From Mainland China, where I work, it’s a three-hour flight to Taipei, the capital of Taiwan. For some, the Republic of China (ROC), as Taiwan is known, is a breakaway part of the mainland People’s Republic of China. For others, it is the real China. It’s been this way since the Chinese Nationalist government were defeated by the communists in the Civil War in 1949 and fled to the island, bringing with them the apparatus of a state.
A glance at a map of Taiwan quickly reveals where the urban centers lie: The west coast is heavily developed, from leafy cosmopolitan Taipei in the North to rough-and-ready Kaohsiung in the south, with heavy industry and various cities lining the coast. The east coast, meanwhile, is more sparsely populated. Fronted by the tempestuous Pacific Ocean and backed by verdant jagged mountains, the area is difficult to access by land or sea. Tsunamis are a constant fear; evacuation routes are frequently signposted. But the coast has not experienced one of note since the 19th century.
It is the east coast which gets the most surf. Leaving Taipei and heading east, the city disappears quickly and is replaced by farmland, lush forest, gushing turquoise rivers and the ever-present green mountains. Winding roads make driving or cycling an enjoyable experience – provided you have the time, as things start moving slower, quickly.
Fulong lies about 90 minutes by train from central Taipei. We arrived at the station in the morning to a hawker offering bike rentals. Taiwan is great for cycling. It’s flat and the weather is good. The tourist board has acknowledged this by installing cycle lanes around most of the island complete with regular information panels and designated rest stops. The hawker, a woman in her late forties, informed us the beach was closed for swimming.
Undeterred, we headed down the slightly ramshackle main street of Fulong where it joined the main road, which circumnavigates the whole island, and where large lorries thundered past. We enjoyed a lunch of rice and pork belly at a truckers’ café on the crossroads and then nervously crossed the road, dodging the oncoming traffic. As well as ramshackle, Fulong was clearly out of season. A seaside town, the shutters on the hotel windows were firmly closed and menus announcing ice cream flavors were faded. Several bike rental places had remained open, toughing out the low season. Elderly vendors sat among rows of gleaming bikes, tandems and electric scooters, the smell of grease and chamois, chrome wheel rims glinting in the bright morning sun.
As the sea and sand moved into view, we were barked at by two female security guards who demanded a small fee of NT$40 and told us swimming was forbidden.
“Why?” I asked.
“Because it’s winter.”
We paid up and walked on. The sky was clear and the air temperature a pleasant 20 C. Fulong beach is a large horseshoe-shaped bay of yellow sand. At one end lies a harbor and a small village whose most prominent feature is a Taoist temple. The sand arches towards the north with a nuclear power station in the middle. There was a small swell in the water, rolling in and being greeted by the light offshore breeze. Near the harbor was the familiar sight of surfers bobbing around; seemingly that section of the beach was not only free of charge, but entry to the water was not being policed.
We joined the 968 km national cycle path for a km or so and found a good vantage point to look at the waves. It was slightly bigger than it looked from afar. Head high A-Frame peaks were bending around the harbor wall giving the four surfers in the water very fun looking waves. We continued to the harbor and I made inquiries about board rental. One of the surfers had gotten out and was getting changed. He pointed to a rusting VW Transporter full of old boards, leashes, and wetsuits: the local surf shop and rental outfit. The owner had dashed off to meet a train, so we basked in the sun until he returned.
The owner, called An, returned and smilingly rented me an 8’6” board and an ill-fitting wetsuit. Having been landlocked for the last two months, a big board and fun waves were just what the doctor ordered. I paddled out and received friendly ‘Ni Haos’ from the other surfers in the water. An Austrian expat paddled out along with a female longboarder and we happily traded waves in the late afternoon sun. The wave was very user-friendly: an easy entry followed by a short wall for just cruising or carving before shutting down on the sandbar. The clear water allowed movements of sand to be seen clearly – mesmerizing and alarming at once, as dark shadows frequently appeared beneath. After a couple of hours, I’d had my fill and caught a wave in, before paddling languidly back to the shore.
The road from Taipei to Donghe in the south-east is long and winding, frequently going over the mountains rather than around or through them. Wuling Pass, at 3125m above sea level, is one of Asia’s highest roads. A scenic route by car, it takes around seven hours. The train, meanwhile, takes just three and a half hours, clunking along at a leisurely pace, allowing generous views of the coast while taking advantage of the tunnels that have been blasted through the mountains. The train allows a very decent survey of the coast. Large tracts can be written off for surfing: long deep-water beaches with un-rideable shore-breaks and run-off from local quarries look unappealing. However, certain points can be clearly seen wrapping around the coast’s many headlands.
Our train eventually clunked into Taitung City, the southeast region’s capital, and set about getting north to the waves. In particular, a surf spot called Jinzun Harbour. Jinzun is semi-well-known due to an annual longboard competition held there along with several QS events. Despite its fame in the surf world, the area is still quite under the radar for visitors.
Southern Taiwan is very different to the North. At first, it almost feels virgin. A single lane road, busy but with ever-present cycle lanes skirts the coast. We took this road as we left Taitung, home to some 100,000 people and its own baseball team. Buildings cluster around the main road at regular intervals. Small B&Bs, greengrocers, churches, schools, and shacks make up the small communities. All look like they haven’t been here long, yet are run down. The wealth has not trickled down this far. All the while the foaming Pacific broods just off the road and on the other side, jagged and verdant mountains dominate the skyscape. It feels like Hawaii or other Pacific islands. The sea and the mountains, with small communities holding on in between.
We posted up to our digs and I made the faux pas I frequently do in Asia – I went inside without taking my shoes off. The Taiwanese have a delicate way of living that makes an immediate impression; they are quiet, concerned with design and functionality. It is especially noticeable away from large cities. The houses are spacious, or perhaps seemingly so as clutter is kept to a minimum. Cleanliness may not be next to godliness, but it is certainly a high priority. Floors are impeccable (no doubt due to shoes being shod on entry) and noisy things (including people) are generally absent. Simple but effective. These measures create a sense of calm. The large room which took up the entire ground floor was the kitchen, bar, dining room and reading space. Tables were made from a local wood and a pleasant smell of freshly baked bread hung in the air. This was backed by a glorious garden full of palm trees and comfortable looking chairs with a sharp drop at the end of the beach, with the ocean just beyond. We were handed cups of hot water and briefed on the area by our landlady, Anita. While she spoke in a delicate Mandarin Chinese, I sipped my water and gazed out to the horizon. Only Liudao – green island – blocked the wide open ocean view. Waves broke on various rocky reefs just in front – unrideable, but showing there was a swell running. Darkness soon set in and we called it a day. The tropics put you in a good rhythm: rise with the sun, stay active during the daylight hours and turn in early when it gets dark. No need for watches, the sun will tell you what time it is.
The next morning, I woke up to a deep red light flooding the room as the rising sun heralded the start of the day. Anita presented us an outstanding breakfast of fruits, fresh bread, home-made jam, and coffee, which we enjoyed in the back garden looking out to sea. The bus service on this stretch of coast is something of a lifeline for those without a rental car or bicycle. It plows up and down the coast linking the small communities with each other, the city, and the beaches. Not that many people on our bus were heading for the beach. Laborers, with their toolboxes in the aisle, sat behind farmers, caged chickens on their laps. Local teenagers sat toward the back, their gazes fixed on their phones.
We arrived in Donghe, another settlement along the main road. In some ways, Donghe is a surf town. It has at least one well-stocked surf shop and several rental outlets. The bun and noodle shacks are plastered with surf stickers. Most houses have board racks out on the porch and locals zip around on scooters, wetsuits around their waists, boards underarm, or on a surfboard carrier. The reason for this is clear. While Donghe itself lies slightly inland, a short road leads to Jinzun Harbour, which has a plethora of waves. While there is a keen local crew and a steady stream of visiting surfers, either expats or blow-ins with the numerous surf travel outfits, I surfed almost every session here alone.
The flagship wave is right next to the harbor and visible from the road down to it (and indeed the main coast road). It is an A-Frame cobblestone peak, with waves running both ways for a good 50m. In some ways, it’s a beginner surfer’s paradise. In other ways, it’s not. It breaks quite far out and in front of a battery of tetrapods, which create strong backwash at high tide. There is also a fairly tricky shorebreak to navigate over slippery boulders, tricky when carrying a log. It’s a consistent break, with NE typhoon swell sending regular swell from November to March. Being the tropics, the morning session, before the wind picks up is prime time. Through the morning the local sea breeze kicks in as the land temperature rises, before dropping off again towards sunset.
Away from the main event, Jinzun has some other super fun waves. If it’s over head high at the A-Frame, then visible through the harbour mouth is a peaky wave that at first looks unremarkable. Accessed by skirting the harbor and walking around the wall to the beach, the wave breaks about 100m from the shore and is often populated by a mellow pack of longboarders. It breaks almost in the mouth of the harbor itself and there are regular greetings from the fishermen who go putt-putting by just a few meters from the lineup. The swell wraps around the reef and horseshoes, barrelling when bigger, yet allowing a brilliant short canvas to practice on. No doubt a crowd would hamper the experience given the small take off zone, but I surfed it with an engineer who worked in Taitung, the sun dipping behind the mountains turning the clouds a fluffy pink; I couldn’t believe my luck.
The next morning, determined to catch an early session, we took the commuter bus to Donghe. Despite the early rise, getting to a surf spot on public transport is always slow. It was mid-morning by the time we arrived. Still, the waves were clean as the wind was still just a breeze. Clean lines were bending into Jinzun, with a pack of about eight surfers picking off the choicest waves.
On the walk down I spotted another fun looking wave, clean lines were consistently hitting a point with rights peeling down toward the cobblestone shore. By now the sun was well up and strong, despite it being winter. Squinting into the sun, I watched as a set came in and broke perfectly, hitting the same spot each time. The wave looked very fun indeed and nobody else was even looking at it. I watched a few more sets, suited up, and jumped in. I got cleaned up a few times by the sets and swept down the point; the 9’ log difficult to navigate through walls of whitewater. I got out the back eventually just as a set was approaching. Slightly out of position, I scrambled to get closer to the peak before turning and stroking effortlessly into a pristine righthander. My longboard was gracefully engaged and I popped up and glided down the face, I bottom turned by digging my hand into the water, eyeing up a shoulder down-the-line, I approached the lip with the idea of a fanning top-turn but hit it with a sluggish change of direction. As I re-entered the wave, I made a quick dash towards the nose of the board, almost reaching it, held it for a few seconds and scurried back to my regular stance, floating a small crumbling section at the end. I kicked off the back of a wave and started stroking back towards the peak, salty and smiling. The quality of the wave and the length of my board were a perfect combination.
I continued like this for the next two hours or so. Sometimes falling and being punished paddling back out as a result, being in a bad position. A fall, however minor, always throws me badly out of rhythm with the waves. As the wave turned up a few notches in strength, I caught a wave back to shore and awkwardly scrambled across the slippery rocks, trying to avoid dinging the rental board and paying a fine. Heading back across the bay, I noticed the now fresh cross-shore wind had forced the other surfers out of the water at the main break. Nobody was in the water. As I walked toward it I watched a left point breaking that I’d seen some people riding. Nobody was out and there were some waves coming in, so I headed out. A classic point set up, there were some boulders in the line up that meant only the bigger waves were rideable. Nonetheless, there were some flawless runners coming through. I lazily paddled out and took off on a few left peelers that ended in a nasty shoredump on the shingle beach.
After a solid morning in the water, I decided to take a break and headed back to where my partner was sitting. I peeled off my suit and hung it to dry. We lay in the sun chatting when a burly Australian pulled up in a rental car to check the waves. He was wearing a Channel Islands t-shirt and sunglasses. He said he was from Lord Howe Island which rang a bell at the time but I couldn’t place. Later I checked the map and found it to be a tropical island paradise about 350 miles off the east coast of New South Wales.
Two Taiwanese children bundled out of the rental car and started running around uncontrollably. He shouted at them, running after the elder one’s cap as the wind took it.
“Just adopted them” he explained. “Waiting to pick their passports up on Monday, just killing time ‘til then.”
His wife approached with a toothy grin and a deep tan. We exchanged niceties and I explained to them how to get to the beach around the harbor.
I paddled out at the A-Frame for one last session and then called it a day. Lugging the log back up to Donghe, we ordered Baotze – filled steam buns – with hot sauce and fresh papaya. I wolfed the lot down.
Next day we took the clunky train out of Taitung bound for Kaohsiung on the west coast. Rather than head due west, however, the train goes south for a long time in order to skirt the spine of mountain ridges and serve the isolated communities south of Taitung. We passed indigenous towns with colored larger-than-life monuments of tribal leaders and many plantations.