Tour de Taiwan (Lessons from a Huan Dao)

February 10th, 9:00 am. Only three days after deciding to do it, Rich and I set out on our Huan Dao, the holy grail of bike rides in bike obsessed Taiwan.

Comprised of misty mountains, grueling switchbacks, crumbling coastlines and traffic jammed cities, the Huan Dao (環島, literally meaning ‘Roundabout’) is a 1200 kilometer circle around Ilha Formosa.

Each year, hundreds of cyclists attempt the Huan Dao. Most of them are experienced cyclists riding bikes that cost more than any car I’ve ever owned and wearing outfits straight out of TRON.

To make things more interesting on our Huan Dao, Rich and I decided that we’d wild camp the whole way around the island.  This meant finding safe and—hopefully—legal places to set up camp each night  A perfect way to eliminate hostel costs (and save money for beer).

The combination of all day riding and wild camping made for an epic two week vacation, if you want to call it a vacation.  And rather than share a heap of photos and place names, I wanted to go over some things I learned or was reminded of along the way.

Creating a routine takes less time than you think

Living out of bike panniers is inconvenient. Sleeping in a different place each night is annoying.  Waking up each morning at sunrise, riding 100K and hoping there’s a safe place to sleep is a true test of willpower. But with each passing day panniers seemed roomier, tents more comfortable and getting on the road was something to look forward to.

Tough things get easier once you realize they aren’t actually hard. Maybe they’re unfamiliar. Maybe they’re time-consuming.  Maybe you just don’t want to do them.  The only solution is to accept the necessity of the task. Soon, it will become second nature.

At the beginning of our trip, it’d take us over an hour to get on the road in the mornings. By the end of our trip we could break down camp, make breakfast and be on the road in under 25 minutes.

Second nature.


Without a goal you are lost

We began the Huan Dao only three days after deciding to do it. Really, there wasn’t that much time to plan a perfect itinerary. I mean, we had a map. And with our house on our bikes and no reservations to make good on, we were free to go as far as we saw fit that day.

Well, it wasn’t long until we realized the romanticism of riding as far as “wherever” was not going to do it. Only two days into the Huan Dao we were painfully behind. We had failed to consider all the other factors involved, like difficulty in finding a place to sleep, distances between towns, harshness of the hill phases.

We had to get serious if we wanted to finish and getting serious meant setting some demanding goals.

After that, we put in numerous long days, counterbalanced by moderate ones. We took advantage of flat days and rode fast with limited breaks. If there were hills, we left much earlier. If there was no camping at 100 km but only after 90 km or 120 km, we’d go the 120 km.

Gaining ground whenever we could paid off. We made easy work of the last three days, each requiring no more than 60 kilometers.


Long stretches of silence are NOT boring

Silence is not boredom. And if you think it is, you are probably a stimulus junkie.

Most people will never get as much time to their thoughts as I did on this trip. And I feel lucky for that. Now, I won’t lie. Pedaling six hours a day for two weeks gets monotonous. But if you look at all the silence and monotony as space for thought and wonder, it get’s used.

Eliminate stimuli once in a while. Remember, it’s the empty space that makes the bowl useful.


Don’t be sneaky.

We were camping in a grassy area at Asia University when, around 2:00 AM, we heard tapping on the tent. After a brief and whispered freak out, we opened the door to see two security guards.

There was nothing else to do but explain to them the truth. We were riding around the island and didn’t want to pay for hotels (Literally “We do Huan Dao. No Money!”). After hearing that, they just smiled, nodded, and walked away.

The Huan Dao was not all rolling green pastures and country back roads. A good portion of the trip was trudging through cities. In these cities, we were forced to camp on private property: schools, parking lots, private beaches, national parks. We didn’t advertise it but we also didn’t hide the fact that we were camping.

It was amazing how friendly people were when they discovered what we were doing. Locals would give us food. Shop owners would tell us about a good area to camp. Even cops helped us on a few occasions.

Don’t be cryptic or misleading. Honesty and sincerity are far more useful allies.

A vacation used VS a vacation spent

There is a fine line between travel and escapism.  The difference, to me at least, is that travel involves spontaneous episodes of learning that challenge and shape your perception of the world.  Escapism, on the other hand, is a neatly packaged trip of self-indulgence—indulgence that manifests itself before, during and even after the trip.

Don’t be bothered with where you’ll spend your time off.  Think of how you’ll spend it.


Rest is important. But not as necessary as you may think.

We had been going full tilt for 5 days straight. And I was loving it.  On the sixth day we arrived in Kenting, a small beach town on the southern tip of Taiwan.  We felt we deserved a day off and where better than the very bottom of the island.  Yet, before lunch the next day I was itching to get back on the road.  What more could we do?  Laundry was finished.  E-mails checked.  We had a good enough sleep that morning.  Sure I was aching but why not have a “dynamic rest” and pedal lightly while still logging mileage.

After Kenting we decided that we’d take no more rest days.  They were, well, boring.  If we really needed rest then we’d put in two short days.  But we’d never stop the relentless forward progress.

Stay in the game.  Too long a rest is basically retirement.

You can live on less

Two weeks into two small panniers and it was still more than I needed. Seriously, I was looking for reasons to use some of the things I had packed.

I don’t want to lecture on about Need vs. Want, and I won’t start proselytizing tiny houses and shipping container living (although, I do like that stuff).

It is worth remembering how simple it is to delude ourselves into thinking we need something though. I pride myself in the fact that I can move apartments in one day with three bags. But I still have the problem of buying something because I NEED it so badly only to sell it in a few months later.

If you want to get rid of things or stop buying things, it’s not a belongings audit you need. It’s an audit of what’s truly important to you.


Every uphill has a downhill

Before each day’s ride we’d lay out out beaten up map and look for what hills lie ahead.

And there were always hills.

I remember one particularly difficult hill phase that lasted a straight four hours. It had been pouring rain all day and to top it off my back inner tube was punctured. Of course, Rich had the spares but he was far behind. Rather than sit and wait in the rain, I decided to pump the tire up, ride as far as I could and pump it up again. This went on for 5 uphill kilometers.

When I finally reached the top of the mountain, I found a shelter and waited for the spares to arrive.

After all this difficulty we were rewarded with an endless downhill ride, speeding through rain and weaving through cars. It went on for 14 kilometers, from atop wet mountain roads all the way to the coast.

At the beginning of the trip we dreaded each hill marked on the map. Yet, hills became less and less of an obstacle and we even looked forward to some.

It wasn’t just that we were faster and stronger or that we’d debunked some gear changing technique. It was the realization that the higher the hill and longer the way up, the faster and more exhilarating the way down!

The rain, the flat, switchback after switchback and not knowing how much further. It was honestly all worth it for that ride downhill.

Don’t be concerned with others’ style

We rode two Giant mountain bikes with two panniers each, sleeping bags, and a tent.  So when we came across two other “Huan Daoists” carrying close to nothing and riding feather light road bikes to their hotel we got a little jealous.

Looking back now though, I don’t see why. I’m proud of the way we did the Huan Dao. For us, the Huan Dao wasn’t just circling the island on bike. No. Every minute of the trip was part of the Huan Dao. It was camping, cooking, fixing flats, climbing boulders, meeting new people*, cursing at our bikes, hanging out at 7-11’s.

It was about bearing discomfort and rejoicing in achievement. Not minimizing discomfort and expecting achievement.

*We rode a day with another cyclist riding a Dahon folding bike and carrying enough camera equipment for a Michael Bay film.  He didn’t give a shit what people said.

All Things Must Pass

Rain eventually stops falling. Your clothes dry. You get warm. Your hands don’t look like prunes anymore. You just need to remember all that while it’s raining.

This isn’t only true for rain, hills, and cramping calves. It’s true for bad relationships, undesirable jobs, and stretches of depression.

But as with the rain it is with anything else. You can stand and get soaked in it, waiting for it to stop by itself. Or you can actively work to get out of it, accepting that you’ll get wet along the way but knowing that a dry set of clothes are that much closer.

I agree with the statement that acceptance is the refusal of unnecessary suffering. At the same time, no one should accept getting soaked in the rain. That’s what umbrellas are for.