OK, so, I figure mostly what people want to see are photos.
By the way, I am really sick of only being able to post small photos while about 2/3 of the browser window are taken up by green nothingness.
I can't change the widths on this template, and don't want to move to Wordpress just yet. Any suggestions for good templates that will allow me to have a far wider text-and-photo section without all the empty space on the sides, so I can post much larger pictures? I'm really, really not tech savvy at all (I can haz computator!) which is why I stick to pre-designed templates and don't have my own.
Anyway, people always say getting to Sun Moon Lake is tough: it's not really. You can take a bus directly from HSR Taichung Station. Or take a bus to Taichung City - make sure to get one with a Taichung Railway Station destination, not Chaoma Terminal, which is halfway across the world from downtown Taichung and basically sucks. I don't know whose idea it was to build that thing out in the middle of nowhere, but there ya go. The bus will let you off in an area that is an easy walking distance from tons of other buses that go to Sun Moon Lake: if you're let off on Shuangshi (雙十) Boulevard, just pick any given one and ask about buses to Sun Moon Lake, or to Puli with a transfer. If you're let off in front of the actual train station, ask at information about the Sun Moon Lake buses, or just hop any bus to Puli and change.
There is, according to the guidebook, a bus straight to Sun Moon Lake from Taipei, but I have never seen nor heard of this theoretical bus in real life.
Once in Puli, either bus station should have buses to the lake. Or just show the characters to the driver, who will tell you where to get off.
I got to Taichung before Brendan, who had to work late due to postponements from Typhoon Soulik the week before. So rather than hang around the random hotel I grabbed, I hopped a cab to Fengchia Night Market on the outskirts of town (because I'll be damned if I'm going to tolerate Taichung's craptacular "public transportation" joke of a system). What a great place to spend an evening eating and shopping - recommended for anyone with any time in Taichung after dark. Probably the best part of that whole godforsaken city.
We hit up Sun Moon Lake the next day after arranging a fairly inexpensive homestay, given the summer weekend rates (NT$2500 - okaaaay).
As I said in my previous post, it's really amazing that I've managed to spend 7 years in Taiwan and only now visit Sun Moon Lake for the first time. Generally speaking, I enjoyed myself more than I thought I would, and while touristy it wasn't as horrific as I imagined it might be. I would even go back, although it's not at the top of my list.
There really weren't quite as many tourists as we thought there'd be, but that doesn't mean there weren't any. As you can see here, the ferries were straight-up packed, mostly with Mainlanders, but some domestic tourists as well.
All in all my favorite parts of Taiwan are the parts that aren't saturated with tourists (I guess this might cause you to think I like very non-touristy Taichung: you would be wrong). I liked Kending OK, but I liked Cow Mountain Beach more. Taroko Gorge is beautiful but I left my heart on Hehuanshan. Jiaoxi is fine but my soul really sings in the East Rift Valley. I've never been to Alishan, but dollars to doughnuts I'd pick Lishan over it any day. The Museum of Contemporary Art is by far my favorite - preferable to the tourist-packed National Palace Museum (which I've never really gotten into, although I don't deny it's packed with priceless treasures).
Even in terms of domestic tourists, I don't really like places full of 'em (although I don't begrudge them enjoying their own country, of course). I'll take a quiet Dihua Street over a packed Sanxia Old Street, a puppet show in a night market to some big traditional production that requires lining up, Yuemeikeng over Wufengchi, the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail over Jiufen (although I do like Jiufen), Donggang over Yilan, Fushoushan Farm over Cingjing Farm.
So I wasn't really expecting to love Sun Moon Lake.
I wasn't wrong, per se. I didn't adore it. I liked it well enough. Years of exploring the less touristed nooks and crannies of Taiwan, and being able to explore Taipei on relatively quiet weekdays, have meant that I've become acquainted with what it's like to live here without the tourists, be they Taiwanese or Chinese, or from any other country. What it's like to partake in activities that locals themselves are partaking in, or even talk to locals who aren't trying to sell me something (the good thing about Taiwan is that even the locals that are selling you things are generally honest, friendly people. Unlike, say, most of China).
My main complaints?
First of all, the Shao aborigines are getting fucking shafted. We didn't poke around to see if most of this tiny tribe still live in shoddy temporary housing since the 9/21 earthquake, but most do seem to live a working class life - anywhere from outright poverty to middle class just-getting-by.
With all the money that gets poured into Sun Moon Lake from the tourist hordes of Asia, who stay in lakefront hotels and by bags of tourist crap to take home, who drink Starbucks (and buy the mug!) and eat subpar food in banquet-hall like tour group restaurants, who stay at the Lalu, go to spas and have afternoon tea, charter boats, rent cars and cycle around, you'd think the Shao would be doing pretty well seeing as this is their land and all.
Many own shops (I think I could tell which were the aborigine owned shops and which were owned by Hoklo or otherwise Chinese-descended people dressed like aborigines) or restaurants, but most seem to be completely passed by by all the money that runs through this area.
Certainly, you'd think we could do better by the aborigines - whose land this actually is - than to build the Lalu and then exhort richie-rich types to come stay here and then take pictures of locals in traditional clothing with beads and headdresses and such for a pittance.
You'd think, rather than even build the Lalu, that they could make sure all of the Shao have non-temporary, secure and livable housing - something they lacked (and may still lack, I'm not sure) since the turn of the millenium.
Kind of sickening, really.
Next up? Falun Gong.
I may be an atheist, but I am one that is all about religious freedom (after all, religious freedom also means freedom to not practice a religion), and as such, although I don't believe in the doctrines of Falun Gong, I do support them having the freedom to practice as they wish.
Every tourist site popular with Chinese across Taiwan is chock full o' Falun Gong, espousing their views and quietly protesting-through-meditation right in view of passing Mainlanders. It's almost like a symbiotic relationship at this point (except not): Falun Gong need Mainlanders for an excuse to give themselves exposure, and Mainlanders wouldn't lend the changes to the local areas they visit that they do without Falun Gong protesters nearby.
So I gave 'em a 加油 just to piss off any Chinese tourists who might believe the government propaganda (not everyone does).
The peaceful view from the upper Xuanzang Temple
The worst of the tourist crowds was at the famous Grandma's Tea Eggs at the pier below the two famous temples to Xuanzang: the old Japanese one, and the newer, bigger, fancier one which currently holds a piece of his skull. I have no reason to believe it's not really what it purports to be. I'm more skeptical of the little white nuggets said to be relics of the Buddha. The first temple was overrun with Mainlanders, and while picturesque, we didn't stay long. There was no peace and quiet anywhere.
This is one point at which I really felt the tourist development hindered a local experience most of all. Of course, I too am a tourist: I'm a part of that crowd, not apart from it. But fewer tourists generally could be had with fewer Mainland tour groups more easily than with fewer Westerners (of whom there were a fair number, but not really that many).
This is where I really felt a cultural difference, too: the Chinese tourists moved in huge groups, masses really. Human amoebas. They were loud. They didn't respect lines or waiting. They hogged space. They weren't unfriendly, but weren't a positive addition to the atmosphere. You could almost see the annoyance on the faces of Taiwanese and Japanese tourists who wanted to quietly enjoy the temple (I know a few people will respond to that with "What? Taiwanese tourists? Quiet??! No!" but trust me on this one).
Instead, we took the Qinglong Trail to the upper Xuanzang Temple.
The trail was beautiful and quiet, and quite easy, with only a few spots where the recent typhoon downed some trees and a few steep sections (both up and down), but only a kilometer in total and nothing any normal person couldn't do. The only downside? The mosquitos that infested each resting point. They were the little black kind whose bites are super itchy: not even White Flower Oil can stop the itch, which penetrates deep into the skin.
At the top I was so desperate for something to alleviate the itching that I bought some cream on the recommendation of a shop owner below the temple, which worked (the cream is called "White Flower Snow" and is more potent than White Flower oil. It won't kill the itch permanently but you'll get a few hours of relief).
The only other hikers were a few independent tourists, all of them polite and friendly. Xuanzang Temple, the one at the top, was one of my favorite stops on the trip. The famous Ci En Pagoda above it is closed for repairs (damaged both in the recent earthquake and Typhoon Soulik) and so the tour buses aren't all stopping at Xuanzang Temple - it's just not worth it to them, I guess, without the pagoda to visit further on.
This meant that the upper temple was blissfully quiet. It reminded me of visiting Nikko, in Japan, except Chinese style (duh) and in the summer, not the winter (duh). But the whole feeling of quiet temples on a hill with tall trees was very reminiscent of that trip.
The best part? You could get a drink - hot tea, water, whatever - and donate what you wanted (we donated NT100) to the temple for it. Then you could take it to the verandah overlooking the lake and just drink your tea quietly and enjoy the view, with some other Taiwanese daytrippers and their families generally being lively, but not overly noisy. What a relief after the crush of people and noise at the lower temple!
These guys (first shop as you exit the Qinglong Trail), sell 白花雪 cream, which kills mosquito bite itches and other skin irritations.
So many choices!
We had to walk back down the way we came, as the bus wasn't coming for another hour and we couldn't be bothered to wait for it, and Ci En Pagoda was closed.
The way back was not quite so lucky for us: a few Mainlanders were loitering around the base of the trail (I could tell by the accents), dropping the plastic baggies that their tea eggs had come in along the sides. I wouldn't have minded the crowd there, but the littering was really not OK.
So, rudeness be damned, I walked in front of one of the offenders, reached down, looking her right in the eye, picked up her tea egg baggy that she'd just thrown onto the forest floor, went "ㄔ!" (cchh! - the Taiwanese way of expressing wordless irritation) and threw it away all within sight of the group.
On the Qinglong Trail you'll pass a betelnut farm.
After that we took a ferry to Itashao, where we had pigeon and mountain pig for lunch, cooked up by a local Shao woman. It was goooooood, but very meaty and we did miss the addition of some sort of vegetable. Otherwise, Itashao kind of depressed me: Shao (and possibly other) aborigines in their traditional garb, seemingly not because they wanted to be, but because it was good for business. Wear what you want because you want to, not because it'll get more curious tourists to buy tchotchkes (on the other hand, tourists buying tchotchkes is what keeps many locals gainfully employed).
Again, I felt that tons of money runs through Sun Moon Lake, and the aborigines whose land this actually is and should continue to be get very little of it. They live pretty normal, even impoverished, lives, allowing people to take pictures, dress up in Shao clothing and get their own pictures taken, and buy keychains and such...and then the big developers behind the fancy hotels that obscure the view from Shuishe rake in the most profits.
I asked this kid which part of Journey to the West he liked the most, and he pointed to Taiwan. I'm pretty sure Journey to the West never went through Taiwan!
I also wasn't big on all the big hotels in Shuishe hogging waterfront view space. It's all advertised as "come see this beautiful lake" but unless you walk out of town, you can't actually see it unless you get an expensive hotel room overlooking it. Ridiculous.
No tourist trip would be complete without a selfie!
If you walk out of town towards Wenwu Temple (which we didn't get to stop at - I'd come back for that) you can see more of the lake's actual beauty. Too bad so little of it is visible from Shuishe itself.
My favorite stop was pausing to watch dog trainers teach German Shepherds how to swim! Dogs can swim in Sun Moon Lake, but humans aren't allowed to except once a year in a race.
Our homestay was cute and, well, homey with free breakfast and a balcony overlooking a 7-11 and car park. A few too many bears for my liking, but it was affordable and accessible.
Some tour group taking a group photo - otherwise Shuishe, while touristy, wasn't totally crawling with tour groups.
These guys are more Taiwanese than me, with the cameras and the cycling and the athletic performance gear and the group meal.
I'm an American woman living and working in Taipei, Taiwan. I work in corporate training, travel frequently, drink far too much coffee and alcohol (often together). I love reading, photography and exploring any city I find myself in. I have a lovely husband, Brendan and a fat, insane cat named Zhao Cai. I write quite a bit about being a female expat and women's issues in Asia, as well as travel, hiking, photography and food - with a few personal anecdotes thrown in.