Sun Moon Lake

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April, 2015

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Sun Moon Lake is Taiwan’s largest freshwater and 762m above sea level. Its name comes from its shape: a sun and a moon and its deepest is 45m whilst near the shore it’s only 15 to 20m. An annual swim takes place from the boat jetty near our hotel,”Hotel del Lago”: across to Ita Thou a distance of 3.3km. 27,000 people took place in 2014 and it was said to have been won by a British swimmer.

There’s a number of temples around the lake reached either by boat or driving around the 35km lake shore. We chose the latter.

Wen-wu temple had two large red dragons on either side of the entrance and three temples, each behind one another. At the last temple we climbed right to the top floor for splendid roof top views and the lake. There were stone and jade large carvings on a wall and a fountain where, what looked like hot water was spouting from the mouths of nine dragons. Our guide told us it was actually cold water with a chemical being used to create the steam. To reach the temple from the lake you’d have to climb the ‘stairway to heaven’ 366 steps (one for each day of the week in a leap year) with each step having the name of a famous person inscribed on it. People had hung prayer bells on either side of the steps, which when they chime in the wind are said to create a romantic atmosphere: we found them rather irritating!

At Ita Thou town, the only other village on the lake, we found the Buddist Xuan Zang Temple with its carved stone map depicting the Buddah’s journey. It was a nun’s place of worship and we sat on benches overlooking the lake with soothing Buddhist chanting in the background, until a group of nuns started talking very loudly about how many of the nine frogs they could see (there are nine on the lake shore and the water level depends on how many you can see). In the temple we took off our shoes and walked up to the third floor to see the Buddha’s relics. Once up the cool, marble stairs, we weren’t sure what we should be looking it – it appeared to be some kind of relic in a small urn but it was very small and roped off with signs saying it was all security protected and to keep away!

Next we drove up to the Tsen pagoda built by Chiang Kai-shek in 1971 to commemorate his mother. The top of the pagoda is 1000m above sea level but as it was really hot, we decided not to climb the steps to the top.

The smaller Buddhist temple of Xuang Guang was our next stop and here the bell and drum was actually in the main hall rather than in buildings on either side. In the grounds people were lining up in an orderly fashion to have their photograph taken beside a stone rock on which was carved in Chinese, ‘Sun Moon Lake’.

The following day, we decided to take a leisurely boat trip across the lake using discounted tickets purchased from our hotel reception (NT$120 instead of NT$300). Our arms were stamped with a red Chinese ‘chop’ and we set off quickly after boarding. Being British, we sat in the sun at the back of the boat, whereas the Chinese tourists sat in the shade. Virtually all the other passengers were using the boat to reach the temples we’d seen the previous day, but we stayed on for the ride. Whilst it wasn’t the most exciting boat trip I’ve ever taken, it did allow us to get close to the very small island in the middle. It was originally named Pearl Island because it arose in the middle like a pearl but when the water levels increased because of hydroelectric construction in 1934, only the round top of the island remained. It changed its name twice, firstly to Guanghua (Glorious China) Island until its current and original name of La Lu island was restored.

Helen Jackson

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