Cycling Taiwan’s New West Coast Bikeway

Photo: Dinah Gardner

A recently completed paved path connecting coastal bike routes in Hsinchu and Miaoli allows both casual and committed cyclists to enjoy a diversity of natural scenery and manmade phenomena, although parts of the trail could use some refurbishing.

It’s not the most auspicious start to a trip.

My bus driver inexplicably ushers me off one stop early. I walk the extra distance for about 15 minutes, backpack bouncing, until I get to an empty stretch of sidewalk. Google Maps says a YouBike station should be here. It isn’t. I retrace my steps to the Tourist Information Center.

“Oh no, there are no YouBikes here,” says one of the two serious-looking ladies on duty. “I bet you looked on Google Maps, didn’t you?”

The nearest dock is eight kilometers away in Hsinchu City, back where I caught the bus. This means I’ll have to rent a bike and come back here to return it, doubling my journey. As I start searching for a rental store, the first heavy drops of rain begin to fall.

I’m in Nanliao, a fishing harbor in Hsinchu, popular for its seaside vista, kite-friendly gusty skies, and 17-kilometer Splendid Coastline Cycling Path that hugs the shoreline and winds its way south. In April, a new connecting bikeway was finished linking the end of the coastline path with Miaoli County’s Zhunan Green Light Sea Breeze Bicycle Path (harder to say than to actually cycle!), opening up a continuous stretch of bike-only track that traces Taiwan’s west coast. The route is easy cycling on flat or gently sloped trails that take in beaches, forests, parkland, wind farms, and fishing ports with scrumptious seafood dining. The press release promises “over 60 kilometers” of riding.

The Miaoli/Hsinchu border marked on a bicycle path. Photo: Dinah Gardner

As well as being a great weekend or daytrip from Taipei, the newly linked route is helping to transform cycling around Taiwan, one bikeway at a time. The island has rich biking resources, including mountain routes, coastal and riverside bikeways, and even trails that trace old train tracks. In March this year, President Tsai Ing-wen had a photo op holding a shovel to inaugurate the country’s longest bicycle path, an 88-kilometer trail linking Tainan, Chiayi, and Yunlin. While the popular round-the-island bike journey, known as the huandao, involves quite a lot of pedaling for your life on highways with speeding scooters and trucks thundering past, these new dedicated bikeways are opening up more accessible cycling options, away from motorized traffic and safe for the whole family to enjoy.

When I eventually secure my ride, a newish white hybrid bike with a spongy saddle, the rain has stopped and the sun starts glimmering from behind the cloud cover. It takes me three tries to find the start of the bikeway, which is marked with a giant sign depicting a crab on a bicycle. I wend my way through wooded parkland until the trail spills me out onto an asphalt track hugging the beach. The tide is out and the brown-gray sands stretch off almost to the horizon. It’s by no means a bikinis-and-ice-cream spot, but it’s an impressive view all the same. I breathe in the fishy-salt smell of the ocean as a lone figure in rain boots walks across the beach carrying a fishing rod. The shush, shush of the ocean waves pounding on the shore is periodically drowned out by the scream of fighter jets overhead – deafening evidence that Hsinchu Air Base is not far away.

It’s not long before the ubiquitous tetrapods appear, lined up along the shore and looking like giant toppled chess pieces. These concrete eyesores were meant to prevent coastal erosion, but research has shown that they can exacerbate it in neighboring areas.

Although coastal tetrapods were installed to prevent erosion, research has shown that they can make it worse it in neighboring areas. Photo: Dinah Gardner

The cycling track is very well maintained and signposted – in fact a bit too well signposted. Distance markers pop up every 200 meters. Toilet blocks are located every three kilometers or so. Less than four kilometers in, my chain falls off. Swearing, I maneuver it back over the cogs, leaving my hands sticky with thick black oil.

The track shifts slightly inland as I head into Xiangshan Wetlands. It’s well worth stopping off at one of the many lookout points along the way, which take in both the extensive mudflats and tranquil Jincheng Lake. This semi-natural expanse of water, formerly known as Devil Lake, is a popular spot to watch for migratory birds, including black-winged stilts, black-faced spoonbills, and sandpipers. I spot a single white wading bird in the distance, but to my untrained eye it looks like one of the white egrets that roost in Taipei’s Da’an Park.

Not long after passing the lake, I come to the most beautiful section of the bikeway. An avenue of trees forms a tunnel from branches interlocking overhead. Long red-brown tendrils – aerial roots or vines – droop from their limbs like wispy beards.

An avenue of intertwined trees links Jincheng Lake with the Xiangshan Boardwalk. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Suddenly, at the 10-kilometer mark, I round a bend to arrive at a small rest point with a temple and the first places to eat I’ve seen along the way – fried noodles and snacks. It’s a good lookout spot for using a set of binoculars to scour the coastline for signs of marine life. 

The Instagrammable Xiangshan Boardwalk is up next. This sinuous concrete walking path loops out over the sands. If you look carefully, you can watch hundreds of tiny crabs scuttling around in the moonscape-like mudflats. Fiddler crabs are the stars of the show. Easy to spot, the males have one huge claw, white like porcelain, and one tiny one. 

Below Xiangshan Boardwalk, tiny crabs scuttle around the mudflats. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Historic Xiangshan Train Station, almost 100 years old and recently renovated to restore the former glory of its cypress walls, is just a few minutes of cycling inland from here. There are YouBikes at this station, so you could make a daytrip from here to Nanliao and back again along the bikeway. Even if you’re not planning to exit here, it’s worth a quick detour to see the handsome Japanese-era building.

Xiangshan Station, which is over 100 years old, recently underwent restoration to preserve its historic appearance. Photo: Dinah Gardner

Continuing south, I hug the shoreline, passing dozens of wind turbines, several of them so close to the path I can stand underneath and listen to their mesmerizing whoosh as the blades turn lazily round and round.

New terrain

The smell of fresh tarmac signals the start of the new 1.4-kilometer linking bikeway and the end of the 17-kilometer coastal path. Within moments, I arrive at the Hsinchu-Miaoli county border, marked with a yellow sign painted onto the ground. As I’m photographing this landmark, a Taiwanese cyclist appears from the Miaoli direction. I ask him about the cycling conditions up ahead.

“Not great,” he replies. “There are a lot of low-hanging branches and the track’s not in good shape.” He’s not wrong, as I’m soon to find out.

I’m too short to be bothered by the trees, but the asphalt is broken and potholed in places. Tree roots have pushed themselves up through the surface creating a noticeably bumpier ride. It’s also alarming to spot the occasional scooter using the path, especially after the loudly signposted “Bike Only” Hsinchu route. The contrast between the two probably makes this Miaoli stretch look worse than it really is.

It’s also a totally different atmosphere. The coastline disappears as the bikeway slips into a forest. The sweet scent of what smells like pine needles and the occasional pungent punch of manured fields replace the salty air of the morning’s exercise.

The route is not as well marked. Gone are the 200-meter-spaced mileposts, and in their place are preachy messages that grab your attention in danger-red on an egg yolk background. “話多不如話少 , 話少不如話好” (It is better to speak less, but best to speak kindly) says one, while another advises: “忍得過 、 看得透 、 提得起 、 放得下” (Forbearance allows us to see things clearly; responsibility allows us to take things in stride).

But with the sun filtering down through the leaves, Miaoli’s Green Light Sea Breeze bikeway is really quite pleasant. I pass a ranch with horse rides from NT$200. A number of walking trails snake off on the right-hand side, and butterflies of all colors, including a deep purple-black, dart in front of me. If you leave the path and head inland here, there are a couple of Japanese-era brick tunnels to explore near Qiding. Clamber up the steps to admire the seascape again. Note that Qiding Station does not allow bikes.

I pedal on south, driven by my rumbling stomach and hungry for lunch.

It’s not long before I arrive at Longfeng Harbor, a pretty little port with blue fishing boats bobbing on the sparkling water. Offshore wind turbines look like they are floating on the horizon. After a satisfying lunch – there are several restaurants here that serve up plates of fresh seafood – I head to the fish market facing the harbor where the morning’s haul is auctioned off at 1:30 p.m. every day.

The sea off Longfeng Fishing Port contains several reefs, making it a region with a diverse variety of fish. Photo: Dinah Gardner

It’s a chaotic scene. A group of people wearing rain boots huddle around a basket. The auctioneer rattles off the deal in a singsong, the basket is kicked off to the side, and then the process is repeated with the next basket of seafood. With my fish-spotting skills on a par with my birdwatching expertise, I spot fat fish, skinny fish, round fish, flat fish, and dappled fish. Each basket has a price scrawled in pen on scraps of paper. A purplish, plump cuttlefish is going for NT$680.

Leaving Longfeng, the bikeway heads back to the forest for a while before ending abruptly at the Zhunan Incineration Plant. Although there’s a nice broad stretch of beach here and some parkland, there is nowhere else to go if your destination is south except for the West Coast Expressway.

This is hugely disappointing. The outside lane of a highway is thoroughly unenjoyable. The governments of Hsinchu City and Miaoli County came together to work on this NT$25 million linked section specifically to cut out sections on dangerous roads. “Bikers will no longer need to detour the West Coast Expressway to transport with high-speed automobiles and motorcycles,” according to the press release. If Miaoli could likewise build links to ensure its Green Sea Light Breeze was a continuous bikeway, the new route could mean cyclists would be able to bike a single 100-kilometer stretch all along the ocean.

This is also what some cyclists say is the problem with the huandao, a 968-kilometer signposted route around the island for cyclists to follow, launched as Cycling Route No. 1 by the Ministry of Transportation and Communications back in 2015. Taipei Times columnist and long-time Taiwan resident Michael Turton has been an avid bike rider here for 15 years. “I’ve been pretty much everywhere on the island,” the retired university instructor says. “It would be difficult to name a moderately obscure road that I haven’t biked on.” But he’s always spurned the huandao “because it involves large chunks of flyover on the west coast.” Too much of it has been assigned to bleak highways that are, in his words, “the absolute nadir of the Taiwan experience.”

Taiwan is vocal about promoting itself as a cycling tourist destination. According to the Executive Yuan, in 2021 Taiwan had 7,900 kilometers of bikeways (although I suspect that a good chunk of those are simply roads where bikes are allowed). The Taiwan Tourism Bureau has made a website specifically for the huandao, “Taiwan on 2 Wheels,” and christened last year as the island’s “Year of Bicycle Tourism.” There’s a five-year plan, running 2020 to 2024, to upgrade and connect bike paths, as well as to develop 16 “diverse cycling routes.”

In Turton’s view, though, the top-down approach is flawed. “They need to get it out of the hands of the bureaucrats and let people who actually ride bikes set the routes,” he suggests. “They need to redesignate the minor roads as bike paths and get people off the major routes.”

My encounter with the West Coast Expressway lasts a hair-raising half hour before I escape onto a provincial road and promptly get lost. Ninety minutes, three railroad crossings, one angry dog, two missed turns, and a beer factory later, I arrive at Houlong. I bed down for the night in a crumbling courtyard hostel on the outskirts of the Miaoli County town, where the only guests are myself and two stray cats. While buying supplies at the mom-and-pop store, the only place to buy food or drink in the neighborhood, the proprietor warns me: “There’ll be rain tomorrow.”

Indeed, the drum of fat, furious raindrops on the roof wakes me up at 5 a.m. There’s nothing left to do but catch a train with my bike to Xiangshan Station so that I can enjoy the cycle back along the seaside with not a truck, car, or scooter in sight.