Unesco Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for both its restoration and revival of temple rites and festivities. You can see these at the annual folk arts festival called the Baosheng Cultural Festival, held from March to June. The best part? They're all open to the public free of charge!

Before the sun set and it got too dark, we took a quick tour of the nearby Confucius Temple. The details of its construction are a bit sketchy, but there's a tea house there that supposedly serves some very fine tea, and free Confucius-themed shows in a 4D cinema. We were a bit too late for that, since it was already sundown by the time we finished wandering around the temple.

Overall, it was a slow ride that day on account of the rain, and after a quick Mos Burger dinner we were ready to head back to our Airbnb home. Overall, we cycled about 30km for the day.

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Cycling the Taipei Circle Trail

On Day 6, our Airbnb host Odi had planned a nice day of cycling on the Circle Trail, which coincided with some gorgeous weather.

Our cycling route around Taipei. Approximately 80km for the day.

The ride would take us through a number of historical areas, including the Nangang district, with a hill climb to the border between Taipei and New Taipei City. "Every awesome journey starts with a climb!" says Eka. If I knew beforehand this was a part of our ride, I may have thought twice. But in all honesty, I was deeply satisfied to have made it through the 5kms, since it had an average gradient of up to 15 PERCENT.

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Afterwards, we arrived in Shenkeng District, a former agricultural and mining town. Before the Han Chinese farmers bought the land there, it was originally inhabited by a tribe of Pingpu aborigines during the Qing dynasty.

The Shenkeng Old Street itself runs less than three hundred metres, but it is a beautiful array of red brick shops. The buildings are not the original, having undergone renovation several years ago, but maintained in the old style. It is one of the best places to buy authentic Taiwanese foods and snacks for souvenirs, since there are plenty on offer there. 

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Having worked up our appetites, we opted to sample the local stinky tofu delicacy. Odi told us Shengkeng is the best place to try it for the first time, because of the mountain spring water in the broth used in their own distinctive cooking method. It's an odd thing indeed, with a soft texture that breaks apart easily when you chew it, and goes perfectly with the onions and chilli it is cooked in. There was NO hint of the taste of tofu that I generally dislike (please don't hate me, I'm just not a tofu kinda girl. Tempeh however, is a whole different story). But this was an extraordinary exception! The accompanying cabbage and rice noodles in sesame oil were equally splendid.

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Afterwards, we rode through the Dao Nan Riverside Park heading to the older Wanhua District, to see the Lungshan Temple. 

The Lungshan Temple of Manka was built in 1738 by settlers from Fujian, to serve as their gathering place. The original building was destroyed by earthquakes and fires, and had to be rebuilt. It even suffered bombing during World War II. As a result, the present structure has picked up a lot of different influences throughout the years. 

If you're hungry, there's a decent pastry shop across the street, where we bought lunch and sat down at the nearby public area to talk about the the social and political climate of Taiwan, and everything else in between. We were surrounded by a throng of senior citizens at their designated hangout spot, which was understandable considering it was an old neighbourhood.

Once full, we continued on our way. By afternoon, we’d made it to one of the most beautiful spots along the Tamsui River, where there were glorious views of the Yangminshan National Park in the distance. Dadaocheng Wharf is a popular spot among the locals, and is best enjoyed on sunny afternoons.

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Right around here is where there are some of the best public toilets of Taipei's bike network. They're large enough to accommodate bikes, built deliberately so to ensure cyclists needing to take a tinkle can just bring them in. Mind you, most of them run out of toilet paper (or just don't have any) and don't have bidets, so come prepared if you need either of the two. At other less popular areas you'll find some not so nice toilets, and even port-a-loos (gross but necessary at times).

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From there, we exited the bike paths once again to see the Datong district, also a heritage area inhabited by traditional Chinese medicine and herbal shops. This particular area called Di Hua was built in the 1850s, and has been a centre of commerce for local produce like medicinal herbs, fabrics, incense materials, and Taiwanese tea. Basically everything imported in and exported out of the country.

The shops constructed in the historical area have a beautiful mix of western baroque and modernist architectural and decorative touches.

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Somewhere here Eka had a refreshing cup of grass jelly from one of the street stalls which he said, "Tastes awesome!" It was similar to our cincau drink back home, but way more fragrant with just the right amount of sweetness to bring the delicate flavour out.

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From Di Hua, we re-entered the bike lane to continue our journey along the Tamsui River, where it was very easy to get distracted by the extremely scenic views.  

We reached the confluence of the Keelung and Tamsui Rivers just in time for the golden hour, which was the perfect setting for photographs.

Right after our impromptu photo session and as we were about to set off again, Odi's chain came off. A fellow cyclist rushed to help like many strangers there will do without question, another sign of how courteous the locals are. We then continued on our journey along the Keelung River, by which time the wind had begun to pick up. We took another break to catch our breaths but soon continued into the crazy headwinds as the skies continued to darken.

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After battling the headwinds, our ravenous appetites were looking forward to a hot steamy bowl of beef noodle soup each. It was slightly out of our way home from the Circle Trail, but it was well worth it.

 A hot bowl of beef noodle soup, opting for the spicy order, was a fantastic way to end our ride.

A hot bowl of beef noodle soup, opting for the spicy order, was a fantastic way to end our ride.

Our overall loop for the day including the excursion to the beef noodle shop was a nice even total of 80kms. By then, it was time to pack up our bikes for our flight home the next morning.

Our Airbnb stay

Odi is an excellent host and always keen to take her guests out cycling. We highly recommend her place, because it is a great base for exploring Taipei on two wheels. Check out the Airbnb details here. Odi and her husband Edward also have their own Facebook page, Taiwan On Two Wheels.

Some other useful information for cycling in Taipei

We had no public transport use for our trip, but here are three links to read about taking your bike on trains, or shipping your bike as luggage.

http://www.railway.gov.tw/en/cp.aspx?sn=16981&n=19610

http://english.metro.taipei/ct.asp?xItem=89829374&CtNode=70246&mp=122036

http://taiwanincycles.blogspot.my/2011/01/taiwan-railway-administration-bicycle.html

On bike rentals:

https://taipei.youbike.com.tw/en/index.php

http://taiwanincycles.blogspot.my/2016/03/giant-bike-rental-biking-taiwan-on.html

http://tripercise.com/bike-rental

Quick retrospective

Overall, I will admit that I have never cycled on such a wonderful network of bicycle lanes, than I did in Taipei. The roads were smooth for riding and had all the necessary infrastructure for cyclists like proper bike parking, free public toilets and ramps for the stairs, with gorgeous views all around regardless of the weather. While I’ve not been to the great cycling cities in Europe as a cyclist, I’m willing to wager that Taipei is up there among the likes of Copenhagen, Amsterdam, Budapest, and many more.

We will hopefully return next year for a trip around the entire island of Taiwan, and maybe one day conquer Wuling mountain!

*For more details on Taipei’s cycling infrastructure and what it was like cycling in the city, my official write-up on our trip will be in the Cycling Plus Malaysia July-August issue.

*You can also read our article on the Taipei Cycle Show 2017 for our pick of the more interesting foldies at the trade show, or pick up a copy of the Cycling Plus Malaysia May-June issue for a general write up on the bike trends for the year.