A mountain stream gurgles past the road. From my window I see anglers standing in knee-high waters. Gently rolling hills, clothed in every imaginable shade of green, stretch as far as the horizon. What appears as an impenetrable green cover soon reveals itself as trees weighed down with guavas, dragon fruit, mangoes, wax apples and other fruit I cannot identify, as well as fields of water bamboo, mushroom, ferns and assorted vegetables. Date palms laden with unripe orange dates are scattered among maple, fir, cedar, mixing tropical with the alpine to create a diverse arboreal palette. Wispy clouds scud past the sun. The sound of cicadas drowns the hum of the engine.
It seems hard to believe I am travelling through Taiwan — an economic giant, an Asian tiger, the David who has taken on the Goliath of mainland China when it comes to economic growth. Long years ago, I had heard of the bullish economy of this tiny country (incidentally, whose correct name is Republic of China, even though it is better known the world over as Taiwan) from my friend, Vishal Kapoor, who has been importing garment accessories since the mid-1980s. He had spoken not only of the warmth and industry of the Taiwanese people but of the fabulous street food, vibrant night markets and adventure sports such as paragliding and snorkelling, which were fledgling sports for us in India then.
However, nothing could have prepared me for the visual treat that awaited me as I travelled from Taipei, the capital city, to Sun Moon Lake, located in the exact centre of this sweet potato-shaped island. Rightly called the “Heart of Taiwan”, due to its location and possibly because it still retains vestiges of the Taiwanese people’s aboriginal past, Sun Moon Lake is an area of exceptional natural beauty. Travelling through the township of Puli, we are told that this area is famous for the Four Ws — water, weather, wine and women. It also produces exceptional black tea (brought, incidentally, from Darjeeling and introduced to these slopes), mushrooms, betelnuts, bananas, dates as well as cherries, plums and peaches. This fertile and scenic area was “discovered” by the Japanese during their 50-year occupation of Taiwan. They built dams and tunnels at the Jhoushuei River to create this large fresh-water lake.
Divided into two unequal sections by the Lalu Island (meaning “sacred” in the local Thao dialect), the northern half of this large lake is shaped like the sun, and the southern like the moon.
Possibly the best way to admire, explore and enjoy the lake and its environs is to check into the Lalu Hotel, whose every room overlooks the serene waters and the misty mountains beyond. Its grounds are heady with the scent of frangipani and a profusion of bamboo, camphor and cypress growing in thickets besides pools glimmering with fish and lotuses. The winding Hanbi trail nearby was used by the late President Chiang Kai Shek, a frequent visitor to the lake. After checking in, the best thing to do would be to hire a bike and go cycling along the bikeway to take in the natural beauty that lies all around you in such abundance. Or walk to the Shuishe Pier to take a ferry across the clear blue waters; visit the Xuanzang Temple dedicated to a 7 century monk who travelled to India and brought back Buddhist texts.
Another temple, the Wenwu, is dedicated to Confucius; its 366 steps, representing the days of a leap year, are carved with the names of famous people according to their birthdays. Equally popular with visitors is the Church of Christ; in fact such is the romantic aura of the lake and the mountains that couples flock from all over Taiwan to be wed at this simple church, or come on Valentine’s Day when the cherry blossoms are massed like pink clouds on the trees.
The Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village contains reconstructions of the island’s rich past. A tourist guide, one of the 600 aboriginals still living in these parts, takes you around the native village, pointing out local customs and island lore that vanished with the advent of “civilisation”. All around you see plenty of totemic owls: in ceramic, pottery, stone, wood and paintings. Legend has it that an unmarried woman was censured by the tribals for carrying a child. One day she turned into an owl and disappeared into the woods. Ever since has been protecting pregnant women. But more than the tourist prattle, I enjoyed sitting on the stone steps and looking up at the impossibly tall trees as birdsong wafted down from all sides.