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Sunday, March 13, 2016

Taiwan's Round Island Trip: The Cultural Zeitgeist of Circling Taiwan's Center

Jhuolan: Highway 3   

Many cyclists who live in Taiwan or come to Taiwan to visit, at some point or another, get the idea to bike around Taiwan. Locals call it the 環島 (huan dao) trip, and it has become an indelible part of local Taiwanese culture, often as a rite of passage or personal challenge. Although the idea of biking around Taiwan is nothing new, the huan-dao experience really gained traction following the release of the 2006 sleeper hit, Island Etude. Inspired by a true story, the plot is driven by a young man who, along with his acoustic guitar which he incredibly straps to his back, attempt to circumnavigate Taiwan by bicycle and in the process encounter a variety of people, their lives and ideas. The movie found salience in Taiwan at a time when the culmination of pro localization policies that had begun under president Lee Teng-hui, and continued under his successor, Chen Shui-bian, had reached their nadir before 2008 ushered in the reactionary policies of Ma Ying-jiu-- policies that hoped to both reign in Taiwan's 本土化, or localization movement, and reframe Taiwanese culture into a greater Chinese context. Island Etude did not serve to instil in Taiwanesea sense of a unique and separate Taiwanese culture, but rather, it found salience-- especially with younger Taiwanese-- in its ability to provide a visual representation of an identity that has been regularly challenged and denied by Chinese nationalists on both sides of the strait who have chalked up the Taiwanese identity to the fortunes of political actors and their ethnic politics rather than an expression of popular sentiments. Island Etude served as a very powerful symbol as circling Taiwan sketched a defined border as both a loving embrace and as a defensive shield that is understood by those within as belonging to a collective "we/us" vs. an undefined them. Within the closed loop of Island Etude's huan-dao trip, the film deals with overlapping ideas of identity, culture, environmentalism, cosmopolitanism, localism and ethnicity within the meaningful symbolism of Taiwanese cultural life.

Over the next eight years, the Ma administration would attempt to both promote Taiwan's huan-dao trip with the creation of Taiwan's first official round-island bicycle route, while attempting to obscure and reframe Taiwanese culture as a mere subgroup of a glorious Chineseness.

The power of Island Etude can be indirectly felt in the firm rebuke of Ma Ying-jiu'diminutizing cultural policies, and in the rise of several social movements, many of which were led and organized by Taiwan's younger generation-- movements which are loosely united through a shared sense of a Taiwan-centered identity and the feeling that the policies enacted by the Ma administration were antithetical to the goals of protecting Taiwan's security, environment, economy, culture and, most important,Taiwan's precious democracy. It was the generation of the Sunflower Movement that really made the huan-dao into the cultural phenomenon it is today, as it is the generation that has has filled the act with meaningful symbolism that weaves together identity, social action and the imagination of what Taiwan is and what it can be. 

In the spirit of Island Etude's 10th anniversary, I would like to present my own huan-dao 環島 route for those looking to also embrace Taiwan and learn the contours of land through the physicality of cycling.

There are so many options and so many roads. There are so many things to see and do. 

This route is a winter route running counter-clockwise assuming the rider will be arriving at the Taoyuan, Taiwan International Airport for a couple weeks of cycling without camping equipment.

I would advise the rider to be in good physical shape and have gearing for climbs. 

I'll start this route in Sanhsia 三峽 as it is near the end of the Blue-Line of the MRT and close to the airport.

Highway 7 (Northern Cross Island Highway)

Mingde Reservoir: Miaoli Route 126

Guoxing Township: Highway 21

Wujie, Nantou: Route 83

Sun Moon Lake: Route 21

Renai Township: Nantou, Route 56

Tataka (Tatajia), Alishan: Highway 21

Highway 27, Kaohsiung

Kenting: Route 26

Manzhou Township: Highway 26

Zhuofu Industrial Rd., Fuli, Taidong County.
Seven Cycles Axiom SL: Biking Lanyu

Taroko Gorge: Highway 8, Hualien

Iilan: Highway 9

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