Guest blogger Vicky Chao is on a Fulbright Fellowship as a public school English teacher in Kaohsiung City, Taiwan. She writes an entertaining blog, The Daily Chao, about her adventures in Taiwan, including her experiences of learning how to navigate Taiwanese bureaucracy. Here, she describes a recent trip to a famous lake in Taiwan that strongly discourages swimming.
Through the pedagogy of rote memorization, the magnificence of Sun Moon Lake has been ingrained in the consciousness of Chinese-speaking people. My local friends tell me that here in Taiwan, all schoolchildren memorize “Moonlight Reflecting on the Lake,” a poem written by Yunlin County Magistrate Chien Ming Shan in 1875. None of my friends can recall the words anymore, but the message remains. “Sun Moon Lake is a beautiful place,” they say, “you cannot miss it.”
Travel recommendations from Taiwanese friends must be taken with a grain of salt. Taiwanese people, it seems, love traveling in large packs and insist that every place is “famous” for something, even when that something is “the second largest Hello Kitty ferris wheel on the island.” Time and time again, I have been dragged off to some village to have their “special flavor” of mochi (a sweet dessert dumpling made of glutinous rice flour), only to discover the exact same “special flavor” of mochi in some other village on the other side of the island a month later. But my friends persisted, “Sun Moon Lake is a beautiful place. You cannot miss it.”
A few foreign friends and I arrived at Shuishe Wharf, the main town center on the lake, on a Friday afternoon without a clear plan of what to see or do in the day-and-a-half we planned for our visit. We were most excited about swimming in the crystalline water, but were quickly disappointed. Swimming is only permitted during the 3 km swim race held each fall and we would have to find something else to do.
Several tour guides followed us as we wandered through the half-kilometer street that comprised the “town”, bullying us into buying tickets for a yacht tour around the lake. The yachts stopped in three places — Shuishe Wharf, Szuangzang Temple, and Ita Thao Aboriginal Cultural Village — leaving us 30 minutes to wander around in each spot before herding us to the next destination.
As could be expected at any major tourist area, each stop was packed with people and we had no choice but to travel the Taiwanese way. At the temple, we bowed three times before a statue of Buddha and picked up free English books about meditation on the way out. At Ita Thao Village, we wandered the streets eating pork buns and drinking sweet millet wine while perusing mass-produced, aboriginal-themed souvenirs.
Though the Taiwanese style of tourism doesn’t appeal to most of the Westerners I’ve met, the yacht tour was worthwhile for the stellar views of the lake it provided. On the last leg of our boat tour, we secured seats at the prow of the boat. Bouncing gently on the waves, we watched the sun set over the water and for that moment, the day’s long lines and the rules against swimming didn’t seem so bad.
On day two, we rented scooters and zipped around the mountainous roads that circumscribed the lake, hoping that no one would find out we lacked the proper licenses to drive them. Even on scooters, however, the presence of heavy tourism continued to weigh on our journey. We had to stop several times to let humongous tour busses pass us on the narrow, winding roads. At Cihen Pagoda, built by former President Chiang Kai-Shek in memory of his mother, we raced up and down the tower stairs with our hands clamped firmly over our ears to protect them from the gong being banged by overly-eager visitors who made it to the top.
But every struggle had its purpose. From the top of Cihen Pagoda, 1000 meters above sea level with the gong pounding against our eardrums, we could see across the entire lake, and from this vantage point, my friend noticed some small shapes moving in the water. “I think those are kayaks!” he said excitedly. “If we go kayaking, maybe we can accidentally ‘fall in!’”
And so we went down to the secluded campground where the owners rented kayaks by the half-day. “You can also go swimming here,” they said, “just don’t go too far out into the lake where people can see you.” We splashed around in the water all afternoon, and then paddled out to the middle of the lake as the sun began to set.
As its orange rays stretched across the sky, we knew that our Taiwanese friends were right. True to the promise of the poem it inspired, Taiwan’s largest lake is in fact breathtakingly beautiful. Even the throngs of weekend tourists could not take away from the perfect contrast between the emerald mountains, turquoise water, and sparkling sunset across the waves.