Cycling Taiwan, Part 2: Journey to Jiufen and Houtong

Our journey continued with our bikes on a train from Hualien to Su’Ao, and then cycling onwards to Toucheng. An epic climb up to the lantern lit town of Jiufen awaited, after which we found purradise at the Houtong Cat Village.

This is a continuation from Cycling Taiwan, Part 1: Journey through the East Rift Valley.

Day 3: Short train ride to Su’Ao, then cycle to Toucheng

  • Start Su’Ao

  • Finish Toucheng

  • Distance 35km

  • Climbing 135m

  • Grade Easy

It was the third day of our tour, which also meant it was time for laundry day! We enjoyed a hearty breakfast at a nearby cafe while our laundry churned away at the neighboring coin-operated laundry. As we ate, we felt the faint tremors of the earthquake at Taitung, where we had first started our journey. It was a faint rumbling but mild enough for those perceptive people. Remembering Hualien was hit by a strong earthquake in 2018, we were thankful that we’d escaped getting caught in the wrong place at the wrong time, this time around.

By the time we finished breakfast, a freshly laundered stack of our cycling gear was ready to go. After two days of fairly heavy riding we were hopeful that the ride would give our legs a bit of a break. It was a somewhat santai afternoon to be sure, considering we had only a short distance to cover after having no choice but to take the train to break up our journey.

Bikes on trains

After packing up, we made our way to the Hualien train station, which was just a stone’s throw away from our guesthouse. From Hualien, we would take a train up to the town of Su’Ao where we would continue riding to our next destination. Being cycling-friendly Taiwan, there were designated trains where we were able to board with our full-sized bikes without any issues, as long as it wasn’t during peak hours. All you need to buy are two tickets – one for yourself, and the other for your bike. The designated train carriages are the first and last ones.

All cycling travel advisory boards told us to avoid cycling along the stretch of Highway 9 out of Hualien as the roads are narrow with tunnels, sudden bends, heavy vehicles, and occasional rock slides. TLDR: It’s dangerous; take the train instead.

It was a bit of culture shock for us, wheeling 700C bikes into a fully operating (and busy) train station, where no one would bat an eyelid. There are elevators that cyclists are allowed to use, and as you can see from the pictures below, they came in extremely handy for our group of four. Bless Taiwan and the country’s embracing of cycling culture. Nadiah always says that Taipei and Taiwan in general should be on any cyclist’s bucket list for travel destinations, and she could very well be right.

We enjoyed a relaxing hour on the train with our bikes, stretching our legs and taking the occasional nap. We were not the only cyclists on board either, as a few more joined the train carriage at another station, and several more at subsequent stops to the point where the carriage was crammed full of both people and bikes. This was clearly the norm in Taiwan; no regular passengers were irritated by our presence, which was quite a nice change from Malaysia.

Once we reached Su’Ao, we hopped on the saddle and grabbed a quick bite to eat along Dongshan Old Street before following a beautiful bike route through the Dongshan Forest Park. From the train station, the first part of the route was a busy expressway with a wide road shoulder/emergency lane and we were always a comfortable distance from passing cars and scooters. Afterwards we found the entrance to the bike route, which is easily accessible from Dongshan Old Street itself. The bike route follows the upper reaches of the Dongshan River, and we took our sweet time riding through the park to enjoy the beautiful riverside scenery.

But as they say, all good things must come to an end and so did the bike lane, which we eventually had to leave to head into some residential and agricultural areas. Pedalling the last few kilometers into sunset, we observed that there were a lot more Fujian style temples and other buildings throughout this particular area of Yilan. Considering we were in somewhat more rural territory, it was nice to finally see the difference in the architecture after a lot of modern buildings along our route.

The remaining road was mostly flat with a sprint somewhere halfway in search of a toilet at a random gas station, after which we eventually arrived at our guesthouse just slightly after dark in Toucheng. We opted to have a quick McDonald’s dinner (in our defense, it was nearby!) before winding down early for the evening, in anticipation for the big day of climbing to Jiufen.

Day 4: Toucheng and a challenging climb to Jiufen

  • Start Toucheng

  • Finish Jiufen

  • Distance 55km

  • Climbing 840m

  • Grade Hard

We woke up to an early start with breakfast at the guest house, and the usual morning ritual of route checking. This particular day would be our toughest day of riding yet, as we would be facing quite a steep climb into the coastal mountainside town of Jiufen. We knew that what we had saved in terms of mileage we would more than make up in elevation gain. Just for the record, most reactions from people are of the incredulous nature, when told that we planned to actually ride all the way up to the mountaintop heritage town.

For a start though, the ride out of Toucheng along Provincial Highway 2 was quite beautiful with views of the northeastern coast to the right and the misty mountain range to the left. The area is a beautiful seaside town, and gets pretty packed with tourists in the summer. There are fresh seafood restaurants, a black sand beach, a surfer's attraction, and a bird sanctuary. You could also find some dolphin and whale watching tours from Whushih Harbour, if you’re so inclined.

For traveling cyclists who still had a long way to go, it was hard not to let the view distract us over the undulating coastal terrain. I had to keep reminding the girls that we had to press on since we had a bit of climbing to do to reach our destination for the night.

After going past the Shicheng Fishing Harbor, we took the exit that brought us to the entrance of the Old Caoling Tunnel. The Old Caoling Tunnel was built in the 1920s to connect northern Taiwan with the eastern coast by rail. A new tunnel was built in the 1980s and the old tunnel was closed until 2008 when it reopened as a tourist-friendly bikeway. There are bike rental terminals at both sides of the tunnel for those who just want to experience it for a day. As for us, this was our route to get to the fishing port of Fulong on the other side.

Crossing the old tunnel was mostly pleasant and also felt like going through a time machine. Aside from the occasional haphazard children on bikes with unpredictable trajectories, it was a unique experience especially with the soundtrack of an old Taiwanese folk song playing through ambient speakers in the tunnel. Watch out for the fully electric bikes though, they tend to creep up behind you like a silent predator and whizz past when you least expect them. Make no sudden movements!

After exiting the other side of the tunnel, we cycled to the nearby fishing port of Fulong to enjoy the seaside views. At this point, we had also worked ourselves an appetite for lunch! We cycled around the area and followed our noses to a seafood restaurant where we had a thoroughly delicious meal. With our stomachs and energy levels replenished, it was time for the big climb to Jiufen!

From Fulong, we followed the bike lane to Provincial Highway 2丙 (not to be confused with Provincial Highway 2) that went along the Shuang River until we reached the town of Shuangxi. We took a short break at a 7-Eleven nearby the Shuangxi train station to make sure that we had plenty of liquids and sugar. Once we felt ready, we got back on the saddle and followed Country Road 102 all the way to Jiufen.

The scenery along the way up was breathtaking to say the least. We were surrounded by lush forest greenery that felt almost out of time from a prehistoric age. The gradients ranged anywhere between 5 to 15 percent on some sections which also literally took our breath away.

Just for some perspective for Malaysians, the first portion of the ride is quite similar to the climb to Genting Sempah. Pacing yourself, you will be able to handle it quite well. The last five kilometres were a different story altogether. Nadiah may be seen riding in the photos, but she unfortunately spent a fair bit of time pushing her bike to the top instead.

The light conditions changed as frequently as the weather, and we were greeted with dense fog and mist at the peak towards sunset. We made a quick descent in limited visibility to Jiufen on the other side, where the night lights and bustling food markets awaited. Being such a famous and inspiring visual and cultural landmark, the town and its scenic areas are always choc full of tourists, which means the roads up top are also quite busy and not always fun to ride through.

Still, we made it through the twisty roads with some unbelievable gradients, and found our accommodation for the night. We had deliberated long beforehand and strategically picked a guesthouse that was accessible beside the main road, and we were extremely glad we did because it was raining by the time we arrived. Right after the descent, we ran straight for cover into the guesthouse.

After checking into our guesthouse, we went to back in the atmosphere of Jiufen for the evening. Even though our legs were tired, we willingly climbed many flights of stairs to explore the old lantern lit streets and alleys of Jiufen, sampling street food along the way before we finally huddled ourselves at a quaint tea house. This was some of the best food we’d tasted, and while the highlight is usually the pictures from outside, the tea infused meal we had there was equally special and we highly recommend it. If you have the chance, explore different levels of the building, since the tea house appeared to take up just one floor.

Jiufen was founded during the Qing Dynasty, back then a relatively isolated village. The village transformed during the Japanese occupation in 1893 with the discovery of gold, and it quickly developed into a gold rush town. After World War II, gold mining activities declined and the remnants of old buildings still remain, now transformed to shops, teahouses and guesthouses. Jiufen is now a booming tourist town reminiscent of the spirit village in Miyazaki’s Spirited Away. We certainly felt like characters from the much loved animated film, getting lost in the maze of lanes, alleys and lantern lights on a chilly, misty night.

Day 5: Jiufen to Houtong Cat Village, and onwards to Taipei

  • Start Jiufen

  • Finish Taipei

  • Distance 64km

  • Climbing 1021m

  • Grade Medium/Hard

We enjoyed a slightly slower than usual morning and headed back to the maze of alleys in Jiufen for breakfast. Not many places were open early, but we spotted a cafe that had some decent morning dishes on the menu and went straight in. This day would be our final leg of the journey, bringing us all the way back to Taipei. But before we returned to Taipei, we planned for a scenic pit stop at the village of Houtong, best known for its feline residents!

After packing our bikes, we started our descent straight from the guesthouse. It was a somewhat scary experience as there was still bits of rain, and the tourist vehicle traffic had also started picking up. We dropped like hammers on the descent, our knuckles white from compressing our brakes as we weaved past taxis and buses careening down the same narrow road. While Taiwanese drivers are generally quite conscious of cyclists, the roads up and down Jiufen are narrow and twisting, which are never a good combo.

We breathed a sigh of relief when we finally arrived at the bottom of the descent, peeling off from the main route. From there, it was a quiet and tranquil ride to Houtong with only the occasional vehicle to worry about. We traced the Keelung River along Ruihou Road until we arrived at Houtong Cat Village. In case you weren’t certain why it’s called a cat village, the hundreds of furry feline friends that you’ll see everywhere confirms it.

Before it became known as the Houtong Cat Village, it was formerly a coal mining village. Remnants of the coal processing facilities remain and have since been converted into historical exhibits. The mining village ceased operations in the 1990s, and inadvertently reinvented itself into a tourist hotspot for cat lovers in 2008. So if you are a lover of historical places that just happens to have hundreds of cats, Houtong is a place as good as any. And the beef noodle soup by the train station was fantastic! We explored the general area around the village as well, got a bit lost but eventually looped around the train tracks as we made our way back.

We had to reroute due to a bit of confusion with our chosen way out from Houtong, but we found a fairly direct route back to Taipei. We traced our route back to Country Road 102 which we took to Keelung, and from there, we connected to Provincial Highway 5 and pedaled all the way back to Taipei. The green fields and forests gradually transformed to urban scenery, with plenty of undulating terrain to keep you from getting bored. It wasn’t the flat relaxed ride back to the city that we initially expected, but any cyclist with a reasonable amount of fitness should be able to manage just fine (Nadiah did, so there’s your reference point).

However, once we reached Keelung we realized that we were climbing, with what looked like a vertical wall looming ahead of us. With cars and motorbikes revving in low gear, we knew that this would not be easy. Unfortunately, the alternative was an extra 10km circling around the city, so we decided to suck it up and push our bikes where needed, even downhill if the gradients were too steep to ride safely.

If you’ve been following Eka’s instastories throughout the trip, this was when you could see us laughing as we pushed our bikes up a ridiculously steep road. The descent beyond the peak was just as hairy, with a traffic light at the bottom and more traffic to weave around. The rest of Keelung City was manageable, and we soon found ourselves in more gentle inclines and descents that were definitely more manageable after several days of riding.

Overall, the way back followed a lot of what appeared to be major elevated highways with great views of the surrounding hills and cities. At some points it felt odd that we were cycling on such a big and busy road, but there was a wide shoulder for cyclists and we felt safe even with many scooters sharing the way. Soon enough the Nangang Exhibition Centre was in sight - the location of Taipei Cycle 2019, where Nadiah and Treas had spent a week wandering around perusing bikes and the accompanying tech (more on what’s new for folding bikes coming up next).

Tired and hungry, we opted for a quick bite at Mos Burger at the now dark and quiet exhibition centre. By then technically already in the larger Taipei City area, we connected to the bike lane at Nangang and followed the river path all the way to our hotel, which also happened to be a short train ride to the train station luggage holding center to pick up our bike cases. The riverside route through the city brought back memories from our last cycling trip in Taipei as we passed by the Lin An Tai ancestral house and familiar sights and sounds. With still so many more places to explore, we know that another visit to Taiwan will surely be in the works!

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Firm believer of the N+1 bike axiom. Always in search of the next awesome route.