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Taiwan has long been fought over by countries including The Netherlands, Japan and China but for nearly 70 years it has maintained its independence as the Republic of China and is now a dynamic, thriving democracy specialising in industrial manufacturing and electronics.
But it’s also renowned for its natural beauty and fascinatingly diverse cultures, which makes Taitung, a city surrounded by incredible natural beauty, the perfect setting for a race and vacation experience.
One of Taiwan’s smallest cities on the south east coast, Taitung is off the usual tourist trail but each April becomes the temporary home to more than 7,000 triathletes taking on Challenge Taiwan’s middle and long distance triathlons – the latter the biggest in Asia.
And it’s worth making the trip to this hidden gem of a region with its authentic local culture, delicious food, hot springs and breathtaking coastline. It really is a race in a tropical paradise.
While the mercury may nudge 28°C / 82°F April is one of the best times of the year to visit Taitung – just don’t forget the suncream! – and thankfully, humidity is on the low side so, over the years, it’s become hugely popular.
Location - a far-eastern promise
A world away from all the political drama in the capital Taipei, down on the south east coast, lies the chilled, small city of Taitung surrounded by lush forest, paddy fields and stunning tropical beaches which makes it a family friendly location to explore.
As one of the last regions in the country to be developed, Taitung County has kept its authentic Taiwanese culture, especially as it is also home to six aboriginal tribes who live in townships and add to the richly diversity of the area.
The closest major international airport is KhaoHsiung in the south otherwise the capital Taipei in the north which has two airports, Songshan and TaoYuan. From Taipei is about a five hour drive, a three hour train ride or a short one hour internal flight to Taitung airport.
There is plenty of accommodation in the city from the likes of the Sheraton, the official race hotel where athletes receive discounts on food and rooms, some lovely boutique hotels, budget B&Bs and midrange guest houses like Tiin Tiin Inn.
Food-wise the place is a melting pot of eateries from local aboriginal specialities like stinky tofu and pig blood soup, which should taste better than they sound, to traditional beef noodles and even a KFC.
Challenge Taiwan itself takes place just outside the centre in the beautiful Taitung Forest Park where you’ll find the race village, including a large triathlon expo, a bike mechanic tent, the swim course and transition area making it an easy place for spectators to watch the action.
Note the split transition bag areas, something to bear in mind when packing your kit.
Course - fast, rolling & hot
These races will suit anyone from the experienced age-grouper to those stepping up for their first middle or long course. The shallow, straight lake swim is especially ideal for novice swimmers while the undulating bike will suit heavier, weaker cyclists. The flat run will suit both fast or slow runners looking for a PB.
The main obstacle for athletes will be acclimatising to the heat which will give anyone from hotter countries an advantage.
Swim - 1.5 / 1.9 / 3.8KM
The swim takes place in Flowing Lake, a shallow man-made reservoir with calm, crystal clear water from a natural spring. Despite the heat, wetsuits are permitted up to 24°C / 75°F. After a pontoon start, its rectangular shape makes it easy to navigate towards the respective buoy for your race distance before heading back to the start to either finish or repeat your next lap. Nervous or weaker swimmers will find the course well marked and easy to sight. Then it’s a 850m run into T1.
BIke - 40 / 90 / 180KM
The bike is an undulating out-and-back course which heads north out of town over the ZhongHua Bridge the snakes along the coastline between the soaring Carp Mountains and spectacular Pacific Ocean until the U-turn. Aerobars are permitted and there’s very little traffic to worry about on the wide, smooth roads which will suit those who feel the need for speed.
Run - 10 / 21.1 / 42.2KM
The fast and flat run course takes you through the cultural heart of Taitung City and alongside the beautiful Pipa Lake Park and beside the surrounding tranquil rice fields, orchards and vibrant ocean promenade before finishing adjacent to Taitung Stadium to the beats of traditional Taiwanese drummers. Stay into the night and you’ll witness dramatic firework displays to welcome the last long course athletes home in Tie Hua Village.
Spectators - a family friendly paradise
Wherever you are on the course, you will be surrounded by natural beauty from natural springs, palm trees, lush forest in the Forest Park.
Friends and family can base themselves at the race village in the Park and watch you in action from multiple spots in the shade of a pagoda.
The swim is super easy to watch for the entire length of the course along the banks of the lake but the bike is a little harder to watch unless you have a car.
You’ll find an excellent viewpoint about 20km at Jialulan Recreation Area where you can park and watch the middle distance athletes twice and long distance four times on the out and back course.
Otherwise to while away some time, the beach is a short walk away as are several art galleries and a museum or you head out on for a hike or bike the trails through the Taitung Forest Park which is easily accessible on foot and perfect for watching the run course.
At the finish line in nearby village of Tie Hua, the Taiwanese drummers and firework displays welcoming home the athletes will be a rewarding end to the day and entertainment for all the family.
Race-cation - the true taste of Taiwan
After months of training and a hard day’s racing, Taitung is a great place to unwind and enjoy the slow pace of its natural beauty and diverse culture.
To get around, rent a scooter or car otherwise the Taiwan Tourism Shuttle Bus goes to most of the major sights in the city.
The Forest Park, nicknamed Black Forest for its huge dark beefwood trees, is worth a return visit to take a boat ride down the river or explore its many trails on foot or mountain bike.
And having cycled past the Carp Mountains, the wonderful panoramic view from up top is worth the hike or ease your aching muscles at one of the local hot springs.
Then after dark take a stroll through Taitung Night Market in front of the Sheraton Hotel for a bowl of tasty beef noodles from the street food hawkers or try your luck scooping goldfish or throwing darts at balloons on the fairground-style game stalls, although the prizes really aren’t up to much!
With six of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes in the county, you can book a guided visit to their villages during their summer festivals, where you can learn all about these ethnic peoples and their fascinating culture.
Then, if you fly in via Taipei then it’s definitely worth taking a few days before your flight home to explore this vibrant city.