For all those visiting or living as an expat in Taiwan, the east coast highway with its dramatic scenery and rich culture is a must see. Tourists and locals alike admire the scenery travelling by car, bicycle, scooter and bus, though if you’re pedalling be aware that the first half is mountainous and tight corners and tunnels can make uncomfortable passing places. Keelung, with its easy access to Taipei and an international port, makes a good place to start. Perhaps the most notable thing about Keelung is its name. Not the name itself, but the Hollywood style sign erected on the mountainside above the town to welcome ships entering the harbor. The other big draw in Keelung is the Miaokou Night Market with several local specialties and all the usual attractions of Taiwanese night markets.
SuAo to Hualien – Drive with care
It’s 100km from Keelung to the most dramatic part of the route. This is known as the SuHua Highway, starting at SuAo and ending at Hualien, hence the name. At this point, the central mountains of Taiwan, forced upwards from the seafloor by tectonic activity, drop straight down into the ocean. The road and its 14 tunnels were hewn out of the cliff face in the 1930s by Taiwanese laborers under the Japanese colonial administration, with little in the way of mechanization to help them and it was only in 1990 that 2-way traffic was possible along its entire length. In the context of Taiwan’s annual typhoons bringing landslides to the mountainous terrain and the regular earthquakes which are a result of its position on the Pacific Ring of Fire; building the east coast highway was truly an audacious undertaking. As you traverse the SuHua Highway you will appreciate its magnificence, both for the achievement of building it and the natural beauty of the azure blue Pacific Ocean colliding with the coastline below.
After 100km on the SuHua Highway you reach Hualien, a small city lying close to the mouth of the LiWu river and Taroko Gorge. Taroko is a deep ravine carved into the marble and limestone mountains over millions of years by the LiWu River and it is one of the major natural attractions in Taiwan. In a similar way to the SuHua Highway, the road climbing the gorge clings to the rock face, passing through tunnels and crossing bridges along the way. It is perfectly possible to cycle up Taroko Gorge, but it is a good 100km to the top of Mount HeHuanShan, involving a climb of 3000m, so it’s not one for the faint hearted. Being far from the major urban centers of the west coast, Hualien is much quieter than most Taiwanese cities and as with other towns on the east coast, has a significant aboriginal population. Taiwanese aboriginal culture is a major tourist draw to Hualien and hence of great benefit to the local economy.
The beautiful south - Taitung, Green Island and Kaohsiung.
South of Hualien, you have a choice of routes to the southern town of Taitung. The more scenic route, which also marks a change from the coast, follows the Eastern Rift Valley, also known as the HuaTung Valley (Hualien-Taitung). The HuaTung Valley is the ancestral home of the Ami, Truko, Puyuma, Bun Un and Sakizaya tribes and there are numerous aboriginal villages to visit. Alternatively, just enjoy the scenery on the gentler and less dramatic inclines of this part of the route and watch out for the monument as you cross the Tropic of Cancer. At the southern end of the valley, you reach Taitung, one of the three major cities on the east coast. From here, you can take a ferry to Green Island, a popular tourist destination due to its natural beauty and opportunities for swimming and scuba diving. Green Island was also the site of a prison used to house political prisoners during the martial law era. Thankfully, Green Island has now left the political turmoil of Taiwan’s past behind it and comes highly recommended as a place to chill out.
The final section of the journey takes you south from Taitung towards the Southern Cross Island Highway and Kaohsiung on the south west coast. Having traveled from the metropolitan north with its large mainland Chinese population, through the aboriginal Taiwanese dominated central east coast; you are now very much in the Minnan or Taiwanese speaking south. Life takes a slower pace down here, even in the second city and international container port of Kaohsiung, the final destination. Once a polluted industrial city, Kaohsiung has been redeveloped and vastly improved in recent years, making it one of the urban highlights of Taiwan and an example to the rest of Asia of what can be achieved as fast growing industrial cities reach maturity. It is home to the National Stadium, a thoroughly modern arena that draws its power from the sun. Designed for the 2009 World Games by Japanese architect Toyo Ito, it is unusual in that it is open at one end, shaped like a dragon’s tail. Running through the center of Kaohsiung and a symbol of its regeneration is the Love River. Once little more than a fetid industrial sewer, it has been thoroughly cleaned. The Love River Park runs along the riverbank in the downtown area and is at the cultural and social heart of the city. At the mouth of the Love River is the harbor and its container and cruise liner ports, from where you can sail to countries in Asia and around the world.
The East Coast Highway counts as one of the most dramatic roads in the world and offers you taste of the different cultures and landscapes of Taiwan. From the port of Keelung with its links to the capital Taipei, the central city of Hualien with its aboriginal culture and access to Taroko Gorge and the central mountains, to the Hoklo Taiwanese dominated southern cities of Taitung and Kaohsiung, the journey from Keelung to Kaohsiung offers an overview of the diverse, modern nation that is Taiwan.