Taiwan's Jeweled Crown

Cycling the North Coast

2019 / July

Lynn Su /photos courtesy of Jimmy Lin /tr. by Jonathan Barnard

Not far from Taipei City, Taiwan’s North Coast has been shaped over the millennia by orogeny and volcanic activity, as well as erosion wrought by ocean waves and wind. That combination has made for a winding coastline, varied and intermixed geologic strata, and marvelously shaped rocks. Like a crown atop Taiwan that is inlaid with many jewels, the North Coast makes for a special cycling experience. Let us follow some cyc­lists as they pedal through this realm filled with God’s marvelous creations, witnessing together its strange and timeless wonders.

Just after sunrise, when most people are still asleep in their beds, some cyclists have already got their gear together in preparation for a two-wheeled journey. They gather at the Hong­shu­lin Metro station at the edge of Tai­pei City, near the starting point of Taiwan Provincial Highway 2. Taking advantage of the light traffic and the hours before the sun grows fierce, they set out on a short journey along the North Coast.

Subtropical coastline

Said to resemble southern Taiwan’s Kenting, Qianshui Bay has a beach with the elegant arc of a crescent moon. It is the first scenic spot on the journey. One notable feature: Thanks to abundant mineral content, the golden sands here also contain flecks of darker-­colored iron ore.

Much loved by locals, the wide beach also attracts travelers to come play in the water. Yet ­Zhang Rui­song, a volunteer tour guide for the North Coast and Guan­yin­shan National Scenic Area Administration and a resident of Jin­shan, urges would-be swimmers to first study the mood of the sea before going in.

Rip currents are a frequent occurrence along the North Coast. Often called a “silent killer,” a rip current is a coastal phenomenon whereby the water appears calm but there is a strong surface flow pulling rapidly out to sea. Without awareness of the rip current, swimmers can quickly be carried far from shore. Then, when they decide to turn around and head back, they may find it hard to resist the pull of the current, exhausting themselves in the struggle and eventually drowning. Consequently, the Ministry of Education has increased its information efforts in local schools to prevent tragedy when students head to the beach on vacation days.

The sound of the wind

Advancing farther along Highway 2, one comes to the first cape along the North Coast: Linshanbi. A remnant of an eruption of the Datun volcano group some 800,000 years ago, this narrow peninsula is a masterpiece of nature extending out into the Taiwan Strait.

The Linshanbi Recreation Area, located at the highway’s 23 kilometer marker, is a highlight of the journey. A small path next to it leads to the Lin­shanbi fishing harbor. When you look out to sea, the tree-lined Lin­shanbi Trail is on your right.

Here one finds many common coastal plants, such as sea hibiscus, night-scented lily, shell ginger, Angelica hirsuti­flora, Japanese dock, sea mango, and Sedum formosanum, as well as dark gray igneous rocks formed by volcanic eruptions. The long exposure to ocean waves and the harsh northeasterly monsoon winds has created “venti­facts,” which are wind-cut rocks. “They are quite unlike other rocks,” ­Zhang explains. “They have large, multiple faces, with ridged edges between the faces and corners where the edges meet—hence their Chinese name: ‘wind edge stone.’” 

The beach on the other side of the harbor offers a different kind of scene. To the left, the cycling boardwalk extends 10 km. Because it connects San­zhi with Shi­men, it is called the Feng­zhi­men Boardwalk, with feng meaning “wind,” and zhi and men being the same characters as are found in those place names. Nearby are two large algal reefs covered with green algae that provide truly special scenery.

Formed by the deposition of calcareous material from the cells of algae and growing at a rate of under one centimeter per year, these giant algal reefs are precious natural features. Yet, construction of the Lin­shan­bi fishing harbor has damaged their ecologies to some degree—despite attempts to leave the reefs undisturbed during construction.

When the tide pulls out, you can see large expanses of exposed reef in the intertidal zone. During springtime, these treasures of our nat­ural inheritance appear almost to be dyed green in places, at the spots where sea lettuce, a kind of green algae, grows. Although sea lettuce is edible and even an ingredient used in Chinese herbal medicines, “to modern people its flavor is too fishy,” says ­Zhang. He notes that back when Taiwan was largely an agricultural society, locals would gather the algae to feed to pigs.

The wooden boardwalk provides a simple coastal path to head toward San­zhi. Jay Chou’s music video “Secret” was filmed here. By word of mouth, cyclists have learned to take this route on their return to avoid having to pedal uphill, and to be able to enjoy cycling in more wild environs. Eventually, the route connects to regular roads that lead back to Highway 2.

Coast as training ground

Before we hit the next cape, we first pass Bai­sha Bay. Embraced by Lin­shanbi on one side and Cape Fu­gui on the other, the beach offers distinctly different scenery from Qian­shui Bay. Featuring bright white sand from crushed shells, it has exceptionally clear water. According to ­Zhang, it was a favorite beach of the Japanese during the colonial era.

Max Yu, who is a fitness trainer, divulges another secret spot along the coast for cyclists: the Chu­she Farm. Nearby, a few kilometers inland, the San­zhi Visitor Center and Gallery celebrates famous native sons such as former ROC president Lee Teng-hui, composer ­Chiang Wen-yeh, legislator Lu Hsiu-yi and medical educator Tu Tsung-­ming. Another famous local was the painter Chu Chen-nan, whose family runs the Chu­she Farm.

Its facilities are basic, and the farm doesn’t even sell food of any kind. It only provides equipment for grilling meat and making tea. Although the scope of service is limited, the lush green environment is pleasant, and it’s relatively cool here on a hot summer’s day. Consequently, the farm has acquired a good reputation among cyclists, who make reservations here ahead of time and come with the whole family. The families need only bring food and then relax as they grill meat, make tea, and chat. Meanwhile, the cyclists can park their bikes, change into their running gear, and jog the three kilometers to the Cape Fugui Lighthouse and back. They can even take a swim in the ocean. The coast thus becomes a training ground for triathletes.

Unchanged after millions of years

When you make this cycling trip, apart from taking in the famous sights, don’t forget to try some of the special local snacks. The North Coast’s popular meat zongzi stalls have earned fame thanks to the local 18 Kings Temple, which attracts crowds at night, when its deities are thought to be particularly efficacious in answering prayers. Even people from southern Taiwan rush to drive all the way here after work, and then rush back before dawn. The Liu family’s zongzi proved popular since they are easy to eat in one’s car on the way home, and also make good gifts. The Yu and Chen families then followed suit with zongzi of their own. Nowadays some people come just for the famous zongzi and never even visit the temple at all.

Leaving Cape Fugui, riders enter the tail end of the trip. We visit the Laomei Algal Reef not far from the lighthouse. The strange scene is a result of ancient eruptions of the now dead Datun volcano. Long battered by ocean waves, the softest parts were eroded away, leaving only the hardest bits and creating an uneven surface of troughs and ridges. We visit in springtime, the peak season for algal growth, when a kilometer-­long section of the coast here shimmers with green. Looking out at the reef, one hears the rhythmic sound of the waves and sees the surf crashing amid the reef’s crevices, creating spouts of water that look like small geysers.

Heaven’s handiwork doesn’t end here: Another ­important sight at Shimen is the massive ten-meter-high rock arch that seems to rise out of the deep sea. The stone arch, which reveals a variety of geological strata, is why Shimen (which means “stone gate”) got its name.

Yet time has brought change. Even if this stone feature remains sturdy and upright, the surrounding environment has been transforming. Look carefully and you see that the conch shells that used to be littered across the beach have all but disappeared. Instead, one now sees a lot of plastic shreds amid the fine sand. It is altogether disheartening.

The final destination of this cycling trip is Sha­zhu Bay, whose name has changed several times. Some used to call it Zhong­jiao, but older generations of locals have always known it as Gu­liao (“net shack”). That’s because back when these old-timers were little, everyone hereabouts wrested their living from the sea, and people would build improvised shacks to store their fishing nets. Yet the traditional fishing life has disappeared hereabouts as the old communal fishing method of beach seining has passed into memory and inshore fish stocks have grown severely depleted. Hearing blows from a conch as people carried a boat and seine net into the water is a thing of the past.

Whether you call it Gu­liao, Zhong­jiao, or Sha­zhu Bay, standing here and looking out at where the blue sky merges into the blue sea, you gain a sense that human life, by nature’s yardstick, is nearly as fleeting as a mayfly’s. Persistent attachment is foolhardy. By treading lightly across the land and understanding that our lives are but a century at most whereas these landscapes are eternal, we will gain greater reverence and humility.                    

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