I have been wanting to do a motorcycle tour in Taiwan ever since I watched Charlie Boorman ride there in his By Any Means television series back in 2009. Not an easy task when there is no regular motorcycle rental permitted for foreigners. I decided eventually to follow the title of that show and ride Taiwan by any way possible. Taiwan Moto Tour first appeared on Motorcycle Paradise April 2017
If you are a celebrity like Charlie or otherwise you have the connections to enable you to rent a regular size motorcycle then all good however for the rest of us we cannot rent a regular motorcycle without a Taiwan licence which in turn requires residence card to obtain. I previously found a surfing tour company based in the south offering motorcycle tours and signed on for one however the tour never ran due to lack of participants. I was the only person signed up despite long lead in time so it would seem Taiwan is not a destination people think of for motorcycle touring.
I forgot about it for awhile because there are so many other fabulous places to ride in Asia that welcome motorcycle riders but every now and again I looked at Taiwan and noticed another tour company pop up offering scooter tours. Operated by a person calling themselves M13, a expat video blogger who apparently is famous? – I’d never heard of him so not offering any itinerary or details seemed a bit too unprofessional for me to take seriously. In the end I decided to try do a small solo tour using train then scooter which I had read foreigners might be able to rent in Hualien. I flew from Tokyo with Vanilla Air the low cost arm of ANA. This is second time I have used them and both experiences were good with staff that offer friendly service unlike some of the LCC’s. (hello Air Asia your staff really hate their jobs and customers). Easy to get from the airport as the MRT started running there March 2017. I arrived in Taipei and thought I was still in Japan as most of the shops were Japanese chain stores and department stores.
The next day I took a train to Hualien on the east coast. I had pre booked this and that was fortunate as unknowingly I had arrived on a busy peak holiday season – I had chosen early April based on least rainfall. The train on the way over was the older one in the poster above. The one in the foreground being the newer faster service was booked out. It was extremely crowded at the station and I was in a long queue to collect my ticket thinking I am not going to make it but fortunately the process was efficient and then with trains I could proceed to the platform in couple of minutes unlike flying.
In Hualien on a Sunday afternoon I walked around and there are a couple of scooter rental shops in front of the train station. My hotel was at the rear and there I found another rental shop and just while looking at their bikes a guy speaks to me in English, bingo this could be my chance. I had already read on a Japanese riders blog not to say you want to go far on the scooter as they will not rent them for touring, so I just played dumb tourist. I had a Taiwan phone number thanks to 7 day unlimited sim card I got at the airport (China eastern telco – fantastic speed and reception everywhere) and my international drivers permit which he asked for along with my license which was held for security.
I had been worried if they would ask to hold my passport like in SE Asia rental shops and then how I would go checking in to hotels without it. I had made a colour photocopy just in case but while that sort of thing is normal in SE Asia I think it may not have been accepted here and the language barrier would make it difficult to explain. I had the vision of them phoning the rental shop and then the shop saying WTF am I doing so far away haha. Anyway no need to have worried and I paid the fee of about $65 for four days and got the bike that afternoon as well no extra charge. I took one of those shitty cap style helmets from the shop as well not letting on I had my own as that might have triggered alarm bells and promptly stored it under the seat after my shake down ride around town. I was pleased as punch to secure a bike, I had come here with no clear idea if I was going to be able to as a westerner and my back up plan was to rent a car from a international chain that had an office in this town if I was refused moto rental but being such a busy holiday period there may have been no cars anyway so very happy. This is my ride. A Sym Jet Power 125cc. Yes that is the name.
I have rented many scooters in Philippines and this one has some neat features for a 125cc class bike. Fuel filler is at the front below dash so no need to unpack your bag to open the seat to refuel. The seat however has electronic release from a dash button, very fancy. LED running lights for hi vis and above average looking wavy disc and large caliber front brake. Performance seems quite adequate so far. Tonight my first attempt to eat using Google translate app on phone with Chinese to English. It is very unreliable and mostly cannot translate anything into English unlike other languages where it works much better. I could see something spicy and something salad so picked those. The way of ordering (that I would find repeated on this trip) is you have a laminated menu sheet and a white board marker pen and you tick the items you want then take to cashier and pay. Not encountered this before but it worked out well. Next day I set off along the coast road north. Driving is on the right hand side in Taiwan and in urban areas there is often a dedicated lane for the many small capacity scooters which are very much a way of life here. At traffic lights scooters have to do a J turn. Rather than turn left at lights you go to queue at a designated waiting area to the right of where you want to turn. Not really a problem once you get used to it often you can go around the traffic and then proceed not having to wait for the lights. I was turning right on red lights like you do in Philippines but I am not sure it is legal haha.
I often read of people not having a navigation solution that works for them on tour. My setup has remained mostly unchanged for the last 9 years. I use a Garmin GPS inside a So Easy Rider case. The case is waterproof so I need not use a overpriced motorcycle specific Garmin model GPS. I currently use a Nuvi 1450 that I purchased used from eBay for $50 and replaced the battery so all up it was about $60 with postage. This is a large 5” screen model that can navigate custom user defined routes not just A to B like most GPS. Previously I used a similar specification Garmin Nuvi 760 for 8 years until it started to have problems. Inside the case is room for a power bank battery so no need to be pulling the rental bike apart trying to wire up to the bike’s battery. The case has two long velcro straps so you can mount it to anything even the most difficult layouts like this Sym scooter.
The biggest advantages that keep me using a GPS are ability to see it in direct sunlight due to the older resistive touch screen panels (not turned on above) and being able to operate easy with gloves while riding. I often zoom and pan the map to view something or look at the next junction in detail and a GPS is designed to do that easy where as Google Maps app on a smart phone is very good but not so easy to see or operate on the go so far. The other thing is that I use my phone to take photos often while riding but for sure you can switch it between application. Either way no excuse to not have good navigation these days.
The coast road north was nothing special but it is scenic in other locations. Speed limits are very conservative in Taiwan much like Japan, 30, 40, 50kph. I had the speedo covered with the GPS, I never look at it anyway choosing my own pace but put the kph on display in the GPS screen corner just in case I ran into police. However I soon noticed cars were speeding like crazy, 2 to 3 times the posted limit much the same as Thailand so need not have worried. Next I rode into the Taroko National park to visit the famous Taroko gorge. The old road has been by passed in places but you can detour to ride parts of the original road that was hewn out of rock. From here I rode up into the mountains on what is a long winding climb from sea level to alpine heights. The scenery was much more spectacular then I had expected. Above is about 1/3 of the way up to the very high peaks in the distance of this photo. I was concerned about fuel since the Sym has a fuel tank just 4.5 litres. That is 20.5 litres less than my FJR. But it also has an engine and weight a fraction of my motorcycle. I need not have worried as about 2/3 rds of the way up was a petrol station where I refueled but it had only used a litre.
There was a lady at the gas station selling hot coffee and rice wrapped in banana leaf or bamboo, that was perfect for me as it was just 10 degrees temperature and I was not carrying any food or fluids which I realised in hindsight was stupid. The CPC brand petrol station is state owned and the only brand of fuel you can buy. It is full service and no need to remove your helmet. $1.00 AUS a litre for 95 octane. The Sym Jet 125 was starting to struggle for power at the higher altitudes. Up until here it had been doing fine. I had to put my mid layer on and switch to my winter gloves as the temperature fell below 10 degrees. Final climb is very steep, you can see it in the below photo in distance zig-zagging up. The combination of high altitude and steep incline had the Sym back to 20kph at wide open throttle. But then finally the summit. 3275m high. Magnificent. These photos do not do it justice. Click to see full screen. No need to travel all the way to Europe to experience very high alpine mountains, just come to Taiwan. The water on side of road here was frozen despite the bright sunlight and I was glad to have some warm gear with me. Many bikers here, by the looks a Taiwan Honda CB1100 club ride that day (the model I used to own in Australia and established the CB1100 Facebook page). The scenery riding down the other side was jaw dropping, the scale is not captured in this photo. Stopped at my first 7/11 store in Taiwan. They are everywhere here and are really handy for a rider as you know can always get food and drinks. Time to try the local iced coffee as is my hobby
The ride continued to be nice roads as it descended despite lots of day trippers I just pulled over when it got congested. I saw some really stupid driving this afternoon. Impatient people passing on blind corners with oncoming traffic to gain one car forward in a line of cars going nowhere fast. I stopped a number of times to let aggressive drivers get away from me because when something eventually goes wrong I am going to come off worse being on a motorcycle. Seems legit Eventually I made it to Sun Moon Lake my destination for tonight. I was a little disappointed that it was not as scenic as the name suggested but perhaps that was just down to the views being largely obscured by smoke haze. The air once back down from the mountain was very polluted as indeed it had been in Taipei. Tonight dinner again was a bit of a mystery as Google translate said something chicken with rice, but it was tasty enough although they don’t cut the chicken up here which makes it all but impossible to eat with chopsticks. Todays route. Low mileage around 200km all told, but that is enough on a underbones 125cc. Day two I was heading south. I actually had no clear idea of what was good riding roads in Taiwan besides the Central Cross Island highway that I had ridden yesterday. I chose my route today based simply on the roads looking interesting in Google maps and being both high mountains and lots of corners. Turns out I had chosen popular riding roads, scenic locations in the Yushan national park and the Alishan scenic region.
First up some great riding leaving the Sun Moon Lake district. The air was again filled with smoke. Not sure why as it is too early for burn off from rice farmers and too far away from China. I can only wonder if this is from the large manufacturing base that Taiwan has. Just to show an unedited photo it is a lot like Northern Thailand in late Feb-Apr before the rains. I stopped and got some lunch today at a 7/11 to be better prepared. Wish I was on that MT-09 Tracer but still glad to be here. Soon after here I started to climb up very high and stopped again to get my mid layer and winter gloves. The road was spectacular in the Yushan National park. And it just went on and on like this. Incredible. I stopped at the top at one of the rest areas and had my packed lunch from the 7/11 and then found the building there was formerly a railway station. The highest steam locomotive watering point in Taiwan. Built in the Japanese colonial period. Fascinating me being the ex rail guy. Shame about the smoke, I can’t dehaze it any more in software than this. The ride down the other side was very good. Perhaps the road on the southern side is better surveyed but also with much more traffic then the north which was virtually car free. I did not take too many photos here as is often the case with a fantastic road there is no open place to photograph it. But it was incredibly fun riding even on my little bike. Scooters are everywhere in Taiwan. Big bikes were quite rare, even people who had large capacity licenses where riding maxi scooters like the Yamaha TMax or similar. At a CR break I saw a group of riders on an outing all on maxi scooters rather than mid size conventional motorcycles and this was repeated everywhere I went. How lucky I was to choose this region to visit. A bit of flat and straight road once back down, perhaps the first few kilometres that were straight since leaving Hualien! Time then for todays iced coffee adventure.
I was not expecting anything on the last part of todays route to the hotel but again I was surprised to find myself on what seems to be another popular riding road which winds it’s way through endless palm trees as the scenery takes on a different view reminding me somewhat of the Philippines countryside. Another great bit of riding. Tonight I am staying in a small onsen village that dates back to the Japanese colonial era. I did not know it was that until I arrived. I simply wanted somewhere I could stage to ride over the Nanbu cross country highway the next day so this seemed a good point on the map.
Walking around I could have been back in Japan as the layout was exactly like any of the 1000’s of hot spring resort villages. Japan is obsessed with public bathing in mineral water so this being one of only a few natural hot springs in Taiwan it must have been a popular town in that era. The hotel I am in was huge but it’s glory days were long gone and the rooms very old and dated now. I was one of just two guests in a multi wing hotel with about 60 rooms. I could not get google translate to work with the menu where I chose to eat tonight so the staff member suggested two dishes and I understood rice and soup so said ok and hoped for the best. I need not have worried as I got a nice fried rice and a mussel type of soup with tangy vegetables inside and was totally satisfied with the meal.
I had the niggling thought that my route tomorrow was not going to be rideable but brushed that aside to call and end to this wonderful day. Todays route. Day three riding and it had warmed up considerably to previous days to already being 21 at breakfast and forecast was saying 28 which sounded nice to me who prefers heat to cold. I was riding south along a route called Coffee Road. Again by chance it seems I have chosen a superb motorcycling road and I find quite a few other riders on this route enjoying the never ended curves on a road servicing coffee farms which reminded me of country roads back home in Northern NSW Australia. I had no idea Taiwan grew so much coffee.
I then turned east in the Nanhua district and enjoyed a amazing ride on new hot mix road with great surveying. Heaps of sports bikes were here so I thought if they are here then the road might be passable to the east. But that was overlooking how sports bikes will ride just one bit of road over and over trying to go faster each time. I know I did that too once upon a time. And so when I passed them all hanging around the front of a 7/11 I thought I better stop and look at things. Sorry but these photos do not convey how lovely the roads were today. After my GoPro not working the first two days giving error messages today it seemed ok so I took a lot of video using it but all came out lousy as did the still photos with colour washed out and highlights all blown. Sadly I have only had it work well that first trip to Australia and since then it’s results have been poor, refusing to connect to the phone and randomly altering it’s record settings. I noticed a road advisory sign saying something about access. I had passed one of these earlier and ignored it but this time I turned around and used Google translate to read it saying the road was open only to a town up ahead. Bugger. Google maps shows it as routable, Garmin GPS map 2016 has it routable but now that I looked at MapsMe I see it shows it not routable with Open Street Maps. I did search Google about this road but I think now I was getting results for the central cross island road being open i.e. the road I travelled over on day one confused with this southern cross island road. I see now some Tripadvisor reports that it is not open. I always ignore Tripadvisor since I find it miss leading, out of date and bias – but in this case it was correct. Ok what now.
Well my hotel is booked for tonight over the range on the east coast and to get there going south is a 300km detour. Time out needed. I found a roadside rest area and ate my packed lunch a little early and had a think about it. If I went straight back to Sun Moon Lake avoiding the mountainous route through the national park it is only 190km which is very achievable so I decide to do that knowing there is fantastic riding roads to enjoy the next 100km Vs the southern detour that looked to be more urban and flat roads. With hindsight I could also have gone south on the longer detour then simply stopped a similar distance, about 200km that night then ridden the other additional 100km the following day. That would have allowed me to view the coast but this variation escaped me at the time.
I really enjoyed the ride back. Knowing the road ahead to some degree and with a need to pick up my pace if I was going to make it to the hotel at a reasonable hour I pushed the little Sym a bit more and got confident to corner it at higher lean angles at a more spirited pace. It turned into the most fun part of the entire ride. Then on a couple of straights I thought I’d see what it could do and got it up to 95kph (GPS checked) which is impressive on a scooter. I expected my fuel economy was going to disappear yet it barely altered from when I had been taking it slow. You can ride all day for just a few dollars fuel. Back on the coffee road I met up with a bunch of guys on a group ride when we all were stopped at road works. After this I tagged on to their group and enjoyed riding together. It was a nice experience on fun roads. Time for todays iced coffee rest break at another 7/11.
I then got tangled up on the fringe of the urban areas in the west where the majority of people in Taiwan live. Being on a moto it was not too bad but I was glad to get away from the traffic lights when I turned east to Sun Moon Lake to end the day there with clearer skies. Phew, long day riding, too long to be on a scooter. The combination of feet forward seating position and small wheels had transferred every bump to my lower back and I was feeling a bit sore and glad to get off the bike. Beer will cure that.
Todays revised route.
Last day with the Sym. I had originally planned to be already back over on the east coast and to ride along the ocean and visit a few beach spots on what would have been a slow cruise back to Hualien. Instead I get to ride the incredible cross island highway again. Not at all disappointed with this unexpected development. The roads that had been congested on day one were today low traffic and I found myself making far better pace then I needed to so stopped to visit anything of interest and for a long morning break over a hot coffee. I need to slow it down even more when I travel and detour much more than I do. Very hard to adopt this mindset after a life focused on getting somewhere by a certain time which is the wrong way to travel.
Above, sounds fair enough. Below, dreaming of being on a bigger bike today with my back quite sore from the ride position of the Sym. Well this ride answered one thing for me which is I will never be comfortable on a motorcycle with feet forward seating. I had considered a Yamaha T-Max 530 as a replacement for my FJR. It is in many ways what I am looking for, smaller yet still with good shielding from cold wind, electronic cruise control on the new models and fully adjustable screen, in fact it appears a comfortable package for touring but I could not ride it far based on my experience with this feet forward moto.
Not having gears to change is not as much of an issue, I mean my favourite riding is on a road where I am using only one gear rolling on and off the throttle and turning left then right and repeat. However one thing I did miss is engine braking. I was constantly needing to use the brakes where if it had been a manual transmission none of that would have been required. Not sure if maxi scooters with sports modes introduce some dynamic braking. If they did it would be a big improvement but for me I think my experience here has ruled out any automatic gearbox bike in future.
Some more photos then of the incredible cross island highway. Lunch at 3275m. Bit overcast but still an enjoyable view. Then time to enjoy the very long descent. I’ve witnessed some bad driving in my time but Taiwan really stands out as having some of the worst. The cars are very aggressive towards riders. No matter the situation the car driver considers he has the right of way and you need to stop or be hit. I was getting a bit tired of this by day four. Cars will merge or turn across your path or ignore give way and generally bully you if you are solo bike. Riding a motorcycle is still less dangerous than taking a bus… Taroko Gorge again. Then it was time to take a rest with todays iced coffee. Dr. Milker!
Returning the bike I was 400km over my allowance so it might have been cheaper to rent from another shop with unlimited mileage but I did not mind to pay the excess as it had all gone well for me and was not an expensive rental charge all up anyway. A little video footage. My GoPro Hero Session 5 continues to have numerous problems, failing to record still images, changing it’s record settings itself randomly with no user input. Unable to sync to phone via wi-fi, unable to update firmware. I really regret buying this now.
The showers forecast had not eventuated and just a few drops of rain as I walked back to my hotel. Nice. I had brought a light duty rain solution just in case. The jacket was already waterproof and I have cycling rain pants and cycling rain over boots which pack ultra small and my winter gloves were Gore-Tex. My other concern had been getting a puncture. In other countries like Philippines and Indonesia you would never be far away from a vulcaniser if needing a repair but here there were no roadside tyre repair shops nor did I even see compressed air available at the CPC gas stations. Prior to leaving Japan I picked up a mini puncture repair can and put it in my checked luggage to see if it passed ok through x-ray. It is about the size of small deodorant spray can (think Lynx/Axe brand size) so much smaller than usual and thus I thought it would pass ok which proved correct. Above with a credit card size comparison. Having this with me removed the worry of being stranded with a puncture on this trip. I returned to Taipei by fast train the next day and enjoyed some time in the city reflecting on the ride in one of the many excellent coffee shops (I wish Japan had good coffee) I have really enjoyed riding Taiwan even though it was by scooter. If I could have rented a motorcycle then no doubt it would rate right up there as a top riding destination. I’d love to return if anyone can assist me with a big bike rental and spend more time here. I had a great time in Taiwan. People are friendly and honest. Everything works. Countryside is beautiful and cities are tidy.
Thanks for reading. GPS routes available on Ride with GPS, user Warren.