Taipei to Taichung
There are multiple ways to reach Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County. Many popular tour companies offer day trips from Taipei. Alternatively, you can take a local shuttle bus or just hire a cab. We took the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) from Taipei to Taichung. It’s faster and roughly double the price of a Taiwan Railways Administration (TRA) train. Tickets can be booked from Taipei Main Station or THSR website. Taipei Main Station can be pretty confusing and it’s best to figure the platforms for the THSR prior to your travel date.
Things were going smoothly, in Taipei, until the horrific crash of a TRA train a day before our trip to Taichung. Local TVs were abuzz with gut-wrenching visuals of the crash. I didn’t think too much about it because I didn’t understand what was going on. My worried Taiwanese friend (in Seoul) messaged to check if were safe and the pictures made sense. Thankfully, the news didn’t reach back home and I seemed to be the only one to dread that train ride.
Taichung to Sun Moon Lake
We reached Taichung in under an hour. Our journey was uneventful, the view outside was scenic, and the ride was very comfortable. We followed the directions to exit 5. There’s a small counter set up by the local tourism department at the exit. We hadn’t booked tickets online (here or here) and bought a combo package to explore Sun Moon Lake. Nantou Buses are generally packed and we struggled to squeeze our backpack in the cramped bus. Our hotel was next to Shuishe Pier and we got off at Shuishe Visitor Centre. It’s best to plan your hotel booking keeping the route map in mind. Figuring out the route can be a challenge if you’re using public transport.
Around Sun Moon Lake
Our combo day ticket tour (bus ride to SML+Boat Ride+Ropeway+bus ride around SML) had many exciting options to explore (walking map). We reached our hotel before 11 a.m. and it was too early for check-in. We left our bags at the foyer and walked towards Shuishe Pier.
Sun Moon Lake is the largest lake in Taiwan and probably its top tourist draw. Cascading mountains form the backdrop to a crystal clear lake and make it a sought-after destination. Many online reviews say its touristy, but we were prepared to find quiet nooks to take in the majestic beauty of the lake. On a Monday morning, there were hardly any tourists and the pier was practically deserted. Even if the skies were overcast, the scenery made quite an impression on us.
Shuttle Boat Trip
The shuttle boat cuts right across the lake and is the fastest way to explore its top sights. There are two main stops and passengers can take multiple boats (at regular intervals) to get back to the main pier from there. Once the ticket is collected, they stamp your hand (to ensure you board the correct boat) and you’re all set. The tour guide caters to a Chinese speaking audience only. Most of them seemed to have a good sense of humour and the audience was either in splits or in awe. We were the only ones who didn’t understand anything and chose to take in the views instead.
Gate 2: Xuanguang Temple Pier
We made it to the end of the performance by a local band. The sun was out now and we got a taste of the October heat. I sat for a while and watched Basil clean his lens. It looked like a delicate operation. Boat rides are always tricky for the camera.
The tiredness of travel was slowly creeping in. I forced myself to trudge along and climb the steps to the top. Thankfully, it wasn’t a steep climb and most of the trail was in the shade. The vantage point offers a bird’s-eye view of the lake, Shuishe Dam, Lalu Island, and Maolan Mountain.
Xuanguang Temple is understated and quite ordinary in appearance. The temple gets its name from the Buddhist monk, Xuanguang, who spent 10 years in India to learn ancient Buddhist scriptures. The relics of the monk are enshrined in the temple.
We found a pathway that opened into a hiking trail. Basil would have liked to explore this trail, but we skipped it because we didn’t have time. Xuanzang Temple lies at the end of this trail.
Back to the Pier
Honestly, it was hard to identify our boat. So we just showed our hand stamp and the tour guide pointed to one of the boats. Boats wait for passengers to fill completely and the wait can feel like eternity in the heat.
Gate 3: Ita Thao Pier
Ita Thao Pier is famous for the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway and Ita Thao Cultural Village. There’s a visitor centre and a medical emergency centre at the pier. Both were closed on a Monday afternoon. We walked around and tried to search for a place to eat. The streets were lined with vendors serving local delicacies — probably native to the indigenous tribe (Ita Thao). Basil was more adventurous and tried a meat sandwich. I was tempted to try fish and got cold feet at the last minute.
I was hungry, tired, and the sun didn’t help. But we continued to follow the boards — leading to the ropeway. At the main intersection, we got confused, and took a detour. We found the entrance to the Ita Thao Village, a deserted road with few barking strays, and no sign of human life. After a few exasperating moments, we asked a tourist for directions, and he brought us back to the place where we had taken the wrong turn.
Pathway to the Lake
We smiled when we saw this pathway. There were few tourists here and some couples cycling down this path. Cycling (next post) around Sun Moon Lake tops the list of activities.
The Long Boardwalk
The pathway opens into a boardwalk that forks in multiple directions. You can continue walking or cycling around the lake. We had to reach the ropeway before it closed and hurried down.
Activities at the Pier
There are a couple of hotels around this section of the lake. It’s basic lodging, but it might be nice to stay when the weather is cooler.
Sun Moon Lake Ropeway Station
Clouds dominated the sky and changed the water colour below. The ropeway station has a cafeteria with interesting eating options. It was nearing 2 p.m. and only burgers were available. After a quick meal, we tried to search for the entrance to the boarding area. It’s a roundabout route that finally leads to the cable cars.
View from the Top
I’ve never been a fan of heights. It’s been a real challenge to control my fear. But more recently, I’ve done exceptionally well on our other trips. I was feeling pretty confident before boarding our cable car. I had a change of heart as soon as I saw those plunging valleys and dense forests. I’ve never seen such thick vegetation before and it was fascinating and terrifying. The forest seemed impenetrable from above. We’ve been lost in a dense forest (in Mongolia) before and my brain kept taking me back to that horrid experience. It was a very long ride to the other side.
The views were truly spectacular and diverted my mind from irrational thoughts. We saw stunning reed wetlands (I don’t know what they’re called by locals) and were blown away. Pictures don’t do justice to its beauty.
Approaching Formosa Cultural Village
After some tense moments, we reached the other side. There’s a theme village/amusement park here. It requires another ticket, but we wouldn’t make it in time for the last ride back. We were interested in learning about the indigenous tribes of the island, but it wasn’t clear how authentic the experience would be.
Back to Shuishe Pier
The ropeway wasn’t too bad on the way back. We retraced our steps back to the Ita Thao Pier and waited for a long time for our boat. Boats go directly to Shuishe Pier and we reached in less than 30 minutes. We rested in our room for about an hour before claiming the last coupon on our combo ticket.
Around Sun Moon Lake by Nantou Tourist Bus
A long line had formed at Shuishe Visitor Information Centre. It was hard to distinguish between the buses that go around the lake from the ones that go to other cities. A tourism officer pointed to the correct bus. A girl came up to me and said that we should go to the end of the line. Fortunately, the tourism officer corrected her, and we could board the bus. I’ve never understood why travel brings out the worst in people. Shouldn’t a new experience make you kinder and more understanding of another traveller’s woes? After all, haven’t you left the daily grind behind and set out to experience the bucolic life of the countryside? The bus whizzed past some beautiful spots around the lake. You need to know your map well or it’s blink and miss.
Wenwu temple is simply stunning and we were lucky to come just before sunset.
Inside the Temple
During Japanese rule, two smaller temples (at different locations) had to be removed because of the rising water level — caused by a Japanese hydroelectric power plant. The new, bigger Wenwu Temple was built to commemorate the two smaller temples.
The forehall is dedicated to the God of Literature, the second hall is dedicated to the God of War, and the rear hall is dedicated to Confucius.
Wenwu Temple is a designated scenic spot. The views from the top just keep getting better.
We climbed the circuitous steps leading to a vantage point at the back. Sunset is one of those rare moments when you can stop thinking, drown out the noise, and start feeling.
Basil discovered this gem on his own. I had wandered away before heading back to the entrance.
We decided to go on a bus ride after Wenwu Temple. Turns out there isn’t much to see when it’s dark and the driver was surprised that we didn’t halt anywhere. We struggled to communicate with hand signs and he finally understood that we wanted to take the same bus (also the last bus) back to Shuishe Visitor Centre. Transport is scarce after sunset and walking isn’t a wise option. We waited for 20 minutes for his break and I was happy when the bus finally reached familiar territory.