Bitan to Tamsui - Cycling Taipei South to North, Into the Country's Past

For most of human history, waterways have been highways. For most of Taiwan's history, the quickest way from Tainan in the south to Taipei in the north was by boat along the coast, and the quickest way from what is now Taipei's southern suburb of Xindian to the north-coast port of Tamsui was by boat along the Xindian and Tamsui rivers.

Boats are commemorated in the name of the city's oldest district, Wanhua. The place name "Wanhua" is derived from the Japanese (Manga) and Hoklo/Taiwanese (Manga) transliterations of the Ketagalan aboriginal word for the canoes (banka) used to transport charcoal and sweet potatoes downriver to sell to the earliest Han Chinese immigrants.

The Keelung River, which enters the Taipei Basin from the east, was subsequently used to move coal and ores from hill mines around Jiufen and Ruifang. The Dahan River, from the southwest, was used to bring tea, camphor, and indigo dye from Sanxia and Daxi.

Following the invention of steam trains and gasoline-powered cars and trucks, rivers became obstructions. Grand bridges were built to span them, and levees were constructed to protect citizens from flooding. The waterways were soon all but forgotten.

Today the rivers are flourishing again. Private tour yachts, public ferries, fishing boats, and at least one large imitation Mississippi-style steamer work their way up and down the main channels. The real renaissance is on the riverbanks, however, where tens of thousands of cyclists ride the latest racing models or rent low-cost bikes from government-tendered kiosks. Weekends are busiest, with student groups organizing social events and parents introducing children to the pleasures of recreational cycling, but the bike paths are also increasingly used on cool summer evenings by workers commuting to suburbs in all directions.

The main attraction driving this phenomenon is the freedom from the noise - and danger - when sharing one's journey with cars, trucks, and motorbikes. A decade ago, if asked why they did not cycle, most people cited danger as their main concern. At that time, bicycles were predominantly ridden by schoolchildren, grandmothers, and Southeast Asian laborers. The government - central and local - determined to remake Taiwan into a country of cyclists, has built thousands of kilometers of paths, improving every county.

The government, determined to remake Taiwan into a country of cyclists, has built thousands of kilometers of paths, improving every county

The several hundreds of kilometers set up in Taipei and New Taipei cities follow all the main - and even some minor - watercourses, allowing cyclists to retrace the routes taken by their forebears in earlier centuries. Bike-only paths now connect westward from Taipei to Sanxia and Daxi, as well as to the tourist pottery town of Yingge and the Hakka township of Longtan, with its lake-surrounded temple. To the east is the Taipei suburb of Neihu, the Xizhi and Wudu exurbs, and eventually the port of Keelung, where cyclists can connect with the north and northeast coast routes.

The main Taipei Basin cycle route, what you might call the super-highway of bike paths, runs south-to-north between Bitan ("Emerald Lake"), beside MRT Xindian Station, and just beyond the MRT Tamsui Station in the north-coast port town of Tamsui. Land and water connections also allow you to reach the town of Bali, Tamsui's companion town on the "Left Bank." All three points are in New Taipei City, whose government has recently asked for tenders on a city-wide bike-rental scheme with a special provision: that bikes may be borrowed from and returned to any of the dozen or so outlets. (Note: Similar bike-rental stations are currently operated within Taipei City limits, but it’s not possible to rent a bike in New Taipei City and return it at a Taipei City station, or vice-versa. Roughly, all areas west of the Tamsui and Xindian rivers, south of Jingmei Stream, and north of Guandu are in New Taipei City; in between is Taipei City.)

This makes the 45-kilometer north-south corridor a convenient half-day adventure - longer with breaks or side excursions. Bike rental is NT$25 per hour (NT$15 weekdays), NT$150 for 4 hours, and NT$250 per day if return is to a different outlet. (Note: Rental fees at Taipei City stations may vary slightly from those in New Taipei City.)

Bitan, Bali, and Tamsui all have their charms, so choosing start and end points can be tricky. A variety of paths connects them. The following course is recommended for its special combination of sights, romance, and culinary delights.

Take the MRT Xindian Line to Xindian Station - bikes can be carried on this line on weekends, or in a bag at any time. At all stations, water bottles can be filled from a fountain in the forecourt. The Xindian River is to the west, and although called a lake, Bitan is in fact a deep, slow-moving section of river sided by steep forested cliffs. These provide a majestic backdrop to the New Taipei City dragon-boat races held here each summer. Pedal-powered swan-shaped vessels can be hired year-round, and musicians play at riverside eateries, but today the focus is bikes, which can be rented from a cabin about 300 meters to the north of the pedestrian suspension bridge.

Although called a lake, Bitan is in fact a deep, slow-moving section of river sided by steep forested cliffs

The bikeway sets off north among sculptured flowerbeds. Before long, the Jingmei River branch forks off to the right, offering a detour to Muzha and the Taipei Zoo. Pressing on straight ahead soon brings cyclists to the Gongguan area.

For those with children who start to ask why they cannot swim in the appealing Xindian River waters, Gongguan's Taipei Water Park, with its various amusements, will provide a welcome break. Others might like to stop for a bite to eat, as the presence of the main National Taiwan University campus nearby ensures a wide range of inexpensive restaurants and street snacks. Anyone finding their clothing inappropriate for the long ride may, in similar fashion, make use of the many inexpensive sports outlets.

From Gongguan the path makes a leisurely loop around Taipei's historic Wanhua District before arriving at Dadaocheng Wharf, a gathering point for many cyclist groups. Coffee, snacks, and bike equipment are on sale. Those with time for exploring might like to visit nearby Dihua Street, famed for its shops selling Lunar New Year provisions and its many historic houses, some dating from the 19th century when international trading firms filled the area.

Three kilometers north of here is a turn to the left that provides a pleasant 7-kilometer detour aroundShezi Island, actually a duck-head-shaped peninsula. If you skip the detour, both before and after the next large bridge there are right turns for routes east along the Keelung River to districts of north Taipei and on to Keelung itself.

Having resisted these temptations, continue northwest, with the fine views of Yangmingshan's peaks to the right. The path winds its way along mangrove swamps, and coffee cabins offer drinks and snacks and a longer rest than those taken for photos and to read the informative signs about the ecology created by these brackish-water-loving plants.

Further sustenance is available in Guandu, and further insights into local fauna and flora, migratory birds in particular, are available at the Guandu Nature Park nearby. Those visitors with more human cultural interests can visit the major temple here, dedicated to Mazu, the seafarers' deity. The above-mentioned Mississippi-style steamer is often to be seen moored nearby.

Tamsui and its famous sunset views is reached by continuing along the river's right-hand side, past the even more magnificent mangrove swamps near MRT Hongshulin Station.

Tamsui's unique delicacies include "iron" eggs," a-gei (tofu with bean-sprout noodles), and shrimp rolls. Its historic attractions include temples, the former British Consulate at Fort San Domingo, George Mackay's Oxford College - as well as his grave (Mackay is a key 19th-century historical figure) - Tamsui Old Street, and Huwei Fort, built to repel the French in 1884. Many visitors are content just to wander the waterfront enjoying the views, and that famous sunset of course.

Many visitors are content just to wander Tamsui’s waterfront enjoying the views, and that famous sunset

The final leg of the cycling trip is by regular road up to Fisherman's Wharf, for scenic views and freshly caught fish cooked on site or taken home. From here, visitors can jump on a ferry across toBali on the opposite side of the estuary. Bikes can be transported for an extra NT$20. (Note: At Bali you can return your bike, if rented from a New Taipei City bike-rental station; starting this August, returning bikes will also be possible at a new rental station in Tamsui, saving you the trip across the river.)

Sheltering on the shore below Mt. Guanyin (so named because the mountain is said to look like the Bodhisattva Guanyin's face and body in profile), Bali is a historic fishing port at the mouth of the left bank of the Tamsui River that actually predates its now larger neighbor opposite. Now primarily a tourist destination, it is renowned for its seafood, especially its mussel and clam dishes. After returning your bike (if hired), take a ferry back to Tamsui and catch the MRT to downtown Taipei.

For those wishing to complete their journey in style, the Blue Highway tour service has boats running to Zhuwei, Guandu, and Dadaocheng. Tickets are NT$200~340, and bikes may be taken on board for no extra charge. Cruising back to downtown Taipei in the fading evening light, it is easy to reconnect with the city’s past, when the fastest mode of travel was by rivercraft.

English & Chinese
Dadaocheng Wharf
Dahan River
Dihua Street
Fisherman’s Wharf
Fort San Domingo
Oxford College
Huwei Fort
"iron" eggs
Jingmei River
Keelung River
"Left Bank"
Mt. Guanyin
Shezi Island
Taipei Zoo
Taipei Water Park
Tamsui Old Street
Wanhua District
Xindian River

(Source: 27/07/2012)