In places that have names such as Sun Moon Lake and Smiley Valley, you can’t help being happy in Taiwan
Why is the place named Sun Moon Lake, I wonder, as the high-speed rail races at a menacing 300 km taking me from Taipei to Taichung. But it’s so smooth I feel it’s motionless except for the fast-moving scenery outside. Another hour’s scenic bus drive on polished winding roads and we arrive at Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village, set on the slopes of verdant hills. This is Nantou County in central Taiwan.
The village has a unique combination of cultural exhibits and amusement theme parks. The Aboriginal Village Park is a large outdoor museum showcasing Taiwan’s nine aboriginal tribes, who show us their skills in pottery, weaving and handicrafts. They enact a dance around the ancient ritual of creating fire by rubbing stones on dry grass. An adjoining portion of the village is covered with theme rides, with kids screaming and queuing up for their turn. Formosa’s neighbour is Sun Moon Lake, which vies with it for tourist attention.
I have done a few ropeways, but the one here is simply breathtaking. Almost two kilometers long, it swings over two hilltops before descending into Sun Moon Lake station. Between its two tallest hills, the slack of the rope makes it curve into a smiley in the air, from where the valley below gets its name Smiley Valley. Dangling in the smiley and amidst the excited chatter of the other tourists, I steal glances at the enchanting lake as dark clouds gather in the distance. Our first halt is the tourist information centre, worth visiting just for its architecture. Designed by Tokyo-based Norihiko Dan, it has two sprawling structures in the shape of boomerangs ensconced in each other, with an infinity pool overlooking the lake. Hollow walkways, crevices in concrete and slim water bodies create a masterful interplay of light, shadows and reflections.
Buddhist temples are grand by design with ornate decoration. With a view that kings would kill for, the Wenwu temple is perched on top of a hill on a curve of the road that faces the lake. Devotees inscribe their names on golden leaves and tie them on the portico for good luck. The temple walls are adorned with murals, carvings and etchings. We take a boat to our hotel across the lake. Suddenly, the clouds boom ominously, sending down sheets of rain. Amid alternating screams of panic and excitement, the doughty boatman deftly steers us through. What a way to check-in!
At Hotel Del Lago, the manager reels off a list of things to do. I sign up for the morning trek. I am up at 5:00 am and soon on the Maolan hiking trail. The manager of yesterday has now donned the hat of a guide. It’s a leisurely walk up a gentle slope that eventually leads to a platform with expansive views. Along the way is a stone building that was a tea-processing plant during the Japanese occupation in the first half of the century. Walking down a wooden bridge, we see red leaves scattered along the path. These have fallen off Ceylon olive trees on either side of the road, which come from Sri Lanka and India, of course. In winter, the fallen leaves carpet the road in various shades of red. It’s a favourite place for newly-weds to be photographed.
I find another association with India on the viewing platform — Assamese tea bushes spread over acres of undulating hills. Mist rising above the lake, clouds manoeuvring between the hills and the blue sky, the air tranquil and fresh from the previous day’s rain, a gentle peaceful life — this is Sun Moon Lake. It’s where you cannot help but put aside life’s worries and focus on the present.
Just before departure, my original question comes back to mind. The manager happily explains. The east side of the lake is circular like the sun, and the west partly resembles a crescent moon.