Discovering Taiwan’s Natural Treasures

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Taiwan’s Natural Treasures Beyond the Cityscape: Sun Moon Lake and Alishan

By Teh Chin Liang
Senior Writer

Chiayi morning market is a vibrant and bustling place where visitors can see the local everyday life unfold
Chiayi morning market is a vibrant and bustling place where visitors can see the local everyday life unfold.

A hand-painted sign on the door of the restaurant was eye-catching. It read, “STINKY TOFU IS NOT ALLOWED INSIDE THE PREMISES.” I immediately broke into a smile.

The sign was quintessentially Taiwanese, with its bold Chinese characters and its warning against those who might bring an unwelcome aroma into the restaurant.

The savory scent of braised pork wafted from the kitchen, awakening my senses. The lilting chatter of Taiwanese was a welcome reminder that I was on a week’s trip on the island of Formosa.

I flew to Kaohsiung, the second-largest city in the south of Taiwan. I strolled along the Love River, visited Cijin Island, and soaked up the Buddhism vibe at Fo Guang Shan.

Sun Moon Lake

With still a couple days left on my trip, I wanted to explore beyond the city. I hopped on one of the frequent trains to Taichung, a vibrant city in central Taiwan that is also a gateway to the famous Sun Moon River.

Multiple buses travel to Sun Moon Lake daily from Taichung. I was recommended to take the early morning bus to have a full day exploring the lake.

The bus terminated at Shuishe Wharf. Well-displayed signage guided me to board a boat to various wharves around the lake.

I took a boat to Xuanguang wharf. As the boat engine roared to life, the captain started his introduction of the lake.

Boat ride

“Have you ever wondered why it is called Sun Moon Lake? Look to your left, the lake extends into the shape of a sun, and a crescent moon to the right. The lake is named after these two distinct shapes.”

Tribal Tunes Welcome

As the boat approached the wharf, faint melodies of music filled the air. The rhythm of the music pulsated in harmony with the gentle breeze, fading in and out like ghostly whispers in the wind.

A group of singers in traditional ethnic dress belted out tribal songs, their voices booming over the pier with lyrics dripping nostalgia.

Passengers board one of the Sun Moon Lake cruise boats
Passengers board one of the Sun Moon Lake cruise boats

The boat captain recommended us buying herbal eggs from the wharf, a business started by an old woman who sold the eggs out of a basket. Her family now carries on the tradition of selling these eggs to visitors.

Panoramic Lake View from Xuan Zang Temple

I ascended a paved trail through a thicket of betel nut palm trees. The intricate Xuan Zang Temple came into view, offering a panorama of Sun Moon Lake.

I leaned over the railing and peered through bamboo trees at the deep blue lake sparkling in the sunlight.

Sun Moon Lake, Taiwan’s largest lake, is home to the Thao tribe. The mountains surrounding the lake are dotted with temples, including the exquisite Ci’en Pagoda, which was commissioned by the late President Chiang Kai-shek as a tribute to his mother.

Alishan's picturesque scenery is truly awe-inspiring
Alishan’s picturesque scenery is truly awe-inspiring

Exhilarating Cable Car Ride

After a short cruise from Xuanguang Wharf, I arrived at Ita Thao village. Several cable cars, their windows glinting in the sun, glided through the clear blue sky.

I boarded one to the Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village. The adrenaline-pumping ride reached its climax with a 45-degree descent to the village.

Formosa Aboriginal Cultural Village boasts several attractions, including the Formosan Aboriginal Museum, Aboriginal Villages, scenic lookout points, an amusement park, and a palace garden.

The admission ticket costs 900 TWD (about $30 USD), a little pricey but it’s worth it for the experience of learning about the ingenious culture of the indigenous people and culture while enjoying a couple of amusement rides.

Inside the train

Be sure to try the delicious street food at Ita Thao. I loved the Tofu Burger (marinated tofu stuffed with pickled mustard greens, cilantro, and peanut powder).

The juicy explosion of flavors is best paired with a refreshing iced tea.

Boat captain with a Goofy Sense of Humor

The boat ride is not only a great way to enjoy the breathtaking lake views, but also entertaining thanks to the boat captain’s goofy sense of humor.

Over the intercom, the captain challenged us with a trivia quiz, promising a prize for each correct answer.

“Who built the Ci’en Tower?” The captain asked.

“President Chiang Kai-shek!” Everyone shouted in unison. Easy answer!

“I’m sorry, the answer is wrong!” He announced.

“Huh!!?” We looked at each other, baffled.

“It was built by his construction workers! How on earth a president could build a pagoda that size by himself!”

A chorus of laughter followed.

Towering pine trees dominate the forest of Alishan
Towering pine trees dominate the forest of Alishan

“Next question. Did you all know why the lake water is not drinkable when it is boiled?”

“Because the water is …. contaminated?” Someone blurted out a guess.

Several hands pulled out of the water immediately.

“Wrong answer, again!” the captain exclaimed. “My friends, how can you drink the water when it’s boiling hot!?”

Flummoxed, everyone laughed again.

As the boat docked, he reminded us to watch our steps.

“Step on any colors you want, except green!’ (Referring to the color of the lake water).

Alishan: A Scenic Mountain Range for Nature Lovers

I continued my journey south to Chiayi, the gateway to Alishan, a mountainous region in central Taiwan that is one of the country’s top tourist destinations.

There are two ways to get to Alishan from Chiayi: The Alishan Forest Railway or a tourist shuttle bus. The train is a scenic ride, but the bus is faster. If you’re short on time, take the bus option.

Prone to car sickness? You might want to give the bus a second thought. There is a 45-minute stretch of the hilly drive where the bus goes around the sharpest bends, potentially causing some people to reach for a sick bag.

Ancestral Home of the Tsou People

Alishan is the ancestral home of the Tsou people, one of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. The Tsou is known for their profound spiritual bond with the natural world.

The early morning in Alishan is often misty and chilly. Be sure to pack in extra layers. The temperature rises as the sun comes up.

Most people visit Alishan for a day, but those who want to see the stunning cloud inversion phenomenon in the early morning should stay overnight in Zhushan.

The best time to visit is between March and May, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.

Love River runs through the heart of Kaohsiung city
Love River runs through the heart of Kaohsiung city

Trails of varying difficulty wind through the recreation area, from hilly paths to well-constructed staircases and paved paths. I started my walk from Zhaoping Station, where the Cherry Blossom Trail begins

I strolled along the treetop canopy walkway, towering over the tall pine trees. The greenery and tranquility were a treat to the eyes, even though the cherry blossoms were Out Of Season.

Taking a Natural Green Shower

I continued on until I reached the entrance of a forest of tall pine trees. The entrance was shrouded in fog, like a portal to another realm.

People gather at a lookout point in Cijin to catch the magnificent sunset
People gather at a lookout point in Cijin to catch the magnificent sunset

A small sign next to the entrance read “Green Shower.” I was about to step into a big bathtub of nature filled with phytoncides, tree chemicals that have been shown to have many health benefits, including boosting the immune system, reducing stress, and improving sleep.

The air became crispier as I entered the forest. The tree canopy was densely foliated that only a thin ray of sunlight could penetrate. The forest was eerily silent, but I was unfazed. I closed my eyes and inhaled the fresh, invigorating air in slow, deep breaths, over and over.

The Tragic Tale of Sisters Ponds

I emerged from the forest to the Sisters Ponds, a tragic place where two sisters from the Tsou tribe committed suicide after falling in love with the same man. Rumor has it that the ponds are haunted by the sisters to this day, but I saw no apparitions of them. Instead, I felt the morning dew brush against my shoulder, as it dripped from the trees, like tears shed for the sisters.

The fragrant floral scent led me to the Magnolia Garden, a haven of serenity where the only sound that disrupted the tranquility was the hum of insects. Shouzhen Temple was a ten-minute stroll away, its elaborately carved pagoda standing out against the lush landscape.

Experience the awe-inspiring view of Sun Moon Lake from the cable car
Experience the awe-inspiring view of Sun Moon Lake from the cable car

Colossal Red Cypress Tree and Three Generations Trees

At the Sacred Tree station, I stood in awe before a colossal red cypress tree, its trunk so wide that it takes 16 adults to reach around. The tree is estimated to be over 3,000 years old and stands 165 feet tall.

Not far from the Sacred Tree, a twisted stack of tree trunks rests upon each other. This natural artwork, known as the Three Generations Trees, is one of the coolest sights to see in Alishan. They symbolize the continuous life of Alishan. The first two generations may have died, but their remains provide a sturdy foundation for the third tree to thrive.

The iconic red train runs all the way from Chiayi into the heart of the Alishan forest
The iconic red train runs all the way from Chiayi into the heart of the Alishan forest

Fairy-Tale-Like Train Ride

The Sacred Tree station is also one of the jungle train stops. I boarded the iconic red train from the station, which took me on a 10-minute ride out of the recreation area. I felt like a kid again as I watched the train take off, my head slightly out the window.

The train chugged through the forest, letting out a sharp whistle and unveiling a new scenic spectacle at every turn. The passing vistas resembled a cherished collection of postcards that I would send to no place other than the depths of my heart.

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5 thoughts on “Discovering Taiwan’s Natural Treasures

  1. Going through this blog is a visual and informative delight. The Tragic Tale of Sisters Ponds has
    touched me deeply. I would like to visit the site to pay homage to the two sisters.

  2. Very well written article. Teh makes me want to put on my travel shoes again. I got to “meet” the writer online during a recent trip to Malaysia and his passion for travelling definitely shines through. X

  3. what a beautifully written piece on highlights of Taiwan that aren’t the clichéd ones. This made me want to visit these places , lovely to read something that wasn’t promoting a tour or commercial activity

  4. Taiwan is one of my favourite places but I really only know Taipei and its surroundings. The Chin Liang’s article made me want to explore much more of this beautiful island. He has a great gift for describing intersting places he has visited and awaking wanderlust.

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