Tips on Renting a Scooter and Navigating Taroko National Park
Part 1: Renting a Scooter in Taiwan
One of the most popular tourist attractions in Taiwan is the Taroko Gorge. Located in Taroko National Park outside the unassuming town of Hualien, the 19km long gorge is highly accessible by bus, taxi, and, as any adventurous tourist will tell you, by scooter.
I arrived in Hualien after a direct 2 hour train ride from Taipei. Stepping out from the train station, I saw a large square around which cars and taxis picked up and dropped off passengers. On the right side of this square was the tourist office, which, given the small size of the city, must have been designed primarily for those seeking information about the gorge.
Inside the office was a mob of mostly Asian tourists, some browsing through booklets as others occupied the attention of the help desk. As I waited, a man approached and asked if I wanted to rent a scooter.
Normally, I’d never go along with someone who approached me, for anything! As a rule, those who come to you to sell their products or services don’t do so because they have a good deal they want to share. It’s best to be wary; that’s just good sense.
But maybe because I was in Asia and I’d had good experiences overall, I decided to take a chance. Plus it would have been awkward to have refused him, only to ask at the desk “Where can I rent a scooter?” within his earshot. And what if they would have pointed me towards the man anyway?
When we arrived at the bike shop, the first thing we did was work out a price for the day. It seems as though prices vary between shops and are in all probability negotiable, since I spoke with some people later who had been quoted different prices depending how long they intended to rent for. I forget the deal I received but I remember feeling it was quite fair.
I had to put down my American driver’s license as collateral, but in retrospect I feel as though should have left my credit card, as how else could I prove while on the road that I had the right to drive? I had an American issued international license with me, but for it to be valid I needed both that document and my state issued license.
This is probably a good place to mention that in order to rent or drive a motorcycle in Taiwan, you need to have either a Taiwanese driver’s license or an international license. Scooters and motorcycles with engines of 50cc or less don’t require a special motorcycle license or certification, but those with higher horsepower do. If you aren’t prepared with sufficient documentation, you could be turned away from renting, however it depends on each shop how strictly they decide to adhere to the rules. But you didn’t hear that from me!
Before being allowed to take the scooter on the road, I had to pass a small driving test since obviously they want the scooter back in one piece! And though I’d never ridden a scooter before, I realized that it’s fairly intuitive. It’s almost more important to believe you can do it than to actually know how to do it…at first! Be confident. You’re in control of the bike, not the other way around.
If you’re feeling a little hesitant taking the scooter on the road, then do what I did and spend a few minutes practicing with the scooter in an empty parking lot or side street. While it’s important to work on your braking and steering abilities, the only tricky bit was the throttle, which being on one of the handles was sometimes hard not to accidentally open up too high.
That’s actually how I got into a minor accident while in the Gorge. I was trying to make a U-turn when my hand twisted the handle, opening up the throttle and driving me into a guardrail. The damage was minor, although it still cost me about $60 to get the main front panel of the body fixed.
Anyway, I filled up with gas (remember to do that!) and was on my way!
Part 2: Navigating the Gorge
I don’t remember exactly which road I took, but some quick research shows that from Hualien your best bet is Provincial Highway No. 9 to Taroko National Park Headquarters. Most likely that was the one I took, in which case it was a fairly wide, straight, and flat road. By no great surprise, I met a few other riders in town and together we made our way down Highway No. 9 at breakneck speed, by which I mean you’d probably break your neck if you fell or were sideswiped by a passing truck.
Already, there were some incredible sights. But better than that was the feeling of riding through a country and seeing it through the eyes of a local, or at least as I imagined they did.
The roads were fairly easy to navigate, with the gorge marked on road signs most of the time. We reached the Gorge in about half an hour.
While researching about the Gorge, I came across some warnings that Taroko might not be the best place for first time riders to take a scooter. The concern was not the mountainous terrain or falling rocks. Though indeed a risk, I didn’t come across any hazards on that front.
Rather, during high tourism season the amount of coach buses is imposing. Respect has to go to the bus drivers, who navigate through the tight two way road with barely any room to spare. That includes room for others; a prudent rider needs to be on the lookout for speeding buses around each corner.
But the scenery was gorgeous! Each turn brought new sights and landscapes. Occasionally there were places to park; I stepped off my bike and joined the throngs of tourists as they shuffled along, eager to get the best view of the sheer cliffs, sparkling rivers, and occasional man-made structures.
Unfortunately, I was not able to make it to the end of the Gorge, as I had to rush to catch my train back to Taipei that evening. I still remember that exhilarating sense of freedom as I sped down the highway back to Hualien. They say time takes it all back eventually, but this was one day I hope never to forget.
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