Written on the 513 train
Taichung to Kaohsiung
Tuesday, July 21, 3:45 pm
The slow train south just pulled in to Changhua, just south of Taichung. We’re on our way back to Kaohsiung, a city that we haven’t seen since we stayed there for three months in 2013-2014 and left in the (relative) cold of Taiwan winter. It’s the middle of summer now, and Kaohsiung will undoubtedly be warm, but we’re excited nonetheless to revisit the place and continue our vacation! As of this past Friday, July 17, I finished my internship, and now for the next month, Steve and I are involved in the serious business of enjoying ourselves.
Our vacation from this summer started on Saturday, when we sold all of our belongings in Taichung and took a bus from the train station to Sun Moon Lake. Last time we were in Taiwan, we made a brief overnight trip to Sun Moon Lake, and found it lovely but the experience lacking, the entire time being quite a rainy misty mess. This time, I booked us three nights in a hostel on the south side of the lake in a smaller town called Ita Thao, mainly inhabited by Taiwanese aboriginals of the Thao tribe. The result was a very relaxing and satisfying vacation. We arrived on Saturday, and collapsed into our hostel for a nap before emerging to make sense of the street food situation. For dinner, we had a guabao each, a sandwich of slices of mountain boar with pickled vegetables and fine julienned cucumbers, all in a fluffy white bun, and a deep-fried pasty with cheese and more mountain boar meat. We enjoyed our dinner with beers out on the pier, watching the mist-cloaked lake. From our vantage point, the mountains that surround the lake were no more than outlined in varying shades of monochrome blue.
For our first hike on our first full day, we made a valiant try up the Shuishe Mountain Trail. At first, just trying to find the trail gave us shivers – it was a less touristy area of Ita Thao, mostly quiet and abandoned-looking, and we came upon a gigantic tree with tribal faces carved into it. Steve immediately named it Carcosa. Go watch True Detective, season 1, if you don’t get the reference. When we found it, the trail’s stone markers were overgrown with green moss. The sign said it was an eight kilometer hike to Mt. Shuishe’s peak, over 2,000 meters in elevation. We were never going to hike up the whole mountain, but we had to turn back remarkably early. The tall stone stairs were arduous, and minutes in, the mosquitos had found us. At the 0.5 km marker, we found that the scenic overlook there had fallen into ruins and was overgrown with plants. Giving up on the trail, we went back down and instead took the Shuiwa trail, two kilometers directly along the lake. It took us out onto the lake occasionally, giving us great views of local fishing nets, and also under tall trees and bamboo groves, and around gullies full of giant ferns that made us feel like we’d walked into a prehistoric era. At the end of the trail, we found a bronze statue of nine frogs, all piled on top of each other. There were only the top six showing, which told us what the water level in the lake was. On our way back, it started raining torrentially, and since we only had one umbrella, we invariably got a little soaked. That evening, we were joined in our bunk dorm by Anna, a German traveler, and we went to dinner together with her and two other Americans from California who were also staying at the hostel. We had beers downstairs afterwards, talking about travels and why we really enjoyed Taiwan.
Yesterday was a wonderful day of hiking around Sun Moon Lake. We had excellent weather – when we arrived at the dock in the morning, we could see clearly to Shuishe across the lake. We had purchased round-the-lake boat tickets, which stops at Shuishe, Ita Thao, and Xuanguang Temple, each leg taking about ten minutes. Disembarking at Xuanguang Temple, we were nearly swept up in a giant tide of mainland Chinese tourists. By the time we made it up to the temple and escaped via the trail behind it, there was barely anyone else around. The Qinglong Trail was slightly challenging and 850 meters long, mostly sloping with some stairs. The hardest part was that it had started to drizzle, and the path became a little slippery in the rain. However, we made it up easily to Xuanzeng Temple, built high up on the mountain. Xuanzeng Temple, despite being accessible also from the round-the-lake highway, had many fewer tourists than it ought to. Slightly winded from our hike, we rested at the temple and took in the glorious view. I learned how the panorama function on my phone worked, and captured some gorgeous pictures. Since we were on a high peninsula, we could see the lake all around us and also the mountains that surrounded us, cupping the lake. The peaks were wreathed in wisps of fog and clouds, looking so much like old Chinese watercolors and nature paintings.
Before long, we were off to our last stop: Ci’en Pagoda. Continuing from Xuanzeng Temple, a kilometer long path led us to the Ci’en Pagoda, built by Chiang Kai-shek in memory of his mother. It has nine stories, and on the first day we arrived, we saw the very top of that pagoda was hidden in the clouds. Today, however, it was glorious with sun, and despite the apparent easiness of the trail (we saw several toddlers who had made the journey) and the beauty of the views, we only met a total of ten visitors. When we made it to the top of the pagoda, we had it all to ourselves for a good twenty minutes. The pagoda offered three-sixty degree views of the even higher mountains behind us and the lake spread before us. I couldn’t stop taking pictures, and we both enjoyed the brisk breeze that surrounded us. Before we descended, we struck the bell that hangs at the top of the pagoda for good luck. We made it down and took the boat around to Shuishe, the main town, for a late lunch overlooking the lake at Mos Burger. We had to take a nap again in the afternoon because we were both tired, and enjoyed one last night of drinking beers and walking around the town.
This morning, we woke up early to take the frog statue lake trail once more. It was even more beautiful in the morning, though we certainly ran into our share of spiderwebs. We also only saw one family who was out that early. We came back to our hostel, said goodbye to Anna, who was off to Tainan, and caught a series of buses back to Taichung. We had a really good time in Sun Moon Lake this time, though I can also see why some people think it’s overrated. It’s a very common tourist destination in Taiwan, and overrun with mainland Chinese tourists who by virtue of regulations must visit Taiwan through a tour group. We’ve crafted a short itinerary though that anyone could do with just two nights here, and would hit the highlights of what we visited with minimal fuss, price gauging, and interaction with other human beings.
Steve and Connie’s Guide to Sun Moon Lake
Day 1 –
- Arrive in Taichung in the afternoon. Take the Nantou Bus (南投客運) here for 190 NT each (buy a ticket or use your Easycard) for a 90-minute journey.
- When you arrive in Shuishe, take the round-the-lake bus (also pay by Easycard or 52 NT in cash) to Ita Thao, which is less crowded and cheaper.
- Stay in a hostel or a hotel; some hotels offer a lovely balcony view of the lake.
- If you get settled before 4 pm, go on the Shuiwah Lakeside Trail (~2 km, easy) to see the frog statues that line the lake. Hour and a half round trip.
- Nightfall comes late in the summertime, but things start shutting down at 7 pm especially on weekdays. Dinner from a street vendor or at a restaurant.
Day 2 –
- Get up early to enjoy the morning air. Sunrise is at 5 am in the summertime.
- Get some breakfast from 7-Eleven or FamilyMart, and board the first round-the-boat trip at 9 am to Xuanguang Temple. Xuanguang Temple is nice but overrun with mainland tourists, so take the Qinglong Trail (850 km long, moderate difficulty) up to Xuanzeng Temple, and then to Ci’en Pagoda (1.1 km long, easy). The views will be stunning, especially on a clear day. Three hour round trip allowing for time to sightsee and take pictures.
- Come back down, and get a late lunch in Shuishe.
- Rent bikes in Shuishe for 100 NT, and cruise the trails on the Shuishe side of the lake. You can also just walk the trails, and then go back to Ita Thao for dinner.
- When night falls, grab a beer at the 7-Eleven and take it out to the pavilion at the port to admire the stars (or more likely, cloudy night sky).
Day 3 –
- Go for some souvenirs – Sun Moon Lake is home to the assam red tea growing region of Taiwan, and even the local red tea offered by vendors has a slightly different, stronger tang to it. There are also many aboriginal trinkets and items.
- Get breakfast to go, and enjoy your tea out at the port watching the morning go by.
- If you didn’t make it here early enough to do the Shuiwa Trail (~2 kilometers, easy), use this morning to do it and observe the lake in the morning.
- Then pack up and get back on the round-the-lake bus or on the boat to Shuishe, where you can catch the bus back to Taichung. It’s been real, Sun Moon Lake!
- Stay for two nights to have a good experience here.
- Don’t come on a weekend if you can help it – many more tourists then!
- Round-the-lake boat tickets are much cheaper from your hostel/hotel or even your dinner restaurant. The official price of 300 NT can go down to 100, and many vendors offer such discounts if you buy something else from them. They’re good for as many trips around the lake as you want. Operating hours are 9-5.