A giant freshwater lake located in the middle of Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake is a popular vacation spot for Taiwanese tourists and foreign visitors alike. A large, sweeping expanse that reflects the bright, powder-blue skies, the lake has long been home to a number of Taiwanese aboriginal tribes, as well as a small population of Han Chinese settlers – many of whom are Christian.
I stay at a lovely homestay near Itashao pier, operated by a local artist, his wife, and several staff, some of whom seem to be of Aboriginal descent. The inn is furnished with original artwork, dark, wooden fixtures, and is surrounded by a quaint garden whose vegetables often end up on the dining table.
On my first day, I take a ride across the lake from Itashao to Shueishe Wharf on the opposite side, enjoying the wind and bright, endlessly blue waters. Our guide cautions us against dropping our cameras and cell phones; he quips that the lake is a veritable cemetery of electronic devices, and I roll my eyes.
When I arrive at Shueishe, I disembark and head for a bike shop, where I rent a light, top-of-the-line Giant mountain bike and helmet. Giant is an international cycling company that hails from Taiwan, and the locals are understandably proud; during my time on the island, I note that it is the most common bicycle on the roads and backcountry trails. Indeed, in addition to the bike itself, brand-conscious riders will often wear Giant helmets, gloves, jerseys, shorts.
As I bike around the giant lake, I stop at Wenwu Temple, a giant, ornate temple bedecked in red, gold, and blue, and adorned with numerous stone carvings and pillars. Wenwu Temple provides a great vantage point from which to view the environs of the lake.
I spend the rest of the day biking through the roads surrounding Sun Moon Lake, making my way up and down steep, winding hillsides, stopping intermittently for pictures, drinks, and even a quick meal of rice and stir-fried boar meat served with bamboo shoots, mushrooms, and onions. Many of the restaurants in the area claim that their dishes are made from mountain boar, which I assume to be hunted or trapped; as the meat tastes fresh and gamey, much unlike farm-raised pig, I have no reason to doubt them.
As the day continues on, I find the hills getting steeper and steeper; my legs feel like aiyu jelly, a soft, sweet dessert made from fig seeds. When I reach the crest of one hill, I run unexpectedly into a pack of stray dogs, who immediately start barking and chasing after me. I curse my luck, and immediately pedal for the downhill slope, pursued by the angry, territorial mob, who seem hell-bent on ripping me apart and eating me – skinny as I am.
Luckily, I manage to lose them after I make my way down the hill at breakneck speed, unscathed but still nervous. Feral dogs are a huge problem in rural Taiwan, and I kick myself for not getting a rabies vaccine prior to setting foot on the island. Perhaps pepper spray would have been more useful, but I doubted I would have cleared customs with such an item.
By the time I get back to Shueishe Wharf, I find that I’ve just missed the last boat across the lake back to Itashao. Faced with a long, three-hour trek back to the guesthouse, I call it quits and ring the owner for a pick-up.
When I get back, I shower and change into fresh clothes, before trawling the shops, restaurants, and cafes near Itashao. There are quite a few tasty food stands serving all the manner of morsels, from succulent, fatty mountain boar sausages to sliced pork smoked and preserved in brine. Given its elevation, Sun Moon Lake is a perfect area for growing black tea – and I eagerly buy several boxes to bring home. Unlike other teas, the tea grown here is strong and potent – retaining its taste and flavor after multiple soakings.
The shop-owner, like many Taiwanese, is friendly and hospitable. After I buy some of his wares, the two of us sit down and gaze out onto the lake, steaming cups of tea in hand. We talk about life in Taiwan and the US, and as the sun slips beneath the horizon, I take another bite of boar sausage, and wash it down with tea sweetened with condensed milk.
The vendor, Mr. Mao, laughs as I tell him the story of the angry dogs. He advises me to bring some smoked meat with me next time, so that I can throw it at the strays and buy myself some more time. He mentions that he has some in store, and I roll my eyes again, for the second time that day.
Sun Moon Lake lies approximately three hours from Taipei, and can be reached by bus. The closest train station (high speed rail) to Sun Moon Lake lies in Taichung, a quick, two-hour drive from Sun Moon Lake (there are also regular buses to and from the city). Additionally, Sun Moon Lake has a modern, comprehensive visitor’s center near Shueishe Wharf.