Saturday, September 29, 2012

日月潭/Sun Moon Lake

I told you I'd write about Sun Moon Lake, so here it is.
Sun Moon Lake is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Taiwan.  In particular it is supposed to be really popular with Chinese tourists, so I've heard that if you go on the weekend it's totally overrun with tour busses filled with Mainlanders.
I went with two other foreign students.  We left on Wednesday and returned on Thursday, so we didn't hit as many crowds as we might have otherwise.
We took the train up to Taichung, and then a bus from there.  Sun Moon Lake is about 750 meters above sea level and surrounded by mountains.  It's the biggest lake in Taiwan, though it's current size is greatly increased by a damming project done under the Japanese government.  Supposedly half of the lake is shaped like the sun, and half like the moon, but I personally don't really see it.
This is Suishe, one of the two main towns around the lake.  This area is the traditional home area of the Thao tribe, one of Taiwan's indigenous, Austronesian tribes.  They're the smallest officially recognized tribe in Taiwan with only about 500 members.
The two towns are pretty built up as a result of the tourist industry.  Most of these buildings are hotels or restaurants.

The first thing we did upon arriving was walk a little way around the lake on this nice wooden path they've installed right above the water line.



An amazing view around the lake, but disappointingly normal pigeons.
Next, we took a boat across the lake from Suishe, where we arrived and would be staying, to Ita Thao, the other main village on the other side of the lake.  We bought a package before coming, so we had coupons for a bunch of stuff, including the boat.

This is the island Lalu.  It's in the center of the lake, at the border of the sun half and the moon half.  It's a sacred spot for the Thao tribe.  When the Chinese Nationalist government first came to Taiwan, and throughout the entire martial law period, which lasted until the 80's, the government was very firm in pressing its Chinese identity onto the populace of the island.  As a result they had little respect for the Austronesian peoples of Taiwan (or even for the minority Chinese groups who actually make up the majority of Taiwan's population).  They built a Chinese pagoda on the island and used it for weddings until it was destroyed in an earthquake in the 90's.  By that point, Taiwan had become a democracy and attitudes had changed in regards to respecting aboriginal culture, so the island is empty now in respect of its sacred status.
Taiwan's smallest lighthouse.

The boat we rode.

And here's Ita Thao.

The picture's a little blurry, but I thought it was a funny story.  We saw this grasshopper while walking, and the reaction from me, the New Yorker, and from the woman from Belgium was "Wow, that's pretty big!"  The reaction from the woman from the Philippines was "Actually, I thought it was kind of small."  Lesson: The tropics have big bugs.

They grow water grasses in those floating platforms to help keep the lake clean.  The water plants act like natural filtration systems.

We missed the cable car on this day because we got to it too late, but we went to a nearby "Butterfly Garden" and saw this cool frog instead:
A snail too!
Austin is such a great city even the people of Suishe love it.
The next day we decided to walk to see the tea plants at the "experimental tea farm".  The Japanese government determined that Sun Moon Lake had a perfect environment for growing Assam tea and set up an experimental station to test out growing different varieties.  Assam tea is still grown in the area to this day.

You can see some tea plants here on the hill behind the pond.

I managed to get this guy looking right at me!
And then he blinked!

At this point the trail up the mountains stopped being a road and became an actual hiking trail.  Since two of the three of us had sandals on, and since none of us was prepared for a real hike, we turned around and headed back down the hill.  Next stop, the cable car.

Just before we got to the cable car, like 6 busses unloaded middle school kids onto the parking lot and we got stuck behind the entire middle-school-aged population of Taiwan.  I guess they were all doing some sort of beginning of the school year trip?


Ropeways are a little kitschy I suppose, but this one went pretty high and offered some spectacular views, so I enjoyed it.

At the other end it lets you off at the Thao aboriginal village amusement park.  We didn't get tickets for it, and it's probably just as well.  I could see from the outside that it had a rollercoaster and stuff, so I think it's probably just Disney Land with people in traditional Thao clothes instead of Mickey Mouse costumes.

This temple, Xuanzang Temple, had this big map of Asia at the entrance for some reason.  I assume it has something to do with the transmission of Buddhism.

There's Lalu Island, which we saw up close before.

There was a big moth in the bathroom.

That's our next goal, Cien Pagoda.
And here's Cien Pagoda.  Do you know what this is?  This is the shame of all men who are not Chiang Kai Shek.  What have I ever done for my mother?  I certainly haven't built her a 30-something meter tall pagoda.  But that's exactly what Chiang Kai Shek did.  That's right, this is dedicated to his mother.  My guess is that he must have missed a bunch of Mothers Days because of the Chinese civil war, and so he tried to make up for it in a big way.
The tower was also built just tall enough that when you stand on the top floor you are 1000 meters above sea level.


When you get to the top of the tower, after climbing 30 meters of stairs, you can make a wish and ring this bell.

Ring bell, wish luck.  (Please exit left turn.)


Lalu Island is in the lake just at the end of this peninsula, though it's hard to see in this photo.  The peninsula is supposed to look like a dragon reaching out to grab the island, which is a pearl.

Republic of China flag
cranes, I think
On the way back from Cien Pagoda we stopped at Wenwu Temple for a bit.  We still had a four hour trip home ahead of us, so we didn't really look much, but what I did see of this temple was pretty wild.  It's easily the gaudiest, loudest temple I've seen in Taiwan so far.

It keeps going!

And with that we left Wenwu, went back to the hostel to pick up our stuff, and then took two busses and a train back to Tainan.
Sun Moon Lake deserves its reputation as a top tourist location in Taiwan.  There are certainly more isolated, natural places on the island, but by definition they are not as accessible.  Sun Moon Lake is very beautiful, and for better or worse, it's easy enough to get to that bus after bus of tourists does just that.
I think my favorite part of the trip was Cien Pagoda though.  Because of all the uphill walking required to get there, there weren't very many people.  (Unlike Wenwu temple, which was swamped with busloads of tourists.)  It was also just a really beautiful view.  And it was somehow made more special by the fact that it was just this little (little compared to a modern skyscraper), stone tower with only spiral staircases to get you up, and no one selling trinkets at the top.  (No one at all at the top when we went.)  You're also surrounded by forests on one side, and because you're out in the open, you can hear the cicadas in the trees!  I enjoyed the view from Cien Pagoda more than many skyscrapers I've been up.  Plus, there was the added fun of knowing you were up on top of some guy's Mothers Day present.


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