Monday, June 9, 2008

Taiwan's lake escape

Sun Moon Lake

This green lake tucked in Taiwan's central mountains is one of the Chinese world's top tourist destinations. Now it's set to get a lot more crowded

By Jonathan Adams

(a version of this appeared in Silk Road, Dragonair's in-flight magazine)

Calm waters. Forested hills. Romantic, foggy twilights.

Ask any Chinese tourist where they'd most like to go in Taiwan, and Sun Moon Lake is high on the list. The central Taiwan lake is near-legendary in the Chinese-speaking world for its picturesque setting next to the island's Central Mountain range. Now, it's also increasingly popular with Japanese and other foreign tourists.

The lake's fascinating history includes Aboriginal, Japanese and Chinese chapters. The original inhabitants were Thao Aborigines of Austronesian stock. The tribe's legend has it that they followed a white deer to the lake, and settled there upon discovering its beauty. They consider Lalu Island – now just a tiny outcrop in the middle of the lake – to be a sacred spot. There are only some 600 Thao left today, clustered in a lakeshore village, and in nearby hills.

The lake's current form is a product of Japanese engineering, during their colonization of Taiwan from 1895 to 1945. The Japanese dug a 15-km underground channel from a nearby reservoir and dammed up the out-flowing Juoshuei River (濁水溪) on the lake's southwest side. This enlarged the lake to near its current size and depth (877 hectares, about 30 meters maximum depth).

The Japanese colonial influence still remains. They planted Assam black tea in the hills by the lake, and founded the original Tea Experiment Station. Arai Kokichiro was one Japanese official tasked with jump-starting the local tea industry in the 1920s. Local lore has it that his ghost still haunts the lake, harassing those who are slacking in their work. In the nearby village of Checheng a Japanese-built railroad station remains. This is the last stop on the Jiji rail line, which the Japanese used to transport sugarcane to the coast.

Then came Chiang Kai-shek and his Kuomintang regime from the mainland. The lake was a favourite getaway for Chiang, who had a guesthouse near the current location of the Lalu Hotel (the hotel still has one of Chiang's boats, and boasts a lovely trail near where Chiang and his wife used to take lakeside strolls). The Kuomintang strongman oversaw construction of the Chapel of Christ (he converted to Christianity before marrying Soong Mei-ling, whose family were devout Christians), and the Cihen Pagoda, built in memory of his mother. Chiang came to the pagoda often to pay his respects to mom, since the Cold War separated him from her tomb on the mainland.

Chiang's legacy also lives with the ever-popular "President Fish" (zongtong yu) dish. If you order it, beware: it's bone-heavy. One joke has it that Chiang said while eating the fish "there really are a lot of bones," but his servants misunderstood his thick Zhejiang accent and thought he was saying, "this fish is really delicious."

A massive 1999 earthquake changed the lake's landscape again, toppling some buildings and nearly inundating Lalu Island. Almost ten years later, the lake has fully recovered, and new hotels are sprouting up. The most dramatic is a planned US$1,000-a-night luxury hotel that is set to replace the Lalu Hotel as the lake's – and Taiwan's – most expensive. It will reportedly be built in the sail shape of Dubai's Burj al Arab hotel, and will be run by Japan's Okura management company; it opens next year at the earliest.

That's not the only new project. Investment has flooded in on the expectation of a boom in mainland Chinese tourists, and the lakeside skyline on the western side is dotted with construction sites. Currently, there's a cap of 1,000 Chinese tourists a day, but Taiwan's incoming government (which will take power May 20) expects to boost that to 3,000 a day—or more than 1 million per year—as soon as July.

Lake residents are ambivalent about the likely boom. It should boost the area's economy, providing income and jobs. But some fear it could also damage the lake's environment, trampling what's left of its pristine character under a traffic jam of tour buses and boats.


For now, at least, the lake provides an appealing getaway for Taiwanese honeymooners and other tourists. The main clusters of activity are at Shuishi (水社) village on the lake's western shore, and the Aboriginal village of Ita Thao (伊達邵) on the eastern shore. A 30-kilometer two-lane road winds around the lake, serviced by a regular bus (8am to 5pm, one per hour, NT$100). Some hotels offer their guests bicycles, and it's also easy to rent an electric-powered bike to make the climbs easier (about NT$200 per hour, or NT$700 per day).

The chief attraction, of course, is the lake itself. Swimming is forbidden except on one day in September, when the lake hosts a mass swim (last year 22,000 people participated in 2007, though the event was marred by two deaths). Some 140 boats ply the waters, so there's no trouble finding one. These can be booked through your hotel – some of which operate their own boats – or on your own. Just go down to the pier at Shuishi and hire your own, the cost is typically US$5 to US$9 (HKD39 to HKD70) for a round-the-lake tour, or join a tour boat. Most boats stop at Lalu Island, Syuanguang Temple (玄光寺), and Ita Thao before returning to Shuishi.

At the Syuanguang Temple pier, be sure to grab one of "Granny's shiitake mushroom black tea eggs" – she's been there for some 60 years and is still going strong. In Ita Thao, local Thao put on a traditional tribal dance show at 11:20, 2:20 and 6:20 every day, and offer Thao culinary specialities like roast boar at the restaurant beside the performance space. Ita Thao is also home to the Full House Bed and Breakfast (see below).

Aside from the lake tour, there are numerous hiking trails. One popular one, the Mt. Maolan trail, leads up to the Tea Improvement Station, where you have a soothing view of the neatly arranged tea fields and lake below. It continues on to a weather station. The lakeside Hanbi trail near the Lalu Hotel is especially popular in late April and May, when the fireflies come out in droves. Another trails winds up through greenery and chirping cicadas to the Cihen pagoda – you can climb to the top for another great view, and to ring the huge bell. Adventurous souls can brave the 7-hour hike from Ita Thao village to the Great Shueishe Mountain (elevation 2,059m) and back.

The Wunwu temple (文武廟) on the northern side is a popular stop: local Taiwanese, particularly those sitting for civil service exams, come here to ask Confucius for luck. Another popular temple is the Lungeng Temple (龍鳳宮) on the lake's west side. Here, couples come to beg for good fortune in love from the "Old Man under the Moon" – a Chinese matchmaker god who binds together destined lovers with red string. He was relocated here from Lalu Island after the 1999 earthquake.

The round-the-lake bus stops near most trailheads and temples.

Near Sun Moon Lake, there are several interesting sights to see. North of the lake is Puli, a town famous in Taiwan for its good wine and beautiful women. Many tour groups, including mainland Chinese, stay here overnight as it's less expensive than lakeside hotels. You can visit the Shaohsing Winery and wine museum (219 Chungshan Road, Section 3, open daily 8am to 5pm, 886-(0)49-984-006, extension 456). Or stop at the Chung Tai Chan monastery – a huge Chan (Zen) Buddhist monastery that combines western and eastern styles in a truly unique blend (No. 1, Chung Tai Rd, 886-(0)49-2930-215). A bit farther afield – northeast from Puli and further into the mountains – are the Qingjing Farms and Lushan hot springs resort areas.


The Lalu: Taiwan's premier (and most expensive) hotel. No. 142, Zhong Xing Road, Shui Shi Village, Yuchi Xiang, Nantou County 555. 886-(0)49-285-5313. Rooms from NT$12,800 (HKD3,290) per night.

Finesia Hotel: a new luxury hot-springs hotel on the northern side of the lake. 23 Zhong Zheng Road, Sun Moon Lake, Yuchi Xiang, Nantou County 555. 886-(0)49-285-5500. Rooms from NT$11,000 (HKD2,825) per night.

Full House Bed and Breakfast: for a funky option, try this guesthouse in the Thao Aboriginal village of Ita Thao. No. 8, Shui Xiu Road, Sun Moon Village, Yuchi Xiang, Nantou County. 886-(0)49-285-0307. . Rooms from NT$2,100 (HKD540) per night.


Jindu (Golden Village) Restaurant: A unique culinary adventure in Puli, a short drive north from Sun Moon Lake. Their speciality is dishes made with local Shaohsing wine, and with betel nut flower. Group set meals start at NT2000 (HKD515), or order a la carte – try a betel nut flower speciality like cai hong ban tian hua (彩虹半天花), NT$180 (HKD46). No. 236 Xin Yi Road, Puli City, Nantou County. 886-(0)49-299-5096.

Full House Bed and Breakfast (address above): The Lins, the couple that own this charming bed and breakfast, have also invented an array of dishes featuring fresh, locally-grown fruit and other ingredients. Large groups can get 12 dishes and one soup for NT5,500 (HKD1415), couples can get 3 dishes and one soup for NT$1,600 (HKD412). Request the ci cong zhu rou (刺蔥豬肉, spicy pork cubes with pineapple, red pepper and onion).

The Lalu (address above): The hotel features three top-end restaurants: Chinese, Western-style (The Oriental Brasserie) and Japanese. Specialties at the popular Chinese restaurant include Sun Moon Lake's famous "President Fish" and the "Buddha jumps over the wall" soup. The Japanese restaurant is open to hotel guests only, Fridays through Sundays.


From Taipei and Kaohsiung: take the high-speed rail to Taichung station. From there take a cab, or take the escalator downstairs (exits 5 and 6) and look for the Nantou bus to Sun Moon Lake at post #3. Buses leave on the hour at 20 minutes past the hour; it's a 2-hour ride, NT$200 (HKD51) to Sun Moon Lake.

From Taipei, two companies run direct buses to Sun Moon Lake (4 1/2 to 5 hours): Kuokuang Bus (886-(0)2-2311-9893, NT$480, HKD123) and Green Transit (886-(0)2-2752-2988, NT$500 one-way, NT$900 roundtrip, HKD129 and HKD231).

From Taichung airport: take a taxi to the lake, or to Taichung city take a direct Ren Yeou bus from there, at 8am or 3pm (886-(0)4-2225-5166). You can also take a Nantou or Kuokuang bus from Taichung to Puli and transfer there to a Sun Moon Lake-bound bus.

The Lalu offers a pick-up service at Taichung International Airport or the Taichung high-speed rail station.

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