When they flooded a basin near Taiwan's geographical center to produce hydroelectricity, little did the Japanese colonial authorities then ruling the island know they were also creating one of Taiwan's most enduring tourist attractions. Two small bodies of water – one called Sun Lake, the other Moon Lake – merged, and gained the name Sun Moon Lake.
For half a century, this sublime expanse of blue surrounded by rugged green mountains has been one of Taiwan's most popular destinations. Many Taiwanese spent their honeymoons here, and the lake's fame has spread beyond Taiwan. For mainland Chinese tourists heading to the island, Sun Moon Lake is a “must see” alongside Taipei 101 and Alishan.
The surface of the lake covers 827 hectares and is 748m above sea level. The waters are around 30m deep. The water level barely changes from summer to winter, so boat excursions are possible year-round. Swimming, however, is permitted just one day per day. One of the most popular ways of seeing the lake is to spend a day cycling all the way around it – the distance (33km) is too long to be comfortably hiked, but ideal even for slow cyclists.
Whether you plan to pedal or ride a motorcycle, it makes sense to start in Shuishe, where electric scooters as well as bicycles and gasoline-powered motorcycles can be rented. The main lakeside settlement also has hotels to suit all budgets, lots of places to eat, as well as a bus station.
Before leaving Shuishe, spend an hour exploring the little finger of land that juts into the lake here. Chiang Kai-shek had a villa on what is called the Hanbi Peninsula. It is long gone, replaced by one of Taiwan's swankiest hotels, but the church where the late president worshiped still stands.
Boat tours, which cost NT$300 for adults and NT$200 for children and seniors, start from Shueishe Wharf (and some other points beside the lake) and last about one-and-a-half hours.
Many of those on two wheels proceed in a clockwise direction and make Wenwu Temple their first stop. This imposing piece of architecture is dedicated to Confucius and has a superb setting. For Western visitors, however, two shrines on the south side of the lake may have more resonance. Xuanguang Temple and Xuanzang Temple – the former is by the water's edge, the latter is 850m away, accessed by a gently sloping pathway – hold relics associated with Xuan Zang, a 7th-century Chinese Buddhist monk revered for traveling to India and translating religious texts. His adventures were retold in a classic Chinese novel, Journey to the West; a 1970s Japanese TV series based on the novel attracted a cult following when shown in English-speaking countries under the title Monkey.
On a hillside nearby stands Cien Pagoda [pictured right]. Built on the orders of Chiang Kai-shek as a memorial to his mother, the top of the pagoda is exactly 1,000m above sea level. Do climb the stairs to better enjoy the scenery.
The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway offers even better views for less physical effort. This 1.87km-long cable car system links the lake with the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village, a theme park where indigenous culture is presented in entertaining formats. Tickets combining admission to the village with the ropeway are a good option.
To meet members of Taiwan's indigenous minority in more conventional circumstances, head to Ita Thao, a village across the lake from Shuishe and home to Taiwan's smallest aboriginal tribe. As of spring 2012, the Thao numbered just 722 adults and children. When the water level rose, they were forced to leave their ancestral home, Lalu Island in the lake's western half. However, they continue to revere the islet – now just a tiny speck of land – as the abode of their ancestors' spirits. Non-Thao are barred from setting foot on Lalu Island, but many boat tours sail around it.
Visitors are unlikely to hear Thao being spoken. Nowadays only a few elderly people are able to speak the tribe's traditional Austronesian language proficiently, but activists are trying hard to save the tongue from extinction. The tribe's unique music, built around rhythms pounded out with pestles, is still going strong, and is often performed as part of the song-and-dance shows organized by the resort's major hotels.
The round-the-lake bus service is another way of circumnavigating Sun Moon Lake. Jump on/jump off tickets valid for one day are NT$80. Before each stop, announcements are made in English and Chinese.
Visitors wanting to get to Sun Moon Lake have a number of straightforward options. Motorists can take Freeway 6 inland toward Puli, then follow Highway 21 south. There are direct buses from downtown Taipei and Taichung High-Speed Railway Station. Anyone wanting to add the scenic Jiji Branch Railway to their itinerary can ride it as far as Shuili, then hop aboard a local bus to Shuishe. For more information, visit the website of Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area Administration.
This is an edited and slightly shortened version of the article which appears in the November/December issue of Unity, the inflight magazine of UNI Air.