erik lundegaard


Wednesday May 17, 2023

The Right Side of Sun Moon Lake

Sun Moon Lake: beautiful scenery, a scratched-out name.

When we first arrived at Ita Thao, the indigenuous village on the wrong side of Sun Moon Lake in central Taiwan, it seemed like a good place to decompress. In most places when you're on vacation, it doesn't feel like much of a vacation because you're almost breathless with a fear of missing out. You have to go here and there, and here, and quickly, because you only have so much time and when will you ever be back? Ever? Get going! You don't want to miss it! But there's not much to miss in Ita Thao. It's a little sleepy. Or at least it was on the Friday afternoon in mid-May that we arrived. It's less “What do we do next?” than “What is there to do?” Visit this temple, go on that tram, take that boatride, mai dongxi. But that feeling is kind of nice. It almost felt like a gift.

Our main activity, on our first afternoon, was turning down the countless offers of xiami jiu, alcohol fermented from millet, being proferred in little plastic cups by little old ladies from every other storefront along the main walkway. Learning what it was, I expected something like sake but it tasted very sweet. “Hen tien,” I said, to which the woman responded that yes, it was for dessert. (“Tien dien.”) Or maybe she said it was a dessert drink. Either way, she thought this a positive while I did not, though I tried to hide that thought. But it turns out xiami jiu is infused with other flavors so it can be all kinds of things. I tried some of those the next day and liked them more. They weren't bad for millet.

Since Sun Moon Lake is such a tourist destination for the Taiwanese, I expected easier access but it's a bit of a trek to get there. Well, a “trek” if you're a direct-flight guy like I am. (Yes, I'm spoiled.) It's basically Taipei —> Taichung by train (1 hour), and from the Taichung train station you pick up the bus to Sun Moon Lake (2 hours). “That was easier than I thought,” Patricia said as we bumped along in the front of the bus. “We're not there yet,” I said. And we weren't. The bus stopped at just one town around Sun Moon Lake—on the exact opposite side from where we needed to be. There was some confusion, too, about how to get us to our side, but in the end it was just a local bus. And that's how we wound up desposited near a construction site in the middle of nowhere. If it had been a movie comedy, somewhere you would've heard a cow lowing.

Since we knew our hotel room had a lake view, we started walking toward the lake. To be honest, our Apple maps told us that, but we would've figured it out eventually. 

“A lake view doesn't mean it's on the lake,” Patricia warned me as we walked. 

“I know,” I said.

Every hotel lodging is like a blind date. The photos look OK but then you get there and you're like “Yeah, not quite.” So Patricia was a little worried as we walked up the road and nothing looked particularly great. I think she was less worried for her than me. She's game, while I'm the worst person to travel with. I hate studying up on places, I hate having to choose this or that hotel from this or that bunch of photos four months in advance; but then when we get there I complain. I'm the person who didn't vote in the 2016 election bitching about Trump. (Note: I definitely voted in the 2016 election.)

Worse, we were coming from the Grand Hotel, and what doesn't pale in comparison? In the end, and this is kind of awful to admit, we were staying in one of the nicest rooms in Ita Thao and it was just kinda OK for me. It was quirky: long and narrow, with a papier-mache deer head mounted on the wall, a top floor balcony, and a round bed like in a romance movie. The bathtub and toilet/sink were separated by a sheet of glass, but so was the entire bathroom. The wall between the toilet and bed, in other words, was made of glass, in case your big deal was watching your loved one take a dump. But it was a desired room. The hotel had a sandwich board out front, with shots of the rooms, and ours was the big picture on top, drawing admiring looks and comments from passersby. One little girl pointed at it and said, “Hao piaoliang!” So pretty! “Yi dien dien,” I said. A little. (Yes, I'm fucking spoiled.)

Oddly, there's no swimming at Sun Moon Lake. Well, once a year, in September I think. A race. Otherwise, no. The official explantions include all the boats on the lake, the fact that the water is very silty, and that it's used for drinking. (Which doesn't explain all the boats.) On our one full day there, we took one of those boats to the other side—the place where the Taichung bus had deposited us. At first, that spot didn't seem like much, either. More shops bursting with stuff no one needs. More gray, soggy concrete. But as we walked around we saw signs for the Plum Lotus Garden, which sounded nice; then we saw a sign for Church of Christ and went there. And in this manner we kept walking part of the lake. Here another pagoda, there another huge metal book with Chinese characters chiseled in.

Back in the day, we found out, this place, this side, was the retreat for Chiang Kai-shek when he needed to rest up from the burdens of authoritarian office. That's why the Church of Christ: It was built in 1971 so he and Madame Chiang would have a place of worship in their mostly Buddhist/Taoist country. When I first came to Taiwan 35 years ago, his son, Chiang Ching-kuo, was still in power, and Chiang himself was still revered 12 years after his death, but some of the shine was beginning to come off. In the intervening years it came off. And his name began to come off of everything, including the international airport where we landed, now called Taoyuan, while his statues—which were everywhere in the late 1980s—began to come down. Not torn down, like Saddam's in Iraq or Mussolini's in Italy. Just removed. Many, I read, weren't destroyed but simply placed in a garden in Daxi, where he and his son have mausoleums, and now that garden itself is a tourist attraction with more than 200 Chiang statues standing and preening mostly for the other statues of Chiang. In some ways, it's a better fate for a dictator than mere destruction. Your pretensions wind up comic. It's like “Ozymandius” reimagined by Harold Ramis.

At the church, as diplomatically as possible, I asked our guide what the Taiwanese people thought of Chiang now, and, as diplomatically as possible, she answered. She said that before people thought of him as a god, and now they think of him as a human being. I liked that answer. It's full of the foibles of all of us. But it's not quite the answer. Seeing him as a human being would mean being able to forgive his faults as we forgive our own; but then Chiang's faults were many and long-lasting and painful for others, and so there's still anger about it all, particularly from native Taiwanese. On several of the metal plaques around the lake, for example, his name, and only his name, has been scratched off.  

The second (and last) stop on the boat trip was at an old Falun Dafu/Falun Gong temple, which made a lot of sense when a lot of Mainland Chinese tourists were coming to Sun Moon Lake. They could be informed about what the CCP was doing to the movement. But few Mainland Chinese were coming now. Apparently there are restrictions. It's not encouraged. “Hen xiaode,” shopkeepers says when I ask about Mainland Chinese tourists. “Meiyo le.”  

There are a lot fewer western tourists than I anticipated, too, so we stood out. We were the only westerners, for example, in both restaurants we ate at in Ita Thao. Nothing high-end, just family-run places (one Chinese, one Thao), with a mounted TV going, white fourmica tables, tissues for napkins, and good food and cold beer. Our last night there, out on the dock, a young girl played piano and sang, while scores of Chinese kids kept tossing lighted thingamajigs into the dark sky. I guess it was a toy sold at the nearby shops. You could rubber-band it or just toss it. I don't know if there was a goal involved—there seemed none—just to try and toss it as high as you could without it falling into the lake. I didn't see any fall into the lake, I just watched those lighted thingamajigs going up and down, up and down, to squeals of laughter. The air was soft, and there was an occassional drop of rain, and I felt peaceful. It was a nice moment at the tail-end of a worldwide pandemic that kept us apart for years. It was nice to be back together again.

Posted at 01:39 AM on Wednesday May 17, 2023 in category Travels