J OUR­NEYS: THE S P I R I T OF DIS­COV­ERY Faces of Tai­wan

Ju­dith Elen ven­tures be­yond Taipei to hot-springs re­sorts and beau­ti­ful Sun Moon Lake

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Front Page -

AI­WAN ap­pears to the rest of the world in two shapes. It is the small in­de­pen­dent is­land that stands, shoul­ders squared, head high, within a gi­ant’s stone throw of its gar­gan­tuan neigh­bour China, across the Tai­wan Strait. And it is a la­bel: the word that fol­lows made in’’ on a mul­ti­tude of man­u­fac­tured goods. But th­ese short­hand im­ages ig­nore the sur­prises of an is­land full of wild na­ture and out­go­ing, in­ven­tive peo­ple.

My in­tro­duc­tion to Tai­wan is an overnight stay at the hot-springs re­sort Da Ban Gan Ho­tel (The Great Roots Forestry Spa Re­sort), at Taoyuan, one of many hotsprings re­gions bub­bling away across the coun­try. Af­ter an early evening ar­rival in Taipei and about an hour’s drive from the air­port, my mid­night loll un­der a starfilled canopy of dark sky in the ho­tel’s open-air min­eral pools guar­an­tees an im­me­di­ate shift in per­spec­tive.

Set­ting out the fol­low­ing morn­ing, I meet Ivy Chen, who will guide our small group for the next few days. Chen has stud­ied lan­guage and art in Eng­land and the US and is a trans­la­tor with the gift of po­etry. She is one face of Tai­wan. Ar­chi­tect Lin Pin-Hui, cre­ator of the Zen-in­spired Shi-Yang Cul­tural Restau­rant in the forested moun­tains of Yang­ming­shan Na­tional Park north of Taipei, is an­other.

There are the shout­ing, smil­ing, sleep­ing mar­ket peo­ple, skilled chefs and in­spired in­no­va­tors such as Xie Li-Xiang, the so-called Tai­wanese Gaudi, who dreams up hal­lu­ci­na­tory de­signs for her string of Five Dime restau­rants across the coun­try.

An­other sur­prise hits us on the high-speed train we take from Taoyuan to Taichung, nearly half­way down the is­land but only a half-hour jour­ney. We be­gin to re­alise this is a place with vast stretches of wilder­ness. Moun­tain peaks, forests, hot springs and rugged na­tional parks ac­count for a large pro­por­tion of the coun­try; six ranges cover the length of the is­land, with more than 200 peaks above 3000m. There are bird species seen nowhere else and For­mosan black bears in­habit the Cen­tral Moun­tain Range.

We spend time in Taichung, lunch­ing at the star­tling Five Dime Restau­rant, a cross be­tween cave and cathe­dral. But one of Tai­wan’s nat­u­ral won­ders is our goal, Sun Moon Lake, a fur­ther 11/ hours’ drive. Buses run a cou­ple of times a day from Taichung to the lake, or more fre­quently to Puli, a town of artists and rice wine to the north, from where a reg­u­lar bus ser­vice goes to the

Hi-tech meets na­ture: Stand­ing at 509m with 101 floors, Taipei 101 is the world’s sec­ond tallest build­ing, left; Sun Moon Lake, Tai­wan’s largest wa­ter­way, right lake. Tai­wan Tour Bus also of­fers a 10-hour ex­cur­sion with a pick-up at Taichung rail­way sta­tion.

Slap bang in the cen­tre of Tai­wan, the fresh­wa­ter Sun Moon Lake is the coun­try’s largest wa­ter­way. It may have been an over­heated imagination that dis­cerned the shape of the sun and a wan­ing moon in its out­line but it is, nev­er­the­less, a place of shift­ing shapes and moods, cra­dled by moun­tain peaks, the chang­ing sea­sons and times of day and night work­ing their magic on the scene.

When we ar­rive in the evening, the lake, arced by wooded hill­sides, is wide, still, grey and rain-cur­tained. My ac­com­mo­da­tion at Ein­han Re­sort, near the south­east­ern shore, has a pic­ture-win­dow re­cess the width of the room fit­ted with a Ja­panese-style plat­form, cush­ions and a low ta­ble. From here I can look across a jum­ble of build­ings to the sub­lime lake.

We have a din­ner reser­va­tion at The Lalu. This re­sort, as beau­ti­ful as a film set, is a tem­ple to ori­en­tal luxe (and runs a guest shut­tle to and from Taichung). Pan­elled in warm wood, with court­yard gar­dens framed in wide arches, it is full of re­flec­tive wa­ter and fil­tered light. We lux­u­ri­ate with a ban­quet of Chi­nese dishes at the Lake View Restau­rant. Ex­ec­u­tive chef Ger­hard Ger­ber, in the kitchens of the Ori­en­tal Brasserie down­stairs, is also renowned for his high-end West­ern cui­sine and we’re sorry we don’t have an­other night to try it out.

Af­ter din­ner we stroll through the re­sort, pass­ing along a colon­naded walk­way bor­dered by a sheet of wa­ter that drops away to sky and lake. On an­other floor, an in­fin­ity-edge swim­ming pool has the same ef­fect, and ev­ery­where the vast, still lake fills our vi­sion.

I wake next morn­ing at the Ein­han to a hazy sky washed with the fain­test hints of rose on the hori­zon. In the early light the wa­ter is poised at its mo­ment of sil­very opaque­ness. On a far shore, the pen­cil-slen­der Tsen pagoda, built by Chi­ang Kai-shek to hon­our his mother, rises atop a densely wooded height. As I watch, the pointed yel­low prow of a nar­row boat edges into view from the shore­line and a fig­ure silently, me­thod­i­cally rows across to the jetty be­low the ho­tel.

Later in the day we ven­ture out aboard the Chia Ea Princess I, its cabin con­tain­ing four curved ban­quettes and pol­ished wooden tray-ta­bles. A row of nar­row, two­s­torey wooden houses on stilts edges the shore, owned by fish­ing fam­i­lies who come here to work in the sea­son. Row­boats can be hired at the wharf and I recog­nise the lit­tle yel­low boat I saw from my win­dow at first light.

We stop at Lalu Is­land, a place of an­ces­tral spir­its for the in­dige­nous peo­ple of the lake, where sculpted fish shapes stand on thin poles like wa­tery weather vanes. There are many things to see and do here, in­clud­ing nu­mer­ous wooded lake­side and moun­tain walks (one to the pagoda) and cy­cle trails wind­ing past green plan­ta­tions of As­sam black tea, a re­gional spe­cialty.

Frogs, birds, geese, ducks and other wa­ter­fowl are likely to cross your path.

And north of the lake two un­usual treats await. Wunwu Tem­ple, on the moun­tain slope above the lake, is an ex­plo­sion of red and gold, stat­ues and or­na­mented shrines. Re­ally two tem­ples com­bined, its or­nate, dragon-thronged roofs, lanterns and plaza guarded by two enor­mous scar­let stone lions of­fer much to look at, in­clud­ing a fab­u­lous view back to the lake.

A lit­tle far­ther north, and far deeper into the realms of strange­ness, is the For­mosan Abo­rig­i­nal Cul­ture Vil­lage where elab­o­rate ad­ven­ture rides — such as the Caribbean Splash and the UFO Gyro Drop, which looks like a Dr Seuss fan­tasy — are in­ter­spersed with a pine gar­den, cherry blos­som pond and the Euro­pean Palace Gar­den, just like a minia­ture Ver­sailles.

Far­ther up the moun­tain­side are re­con­structed vil­lages, the houses full of au­then­tic de­tail, and ex­hi­bi­tions evok­ing the past lives of the in­dige­nous tribes of the re­gion.

Be­neath a high wooden gate­way, we watch a flam­boy­ant per­for­mance that echoes the war­rior leaps and wild drum­ming of Na­tive Amer­i­cans. Else­where in the park, totem poles un­der­line the strange link.

De­spite its cu­riosi­ties, this place man­ages to side­step the trashi­ness that plagues many amuse­ment parks. Set on the for­est-clothed moun­tain­side, it blends nat­u­ral beauty with fas­ci­na­tion, fun and quirk­i­ness.

And there are the rides: most not rec­om­mended for chil­dren un­der 100cm, guests with a weak heart and ex­pec­tant moth­ers’’. But even for the faint of heart, the view from the high-wire gon­dola that as­cends to the far­thest reaches of the park is alone worth the visit. BACK in Taipei af­ter an­other high-speed rail trip from Taichung, the streets are a world apart from lake, forests and hot springs. Up to five mil­lion res­i­dents and com­muters pulse the day­time city. Driv­ing in the out­skirts, we pass jum­bles of un­kempt white apart­ment blocks. Streets of open-fronted stalls sell ba­nana-leaf parcels and fruit, butch­ers stand in the open chop­ping pork, mo­tor scoot­ers weave past in flocks and sud­denly, next to a grey, con­crete struc­ture sell­ing wa­ter­mel­ons, there is the elab­o­rate shock of a tem­ple, flash with gold ban­ners and flow­ers the colour of fresh blood.

We come to a colon­naded, red-brick plaza and hop out to ex­plore Gu­niaox­uan His­toric Build­ing, where women sit on low stools hold­ing um­brel­las against the sun. At the other ex­treme are the Ja­panese-style shop­ping streets of mas­ter tai­lors, book­shops and de­signer la­bels, wed­ding gowns and pho­tog­ra­phers. There’s the cold­brick Mu­seum of Con­tem­po­rary Art, slick ho­tels and com­mer­cial build­ings presided over by Taipei 101, once the world’s tallest build­ing, un­til Dubai reached fur­ther.

An un­miss­able Taipei at­trac­tion is the Na­tional Palace Mu­seum, which be­gan life in Bei­jing’s For­bid­den City in 1925. It holds the world’s finest col­lec­tion of Chi­nese arte­facts, from the ne­olithic age to the Ching dy­nasty, from jade and hand-painted pot­tery to cal­lig­ra­phy and price­less books. With war and in­ter­nal fight­ing in China, 600,000 ob­jects were shipped to safety in Tai­wan and have been housed at the mu­seum at Shih-lin in the north of the city since 1965, with more than 50,000 pieces added since. The Chi­ang Kai-shek Memo­rial Hall makes for an­other worth­while visit, sit­ting like a vast white, pagoda-topped Noah’s ark in its green park.

We stay at the serene Sher­wood Ho­tel, a mem­ber of The Lead­ing Ho­tels of the World group and a place of quiet charm and beau­ti­ful restau­rants.

Poles away is the throng and bus­tle of the Tem­ple Gate Night Mar­ket, a food ad­ven­turer’s heaven. We eat omelet with fresh oys­ters, crab with but­ter, tem­pura fish cake, eel soup and a cock­tail of shaved ice with fruit, red beans and taro balls. Then it’s back to the streets of Taipei, abuzz with ac­tiv­ity. Ju­dith Elen was a guest of Tai­wan Tourism Bureau.

Check­list

Da Ban Gan Ho­tel, phone +886 2 2674 9228. www.tai­wan.net.tw www.sun­moon­lake.gov.tw www.thelalu.com.tw www.ein­han­re­sort.com.tw www.sher­wood.com.tw

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