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Come to Albania Now to See Emergence of a Young Country – Best Way to Experience Albania is on Bike Tour

The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view from the castle of Gjirokaster, a UNESCO-protected living history city in Albania, overlooks a lush valley © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

By Karen Rubin, Travel Features Syndicate, Goingplacesfarandnear.com

You wouldn’t necessarily come to Albania to see monuments and fabulous architecture, for museums that hold the treasures of civilization or the artifacts that trace your heritage (though one of the surprises are the important cultural and historic sites including a Greco-Roman city reclaimed from the forest overgrowth).

You wouldn’t necessarily come for fabulous beaches, though Albania possesses hundreds of miles of coastline along the Ionian and Adriatic Sea, and its own “Albanian Riviera” that reminds you of the French Riviera without the pretension.

You wouldn’t necessarily come for stunning and dramatic landscapes –though scenes abound of picturesque farmland that reminds you of Amish Country, dramatic mountains that reach into white clouds, sheer cliffs that drop to the sea, sunsets that take your breath away, villages carved into hillsides that look out to expansive galleys, giving a different hue to each of our days.

Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Beachgoers at Dhermi, on Albania’s French Riviera © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The scenery, the landscapes are strikingly beautiful to be sure – mountains that rise dramatically to white cumulus clouds, a coastline that follows the exquisitely aquamarine Ionian and Adriatic seas, valleys lush with immaculate farms with geometric patterns of color and texture. But most interesting of all are the contrasts without contradiction – farmers burnished by the sun to a leathery brown, working fields with hoes and spades or riding mule-drawn hay-carts up winding hillside roads while chatting on cell phones. In a country where a cinema or shopping mall or even retail stores are rarities, cell phones and cars (and car washes and petrol stations) are ubiquitous.

Certainly there are the beautiful landscapes, the picturesque countryside and stunning coastlines, ample historic and cultural attractions, and traditional tourist delights of beaches and sensational food.

Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Children playing at Lake Ohrid © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

But the best reason to come to Albania is for The Now, to see a young country shaking off a tortured past – “an unlucky history/country,” is the odd phrase our guide, Junid, uses.

Come to experience a place, a people and a culture that is shrouded in mystery after decades of being imprisoned behind an Iron Curtain, closed off to the world,  under the thumb of a paranoid dictator, a place, a people and a culture that is either completely unknown or branded with misconceptions and false images.

To see that process unfolding is absolutely thrilling. Albania is not what it was 10 years ago, and is not what it will be in the next 10 years.

Surprises Abound

I was only in Albania a few minutes before I hear a story that proves foundational to my understanding: Albania, the only European country with a Muslim majority, was also the only European country to end World War II with more Jews than it had at the start of the war, because Albanians harbored Jews  from the Nazis at great risk to their own lives and that of their children.

“Every one of the 200 Jews living in Albania before the war was hidden and taken care of by their mostly Muslim countrymen and countrywomen,” Jim Johnson, president of BikeTours.com who has designed this special “President’s Tour of Albania” that I am on, tells me, as we are taken from the airport to our hotel in the capital city of Tirana. “In fact, nearly 2,000 Jewish refugees fleeing Hitler were welcomed not as refugees but as guests and were ‘hidden in plain sight’ –  made part of Albanian families and daily life. This endured even during the German occupation amid extreme threats by the Nazis.”

“The Jews were sheltered with their own children – which meant that if they were caught with Jews in their house, their own children would be killed,” our guide, Junid later relates when our group of five cyclists gathers for our first dinner together. “A lot stayed in the north – with Catholics. A lot went to Israel after the war. I’ve had groups where people went to back to the town where a family had sheltered their relatives.”

Why the Albanians would do this stems from an ancient code of honor, besa, that emphasizes “compassion and religious tolerance, that links personal honor to respect for and equality with others,” Junid explains.  According to The Code, guests must be protected, even if it means losing one’s own life. “Talk to an Albanian today, and you’ll find they still consider their compassionate role during the Holocaust to be part of their national honor.”

Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through Albania presents dramatic scenery © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

That begins a series of wondrous surprises about a country that up until now has been largely completely unknown to Americans, who either have no impression or wrong impressions of Albania.

The first surprise is that Albania is a mere 75 minutes flight past Vienna in central Europe, where I switch planes from JFK. Geographically, Albania is part of the Balkans, bordered by Greece, Macedonia, Kosovo and Montenegro, and across the Adriatic Sea from Italy’s boot.

The second is discovering this country which for so long had been kept in isolation, shrouded in mystery. American travelers have come under the spell of Cuba and Myanmar – two other nations which have emerged from enforced isolation – but Albania deserves our attention to revel in how this young country is emerging.

The third surprise is that though Albania is majority Muslim (the only European country with a majority Muslim population), it is secular and tolerant of other prominent religions (Orthodox, Catholic), with a large strain of atheists stemming from when its Communist dictator, Envar Hoxha, (dictator from 1945-1985), banned religion altogether, burned down churches and mosques, murdered and imprisoned hundreds of clerics, and made Albania the first officially atheist country in the world. Even after the churches and mosques were reopened in the early 1990s, many remain atheists or keep their religion private. Indeed, I saw more women in headscarves in four days at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia, than in two weeks traveling through Albania.

The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The rebuilt Catholic cathedral in Korca © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

The fourth surprise is that Albania (the correct name is Shqiperia, or more officially, Republika e Shqipërisë) is not an extension of Greece, Turkey or anywhere else. The Albanian language, Shqip, is Indo-European in origin and bears little resemblance to any other language today. And even though the alphabet is based on Latin (with a few additions), the sounds the letters make are very different, so you can’t pronounce, let alone read the signs. (See www.omniglot.com/writing/albanian.htm).

Each day, though, Junid, attempts to teach us an Albanian word. I wind up with “gezur” (which approximates to ”cheers” when you drink).

But with only 3.5 million Albanians left in the country after millions fled when the borders were finally opened with the fall of Communism and with the way Albania was divided up shortly after independence in 1912, there are more Albanian speakers outside the country than inside (90% of Montenegro, half of Macedonia’s Parliament and 5% of Greeks speak Albanian).

Albania uses its own currency, Lek (at this writing, 1 Albanian Lek equaled 0.0082 US Dollar, or less than one penny). The median income, I am told, is $5,000 a year. I found the value of items roughly 1/5 of the cost here – so a glass of wine (actually extremely good) in a restaurant was about $2; a mug of beer (also extremely good), about $1; admission to a historic site for foreigners about $5 (about $1.50 for Albanians). You could have an entire meal in a fine restaurant for less than $8. In other words, a pleasant surprise is how inexpensive it is to travel here.

Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Ladies walking down the road © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Biking through the country, I am struck with how pleasant people are, how easy-going, how unstressed. We think of Albania being poor – its reputation is being the poorest country in Europe – but we have more severe and graver poverty in the US. You don’t see the extremes of rich and poor here. You don’t see squalor, hovels, hunger or homelessness (though we do encounter a few panhandlers in the popular tourist towns.)

In one of the most popular holiday cities, Saranda,  when people come out at night (a custom in Albania), strolling the promenades along the Ionian Sea, it looks like Long Beach, Coney Island or Jones Beach – families, couples, gaggles of girls or boys. They stop at vendors selling popcorn, ice cream, toys, or sit in open-air restaurants and cafes. People are surprisingly scantily clad on the beaches and just strolling about – girls in tight, short revealing dresses, bare midriffs; couples showing affection, fellows wearing t-shirts that make statements of one sort or another; young people with tattoos. Most surprising to me is seeing fathers holding their infants and toddlers, and mothers who clearly have an equal status in their family, and how parents dote (even spoil) their kids.

Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Strolling the promenade in Saranda © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

I am struck by how relaxed people are. Perhaps this is because of the comparative stability and freedom  – especially considering that the country underwent economic collapse and a civil war in the mid-1990s and is still considered one of the poorest, least developed in Europe. The situation seems stable even from 10 years ago, Junid confirms (I can relate to this, compared to the stress, hysteria and insecurity after the 2008 financial and housing collapse in the US, compared to the way people feel more secure in their homes and jobs now).

You don’t see ostentatious wealth or abject poverty. In some ways, Albania is described as a “subsistence economy” – people seem to have at least enough to get by, if not live comfortably. The Albanian people are polite, pleasant to one another (and to us), affectionate, fun-loving, like to laugh, seem easy-going, and dare I say, unstressed. It is as if a whole weight was removed when the oppression of Communism was lifted and people could be more free to show their emotions (I had experienced something similar when I first visited China in 1978, during the transition from the Gang of Four to the Four Modernizations, and then returned two years later to find the whole country transformed, as if a blizzard of fresh air had flowed through.)

Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Cell phones are ubiquitous in Albania, even on a donkey cart© 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Possibly the relative contentment I observe is related to the fact that there is very little consumerism – we see only one cinema (in Korca, considered the “Paris” of Albania, the most cosmopolitan city we experienced) and one place that could be construed as a “shopping mall” (also in Korca) – but what has become a ubiquitous item is cell phones. We see a man driving a donkey cart hauling hay talking on his cell phone; a woman in a field  leaning against her hoe talking on her cell phone.

Also cars, petrol stations and car washes which crop up in the oddest places. During the Communism regime, no one was allowed to own a car (except for the Communist rulers who also availed themselves of magnificent waterfront villas). That leads to incongruous sights like a man riding a donkey passing a Kastrati gas station.

Cell phones, cars are the ubiquitous consumer items. And apart from restaurants, tavernas, cafes, beach holidays and bridal gowns, there seems to be little else. Simple pleasures prevail (though in Dhimare, we see jetskis, paragliding from the mountaintop, and Mercedes cars)

Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Fresh trout from the farm is served at the guesthouse at Sotire © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

More surprises: how fantastic the food – literally fresh from farm or sea to table.  With 300 miles of seacoast (the Adriatic and the Ionian Sea where we bike), we are treated to an abundance of fresh fish—sea bass, mussels, shrimp, squid freshly caught from the sea, farmed trout that finds its way to our plate minutes after being netted, and a fish that is uniquely found in Lake Ohrid. The abundant farms – which use organic practices – make farm-to-table meats—especially lamb and pork— as well as fruit and vegetables plentiful. Albanian cooking blends Mediterranean cuisine with Greek, Italian and Turkish influences; seasoning is mostly subtle – garlic and chili peppers – flavorful but not too spicy.

And water! Albania is rich in water which flows from the mountain tops – we fill our bottles from eternally flowing fountains. Some 70% of the country’s electricity is generated from hydroelectric power. Every structure uses solar panels to generate hot water.

Another surprise: while few older people speak English, most of the younger generation takes English in school, and seem very plugged into the rest of the world. And they seem to be very welcoming to Americans – indeed, they named a street in Tirana, the capital, for George W Bush after he became the first sitting American president to visit Albania, and only the day before we arrived in the country, a bust of Hillary Clinton was unveiled in Saranda. People are very welcoming to us, as well, when they learn we are Americans, and many Albanians have relatives in the US.

Everything about Albania is surprising. I knew nothing about this country before I arrived (as I expect is typical of most Americans) – I didn’t even know what city to fly into (Tirana, the capital, where almost 1 million of the 3.5 million Albanians live.)

Albania is so unexpected: how fun-loving and friendly people are, how immaculate the farms and how delicious the fresh produce (organic!) we eat at each meal, how picturesque the mountains (70% of the country), how the fresh water springs just flow, we just fill our water bottles from the rushing fountains; how lush the country is, how easy-going the people are, how scantily clad beachgoers are, how women wear tight, short, revealing dresses and men wear (sometimes) t-shirts with in-your-face slogans,  and tattoos, how loving fathers are, how doting parents are of their children, how women seem to enjoy an equal relationship with their men. It is a majority-Muslim country that is secular, and tolerant; there are enormous Christian crosses dotting the countryside. How fascinating archeological sites like Butrint National Park, a UNESCO-protected city that extends back to Hellenic and Roman times (one of the most fascinating archeological sites I have ever experienced), and the UNESCO-protected Lake Ohrid area.

Other surprises we discover on our ride: Mother Teresa was Albanian (the international airport in Tirana is named for her), as was the scientist who found the drug that became Viagra (he was looking for a remedy for cardiovascular disease).

Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sharing the road with a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

And the best way to engage, to discover Albania is by bike. Cars, buses would never come to these places – these back country roads, roads that have been bypassed by more recently constructed highways. They would go too fast to get any sense at all of moments that, on a bike, you can snatch up and savor, without the distorted unreality looking through glass windows. But from the perch of a bike saddle, you move at just the right pace, hear the sounds of cows mooing, the bleating of sheep; the bells attached to goats; have to sidestep goats or cows or donkeys walking on the road. You can smell the wild sage growing beside the road, and feel the moist coolness as you ride through the forest. We wave and say a cheery “hello” as we pass, and people wave back. You can stop – even chat- with a shepherd, or take the time to gaze and a scene and capture serendipity in a photo. Such was the experience of stopping to watch a funeral procession, a ritual of walking a goat around St. Naum monastery in advance of the annual feast day to honor the saint, kids frolicking on the Lake, a bride and groom posing for their wedding photos.

Each day is marked by very different landscapes, different tableaux – geographical and social – and distinctive experiences. You never know what you will see beyond the next turn in the road.

Here is another surprise: we are oddities as we ride through. Not because we are foreigners (it isn’t obvious that we are Americans), but because we are on bikes at all.

BikeTours,com

This was my third trip with BikeTours.com – which is not the bike tour operator but a broker that has assembled a catalog of local travel companies. They’ve done the search and checked out and selected top-notch companies to feature.

These are operators that supply the best bikes, itineraries, accommodations, meals, attractions at an excellent value (ie. about $150 a day, depending on choice of accommodations, and destination – or roughly half of what other tour operators charge).

BikeTours.com also provides superb pre-trip materials, coordinates the airport transfer, and if necessary, will steer you to a travel agent to book the air.

The self-guided Danube Bike Trail trip which I did with my two adult sons – charming bed and breakfast inn, accommodations, detailed directions, the guide spent 2 hours with us making sure the bikes fit and going over the route, suggesting places to visit.

The bike/boat trip through the Greek Isles was superb – great bikes fabulous guides, wonderful boat (wood hull, reminded me of a pirate ship), a fantastic itinerary.

Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biketours.com’s president Jim Johnson riding his e-bike past a herd of goats © 2016 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

This trip to Albania, a specially tailored “President’s Tour” (tacking on a couple of days kayaking in the Ionian Sea and a loop around Lake Ohrid into Macedonia) is a guided trip, and included three meals daily (so much food we had to tell our guide to order less); admissions to attractions, superb bikes (hydraulic brakes, suspension, 30-gears on the hybrids, or, in my case, e-bike that gave me super powers for climbing hills), supported with a van that followed behind us, and charming, comfortable accommodations (WiFi!) – like a guesthouse on a farm and a luxury boutique city hotel.

There are still some scheduled departures left this year for “Albania’s UNESCO Sites with Rivers, Valleys, and Gorges ,” 9 nights, Level 4, averaging 37 miles/day (950E or about $1050) (www.biketours.com/albania/albania-UNESCO-tour).

BikeTours.com 1-877-462-2423 or 423-756-8907, 1222 Tremont St., Suite 100, Chattanooga, TN 37405, biketours.com.

(More to come: Day by Day Biking in Albania)

____________________

© 2016 Travel Features Syndicate, a division of Workstyles, Inc. All rights reserved. Visit goingplacesfarandnear.com and travelwritersmagazine.com/TravelFeaturesSyndicate/. Blogging at goingplacesnearandfar.wordpress.com and moralcompasstravel.info. Send comments or questions to FamTravLtr@aol.com. Tweet @TravelFeatures. ‘Like’ us at facebook.com/NewsPhotoFeatures

 

Taiwan’s Bikeways are Paths to Discovering Culture, Ancient and Modern

Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan's most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Sun Moon Lake is one of Taiwan’s most spectacular bikeways, where parts bring you on bridges just above the water © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

by Karen Rubin

Before I arrived in Taiwan with an intention of biking, I hadn’t realized what a mountainous island this is – not just hilly, but craggy mountains that rise steeply. There are thousands of mountains  – 100 peaks are over 3000 meters high. Only 30% of the land area is habitable, the rest are mountains and forests. In fact, Taiwan now hosts an international cycling race that may well be among the most challenging in the world.

Nonetheless, Taiwan is very pro-cycling and has developed a fantastic network for biking – more than 3,000 kilometers of dedicated bike paths all around the island – so that even if you don’t do a point-to-point, inn-to-inn cycling itinerary, you can do a kind of hub-and-spoke or town-to-town, renting a bike in the best spots, and enjoying these marvelous bikeways.

What we experienced during our all-too-brief six day visit inspired me to return to travel more intensely. I discovered what a fantastic destination Taiwan is to really explore – it is such a distinct culture, with such rich heritage, beautiful landscapes, and extraordinarily friendly, good-natured people – and despite the fact that you are likely not able to understand the language or be able to read it, you feel incredibly comfortable and at ease.

I have been longing for a destination to explore as I did as a college student, backpacking through Europe, just discovering things serendipitously.

You can get around Taiwan so easily – by rapid transit train, by bus, rent a car (you need an international drivers’ license; excellent highways with signs in Chinese and English), hiring a car and driver, or signing on to an organized bike trip where you really do go point-to-point.

Another surprise is how remarkably affordable Taiwan is (again, reminding me of the good ol’ days) – prices by my rough estimate are as much as half what you would expect to spend traveling in the US or Europe for everything from bike rental (as little as $2/hour to $7/hour) to food (our average meal at a local restaurant was $10), to hotel arrangements to train travel (an hour’s trip on a high-speed rail was $55).

Taiwan is also surprisingly compact – you can ring the entire country on a nine-day guided biking trip (as long as you don’t stop to sightsee) and yet has such a variety of eco-systems and cultural niches. It is still possible to see an aboriginal village, and meet Taiwanese whose families go back hundreds of years to the Han Chinese including Hakka immigrants from areas Fujian and Guangdong on Mainland China.

Taiwan (named Formosa by Portuguese, “Beautiful Island,” who never actually settled here) was colonized by the Dutch beginning in 1623 (just like New Amsterdam/New York City!) The Dutch did not last long, though, driven out first by loyalist of the Ming dynasty and then by the Qing Dynasty. It was in the hands of the Japanese from 1895-1945.

These influences are still very strong, but the Taiwan we know today reflects the influx of the mainland Chinese in 1949, led by Chiang Kai-shek, who fled the Communist takeover and brought with him as much of China’s heritage as he could organize (apparently, the treasures of the Forbidden City had already been boxed up during the 1930s because of the Sino-Japanese War, so it was relatively easy to get them out).

Like the Taoist temples where Guardians protect the Gods and Goddesses, Taiwan has been the guardian of China’s millennia-old heritage, and even though Taiwan is quite modern, the traditions are very much the foundation.

Martyr's Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Martyr’s Shrine, Taipei © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

During our first day in Taiwan, in Taipei City, after renting a bike and exploring a popular bikeway in a park along the river, we get an excellent foundation in understanding Chinese and Taiwanese heritage at the National Museum, which houses 650,000 artifacts, most of them the items taken from the Forbidden City in Beijing after the Communist takeover of China. We visit Chiang Kai-shek’s Memorial and the Martyrs Shrine (where a popular thing is to see the changing of the guard, which happens every half-hour) – which provides a foundation for what we will see when we leave Taipei City for other parts.

We could have – should have – done our sightseeing around Taipei with the U-bike, that wonderful urban bike-share program. However, unlike some other cities like New York City and Washington DC which have similar programs, there did not seem to be actual bike lanes – at least bike lanes that weren’t jam crammed with pedestrians or merged in with the hoards of mopeds (there are 10 million mopeds in Taiwan for 23 million people). Hardly anyone was biking in the city that we could see. (The city affords excellent mass transit, by the metro or bus or cab; you can purchase multi-day travel passes for U-bike and the metro and bus).

Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway

Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience  © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking through the Old Caoling Tunnel is an experience © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our first real biking comes when we head to Fulong, on the Northeast Coast, a popular beach and recreation area. Here, you appreciate the dramatic landscape – the ocean on one side which falls off sharply to a deep depth, and mountains that rise straight up on the other side of the road. Tall rocks project out of the water.

The dramatic coastline reflects one of Taiwan’s geological quirks: Taiwan is rising up 0.8 cm every year because of the collision of two tectonic plates.

We come for two magnificent bikeways: the Yanliao-Longmen Bikeway and the Old Caoling Tunnel Bikeway, together among the five most popular bike routes in eastern Taiwan.

The train tunnel was finished in 1924 during Japanese occupation, to accommodate the Yilan Line. At 2.16 km, it was the longest tunnel in Southeast Asia at the time. It was difficult to build – 11 people died and 366 injured during construction. When a new tunnel opened in 1985 for a new train, the “train cave” was abandoned for 22 years. Then in 2007, the government rebuilt the tunnel as part of the bikeway.

The tunnel is well paved, well lighted and as you go through, you hear the strains of a Yilan folk song about a train, which was popular at time the tunnel was opened. The song was banned during the Japanese occupation which banned Chinese traditions. In 1943, a popular Taiwanese singer revived it, reminding the people of their heritage (it strikes me that it is like what the song Edelweiss meant to the Austrians during the Nazi occupation).

The scenery is beautiful – there is a fishing village at the end of the Old Caoling Tunnel route, at which point you get onto the bikeway that goes alongside Highway #2, and can connect with the Yanliao-Longmen bikeway, which affords the special attraction of riding over a suspension bridge over a river, to complete the circle.

The high point of the Yaniliao-Longmen bikeway is going over a suspension bridge.

(This area is accessible by train from Taipei, and there are bike rental shops right at the start of the trail.)

Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking on the Dong Shan River Bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We drive about an hour or so away to another area to experience the biking – Dong Shan River Water Park – and here, we catch a break. Just as we get our bike rentals, the sky clears up and we are blessed with a bit of golden light, a touch of blue sky that adds color to the landscape, and that delicious smell that comes from the bushes after a rain.

This is a bikeway that goes along the Dong Shan River, the fifth longest stream in Yilan province. The bikeway starts in a recreation area that boasts a delightful waterpark, and continues on a berm that has the river on one side, and farms and rice paddies on the other, and then passes by a marvelous heritage park. This entire area caters to tourists with a multitude of attractions, so you can easily spend a couple of days here.

The bikeway we take is only a tiny portion of the East Rift Valley National Scenic Area, which offers several bikeways: the Ruisui Bicycle Path (9.7 km); Depo Pond Bikeway (8 km); Yuli Bikeway (9.5 km); Liyutan Bikeway (this features the Tanbei Water Park and Taiwan fisheries Research Institute, 5.2 km); the Guanshan Town Encircling Bicycle Path (13 km); and the Longtian Bike Path (this features the Benun Tribal Leisure Farm, 5.2 km) – all of these hare connections to railway stations and rental shops.

Alas, we had all too brief time in this area.

We complete our visitor experience at the Yilan Evergreen Phoenix Hotel (www.evergreen-hotels.com/jiaosi) – a gorgeous spa hotel which has its own rooftop hot springs pools and outdoor swimming pool that is fabulous for laps, beautifully landscaped and absolutely heavenly at night (it is open until 11 pm).

King of the Mountain

Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Biking along Chihsingtan Beach © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

Our next day, we experience a pleasant bikeway along the Chihsingtan Beach in Hualien, that follows a half-moon shaped gulf and draws thousands of tourists (it also butts up against an Air Force base and there are military installations that are presented as a “hidden military treasure”). I follow the bikeway further, to a high pavilion with a view of the beach, and then continue on to where the bikeway comes out into the city but is not worth the effort.

Our purpose here, though, is to see the starting place for one of Taiwan’s most important international bike races, the KOM (King of the Mountain), which is held in November. This is the starting point, at zero-elevation, and the race, probably one of the most arduous in all cycling, proceeds for 100 km, virtually straight up, through the breathtakingly beautiful Taroko Gorge, through the valley to the 3275 meter high peak of Mt. Wuling where the race ends. During our trip, we will trace the route.

Taroko Gorge

Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Taroko Gorge © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We originally thought we would get to sample biking at the Taroko Gorge – but that is before we actually saw it and what the road would be like. The scenery is beyond spectacular, and so is the road.

In order to bike here, you would have to do it very early in the morning (like 6 am), and if doing a point-to-point trip, you would do it from the north-to-south, which would be downhill (which is how the bike tours do it).

There are several hostels and lodges in the park which cater to hikers, climbers and bikers. We stay at Silks Place Hotel, a luxury resort hotel that is utterly fantastic, and is in close proximity to a fascinating Buddhist temple and fabulous hiking trails. They offer some rental bikes, as well as guided hikes (www.silksplace-taroko.com.tw).

See: Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

Silks Place Hotel, which is at the other end of the Taroko Gorge from Chichsingtan Beach where we start, is only about one-third the distance of the KOM, and only at about one-fifth the elevation, at 600 meters, in the in the climb up to the peak, where the race would end, in Oiling, at 3,275 meters high.

Now comes the more challenging part. Even driving on these roads is treacherous – and also nauseating (Advice: take ginger candy to suck on, Tums, or Bonine or motion sickness medicine before you head out). We actually see bikers along the road, and I think about the advantage that the local riders must have in the race.

We go through a multitude of tunnels – the engineering is fascinating, along with the plethora of suspension bridges that criss-cross the Gorge. The mist is rising – so the  view is constantly changing -the scene opens and closes.

The biking through the Taroko Gorge (all part of the KOM race) is tough enough, but this part, in the valley, is much more extreme – rising steeply, narrow turns, single lane and no shoulder.

The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The view along Route 8, Taiwan © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

At about 2000 meters elevation, needing a break and some fresh air, we stop at Pilou Sacred Tree (also known as Bilu Divine Tree) rest stop, where the fellow (who now lives in California but comes back for summer to work in his family’s cafe) gives us a hot, black, syrupy drink, Lon Gan Ginger sweetened with brown sugar,  that is supposed to help settle the stomach. When that doesn’t work, he offers us a straw mushroom with salt. (I take Tums).

It is a most pleasant spot – and what a view, even with the fog filling the valley. It’s the view and the crisp, cool air – such a contrast to the hot humid weather down below – that makes us feel better.

The delightful cafe sells peach honey which they make; and the menu features such items as pig’s knuckles with peanuts and a Lily flower and mushroom soup (50 NT, about $1.75)

The sacred tree that the rest stop is named for stands just beside the road – 3200 years old and still living.

Our guide tells us that this road has some of the shortest, steepest climbs probably anywhere, and reminds us just how mountainous Taiwan is (and now we can appreciate it) – with thousands of mountains and 100 mountain peaks above 3000 meters. They are known as the “Top 100” and a goal for Taiwanese is to do the Top 100 in their lifetime.

The KOM race is now striking me as an absolute phenomenon, one that should stir the same kind of awe and attention as the Tour de France and the Hawaii Ironman Competition. Though a traditional event locally, it has only recently become an international event with professional riders.

The road is unrelenting in how it rises in elevation, and the twists and turns come even more sharply. Out of the 400 racers invited to KOM in its first three years, only about 100 finish – incredibly in three hours.

The last mile is the hardest for the riders  – rising at a 17% grade. Now we are above the tree line. There are a couple of hostels in the area that serve mountain climbers and hikers and a research station. At He Wan Mountain, there is a hiking trail that takes about 40 minutes to “conquer” the summit.

The temperature has dropped significantly, as well – Taiwan is sub-tropical, but now we put on light jackets. It is also terribly foggy. In winter, there can be snow here.

We pass the 3158 Cafe (3158 meters elevation), but we are still not at the summit.

Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
Bikers pose at the 3275-meter high peak of Mt. Wuling, the finish of the arduous KOM Race © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

It is absolute fog when we get to the peak – you can’t see far, but everyone, including a couple of bikers, is delighting in taking pictures at the sign that gives the 3275 meter high mark – a man offers to take my picture for me.

It has taken us 3 hours to drive here (with stops), from 8:30 to 11;30 am, and we started out one-third of the way from the start of the KOM – it takes the winning cyclist 3 hours to complete the race.

The race is so challenging – the road so narrow – that the road is closed and spectators are not allowed along the route. However, if you are staying in the Silks Place Hotel or Leader Village Hotel the night before the race, you can get to see the race on the road (though you are also confined to where you are for the duration). Another way to watch the race is to go from Cingjing, Nantou to Wuling and see the cyclists rush through the finish line.

Sun Moon Lake

It takes another three hours for us to drive to the Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area, in the heart of Taiwan. We get a glimpse of this absolutely stunning lake, but just as we arrive at the Giant Bike Rental Shop, the sky literally opens up, sending down a deluge.

It’s late afternoon and we go to our hotel, Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel (www.yooushan-hotel.com.tw) – which is not in the Sun Moon Lake tourist area (it is the weekend and filled with people) – but in Puli, which is proud of being “the heart of Taiwan” in the center of the island. The Puli Yoou Sham Grand Hotel is a four-star hotel that is popular with local people – it has a marvelous outdoor pool, a fitness room, a rooftop revolving restaurant, and that evening, have dinner at Ya Zung Haka restaurant to experience Haka-style cuisine.

The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com
The stunning view of Sun Moon Lake from the bikeway © 2015 Karen Rubin/news-photos-features.com

We return to Sun Moon Lake the next day, just after the Giant rental shop opens at 6 am, and enjoy a magnificent ride along one of the prettiest bikeways anywhere. At points, the bikeway doesn’t just ring the lake, but actually goes along bridges just above the lake’s surface – a magical experience. We only have time to do the 7 km-long bikeway, but it is also possible to ride around the lake on the road, a total of 33 km.

There is a lot for people to enjoy: just near the lake is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village, an amusement park that has been opened since 1986, which has the tallest freefall ride in Taiwan.

Also, the Sun Moon Lake Assam Tea Farm, where visitors can learn how to pick up tealeaves and have tea-tastings.

The area is also popular for bird watching and hiking up to the peaks that seem to rise from the lake shore.

Cycling Taiwan

We’re here on a survey mission organized by the Taiwan Government Tourist Office, which has focused on promoting cycling for locals as well as visitors. And these are just a sampling of the fabulous bikeways – all of them in areas rich in cultural and natural attractions that warrant exploration – so that I am anxious to return and really spend time exploring. The bikeways are extremely well marked (in English as well as Chinese), with rest facilities and services (there is always a Western style toilet, even if it is the “disabled” toilet).

The bikeways are delightful for any level of rider and any age and we see scores of families with kids in carriers and bikeseats; road riding would be a different story.

The best bike rentals were to be had at the Giant bike store outlets – this is the major bicycle manufacturer that also has a network of bike rental shops (what better way to promote the product – I know I wanted to buy one) and have outlets in the best biking areas.

Giant also operates a whole catalog of multi-day, point-to-point guided biking tours of Taiwan – perfect for more intense cycling. The Giant tour planners know where it is safer and where it is dangerous to ride; the groups go out with two mini-vans – one in back and one in front. They put you into groups, not necessarily English speaking, and trips average $169 per person/per day More information on Giant Travel’s website: www.giantcyclingworld.com/web/travel_en.php

We also found a wonderful itinerary marketed by biketoursdirect.com, which is operated by SpiceRoads, and really covers Taiwan’s highlights, including spending two nights in Taroko Gorge, so you have a full day to hike and explore  (www.biketours.com/Taiwan/taiwan-traverse-by-road-bike#sthash.rE3jN2HZ.dpuf)

Bike tours are also offered by:

Grasshopper Adventures, www.grasshopperadventures.com, 818-921-7101, Email: journeys@grasshopperadventures.com (http://grasshopperadventures.com/tour-TSCB09.php

Bicycle Adventures, bicycleadventures.com, 800-443-6060 (bicycleadventures.com/destinations/taiwan-bike-tours/Taiwan-Bike-Tour—NEW!)

Green Island Adventures, www.greenislandadventures.com/cycletours.htm

A superb guide, “Cycling Taiwan: Great Rides in the Bicycle Kingdom”, details the routes, and access information – 26 bikeways in 12 national scenic areas including 25 family-friendly routes – several that we experienced, and many more that will have to be put off for another visit – like the Wushantou Hatta and Baihe bikeways in the Siraya National Scienc Area; the Aogu Wetlands and Beimen bikeways on the southwest Coast; the Anpo Tourist Cycle Path in Maolin and the Shimer-Changbin Bikeway, Sanxiantai Bike Route which are highlighted by indigenous culture.

You can find superb itineraries at “MyTaiwanTour”, www.mytaiwantour.com.

Expect to pay a per diem of $166 (about half of what bike trips in Europe cost).

Our visit has been too brief, but has piqued my interest to return and really explore. I found Taiwan to be a destination which you can really do that – the logistics and excellent transportation systems, the variety of landscapes, the depth of its cultural attractions, the superb accommodations and food, and the excellent value for money (a bargain destination, I would venture to say), and most importantly, how comfortable you feel everywhere you go. It may seem cliche, but the people really are friendly, hospitable and so anxious to help even if they do not speak English.

Prepare for the trip in advance:Tourism offices in the US include: Taiwan Visitors Association, 1 East 42nd St., New York, NY 10017, Tel. 212-867-1632/4, Email tbrocnyc@gmail.com

See also:

Travel to Taiwan: vibrant, modern society built on bedrock of tradition and slideshow

Taroko Gorge tops Taiwan’s natural wonders and slideshow

2 Days in Taipei: Hitting the highlights and the highpoints in Taiwan’s Capital and slideshow

Dining on Xiaolongbao at DinTaiFung at Taipei 101 is savory experience  and slideshow

Two Days in Taipei: Day 2: Confucius Temple to Fine Art Museum to Night Market and slideshow

Chinese Arts Dancing Ensemble and slideshow

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