On the Way to Sun Moon Lake
Riding a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus through Nantou County
Text: Owain Mckimm
Photos: Maggie Song
Sun Moon Lake. Nearly eight square kilometers of mist-dappled water surrounded by thickly forested mountains. Lavish with cherry blossoms in early spring, speckled with sunlight in summer, ethereal in autumn, brooding in winter, giving visitors jaw-dropping panoramas year round. A Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus will take you from central Taichung to the lake in under two hours, and for those who want to explore Taiwan in a little more depth, lets you see some of the area’s until-now more inaccessible treasures along the way.
The lake is situated in mountainous Yuchi Township, Nantou County. The Sun Moon Lake Route of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus service starts about 40 km away, in Taichung City, on the western flatlands. We board the bus at Taichung’s High Speed Rail station in Wuri; the city landscape quickly drops away as we speed along smooth raised highway, and by the time we enter mountain-framed Puli Basin in Puli Township, 17 kilometers north of Sun Moon Lake, Taichung’s urban sprawl is forgotten.
Stop 1 – New Era Art Resort and Spa
We disembark at the New Era Art Resort and Spa for – you’ll surely surmise – some pampering. No, in fact we’re here to visit a sculpture park dedicated to Taiwanese artist Lin Yuan. The resort has been developed around his work. A farmer by trade, Lin began sculpting at the ripe age of 65, and by the time he passed away at the age of 79 he had created over 10,000 works of art – over 3,000 stone sculptures, along with myriad paintings and embroideries. His sculptures, mostly of animals, have a primitive, totemic quality that makes them truly at home outdoors.
The sculptures are not, for the most part, pedestaled and polished as one would perhaps expect of such a respected artist. Rather, they peek out, half hidden, from among bushels of tropical milkweed and wild sage, or repose under tung trees wind-worn and patchy with lichen. The park’s centerpiece is a nine-meter-tall megalith made up of 234 of Lin’s totems called The Immortals’ Ladder. Our guide, Zhang Ji-wen, tells us that Lin built it so that celestial beauties would have a means of descending to Earth and marrying any young farmer, unlucky in love, who comes here to pray for a wife.
After we’ve taken in the park, Zhang takes us for lunch in the resort’s Japanese restaurant, where two 50-year-old Chinese cedars twine and twist through the three floors like ivy through an old summer house. There is no set menu at the restaurant – the chef creates three completely different menus daily, depending on the ingredients available on the day. We opt for the mid-range menu, at NT$1,000 a head, and are served a nine-course seafood extravaganza that includes lobster-claw soup, a medley of sashimi, stewed lobster topped with caviar, a sushi platter, and a whole roasted Japanese butterfish.
Stop 2 – Taomi Eco-Village
Stuffed and ready for our next stop, we catch the next Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus and disembark a few minutes down the road at Taomi Eco-Village. Tucked away on the southern border of Puli Township, Taomi was once an ordinary rural village, where the residents’ primary source of income was the cultivation of bamboo. Reluctant to industrialize their operations, however, by the end of the 20th century the villagers were struggling economically. Then, on September 21, 1999, a major earthquake measuring 7.3 on the Richter scale struck the island – its epicenter mere kilometers away in Jiji Township – and well over half of the houses in Taomi were destroyed. The people of the village, our guide Pen Ei-ci tells us, saw the destruction as an opportunity to start anew. Lifelong farmers began to retrain as eco-tour guides, open guesthouses, and transform old paddy fields into a wetland park and other types of area where wildlife could thrive.
Before we tour the village’s ecological sights, Pen shows us Taomi’s main attraction: the Paper Dome. Constructed using 58 five-foot-high cardboard columns, the Paper Dome is a memorial to both Taiwan’s 921 Earthquake and the Great Hanshin Earthquake that ravaged the city of Kobe, Japan in 1995. In fact, the Paper Dome was originally constructed in Kobe as a temporary replacement for the Takatori Catholic Church, destroyed in the earthquake. In 2005, however, the structure was relocated to Taiwan – a country also blighted by earthquakes – as a symbol of solidarity and friendship.
As we wander around the village’s allotments, plant nurseries, streams, and lotus ponds, Pen fills us in on the area’s fecund wildlife. There are about 370 butterfly species in Taiwan; roughly 220 can be found in Puli Township, and up to 180 can be seen in Taomi Village. According to Pen, a part of the village’s eco-transformation has been to plant flowers with nectar-rich blooms to attract butterflies to the area, as well as to cultivate host plants on which butterflies can lay their eggs. Frog-watching is also popular with visitors to Taomi, and many guesthouses offer after-dark frog-watching excursions, during which participants can see up to 23 of Taiwan’s 29 native species. Unfortunately, time is against us on this day, and we must make a dash for the next shuttle bus.
Stop 3 – Antique Assam Tea Farm
Alas, the grey skies of the morning have now released a persistent and biting afternoon drizzle, and I could murder a cup of tea. As luck would have it, tea is not in short supply at our next destination, the Antique Assam Tea Farm in Yuchi Township. Huang Guo-ci, who manages the farm’s 10 hectares of tea fields, greets us at the entrance to the factory and immediately sits us down on the veranda for a chat over a pot of hot black tea.
He pours us each a cup of the rich amber liquid, which he identifies as Taiwan Tea No. 18, one of several cultivars grown at the farm. The black tea grown in Yuchi was originally Assam tea (C. sinensis var. assamica) imported from India by the Japanese during the Japanese colonial period (1895-1945). The warm, rainy climate of Nantou County was deemed perfect for black tea cultivation, and over the years the Yuchi Tea Research and Extension Station has tweaked the original Assam tea to create new cultivars. The most popular of these is the No. 18 – in fact a cross-breed of C. sinensis var. assamica and wild Taiwanese mountain tea (C. sinensis f. formosensis) – which has a distinctive cinnamon scent underlain with a subtle hint of mint.
After we finish our tea, Huang takes us on a tour of the factory. Upstairs, the tea leaves are laid out to dry for up to 18 hours, then poured through a hatch in the floor into rolling machines, where the juices are gently squeezed out and the leaves begin to ferment. Following that is a stint in the perpetually moist fermenting room. The leaves are then dried and a team of workers painstakingly strips them from the twigs by hand. Eager to try some of the other varieties, I pick up a box of Taiwan Tea No. 8 on our way out – No. 8 has a stronger, more robust flavor than the other cultivars, but won’t be overpowering if you take your tea English-style, with milk, as I do.
Stop 4 – Sun Moon Lake
It’s late afternoon when we finally arrive at Sun Moon Lake. We had originally planned to take a twilit cycle along the western, “moon”-shaped side of the lake, but the drizzle now colors the idea of a tour de lac, once anticipated with pleasure, as a damp and uncomfortable ordeal. We instead board a bus and head to the small settlement of Ita Thao, where we plan to stay the night, and take in the lake from the wharf. A delicate mist floats above the water; low clouds entangle the surrounding mountains; the last boats of the day dock at the piers. The lake is still and silent.
Getting There and Around
You can catch the Sun Moon Lake shuttle bus at Taichung Railway Station or THSR Taichung Station. Buses run hourly on weekdays and every 30 minutes on weekends. For a full, downloadable timetable and fare details, visit www.taiwantrip.com.tw and look for the “Sun Moon Lake Route.” Tickets can be bought on the bus.
English and Chinese
|Sun Moon Lake||日月潭|
|The Immortals’ Ladder||天梯|
Paper Dome (紙教堂)
Add: 52-12, Taomi Lane, Taomi Borough, Puli Township, Nantou County (南投縣埔里鎮桃米里桃米巷52-12號)
Antique Assam Tea Farm (日月老茶廠)
Add: 38, Youshui Lane, Zhongming Village, Yuchi Township, Nantou County (南投縣魚池鄉中明村有水巷38號)