Taiwan is a great country for cycling lovers. Many rest areas, friendly locals, cycling lanes and even some free campgrounds to pitch your tent and take a shower. After cycling around the whole country, I decided to challenge myself by cycling the highest road on the island : The Central Cross-Island Highway. This “highway” is one of the few roads connecting the West with the East, going up to an altitude of 3.275 meters, the highest point you can reach by road ! Known also under the name of Provincial Highway number 8, this road is linking the city of Hualien to the West side through the Taroko National Park.
But don’t be fooled by the name, it has nothing to do with a proper highway, it’s actually pretty narrow at some points, as the road is not wide enough to let two cars pass at the same time. It has also receive scarce traffic for an highway, but as a cyclist I can’t complain ! Completing this trip felt very rewarding, and it definitely prepared me well to hike Yushan the following week. I can surely say that I’ve seen some of my favorite sceneries in Taiwan while cycling this road.
Before cycling it, I was very concerned because the typhoon Mangkhut was supposed to hit Taiwan just a day or two after I had planned on cycling the road. Therefore I tried to look up as much information I could find about the road before, but I couldn’t find much in English. This fact, and also because I really enjoyed this road, prompted me to write this article in order to let you plan your trip !
PS: In the end, the typhoon eventually changed course and didn’t hit Taiwan.
If you like hiking, check out this article on 6 amazing hikes to do in Taiwan !
What you need to know before attempting to cycle the Central Cross-Island Highway
- You’re going from sea level to 3200 meters in less than a hundred kilometers. You need to have a decent physical condition before attempting it.
- Food and accommodation options are really scarce near the top especially on the east side. It gets better once you reach the main pass. It’s illegal to camp since it is part of the Taroko National Park.
- The road is mostly in good condition.
- The coverage is good up there and there are some police stations.
- The traffic is very low on the east side but heavier on the west side.
- When I cycled, the “highway” was under maintenance at 3 or 4 different points on the east side. They stop the traffic for one hour or 30 minutes in order to work, and then workers have a break of the equivalent time. Better check it before in order not to be blocked. I had to wait 20 minutes and 15 minutes at two points. I was lucky.
My experience cycling the Central Cross-Island Highway in Taiwan
I started by taking the train from Hualien station to Xincheng station with my bike. I had cycled that portion a week before and I was running late that morning since I had to teach an online French lesson before taking the train.
Arriving at Xincheng I had to fix my bike. I loaned my bike to a friend and he had a puncture. In the meantime I ate breakfast. You can also rent a bike/scooter in front of the station.
I finally started to cycle at around 10.15am, headed through the gorge.
Starting by the Taroko National Park
At the beginning it was pretty crowded, with big tourist buses and cars, the Taroko National Park is one of the main touristic attractions of Taiwan.
The road is elevating gently, going through a few tunnels and a very nice landscape. At 11.40 I arrived to the first road repairing point, and they won’t let anyone go through from 11 to 12 (and also 9 to 10, 1 to 2 and 3 to 4 if I recall correctly). I chatted with some locals who told me we were around 300, 400 meters high. About 20 cars were waiting here already. I started again at 12, and not so long after I arrived to a rest area for tourists visiting the gorge, with a 7/11, a food court and a few other things. That was the last 7/11 I saw that day. 24 hours in Taiwan without seeing a 7/11 was my personal best at that time.
At 1.15 I arrived to the second road repairing point, and managed to understand that they would open at 1.30. I don’t know for how long they had been blocking the road and I don’t know the timetable as there wasn’t any information. I was at an elevation of around 850 – 900 meters. The traffic had lowered down since the last rest area. About a dozen of cars were waiting.
There’s nothing up there, what am I going to eat ?
Around 2 I passed by a village named Luoshao, it was not directly on the road so I chose not to stop even though I was starting to be hungry.
At 2.40 I finally saw a food option on the side of the road and I immediately stopped. I paid 100NTD (2.80 euros) for an egg fried rice. It seems cheap but that was the most expensive fried rice I’ve ever paid on the island, especially without meat. In that situation I was quite happy to pay though, as I was starting to wonder if I would ever see another restaurant that day. I took a photo of the altitude, 1380 meters. Hua Lu Xi is the name of the place. I could refill my water bottles for free here.
Then I kept cycling and did not encounter much on the way. One nice thing is that every 500 meters high, there’s a sign telling you that you reached 1500 meters high for instance, and how many kilometers you need to reach 2000 meters. On Maps.Me, you can see a free camping spot at 2000 meters with water, but I haven’t checked it. Remember that it’s not legal to camp, but of course that’s only if you get caught. With the amount of trees around, setting a hammock would be the easiest option.
I passed by a few more road repairing points, if my memory doesn’t fail me there were 2. But it was after 5pm, so the workers were already gone.
Finally around 5.45-6, there was a descent. I’d say I was around 2300-2400 meters high, and I went downhill for an elevation of around 250-300 meters. I’m always so disappointed when there’s a descent, because it means I have to go back uphill after that ! The sun was setting already and the visibility was bad. Around that moment I realized that I could not switch gear anymore. I was stuck in a low gear. It wasn’t much of a problem as long as I was going uphill, but I’ll remain in this situation until arriving in to the town of Puli, some 80 kilometers later.
It’s dark, where am I gonna sleep ?
The darkness was about to surround me, when I started to see a few traces of civilization. I saw a suitable camping spot under a wooden roof (I didn’t know it was illegal) but I decided to continue.
I saw a gas station, I wanted to grab some food but everything was closed. I’m not sure if you can refill there.
A few minutes later I encountered a police station. It was dark so I stopped and asked for advice. I wanted to camp in the station as it is possible in some police stations on the East side of Taiwan, but they rejected me. I also asked them about where to find food since they were having dinner, but they told me there was nothing around. After a quick conversation, I understood that an accommodation was available a bit higher, but I could not understand how far it was.
So I cycled in the dark, until the moment where I saw a lighted lamp post leading to a path. I saw a guy outside and screamed “Nihao”. He came to me with his barking dogs. He could not speak any English so I tried to explain him that I was looking for a place to camp. After a few minutes exchanging he told me to come in, and showed me a suitable place to set the tent. I was about to do so when he kept saying something to me but I could not understand, so I called my Chinese-speaking wife (very good coverage up there!) and they talked together for a bit. She told me that he has a room where he could let me sleep for the night. Awesome! Things always work out well! He didn’t even want to charge me for that.
An unexpected experience : Sleeping in a tea farm in the middle of the mountains
The guy was very friendly, showed me the bathroom to take a hot bucket shower and then invited me to eat instant noodles. I gave all the Chinese vocabulary I could say in about 5 seconds so we switched to talking through a translator. The guy even had WiFi up there ! I was surprised by how connected the place was. Before coming to Taiwan, we spent more than a year in Latin America and it was not common to find WiFi in the mountains. He was the one who told me that camping was illegal around here. And I also learned that he was a tea farmer enhancing why he kept refilling my tea cup during the whole conversation. He even ate the tea leaves and I copied him, that was the first time I tried!
After exchanging about our lives for almost 2 hours, I went to sleep as I was very tired. We were at 2400 meters high, and he explained to me that the steepest part had yet to come! It was only 9pm though, but I was tired enough to call it a day.
After a good night of sleep I was ready to go the next morning ! I could feel that my legs were aching a bit, but the shining sun and the breakfast offered by my host made me forget about it. It was time to take off and conquer the last bit in front of me !
Working at 2.700 meters high
The landscape was breathtaking, and I frequently paused to immortalize the moment. A couple of hours later I had to to stop in order to work. Yes, to work ! Being an online French teacher, I have to cater for my students’ needs. One of my long-term students asked me a day before to do a lesson that morning and I accepted. Therefore I found a nice break area away from the road, put my earphones and started to teach with the data I had on my Taiwanese sim card. The coverage was still pretty perfect up there, like almost everywhere on the island. It went well, and after a one-hour break I was more than ready and eager to be back on the road.
Less than an hour later I passed the 3.000 meters elevation road sign ! Totally exhausted but I knew I was almost there ! I kept on taking many photos on the way, officially to have pictures to share but officiously to catch my breath and rest my legs. I noticed more and more traffic on the road, especially cars and motorbikes.
Finally at the top ! Wuling : 3.275 meters high !
Soon after midday I was finally up there ! The highest road in Taiwan ! Cycling the Central Cross-Island Highway ! I carried my bike up the stairs to take a photo with the mythical sign. 3.275 meters high !! I wasn’t the only one up there, and some Taiwanese came to congratulate me. It was pretty obvious what I was doing, since I was one of the few coming from the east side, while carrying a big backpack at the back. Taiwanese once again showed me their friendliness up there. A couple of them invited me to ride downhill together.
While in Taiwan, we shared our story to students in multiple schools along our trip, do you want to do the same ? This is an article explaining everything about it !
Riding downhill with my new Taiwanese friend
We started, and I quickly realized how much of a problem it was to be blocked in the same low gear. I kept going with them, and about an hour later we arrived at their car, parked in the touristic village of Qingjing. This side of the mountain was very crowded, and my new friends explained that many Taiwanese come here to escape the heat, ride their bikes up there and usually visit farms. The most famous one is a farm with many sheeps, a highly unusual sight in Taiwan.
They were looking for a place to eat, and eventually settled down for some Yunnanese food. That had been about two years since I had visited the Yunnan province in China, so this evoked a few memories in me. It was a nice lunch where I shared a bit more of my story while listening to theirs. They told me they were from Hsinchu, a city I had the chance to visit before. Hsinchu might be the wealthiest city in Taiwan, thanks to the numerous IT companies based there. In true Taiwanese fashion, they didn’t accept my offer to chip in for the meal and waved me goodbye after taking a photo together.
Cycling through the aboriginal lands
I had about 30 kilometers to go until Puli. My new friends also offered me to bring me there with their car, but there was no way I would accept so close to my destination ! The descent was pretty steep so the gear wasn’t really a problem. I passed by the township of Ren’ai. It’s an important township for aboriginals people in Taiwan. I knew of this place because before coming to Taiwan, I had watched a movie named Seediq Bale, focusing on the Seediq tribe and the impact of the Japanese colonization on their customs. Nowadays in Ren’ai there’s a statue of Mona Rudao, one of their former leaders and a memorial of the Wushe incident where many Seediq people got killed in a revenge atttack by Japanese.
I eventually managed to reach Puli despite the relatively flat last five kilometers. I went straight to a bike shop to fix my bike. Soon after it was done, I went to the highest point of the city and experienced the sunset.
I eventually met with my Couchsurfing host that night, the lovely Kate, and we went straight to the local night market where HiuYing and Darian finally joined us. After filling our bellies, we could get some well-deserved rest. And of course get ready for new adventures ! The next day we were off to visit the Sun Moon Lake, and 2 weeks later we were hiking the highest mountain in Taiwan, the Yushan Jade Mountain.