The winding road suspended along cliffs between Hualien and Suao (蘇澳) is the most spectacular section of the entire round-island ride undertaken by innumerable cyclists every year.
It is also the section most often omitted, with many people opting to take trains the 80km north from Sincheng Township (新城). This is not, they maintain, to avoid the 1,100 meters of ascents, but due to their having to share several tunnels with notoriously aggressive gravel trucks.
Indeed, the Tourism Bureau’s Guide to Cycling around Taiwan says: “This is the easiest day of your trip around Taiwan,” and offers no information apart from where to purchase a half-price ticket for one’s bike.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
Long-term Japanese resident Akiko Koike disagrees. She included the route on her first round-island ride in 2008, and could not imagine avoiding it since.
“Where else can you cycle with the vast blue sea to one side and high, cloud-encircled mountains to the other?” she asks.
“When I set off, I still hadn’t decided what I would do,” says long-distance cyclist Jerry Chen (陳彥仰), who left Taipei in February this year to ride counterclockwise around Taiwan. Five days and more than 700km later, he resolved to give it a go.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
Moreover, knowing that there were railway stations along the way meant he could still change his mind, and various apps and live-time online cameras meant he could check the weather ahead of him.
The clincher, however, was that the improved Suao-Hualien Highway (蘇花改) had opened at the end of last year. This NT$54 billion project with 39km of new road means that cars, motorbikes and trucks can spend 24km in eight tunnels, and now only share 22km with cyclists. Chen and his fellow cyclists can therefore enjoy most of the cliff-edge sections with the best views by themselves.
It is best to leave Hualien early, thus getting around 20km under one’s belt before the morning traffic clogs the road to Sincheng. Food options have greatly improved here, so it is a good place to down some carbs and coffee before the day’s first climb.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
Actually, if time and predicted energy levels allow, a one-hour diversion up Taroko Gorge is recommended. The breathtaking Swallow Grotto (燕子口) is just 10km away up a gentle 2 percent gradient.
Rejoining today’s main route, the first climb with its much-photographed view is along the Cingshuei Cliffs (清水斷崖). Located where the Central Mountain Range meets the Pacific Ocean, these rise precipitously to over 2,400m and therefore represented a major obstacle cutting Hualien off from Yilan to the north as well as from the fertile plains of western Taiwan. The first connecting roads were built in an attempt to subdue the “unacculturated barbarians” (生番), not to help them bring their produce to market, however.
Photo: Mark Caltonhill
Fortunately, cyclists are not required to scale this full height. In fact, at around 130m above sea level, this is the easiest of the day’s four climbs. The downside of avoiding ascents, of course, is that the alternative requires riding through some of those fearsome tunnels. It is often said that cycling is not allowed in the tunnels, but this results from a misreading of a sign at the entrances, which says “no cycling on the raised edge of the tunnel” (禁行自行車邊溝上面), which would, indeed, be dangerous.
“Be a car in the tunnels,” says Taoyuan-based American Nathan Miller, who rides the route a couple of times a year to visit his in-laws in Taitung. By this he means: drive in the middle of the lane: “Vehicles behind you can wait; it’s your life.”
LEAVING THE NEOLITHIC
Before the next ascent, an unassuming sign near Hanben Station (漢本) indicates the location the Blihun archaeological site, discovered in 2012 during the highway improvement project. This is one of only two prehistoric communities, along with Shihsanhang (十三行) in New Taipei City, at which evidence of bloomery iron smelting has been found, an important development which, whether innovated locally or imported by Yue immigrants fleeing Han-Chinese southern expansion into Fujian Province, thus brought Taiwan out of the Neolithic Age into the Metal Age in the first millennium.
Another small climb to just over 200m above sea level brings one to Nanao (南澳), the only significant habitation before Suao. An increasing array of eateries have opened over the last few years, and there is a choice of small hotels and B&Bs for those wishing to split the route into two days.
Around 3km of the Nanao Ancient Trail (南澳古道) are open to the public beginning inland from Wuta (武塔). This hike gives a flavor of Aboriginal transportation networks prior to Han and Japanese road-building efforts from the late 19th century onwards.
The Atayal Culture Museum (泰雅文化館) provides information and displays relating to the traditional livelihood and customs of the local Atayal people, as well as a description of their historical migration from western Taiwan in the 17th and 18th centuries.
The third climb and descent brings up Dongao (東澳), which has minimal food and accommodation options, as well as a motorbike repair guy who will have a go at fixing bikes in extremis. There are also cold springs and a stony beach, but better options await for those pressing on to Suao.
Do not be seduced by the sign saying there is only one kilometer to go, however; as usual, this is only to the township border. In fact there is around 10km and the highest climb of the day still to go. The ascent would be significantly higher if it were not for the pleasant surprise of a tunnel — now the cyclist’s friend — cutting through the mountainside.
Descending into Suao, one sees the traditional fishing harbor at Nanfangao (南方澳). The beach is good for swimming, and fresh seafood can be bought as soon as it is landed from boats, taken into quayside sheds, and cooked.
Better hotel options — including rooms at the back of Joser’s Giant bike shop — and the touristically developed but not unpleasant Suao Cold Springs (蘇澳冷泉公園) are located a couple of kilometers away in the main town.
This is also where those who follow the Tourism Bureau’s advice and take the train will arrive.
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