“Taiwan? Why would you go to Taiwan for Christmas? There aren’t many Christians there, you know. I don’t think they even celebrate Christmas as a holiday!”
With our flight to Taiwan departing at 7:30 am, Frank and I somnambulated into a taxi to Manila’s Ninoy Acquino International Airport at four o’clock in the morning. We had twelve days of fun and relaxation ahead, yet I had spent the previous three days dreading this taxi ride. Even at this early hour it was a real possibility that we’d get stuck in Manila’s infamous traffic and miss the flight. Normally, I hate early flights requiring middle-of-the-night mobilization, but in this case it offered some degree of solace: any other time of day we would have been guaranteed to be stuck in traffic for hours. This morning, though, I was stunned to find we could make it from our Quezon City apartment to the airport in thirty minutes – a full four hours less than it took when we arrived in Manila last June.
All day, things went like clockwork, albeit overly complicated clockwork. We arrived at Taipei’s major airport, Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport, two hours later, right on time. Taoyuan airport is about an hour to the west of central Taipei, but our plan was to put off visiting Taipei for last. Instead, we headed south to start a week-long lap of the entire island.
The island of Taiwan stays about 180 kilometers (110 miles) off the coast of mainland China. For those of you more familiar with Tasmania than Taiwan, it is about half the size, shaped as if you took Tassy and chopped it down the middle, top-to-bottom. With a population of over 23 million, Taiwan has about forty-six times the population of Tasmania and more people than all of Australia. Most of them live on the coastal plain of Taiwan’s west coast, facing China. There are a couple of smaller cities on the island’s rugged east coast, where untamed mountains plunge into the wild Pacific.
The airport spit us out lickety-split. Although it was a drizzly morning, I reveled in the relatively fresh, low humidity, clean air of Taiwan’s winter. A shuttle bus whisked us to the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) station. There, an English-speaking ticketing machine put us aboard a train for Taichung, another thirty minutes to the south.
The THSR is older than most high-speed trains, so it isn’t as fast as some of the newer ones, chugging along at a mere 200 kph (120mph). That’s fine by me. While I love trains, I think that anybody who wants to go faster than 200 kph should find their way aloft. The THSR is starting to show its age, but it remains a model of efficiency. That’s a good thing since trains are trapped on rails, with trains behind schedule prone to being smashed into by punctual ones.
As our train hurtled south, a succession of cities flashed past, modern in every respect. There were areas of single family houses, but mid-rise apartment buildings far outnumbered them. Sprawling aluminum industrial warehouses dominated the landscape, cranking out high quality products of dubious cultural value, creating affluence and effluence.
We had considered staying our first night in Taichung, but an extensive search revealed the city’s most compelling attraction was that week’s annual conference of the Southeast Asia Polymer Manufacturers Congress. The elevated station platform at Taichung provided a reasonable vantage point from which we surveyed the city first hand. We congratulated ourselves for planning to press on for Sun Moon Lake.
We queued up for the hourly tourist bus, which was to take us ninety minutes inland. When it arrived (right on schedule) there were twenty or thirty in the queue that snaked behind us. We lucked out, nabbing the last two seats. We were the only whiteys on board – a circumstance to which I have grown accustom — and certainly the only passengers dressed in suit jackets. We looked and felt out of place, and we were. Perfect.
Despite having to sit with our baggage on our laps in the packed bus, it was a comfortable ride. The bus moaned and groaned its way through the foothills and then up into the mountains, the scenery growing more beautiful with each mile. Elevated highways soared over deep canyons of lush forest; lengthy tunnels drilled under solid mountains, signs of a respectful, industrious and grimly determined culture.
With perfect connections for every leg, we arrived at Sun Moon Lake a few hours earlier than expected, with several hours of sunshine to spare. I had low expectations of Sun Moon Lake. I mean, really – “Sun Moon Lake”? Such a name does not promise a bastion of creativity. To the contrary, I expected high kitsch — a run down, anachronistic honeymooner’s paradise left over from the days when honeymooners honeymooned.
At first, alighting the bus, it seemed I might be right: a honky-tonk tourist town presented itself. But two hundred meters down the main street we found our lake front hotel, complete with breathtaking views across the lake. The sun emerged, brightening the cloud-shrouded mountaintops, spotlighting the exotic temples and majestic monuments dotting the shores and the hills in every direction. Wow.
The Harbor Resort Hotel front desk staff spoke no English, a surprise and something of a novelty these days. They did manage to make it clear that we must wait until three-o’clock for check-in, not a minute sooner, whether a suitable room was ready or not. It being 2:15 pm, either they hadn’t quite latched on to the “customer service” concept, or they had a bully executive housekeeper terrorizing them.
Leaving our bags, we sat down for a late lunch at the adjacent Moon Café. We found a half dozen other grumbling hotel guests dawdling, waiting for their rooms, too. No English spoken there, either. Huh. Taiwan was showing more promise as an “undiscovered” tourist destination than I had expected. Our waiter initiated an impromptu game of charades (“Oink, oink”, “Cock-a-doodle-doooo!”, “Mooooo!”) which eventually yielded an unremarkable meal.
The beer was cold, though, and the view stunning.
The weather – oh, the weather! After six months in the heat and humidity of the Philippines, I cannot overstate how happy I was to be so, so comfortable outside. Even better, it was clean – not just the restaurant, but the streets, and the air! The people were well-dressed and healthy, sophisticated and cosmopolitan. It was – dare I say it – civilized!
Once into our room, all was forgiven of the front desk staff. We were on the top floor – Frank always requests a high floor – and we had a balcony overlooking the lake. (I always request a balcony, a hangover from my smoking days.) Out of our traveling clothes and into shorts, we headed out to cruise the lake.
The hotel sat on one of Sun Moon Lake’s three major wharfs. Two of them (including ours) are at small but high-rise tourist villages, with the third near the famous Xuanzang temple perched on a hillside. We have little time for shrines, and less time for high-rise tourist villages, so we stayed aboard as the tour boat triangulated around the lake, the low, winter sun providing wonderful light, changing with each minute. I remembered what it is to be relaxed.
Frank noticed that everybody boarding the cruise boat was wearing heavy, down winter jackets — except us, of course. It dawned on us that Taiwan is usually a hot, tropical place, but we were here in the dead of winter, indeed, on the very day of the winter solstice, the shortest day of the year. It could be that in the summer, at peak season, Sun Moon Lake is everything I feared it might be, with mobs of tourists, roaring jet skis, drunken fishermen, and overpriced everything. Today, it was heaven.
After the cruise we took a short hike on the Hanbi Trail which rounds a peninsula near our hotel. The trail had much in the way of interpretive signs, for example, the one explaining that Sun Moon Lake was so named because, from above, the lake is shaped like nine dragons sitting around a table. Um. One is reminded that Taiwan was “opened” as a consequence of the opium wars.
Dinner introduced us to the Taiwanese paradigm of Formica tables under fluorescent lighting. The food was really good, though, and dirt cheap. The English version of the menu identified the fresh local meats we ordered as venison and wild boar. There also was an un-identified local vegetable resembling parsley with tiny plums attached, tasting rather licorice-like. Yum.
The restuaranteurs marveled at our capacity for beer. This is not a drinking culture, I determined.
It had been a long day for us old farts, not that there was anywhere to go out dancing after dinner. The omnipresent 7-Eleven was the center of youthful activity, where we did our part by buying some bottled water.
A hundred meters later we were back in the hotel room, watching CNN, which was dusty, if a TV station can get dusty. “Typhoon Nina Bears Down on the Philippines” the ticker script read. Frank and I exchanged befuddled glances.
“Did you close the windows?”