"The Suao-Hualian Highway was excavated from a sheer marble bluff in the Shimizu mountains, which shoot straight up to over 8080 feet. Its feet appear as if washed by the violent crashing waves of the Pacific Ocean. This marvelous and unique highway leaves men dumbstruck; beyond proclaiming its grandeur, there are no words to describe it." Japanese caption to vintage photo, @1930
Looking back, what astonishes me about this cross-country motorcycle trip around Taiwan is that we had no advance reservations anywhere. We only had THE BOOK--the Insight Guide to Taiwan-—and a map. This was "travel" with a capital T. We leave Taipei and go southeast to the great Suao-Hualien highway. The plan is to go down the entire east coast to Kenting, where the South China Sea meets the Pacific, and then back up the west coast until we go inland to Takoro Gorge, then Lion's Head Mountain.
In the annals of the world’s great thoroughfares—the Apian Way, the Kyber Pass, the Alcan Highway-—the coast road from Suao to Hualien must be granted a place. It is 70 miles of asphalt precariously perched on cliffs soaring above the Pacific Ocean. The road is a series of hairpin turns and sharp embankments. Its narrowness exposes its 1920’s origin, and there is no barrier at all guarding the precipice. The collective dangers of which necessitate that the traffic is permitted in only one direction at a time for much of the road.
We know we are approaching the first traffic checkpoint when we come upon the last car in a 3-mile backup. Motorcycles can fly to the head of the line, where they naturally clump. We are the only women waiting amid the sleek Chinese men on the motorcycles, and my blond hair-—yes, we did this entire trip without wearing helmets--screams foreigner that is clarified by the American flag on the back of our gear. Lots of doubletakes from the bikers, with “thumbs up” and smiles, smiles smiles.
The gates open, and the motorcycles are allowed to go ahead of the cars. We are engulfed in the fumes of 60 bikes as we reapply lipstick and get underway. The angles of some of the embankments demand greater and greater speed for us to balance, as BFF accelerates to 70 miles an hour. It takes a steady hand and quick reflexes to drive such a road, and it takes a stout heart and a cool manner to be driven: we are a harmonious team.
Our days pass quickly, and no two hours are alike. We ride through village upon hamlet upon city, eating squid on a stick at lonely roadside stops, swimming in the healing waters of remote mineral springs, and climbing mountain trails to forgotten temples. One day our road, which was clear on the map, simply vanished where there should have been a bridge, and we were suddenly in the middle of a salt field. The old woman working the field had a completely deadpan expression on her face as we scurried to get off her property.
For all the thrill of the bike, there was one terrifying moment that should have ended everything. It was nighttime, and we were on another treacherous mountain road. The weather had snapped so cold that I could hardly work the flashlight to see the map. There were miles upon endless miles of unrelenting curves. BFF was growing tired, and to complete all the hairpin turns she was drifting over the yellow line at the crest of each curve and then drifting back. We were nearly choking in all that darkness, and then there was a car coming at us. BFF quickly swerved around the car. But right behind it, drifting into our lane, was a bus! It was too late to do anything. For an instant we knew we were going to die, right then and there.
And then, in the next second the bus was at our backs. How was that possible? We should have smashed directly into it. It was an eerie, mystical moment. There is a mysticism to the East that cannot be denied. When our hearts stopped pounding we continued on our way.
Next, some of the great cities of Taiwan.