Legend and Beauty Live on at Taiwan’s Largest Lake
At the foothills of Taiwan's central mountain range lies the azure Sun Moon Lake, home to tribal culture and one of the world's most popular bicycle routes.
First published in the print issue of National Geographic Traveller, now also online on their site.
The name of Taiwan’s Sun Moon Lake—half shaped like the sun, the other half curved like a crescent moon—implies a good backstory.
A variety of folklore tales each differently explain how the largest freshwater lake in Taiwan came to be so auspiciously shaped, one even citing mischievous dragons. However, the alpine lake was actually two separate bodies of water that were joined in the 1930s when Japanese occupiers decided to build a dam, merging the round sun and the crescent moon together. Dotting the centre of this union lies Lalu Island, meaning ‘later’ or ‘after’ in the region’s indigenous tribal tongue.
The idyllic isle has changed names and even its shape under its various rulers and timelines: ‘Jade Island’ under the Japanese, ‘Kuang hua’ under the Chiang Kai Shek’s Nationalist government, and now, a return to its original name, Lalu, out of respect for the local Thao tribe. Throughout the 1800s, some Thao even lived on it, before they were ousted by Chinese settlers. It took almost a century for their ancestral home to be returned to them, which only happened after an earthquake in 1999 shrunk a considerable portion of the island, spurring the local government to return what land remained on the lake to its original inhabitants. From the number of boats that idle around the now-protected islet, encircled by pontoon gardens, it seems everybody likes a good backstory.
Two hours from Taichung, this tranquil lake at the foothills of Taiwan’s central mountain range, in Nantou County, is a restful pit stop made up of forest trails (some filled with fireflies), mountain hikes and a highly acclaimed 34-kilometre cycling track that loops the lake.
The track is so popular it is common for people to carry their own bikes and make a trip purely for the three-hour experience. On the ride, bikers pedal past thick forested areas along the blue-green hues of the water (spring visitors will also ride past cherry blossoms). The natural beauty of the area is also accessible from several vantage points. The Ropeway Cable Car service, which leads to the Formosa Aboriginal Village, reveals more than just stunning views from above. The colours of the cable cars reflect the pastoral essence of the island—the red of the sun, yellow of the moon, green of the trees and blue of the lake. The Wenwu Temple also boasts gorgeous vistas of the lake; however, the views can’t compete with the up-close-and-personal experience of boating or riding around the azure water.
The passage of 366 steps, beginning at a lakeside pier and leading up to the temple, is named Year of the Steps, each step corresponding to a day in the year, the extra number denoting a leap year. These days alternate routes exist, but visitors often still climb up and down the passage to see their birthday step as well as the historical character depicted on it. A bit of a fun to-do unless your birthday is in December and you have to climb down to the bottom and wheeze back up to the top.
While some travellers choose to do this journey as a day trip, those interested in getting to know the place a bit better might need a two-day sojourn. During that extra time Formosa Village promises to be a worthwhile destination for a spot of Taiwanese history. A man-made recreation of an aboriginal village, it offers glimpses into past indigenous life via a replica-constructed space that was originally used by tribes as hunting grounds.
The region was home to the Thao tribe (which still lives in certain parts of the territory), one of the nine Taiwanese tribes that occupied the area. Around 300 years ago, before Chinese immigrants arrived in Taiwan, the indigenous people of the island were distributed throughout its territory. While they may now be completely Sinicised (made Chinese in character), early scholars classified the tribes in their natural element. Today’s indigenous people are classified into 14 main groups, one being the Thao.
According to a survey in 2011, only around 700 individuals of the Thao tribe remain today. They live in communities around Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, more so in the regions of Toushe and Pu-chi. In the 1800s, the Thao laid claim over the Sun Moon Lake area, and set up a functioning life until Chinese settlers started to arrive in the 19th century and later under the Japanese rule in 1934. Today, the people depend on agriculture (also having learnt the cultivation of rice in paddy fields from the Chinese), fishing, and hunting. Staple crops include rice, sweet potatoes, millet, peanuts, and maize.
The village is a significant walk (put aside a couple of hours) with homes constructed in the traditional style and rituals portrayed by life-size figures in traditional outfits. The placards around the village offer information about the patrilineal society and clan customs, complete with a headman’s house. Small stories about customs and rites of passage play out in these installations, such as, a skull collection of enemies and learning the art of war. The importance of hunting reveals itself in the skulls and bones displayed on the walls of the huts.
Legends also play an important role in this society. Lalu Island was apparently revealed to the Thao tribe by a white deer, who led them to a place that was both beautiful and abundant in natural resources (watch out for the statue of the deer if you happen to take a boat ride around the island). If you walk around the sleek Xiangshan Visitor Centre and the streets next to the piers, owl motifs can be seen everywhere—wooden carvings in Formosa and souvenir shops selling them on nearly everything. The Thao’s folklore carries a rather sad story. A girl from the tribe became pregnant before she was married. She was ostracised and in the face of no forgiveness, she ran away on a stormy night only to be found dead under a tree after a few days. An owl was perched on the tree, and it is said that since then, an owl would fly over homes of pregnant women, as a reminder to treat them better.
The Sun Moon Lake legends make for good storytelling, and frequently one’s pace turns into an idyllic stroll, before packing up and returning to the dazzling tempo of Taiwan’s bigger cities.
Flights from Indian hubs to Taipei typically involve a layover in Bangkok or Hong Kong. Take the HSR (High-Speed Rail) from Taipei Main Station to Taichung HSR Station, which typically takes an hour. From Taichung HSR Station buses depart to Sun Moon Lake every 15 minutes (80 km/1.5 hr).
If you’re in the mood to lap up luxury, nestled next to the shoreline stands the magnificent Lalu Hotel, the once-summer home of Chiang Kai-shek (www.thelalu.com.tw; doubles from USD15,200/Rs10,52,000).
Sejal Mehta is a writer and editor. She is consultant editor at Marine Life of Mumbai, and writes about science, wildlife, travel, fiction and is a published author of children's books. Her past work includes Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller India, Nature inFocus.