The 環島: Driving around Taiwan on scooters

The 環島/huándǎo is the trip around Taiwan that loads of people make every year: expats, students, families, and soul-searchers. You can drive a car, ride scooters, ride a bike, or even walk, as we saw one man doing.

A man walking around Taiwan.
When we stopped to ask him, this man said he was three months into a six-month walk around the island. The banner on his back says,”Wǒ zài huándǎo,” “I’m going around the island.”

I know a (much younger) guy who on a whim took two weeks of his summer holiday to bike around the island. It all depends on how badass you are. You kind of have to go out of your way to make it difficult since Taiwan isn’t very big and it’s probably the most convenient place on earth. There are 7-11s, coffee shops, and guesthouses everywhere. Only once were we worried about getting gas, but then we got gas. No big deal.

If you know me, you probably know that I drove “around the island” by myself during the summer of 2008 because it’s one of the few things I think I can brag about. I took just three days to go west from 中壢/Chungli/Zhongli, then up and along the northern coast, down the breathtakingly beautiful east coast, and started back up to Kaohsiung, where I surrendered because I cannot read maps, my butt hurt, and I wanted to make it back in time for French class that Friday. I put my scooter on the train and I took the high-speed rail home, sitting on each butt cheek in shifts.

Granted, I didn’t see much, but riding 70 km/h for hours and hours along an incredibly beautiful highway with the blue, blue ocean almost constantly in sight is not an experience that should be underestimated. It was amazing. I took that trip after a particularly tough breakup: I learned how to be alone, I learned that I could rely on myself (except when it comes to reading maps), and I did something not a few people told me I couldn’t or shouldn’t do. It was my own quick gloss of Eat, Pray, Love.

J being the extremely enthusiastic man that he is, we decided to take our time, stopping at major cities around the island for a couple of nights consecutively so we could explore. We took three weeks to go around the whole island during the height of summer, which turned out to be hours and hours of driving in humid, tropical heat that reflected off black asphalt and burnt our legs and arms pink.

me on my scooter
I think this is in Taroko Gorge or thereabouts. Anyway, it was hot.

The first day, I was dressed entirely wrong. I had on my denim shorts, a tank top, and a crop top over that, which only meant that my thighs and arms were getting mercilessly pummeled by the sun. I thought slipping on my lightweight cargo pants and a very lightweight nylon jacket would help because the extra layers would protect my skin, but they only made me so hot that I was incredibly irritable whenever we stopped so J could take a picture, which was every.fucking.where. Dude got a new camera right before we left, specifically for this trip, and he wanted to record every gorgeous thing he saw. Taiwan is an incredibly gorgeous place, so you do the math. He took like 2000 pictures, no joke.

After a few days, I had a system of covering up my legs with a sarong tied at my waist and wearing the light jacket over only a tank top, and quickly shedding that outer layer as soon as we stopped before the humidity made me want to rip off all my clothes and run naked into the ocean. Even still, I resented every second that I had to wait for J to finish a cigarette or quadruple-check the map once I had already put my full-face helmet on. It was temper-tantrum hot, every day.

me at Yushan National Park
This is me in my driving outfit, sans helmet. It was so hot I actually wanted to cover up instead of strip down.

Then when we got back on the scooters, I’d fall in line behind J because he’d plotted our route and looked at the map, but then I would get pissed if he drove too fast, or too slow, or missed a turn, or stopped to look at the GPS, or asked me if I’d bothered to look at any of the road signs we’d passed. I hadn’t. I looked at nothing except his back for hours and hours every day, it felt like. Sometimes, I’d realize that I wasn’t even breathing, and I’d remind myself to breathe, until I started to wonder if my body was no longer really doing that automatically, then I’d panic and concentrate on my breathing until I forgot about it again.

For hours every day, we sat in shallow swamps of our own sweat. For relief, I’d drive with my right hand and bundle the sarong into the jacket, then stand up and lean over like a jockey on a racehorse and let the wind flow between my legs and dry the sweat off my seat. When the sweat dried, then the skin of my thighs stuck to the plastic seat like masking tape and hurt just as much to pull off. We got heat rash on our butts and we both smelled like gym bags left in a hot car at the end of every day.

We drove so much that it was almost like I couldn’t hear the engine of my scooter anymore. Also, because we drove separately, I had hours to myself to think about important things, like the lyrics to The Impression That I Get, that alliterative line up there about butt sweat, and what kind of cancer I’ll eventually die from. Evidently, this trip was a good time for me to start smoking again, so with that and the regular sunburn, just about any cancer is on the table right now.

But, despite all that, this trip was the adventure of a lifetime. It was the first time J and I got to go to the beach together, it was our first long vacation together, and I love rediscovering the island with him, and falling in love with him and this place all over again. Traveling can really make or break any relationship because you’re out of your element and you can’t fall back on roles that might only make sense in certain contexts. You have to figure out how to relate to each other differently, and find out if you can depend on each other in times of stress and uncertainty. I definitely learned that it would be to my benefit to give a shit when he takes three months to plan out everything he wants to do for a three-week vacation instead of making suggestions and complaining when we’re actually on the road.

Anyway, this was just about the drive itself, which was beautiful and grueling like the best things in life, so there are more posts to come. Let me know if you’ve gone around the island or do any epic scooter trips.

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