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An oasis of mist and calm, surrounded by lush mountains overgrown with plant life and dotted with hotels, hot springs and temples, Sun Moon Lake in Taiwan beckons you for a breathtaking bike ride.
A few hours by bus from the bustling city of Taichung, Taiwan, lies Sun Moon Lake. An oasis of mist and calm, surrounded by lush mountains overgrown with plant life and dotted with hotels, hot springs and temples. Cycling around the largest body of water in Taiwan might be considered a right of passage for Taiwanese on holiday, and the cycling infrastructure on this route makes this an attractive outing for people of all ages.
Our group left Taichung in the late afternoon, moving inland toward the hills. The highway system coming out of the city is a series of elevated viaducts, whizzing below is more highway, townsites and flood plains. The next thing you know, the bus plunges into the first of many tunnels. Instead of switchbacks and passes, the climb to 800m is undertaken at a gradual pace, literally straight through these mountains, into long valleys, and back through the other side.
The haze from the city gave way to fog and by the time we approached the lake the sun was setting into the grey mist clinging to the hilltops. We settled into Fleur de Chine hotel, complete with in-room spa courtesy of the hot springs below, and upstairs soon after for an outdoor dinner on the rooftop. Scanning the mist for a horizon, even a glimpse of the lake from our perch was fruitless. With a 6:30am start the next morning, I was beginning to wonder just what we’d be able to see on our ride.
Awakening the next day, the mist was as thick as ever. First light came and our group was outfitted with Giant bicycles, Taipei Cycle Show jerseys and the requisite helmet. First time in lycra since…ok, ever. Warm-up stretches followed by a group photo and we were off. Riding clockwise from the Giant rental shop, it was uphill from the get-go. As the sun rose, the mist began to swirl and separate, the cool air warming as the minutes went by.
First stop, Wen Wu Temple. A pair of Chinese guardian lions stand tall above us as we dismount at the base of this grand temple. From the lookout, I saw a decorated stairway descend towards the lake below, meticulously looked after by the caretakers of this place. The temple was impressive – a series of massive halls, imposing sculptures outside and a grand courtyard from which to take in the dramatic vista of the lake below. Breath caught, photos snapped, it was time to ride again.
Back onto the two-lane roadway, with little traffic to contend with at this early hour, we pedaled on. It was starting to get warmer, and as the road wove up and down, hugging the steep pitch above the lake, the rest stops were frequent, and welcome. While a circumnavigation for the fast riders might take a little over an hour, there was simply too much to see to keep grinding and ours was a leisurely three-hour affair.
We made our way onto the ‘Moon Lake Biking Path’, part of a trail system that will eventually close the loop around the lake. The elevated, paved path is completely separated from the road. The dense foliage arches overhead and alongside, home to spiders the size of my palm. Avoiding the silk lines strung from tree to tree, often at face height, is a good reason not to be the very first down the path. On the steeper sections, signs ask cyclists to dismount and walk, and on occasion it’s wise to heed this advice or find yourself in a face to face meeting with those spiders.
We were back to climbing, this time up to another lookout and the Xuan Zang Temple. Follow the stone elephants up the stairs and the carving of a stern-looking man greets you at the top, opening onto a courtyard of tall, thin trees and behind that, the main hall of the temple. The view stretches across the lake, now devoid of mist with the deep blue-green color of the water shimmering in the morning light. It’s peaceful and beautiful.
On the road again for a winding descent, then onto the path and rolling further down into the sunlight along the lakeshore. The path starts to get busier here, at the south end of the lake. Tourists on rental bikes mix with families and fishermen. Our group becomes the subject of photographs, both with and for the gathering tourists, mostly from other parts of Taiwan. The water is impossibly turquoise and large fish surface and splash, tantalizing the fishermen casting their hooks off shore.
The winding path hugs the shoreline, we pass rustic cafes and stop at the very modern Xiangshan Visitor Center, all curved, wood-patterned concrete bending the light and shadow towards the cafe overlooking the lake. A rest in the shade is now imperative, the heat of the day has caught up to us, finally. Further on and across the water, the majestic Ci En Pagoda rises from a hill and tops out at exactly 1000 meters above sea level. Supposedly this is the place to observe fireflies, something I’m told is a very magical part of visiting Sun Moon Lake.
The path becomes increasingly busy and we can feel the ride coming to an end. The route continues like a seawall, passing hotels and storefronts on the water’s edge. Bike rental stores are easy to find as we’re learning this is indeed a very popular place to ride your bike. We end at the Giant rental shop to return our bikes, and off to the hotel for a quick hot spring soak before our afternoon press conference. It was a moderate ride, just over 30 kilometers, and one I’d love to do again. The early morning start was perfect, allowing us to watch the day transform from mist and mood, to skies of sun and blue. With hiking trails, mountains and historical sites all around, I would budget at least two days to explore the area. That’s at least two suns and two moons to enjoy your time by.
David Niddrie is Momentum Mag‘s Creative Director and traveling photojournalist. He brought home a replica puzzle of the Wen Wu Temple, of which he is still trying to piece together with tweezers and lots of patience.
Momentum Mag gratefully acknowledges the support of Taiwan External Trade Development Council (TAITRA) for this trip.