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Cycling the Northern Cross Island Highway

scenery on the Route 7 yi between Sanxia and Sanmin

I set off at six o’clock on Monday morning to ride across the Northern Cross Island Highway. This road, which Taiwanese call the Bei Heng (北橫), begins at Daxi in Taoyuan County and goes across the mountains to Yilan. I stopped to eat breakfast somewhere on the road between Xindian and Sanxia. Once I rode through Sanxia the worst of the traffic and urban ugliness was behind me. The scenery on Route 7乙 between Sanxia consisted of small farms with bigger mountains off in the distance.

David on the Luofu Bridge while cycling the Northern Cross Island Highway

At Sanmin I joined the Route 7 proper passing by Fuxing and the Xiao Wulai waterfall which I had visited before. I stopped on the Luofu Bridge to take a few photos.

Leaf Cafe at Ronghua on the Northern Cross Island Highway

Beyond Luofu the road narrowed and you really had the sense of being in the mountains as the road travelled along the side of a steep valley. The next stop was in Ronghua at an altitude of 510 metres. The Leaf Cafe (葉子咖啡) was a perfect refuelling stop. I made fairly good time and not long after midday I rolled in to the small town of Baling where I had lunch. Baling has hot springs and several hotels and would make a good spot for an overnight stop if you are cycling at a more sedate pace.

Siling altitude 1140 metres on the Northern Cross Island Highway

Beyond Baling the road headed further upward. You are really in the mountains here and there is very little traffic on the road. At the higher elevations there are cypress trees. The road kept going up beyond the sign in the photo above. I believe the high point of the road is around 1,200 metres. At this altitude the temperature is also noticeably cooler especially when the clouds started rolling in the afternoon.

Forest in Mingchi

Around mid-afternoon I reached Mingchi. I arrived there at the same time as two other cyclists and they asked me if I would like to share a room with them. I was grateful for their kindness and company. They were also riding the Bei Heng, but at a slower pace having taken two days to get to Mingchi from Taipei. Mingchi has a beautiful resort set amongst the giant trees of the Ma-kau Ecological Park (馬告生態公園). After taking a shower there was still enough daylight to walk around the lake at Mingchi and enjoy the beautiful forest.

Bus and truck pass each other on a narrow section of the northern cross island highway in Taiwan

The next morning I was on the road before seven. The road was fairly level for a while before the long descent down to Yilan began. On the narrow mountain roads people generally drive slowly and carefully. It is amazing how two vehicles can pass each other when it seems so narrow. Many people also shouted out encouragement to me as they drove past.

The Lanyang River Valley in Yilan County, Taiwan

The road descends to the valley of the Lanyang River and follows its banks until it reaches the Yilan Plain. When I got to Yilan there was an ominous looking black cloud to the north and shortly before I reached Jiaoxi it started raining. I took shelter and waited until the rain stopped. I rode through Jiaoxi and started to head along Route 9 to Pinglin. It started raining again. I stopped for a while, but then decided to push on rain, hail or shine. The “nine turns and eighteen bends” afforded some wonderfully dramatic views of Toucheng and the ocean.

Statue of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva on Route 9 near Pinglin

When I rolled into Pinglin for a late lunch the roads were finally dry even if I wasn’t. After a hearty lunch I started on the home stretch along a familiar road. A large golden statue of Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva stands guard over the road on the climb up from Pinglin. It was still a bit further to the top of the hill but then it was a nice easy downhill run home.

The two day ride was a great experience and the forest and mountain scenery was especially beautiful. I should add that it is possible to take your bikes back to Taipei on the Capital Bus (首都客運) from Jiaoxi or Yilan if you don’t want to ride over Route 9 or one of the other routes.

*more photos in the Northern Cross Island Highway set at flickr.

#Thanks to Rank and Biking in Taiwan who have both posted helpful descriptions of the route (and some alternative routes).

Update: An article about the ride has now been published in Highway 11 magazine. It is online in both English and Chinese.

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Comment from MJ Klein
Time 10 September 2008 at 8:36 am

David, this is such a fascinating post – i love it. Day 1 looks so clear! it’s difficult to ride and take photos so i want to thank you for stopping to do so. it does break your pace when cycling. i wish i could do this ride. maybe someday, but now i can visualize it thanks to your article.

Comment from cfimages
Time 10 September 2008 at 9:25 am

Fantastic experience. I saw the photos on Flickr last night but you didn’t have this post up at the time. I’d love to do a ride like this someday – at the moment I’m considering Changhua to Sun Moon Lake but still need some more climbing training before I do it – I can just make it up a Category 3 climb without stopping but need to stop often for anything bigger. Do you have any stats on speed, time etc from your trip?

Comment from Prince Roy
Time 10 September 2008 at 9:37 am

I’m scathingly envious. I would’ve loved to have made an offering at the Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva.

Comment from David Reid
Time 10 September 2008 at 12:39 pm

Prince Roy and MJ, thanks for your comments.

cfimages, I don’t have a computer on my bike so don’t know the exact distances or speeds. I guess I rode around 120kms per day. Although there is a lot of climbing the gradients are quite moderate. I was using the middle chain ring the whole way.

A slightly easier way of doing it would be to stop at Baling the first night and then bus or train back from Yilan on the second day or taking three days to return to Taipei.

Comment from Todd
Time 10 September 2008 at 8:06 pm

Absolutely wonderful David! This looks like an outstanding route! I think I need to bike a few half-day/full-day routes before I try any overnight ones. Your pictures and report gave me just the motivation I needed. Thanks David!

Comment from David Reid
Time 10 September 2008 at 10:36 pm

Thanks Todd. I’m sure there are plenty of interesting cycling routes around Nantou.

Comment from cfimages
Time 11 September 2008 at 2:25 pm

Thanks David. 120km per day is a good distance – I often do 50-60km and that’s pretty tiring, although it might be because I usually only have coffee and granola bars beforehand and don’t stop to eat on the way.

Cycling computers make a big difference – I think I’ve got a basic one lying around somewhere that I no longer use. Providing I haven’t lost any of the wires, you’re welcome to have it – let me know and I’ll bring it along next time I see you.

Clipless pedals are also great to have. I use some basic ones that are normal flat pedals on one side, and have the connection for cleats on the other. I think the pedals were about NT$700, and shoes about NT$1500. I use the cleat side with cycling shoes when I’m out riding, and the flat side with regular sneakers or sandals if I’m just cruising about town running errands. Highly recommended.

Comment from David Reid
Time 11 September 2008 at 4:47 pm

cfimages, riding long distances is not so hard if you have regular rest stops and eat and drink plenty throughout the day.

Computers are very useful when touring for estimating the time until you reach the next town. I have one on my bike in Australia. I have never bothered in Taiwan though. I actually have the pedals with clips on one side, but I have never bought the shoes to go with them. I really should as I know it does make quite a difference.

Comment from aaron
Time 11 September 2008 at 8:26 pm

Great pictures as usual, makes me want to get a bike and go exploring.

Comment from ingnang
Time 19 September 2008 at 3:36 am

Thanks for the post, David. This brings back my memory of more than 20 years ago when a bunch of us friends hiking through this road from the other end. I especially like the picture of the valley of the Lanyang River. Just like what I have remembered. I guess you don’t really see too much of paper money on the road anymore. It used to have those paper money strewn along the roadside as a token for safe passage of this 9 turns 18 bends.

Pingback from The ancient trees of Lala Shan – David on Formosa
Time 12 October 2008 at 10:48 pm

[...] my bike ride across the Northern Cross Island Highway I passed by the turn off to Lala Shan (拉拉山), just after Baling (巴陵). On Saturday I [...]

Comment from martin woodhouse
Time 15 January 2009 at 7:22 pm

great post its a ride I must do one day I’ve only been as far as baling. Another good day trip is from sanxia to daban gen then take the road on the right (北113)to fuxing (which is crossed out) this road goes up and up until you reach a T junction turn left head towards dongyan shan after 4 or 5 hairpin bends the road ends and the fun begins 5km or so of single track the trail comes out 2km from the entrance to dongyan shan visitor center at the top of the mountain.