Beyond Taipei’s vertiginous skyscrapers, curio-rich museums and the dizzying high-speed train from Hsinchu to Taichung that rockets past industrial towns to the heart of Nantou county, lies a lake that floats on clouds. Nestled amidst mountains, in a setting reminiscent of an oriental painting on rice paper, the lake is divided by Lalu island — the east shaped like the sun and the west, the moon. The shimmering waters murmur to the mountains and wooded paths that line it, while sunbeams, moonlight and clouds contend for dominion.
The Sun Moon Lake Scenic Area comprises five towns and many aboriginal villages. In this land of forgotten dynasties and hoary head-hunters, Taiwan’s Nationalist leader Chiang Kai Shek built the Ci En pagoda in memory of his mother, and spent his later years in these forests ancient as the hills in Xanadu.
His stately house is now The Lalu hotel with luxurious rooms, but it is the more business-like Sun Moon Lake hotel, where I stay, with its Japanese-styled rooms and quiet verandahs, that opens the door to the lake’s varied moods, colours and pastimes.
Stopping by the woods…
The sky turns grey, vermilion and then cerulean when sunlight tinges the still waters gold. The refreshing scent of crushed lemongrass fills the air and the chiming of faraway temple bells is punctuated by the occasional bicycle bell. One of the best ways to discover the pristine woodlands around the lake is to set off on two wheels, through well laid-out paths.
Ferns hang low over paved lanes and songbirds call from the trees. Fathers and daughters cycle on tandem bikes, old couples pedal slowly past and sportsmen bend their heads low to meet the wind as they slice through the Jiji green tunnel road that leads to the charming single-storey Japanese-era railway station built of cypress wood. The Toushe bikeway in the evenings leads to fields full of fireflies.
There are also 14 trails that snake their way into the mountains and to the lake. From the Sonbulun trail through which the Tao people once travelled, the punishing Shuishe great mountain trail lined with moss, and the trails that climb through acres of bushes that yield Taiwan’s famed black tea, to the Hanbi trail with its vestiges of history, the pathways, some paved, some cut in stone, are filled with egrets, wild ducks and small creatures of the forest. Walkers and cyclists converge at the cantilever bridge that has lovely views for selfies and the red bridge hidden in a bamboo copse that’s popular for outdoor wedding shoots.