Saturday, 28 April 2012

Sun Moon Lake, Hehuanshan and Basil minus the Brush


I was walking to the local shop to buy some juice on Friday and I looked across the road to see a guy obliviously drive his car into the back of a truck in traffic and I barely flinched. His car was a write-off and my complete lack of surprise made me realise just how much I needed to escape Nankan for a while.

I was a little bit anxious when looking at the Rough Guide to Taiwan for hotels. I really prefer to stay in cheap accommodation – because I'm cheap – and there weren't too many hotels available around my price range in the Sun Moon Lake area. Needless to say I avoided the rather scarily named “Holy Love Camp”...

Having managed to pre-book a hotel that was in my price range and had a fairly normal sounding name – albeit in Chinese – I got on a bus to Taichung where I'd be able to catch a bus to Sun Moon Lake. I used the Nantou bus company because it sounds a little less flamboyant than the Renyou bus company. The reason I avoided the latter company was because “Renyou” sounds a little bit like Tranny in Mandarin, or so I've been told but I don't really trust the source because he's Canadian and they are a little bit smelly. Anyway...the last way I wanted to travel between Taichung and the lake would be with a bunch of cross dressers. Not that I have an aversion to them but I think a bus load would be a few more than I could handle. I digress. Before I got on the bus I stumbled across an Indonesian warung and promptly stopped and dug into a portion of Gado-Gado. I had a little conversation with the old lady that seemed to be in charge and she didn't really seem in the slightest bothered that I could speak a bit of Indonesian. The Gado2 was delicious though and with a portion of kerupuk and some homemade sambal ulek (prawn crackers and chilli sauce) I departed for the bus stop.

On arriving at the lake I managed to find my hotel really easily and despite making a boo boo and not realising how to switch the power on in the room for the first twenty or so minutes without giving the hotel owner – let's call him Basil – an earache. Basil was the first really friendly face I'd seen all day. The drivers and people selling tickets in the transport office were all miserable fuckers. Despite the majority I was with Basil and his big smile. I was in a good mood because the air was fresh and the sun was setting and I wasn't surrounded by tall buildings and traffic. I found a small little cafe which I think was run by some aboriginal people, although I can't really be sure and had a reasonably tasty meal of tea-smoked chicken and salt pork fried rice. After that I decided to buy some local products as gifts before I spent all my money on cheeseburgers. I met a very enthusiastic lady in the giftshop and she was trying to sell me all sorts of shit. Just a shame she couldn't speak English and my Chinese ability was feeling rather reciprocal. Anyway, after that I went to bed – minus the giftshop lady – and finished my book. Reading it that is.


The next day I rose early and chose the local Maolan Mountain Trail as my first activity for the weekend. Not just because it was the closest trail to my hotel but because it is a pleasant walk through a tea plantation to the top of a small mountain with good views of the lake. On route I met a Taiwanese family who were very friendly and kept offering me bananas and lemon flavored wafers. I'm not sure if I was looking ravished – I'm rather plump – but I was happy to indulge nonetheless. I discovered they were from Lugang which is apparently a very nice place and is famous for historical reasons of which I'm yet to discover. After saying goodbye and carrying on with my walk I bumped into a local guy from Taichung with his two Japanese colleagues. They were all twice my age and much fitter than me but were fairly friendly. The views of the lake from the mountain road were great and the sitting by the tea plantation and talking to some nice Taiwanese people was pretty cool. I was already finding the “southern Taiwanese” quite a bit friendlier than their northern cousins, the latter of whom I'm better acquainted with.  This friendliness was highlighted  in the space of a couple of hours when one person stopped to let me cross the road and another waited for me to pass before continuing down an alley. Nobody in the north has ever done that for me... After a small chat and a walk to the weather station at the top of the mountain I rested and just soaked up a pretty nice panoramic view of the lake. Then it rained. The rain wasn't too bad but it was enough to want to head back to the hotel and have a shower. So that is what I did. Later in the day I found a place that looked like a French bistro and the garden area had a nice view of the lake so I sat there reading for a while and ordered a pizza. To my horror the pizza had a diameter of about four inches so I ordered some garlic bread which turned out to be garlic on toast. I'm afraid it must have given me bad breath and offended the peaceful skies because after that the heavens opened for about two hours. I was a bit upset because I had forgotten my umbrella so reeking of garlic and wet as a hobnob at one of Thomas Fragiacomo's “soggy shindigs” I walked back through torrential rain to my hotel. Basil was happy as ever. He had his big smile and I knew it was genuine as he was always happy. Not because I smelt and looked like the French kid who'd been dunked at the swimming pool just for knowing that hors d'ouerves don't hangout on street corners. (I know they don't because I've looked it up on wikipedia!)


After the panoramic view of the lake of which you could see some 3,000m mountains in the background. According to the maps these mountains are named Mt. Jhimao and Mt. Luanda. My first glimpse of the central mountain range in Taiwan was revealed it got me quite excited. I decided that spending my last day at the lake would be best spent seeing some of the 'sights'. The lake itself was really the main attraction for me but nonetheless I decided to get a boat across the lake and see what all the fuss is about. My first port of call was to escape the other tourists and find the main road – which happened to be about 5 minutes beyond the market – from where I could crossover and have a look at the Thao settlement there. I believe the Thao people are the smallest of Taiwan's aboriginal tribes and number less than 700 individuals in total. My numbers and figures are coming from The Rough Guide to Taiwan and as I'm pretty tired while writing this please don't take any 'facts' written here as truth. The Thao have been moved on from the lake slightly – this being their ancestral home – and are yet to be permanently relocated. They are staying in a 'temporary settlement' which I believe they have been in for a few decades now. There were some cool paintings on the walls and the Thao people seem to mostly live in bamboo huts with corrugated steel roofs. Poverty here doesn't feel like such an issue though as I guess jobs are provided for by the tourism from the lake. There were plenty of cars and motorbikes in the village and it was quite interesting to get a feel for the people of the lake away from what I personally believe to be a tacky representation presented in the “Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village” at the top of the cable car down the road from the village. Not that my pessimistic attitude towards those attractions is really justified but why see a sinocized skewered representation of the people when you can see the the people where they are living now? The indigenous peoples of Taiwan – of which the Thao are a part – are ethnically Austronesian, meaning they are more similar in appearance to the peoples of countries such as The Philippines and Indonesia than to the predominantly ethnic Han Chinese that make up the bulk of the population here in Taiwan. Anyway all that aside the people seemed content enough and happened to think I was lost and offered to point me towards the direction of other attractions in the area. As a sidenote I was quite pleased to have read some of the signs in their language as they are romanized and I guess it is linked to the Malay languages like Tagalog and Bahasa Indonesia, but of this I'm not entirely sure however it did appear similar to my untrained eyes.

After looking at some of the artwork in the Thao village – which didn't appear to have a name except as a part of Itathao which is the second biggest tourist area on the lake – I decided to head towards the Cien Pagoda. I figured that it couldn't be a huge distance as the lake is only 7.8km squared not realising that the road around the lake spans a circumference of about 30 kilometres. Regardless there were some pretty good views of different parts of the lake when the treeline broke and it really felt quite natural because there were hardly any cars traversing the route. Along the way I saw plenty of lizards and even managed to get a photo of a couple. On the road leaving Itashao there was a rather feisty looking bugger that appeared either to be staking his claim to the ground on which he was standing or just completely unbothered by me because I'm obviously just a big, fat whoopsie and he could have me in a fight any day. It was pretty funny as I managed to get a shot of him just before a car came thundering down the road into the village and the noise of the engine made him run like a little girl. So I was, in actual fact harder than him... ha!... After walking for about an hour I arrived at a temple and it was pretty cool. I also spoke to a nun – she seemed mildly interested in my beard – briefly and really she just pointed at the temple close by and said “velly gu” which I presume meant that she liked it. She then returned her attention to a machine that you only really see in cartoons that had little figurines dancing around to some Chinese music; I guess, telling the story of Xuanzang's trip to India to bring back the sacred scrolls of Buddhism. But I'm not really sure and am just going off information on the signs in the area.

A short walk from this temple was the “trail head” to the Cien Pagoda. It was a short, pleasant walk up a hill through a spinney. The signpost made me laugh as local tourists are always wowed by the majesty of natural attractions and the Chinese descriptions on signs are always fun. I can't read Chinese but the English translation here said something along the lines of “If you look down upon the lake from the top of the pagoda down a straight line along “insert axis digits here” you can see the lake in its' true beauty and the shape of the lake juxtaposed against the view of the island looks like a dragon reaching for a pearl.”... I think this description is awesome and no way intend to take anything away from it but really it's just a nice view of a beautiful lake. The name of the lake is taken from it's shape as apparently it resembles a sun clashing with a moon. If I'm really honest, to me, the shape of the lake appears more akin to a paint splodge from one of those paintings that kids do in nursery when they don't really have the coordination to grip the paintbrush and just kinda dip it into the paint and splash it on the paper in front of them. I guess “Sun Moon Lake” just has a more appealing aura to tourists than “Shaped like a Paint-Splodge done by a Toddler Lake”... I favour the latter name but the Taiwan Tourism Bureau didn't share my enthusiasm when I petitioned them for a change of name. Apparently it turns out that a fat foreigner doesn't hold much weight in such situations and the reply I got came rather short of what I was expecting. “Piss Off” were their sentiments. They weren't really, the last part of this paragraph was just a big lie :D …

The pagoda was nice but I didn't climb to the top I just spoke to a family for a little while I caught my breath and took some photos. A visit to the Pagoda is requisite for all tourists to the lake and they love to climb to the top and ring the bell. I decided that seeing the pagoda was enough for me and in the mood I was in I didn't want to get arrested for twatting someone's head on the bell for ringing it too loud :)... So with my grump brought on from the heat and a lack of donuts in the vicinity of Sun Moon Lake I decided to head back down towards the temple and follow another trail of which the name escapes me. Perhaps it was the “Qinglong Trail” but I can't be sure because the tourist map has gone walkies. Anyway after walking here I realised that I could catch a boat back to the other side of the lake and go and have a rest. The trail was okay but was really more of a short walk. At the end was a horde of tourists that had immediate access to the surrounding area of the temple from the docks and so all the fatties that can't be arsed to walk, surround a famous cafe called “Grandma's Tea Eggs”... Or so I believe... To be honest by this point in the day I'd had enough of walking in the heat and so, made a bee-line for the docks. Upon buying my first boat ticket I was offered the chance to buy an all-inclusive ticket but instead decided to buy a single because it was a third of the price. This was later to prove to my chagrin as I couldn't buy a ticket anywhere as there wasn't an office. Eventually I looked lost enough for someone on a boat to ask me if I needed assistance. This girl supplied me with a ticket and took me to the dock that the boat would supposedly arrive at – I guess it did but it was probably very late. After waiting for about 40 minutes a lady approached me and asked me if she could help. Her English was pretty good and she was very friendly. After walking me around the docks for ten minutes talking to different “sailors” she said that she didn't think the boat was coming but that I could join her tour group on their boat back to Shueishe which is the town where my hotel was located. Turns out she was from Guangdong in mainland China along with the rest of the tour group and all the people were cool. A man told me that I was “Learry er... Coooer” meaning 'really cool' I think and they took photos of me for the trip back but I didn't mind because they had been kind to me. People from mainland China catch quite a bad rap from the northern Taiwanese and at least in this instance the bad press is completely unjustified as not once in a year of living in the north of Taiwan has a Taiwanese person offered such assistance to me being a foreign stranger a few friends and my bosses excepted. (disclaimer: got to suck up a little bit just in case anyone here reads this; if you do I'm not talking about you, you're really nice to me because we're definitely mates as you have access to the links on my facebook account and everything so I obviously think you're cool :D) Anyway, if I have avoided causing offence to any northern Taiwanese person here that pretty much sums up my three days in Sun Moon Lake. Another torrential rain shower aside and a rather snazzy restaurant with minimalist cuisine and a parrot that's not really worth talking about because he was weird and I had to beat him up. (Again, another lie, sorry :P)


The next day, and ultimately my final day before going back to work involved a trip to Mt. Hehuan heretofore referred to as Hehuanshan and the Chung Tai Chan monastery. It was a sad goodbye but I think Basil will get over losing me for the foreseeable future. My guides were some recently ex-postgraduate students from Taichung and were really friendly. They were keen photographers and had much bigger and better cameras than me. The beauty of the central mountain range in Taiwan was nice and I felt privileged to be able to see it. Initially approaching the top of the mountain it appeared that our views would be skewered and that we wouldn't be able to see anything. I was a bit disappointed but these things are part and parcel of travelling in the mountains... Fortunately there was a small piece of heaven to be seen from the other side of the mountain and the scene was truly stunning. You could see across to the north peak of Mt. Qilai and further on in the distance you could Mt. Nanhuda which is apparently the most beautiful mountain in Taiwan according to emails I get from a local hiking group, I can't really confirm or deny this but it did contribute to a stunning panorama of the central mountains.
After taking some nice pics on my massively inferior camera – at least in comparison to James and Grant my guides – we headed to the main peak so that I could have a touristy photo with a pole that suggests that I actually traversed the mountain. I didn't – I cheated. Luckily the highest mountain road in Taiwan passes by Hehuanshan and you only have to walk for about an hour up a sealed mountain road to get to the main peak. The scenes here would've been panoramic had it been earlier and not shrouded in mist. Nevertheless I got my touristy photo and we headed to the monastery in nearby Puli. On the way back to Puli we stopped off at 7-11 to get supplies and the altitude and relative remoteness of this 7-11 shows that even at an altitude of about 1,700m the Taiwanese will build a convenience store. In fact they had two in the village... and a Starbucks. Regardless of that rather uninteresting 'fact' we made it to the Chung Tai Chan Monastery before daylight ended . The views of the monastery were good and we even met a few nuns who were full of praise for my Chinese ability because I responded to their question in mandarin when they asked me where I was from. The rest of the conversation from there on was really between them and my guides and may have been loosely about me. The monastery was really cool but, to me, more resembles a mosque than a Buddhist temple. The central spire is supposed to be made of gold and the building itself has been designed by the same architect who designed Taipei 101. The cost of building the monastery was also supposed to have been in the region of around $110m US. Which I find astounding... 








Lee x