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
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.
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