One look at a relief map of Taiwan shows you its huge adventure sports potential; bisected by northeast Asia’s highest mountains and with the rushing rivers and sheer cliffs of the east coast, this hidden paradise of outdoor pursuits is starting to attract more adventurous travellers from Asia and the rest of the world. As well as a haven for trekkers and mountaineers, the island also offers excellent conditions for a range of activities, from mountain biking and kayaking to paragliding and surfing, with many grassroots operators springing up to meet the needs of travellers.
Hiking and trekking
Contrary to the widely held assumption that Taiwan is one giant industrial wasteland, most of the island is, in fact, rugged wilderness that offers some of Asia’s most amazing hiking and trekking possibilities. With an extensive network of national parks, scenic areas and forest reserves – all of which are laced with trails – the hardest part for most hikers is deciding where to start. There are also eighteen forest recreation areas in Taiwan, and while the trails in some of them have suffered extensive typhoon damage, others boast well-marked paths, some of which have English signage. For more on these areas, visit the Forestry Bureau’s website: wwww.forest.gov.tw.
A monumental effort is under way to link up many of Taiwan’s major trails into an island-wide, north-to-south interlocking network known as the National Trail System – which could someday make it possible for hikers to traverse the entire length of Taiwan. However, the series of typhoons that strikes the island each summer inevitably wipes out various sections of trail, often taking years to rebuild, so the prospect of a completely unified network is perhaps an overly optimistic undertaking. For more detail on the trails that will make up the system, visit wtrail.forest.gov.tw.
With 258 mountains over 3000m and the highest peaks in northeast Asia (excluding some of the volcanoes on northeastern Russia’s Kamchatka peninsula), you’d think Taiwan would be a mountaineering hotspot, but most of its stunning peaks are only tackled by a few climbers each year. Many of the trails are cut straight into the mountainsides and are thus extremely prone to dangerous landslips – especially during spring and summer rain – but apart from this most of the main routes up major peaks pose few technical challenges. Despite this, mountain permits are required for almost all of them.
By far the most famous peak is Yushan (Jade Mountain), which at 3952m is northeast Asia’s highest. Ironically, it’s one of the most accessible, thanks to a well-built, scrupulously maintained trail and one of Taiwan’s most often-used mountain shelters. In good weather, reasonably fit climbers can ascend Yushan and its surrounding peaks without much difficulty.
Taiwan’s second-highest peak, the 3886m Xueshan (Snow Mountain), makes for a beautiful climb that often yields awe-inspiring vistas of the mountains of Shei-Pa National Park and nearby Taroko National Park. During winter, Xueshan and the surrounding mountains that make up the so-called Holy Ridge live up to its name, often remaining covered in snow for months. The main trail to the summit is usually in excellent nick, and though the climb is steeper than that for Yushan, there are two mountain shelters that can help break up the journey.
The favourite of almost every serious Taiwanese climber is Nanhushan, also known as “Nanhu Dashan”. Tucked away in the far northwest corner of Taroko National Park, this gorgeous 3742m peak has been climbed by precious few foreigners.
If you don’t want to plan your own climb, try Tainan-based Barking Deer Adventures (t0938/337-710, wwww.barking-deer.com), which specializes in small-scale, personalized tours of all the major national parks – they will also arrange permits for DIY trips for a small fee.
Given its hilly terrain and extensive trail network, Taiwan has some of the world’s top mountain biking, rivalling the best of North America and southern Europe. Heart-stopping downhill courses, technical rock gardens, jumps, berms and super-fast single track: the island has it all, and much is easily accessible from cities such as Taipei and Taichung. If you’re an avid trail rider and plan to visit Taiwan for any length of time, it’s worth bringing your bike with you (rental bikes tend not to be suitable for mountain biking). Check the archived website of the Formosan Fat Tire Association (wwww.formosanfattire.com) for details of bike shops such as Alan’s Mountain Bike in Taipei (wwww.alansmountainbike.com.tw) – these are the best places to hook up with local riders and join organized rides.
Another two-wheeled activity for which Taiwan is well suited is bicycle touring, as the dramatic “cross-island” roads that wind their way across the central mountain ranges offer remarkable alpine scenery and an honest cycling challenge to boot. The Southern Cross-Island Highway, which at its highest point cuts through part of Yushan National Park, is highly recommended, though during heavy rains there can be dangerous rockslides and caution is essential on the road’s many blind curves. The Northern Cross-Island Highway is also an extremely rewarding route, as are the amazingly scenic central cross-island routes. Although the highway that runs along the east coast from Taipei to Taitung is a tempting option, the road is choked with giant gravel trucks and runs through several long, dark tunnels, making for a very harrowing ride. To see much of the island’s best mountain and coastal scenery in one long ride, try a route that combines one of the central cross-island routes with the southern one: start at Sun Moon Lake or Puli and head north past Wushe until you reach Dayuling, then turn east and ride through the Taroko Gorge until you come out at Highway 9; go south to Hualien and follow Highway 9 through the East Rift Valley to just before Haiduan, then head west over the Southern Cross-Island Highway. When the road finally spills out at Laonong, you could carry on cycling south into the Maolin National Scenic Area.
Whitewater rafting and kayaking
Taiwan’s steep mountains combined with typically heavy spring and summer rains often make for solid whitewater rafting and kayaking conditions. Though many streams are too steep and technical for all but the most experienced kayakers, a few of the island’s rivers are well known for whitewater rafting. By far the most popular – and one of the safest – is the Xiuguluan River, which at 104km is eastern Taiwan’s longest. The main 24km run begins in Ruisui, about midway between Hualien and Taitung on the East Rift Valley’s Highway 9, and cuts through a gorge in the Coastal Mountain Range to finish at the Changhong Bridge just before the Pacific estuary at Dagangkou. For rafting and canyoning tours, contact Green Island Adventures, which organizes two-day packages from NT$4500 (wwww.greenislandadventures.com). Bear in mind that if you have rafted on more challenging rivers such as those in North America, you might find the Taiwanese approach is over-cautious, with operators using support rafts and speedboats, leading to a less exciting experience.
If you prefer to negotiate your white water in a kayak, there are several other less-commercialized rivers. Some kayakers put in at the headwaters of Taipei County’s Nanshi River at Fushan and paddle all the way down to Wulai, an elevation loss of about 200m. Another appealing option is the Beigang River in Nantou County’s Huisun Forest, which has a fast-but-short stretch of rapids. Contact Paddle Around International (wwww.kayak.com.tw; Chinese only) or the Aruba Outdoor School (wenaruba.blogspot.com) for lessons and tours.
The exhilarating sport of paragliding is gaining enormous popularity in Taiwan, with a steady stream of fledgling pilots joining a dedicated community of die-hard expats and Taiwanese. Having said that, it’s not a great place for beginners – clubs are unlicensed and unregulated and flying sites can be tough for first-timers. Assuming you’ve done your initial training elsewhere, there are around six well-known flying sites scattered across the island, each with its own prime season, making it possible for local pilots to fly pretty much year round. Two places vie for honours as Taiwan’s top paragliding spot: Luye Gaotai, in the East Rift Valley near Taitung, and the Saijia Aviation Park in Pingdong County, not far from Kaohsiung. The Saijia Aviation Park was the first in Taiwan to open to paragliding and has the largest landing and best thermalling potential; sadly, it was officially closed in 2004 after a fatal accident involving a tandem passenger. At the time of writing the private landowner was allowing flying to take place for a fee, but check with the Maolin Scenic Area for the latest.
Luye Gaotai, which generally has better conditions in summer, has two specialized take-off sites with rubber running-track surfaces and is the site of an international competition that attracts some of the world’s most talented pilots. Along the northeast coast are some other popular paragliding sites, such as Feicuiwan (Green Bay) near Keelung, as well as Yilan and Hualien. Taiwan’s best English-language website on paragliding is at wwww.wingstaiwan.com.
Diving and snorkelling
Taiwan’s scuba-diving and snorkelling spots are not nearly as famous as those of southeast Asia, but a few of them compete. The top spots are Kenting National Park, Little Liuqiu Island, the Penghu Islands, and the superb Pacific islands of Ludao and Lanyu. However, while the Kenting area has numerous dive shops that offer scuba trips, most of the other spots have less reliable operators, and if you want to undertake serious dives in these areas it’s best to arrange them in advance through one of the many scuba companies in major cities such as Taipei: Green Island Adventures is a good place to start (http://www.greenislandadventures.com/).
Some operators offer reasonably priced scuba courses, with basic open-water certification available for as little as NT$5000. If you know you’ll be travelling to one or more of these islands, it’s a good idea to bring your own mask and snorkel; fins are not essential, but in some places neoprene boots are necessary to keep from cutting your feet on the coral as you wade out. If you don’t have your own kit with you, it’s worth asking snorkelling shop owners if you can rent just the mask, snorkel and boots for a discounted rate and make your own way to the reef. In summer, there is little need for a wetsuit in Taiwan’s warm tropical waters, and, though some shop owners may tell you that a wetsuit is needed to protect you from jellyfish, in most cases this is not necessary.
As for marine wildlife, the Pacific islands of Ludao and Lanyu are veritable treasure troves of tropical fish and dolphins, and sightings of sea turtles and magnificent striped sea snakes are possible even while snorkelling. Advanced scuba divers can see giant schools of hammerhead sharks off the southern tip of Ludao from January to March of each year. For more information, visit the Green Island Adventures website.
Taiwan is well known for its windsurfing, and the Penghu Islands are widely considered one of the world’s top windsurfing spots. Given the islands’ unique flatness, the northeast monsoon winds that whip across the strait are especially powerful here with wind speeds of up to 50 and sometimes even 60 knots possible in winter. And the horseshoe-like shape of the Penghu Archipelago generates a venturi effect that squeezes every bit of the wind pressure, making it a spectacular place for slalom sailing, chop hopping and just pure speed.
While Penghu is packed with Taiwanese tourists in summer, owing to the fierce winter winds it’s practically deserted from October to March, save for the growing number of world-class windsurfers who are making the islands part of their annual circuit. Visit wwww.penghuwindsurf.idv.tw for organized tours.
Although Taiwan’s surf is not of the same calibre and consistency as the likes of Hawaii, Indonesia or Sri Lanka, anyone who has surfed the island on a good day will tell you that it can be nothing short of inspiring. Rideable waves can be found from tip to toe of Taiwan, but in general those that travel across the Pacific to crash against the eastern coastline are the ones to look out for – especially in the days preceding a typhoon. There are spots suited to all levels, from sandy beach breaks swarming with beginners to reef breaks that only the experienced should attempt. For advanced surfers, crowds aren’t a major problem, as the only really big waves are at the vanguard of typhoons or during the winter when you’ll need a wetsuit, especially in the north.
While there are some surf shops near the most popular beaches, these rent mostly longboards and only sell basics such as baggies, rash vests and wax, so bring your own board and back-up supplies if you’re planning any serious surfing. The beaches best kitted out for travellers looking to surf are Daxi on the northeast coast and Nanwan and Jialeshui near the island’s southern tip, as both board rental and accommodation are possible. But most of the best breaks are near the tiny farming hamlets north of Taitung, where the local scene is of farmers in straw hats rather than surfers in flip-flops. To surf these, you’ll need your own board, private transport, loads of time to scout out the coastline and plenty of experience navigating reef. One of the easiest to find is the Donghe River mouth – if you can catch it when there is solid groundswell from a typhoon you’ll be smoking some heavy river-mouth barrels. Some of the best surfing info on Taiwan can be found on the blog at wwww.bluebirdboarding.com/gazza.htm, but you should also check out Sammy Hawkins site at wwww.taiwansurftours.com/fudog.
One of the main reasons why relatively few foreigners climb Taiwan’s tallest peaks – and as a result miss out on one of the island’s most extraordinary features – is the astounding level of misinformation regarding mountain permits. Taiwanese and foreign expats alike talk about them as if they’re next to impossible to obtain, and even some official sources insist the only way foreigners can climb major peaks is to join one of the regular weekend climbing excursions arranged by outdoor shops in major cities, especially Taipei. While these shops will take care of the permit paperwork and can cut out most of the logistical planning – attractive options for non-Chinese speakers with limited time – the downside is that you’ll be shunted into a large group of complete strangers of varying experience and abilities, and you won’t be allowed to stray from them for the entire journey. In addition, most foreigners will find that the group pace is ridiculously slow, and the noise levels are so high that you’re almost guaranteed not to spot any wildlife; a better option are expat-run companies such as Barking Deer Adventures, which organize smaller groups.
In fact, it‘s relatively straightforward to arrange your own permits, the process for which is continually being simplified for travellers. No longer is it necessary to hire a local guide for walks up the main mountains, although it’s still advised for peaks that require technical climbing skills, as well as for multiday treks across remote stretches of the parks. The minimum-person rule also has been abolished, and it’s possible for individual climbers to obtain solo permits, although park officials might be reluctant to issue these for more dangerous mountains, or during periods of heavy rain or snow.
In all cases, the easiest way to apply is in person at the headquarters of the relevant park, as this allows you to thoroughly explain your plan to conservation section officials. It also enables them to suss out your prior experience and climbing ability as well as inspect your kit. And while they’re under no obligation to do so, park officials will sometimes prepare your permit more quickly if you apply in person.
There are two kinds of permits: the standard national park entry permit (入園; rùyuán) and the police permit or mountain entry permit (入山; rùshān). Both are free. The latter is normally easy to obtain in person just before you start hiking, usually at the police station or checkpoint closest to the trail – you’ll need an application form, three copies of your hiking itinerary and one copy of your passport and park entry permit.
Park permits take more time. If you aren’t able to apply in person, the best way for foreigners to apply for the park permit is by completing the application form online and printing out the permit yourself. The form must be received by the park seven to thirty days before the planned start of your climb. The Yushan National Park (wwww.ysnp.gov.tw), Shei-Pa National Park (wwww.spnp.gov.tw) and Taroko National Park (wwww.taroko.gov.tw) websites have the application process clearly mapped out in English – the Shei-Pa and Taroko sites have example forms to download, and a copy of the mountain permit application form.
In addition to providing your personal details, you’ll need to briefly outline your proposed itinerary, including the expected date and time of your start and where you plan to spend each night: for mountain cabins, the park will reserve spaces for you, though you must bring your own sleeping bag and foam or air mattress. Once approved, officials will either fax or email the permit to you.