Daytrippers #4: Sun Moon Lake

Yesterday we finally got a chance to get way out of Changhua! We took a drive with some Taiwanese friends up to Nantou county’s famous landmark, Sun Moon Lake. About and hour and a half out of Changhua we passed the green covered mountains of Nantou and followed along a striking river until we reached the lake.

To our South African eyes such a huge natural body of water was really amazing – nearly eight square kilometers of water is not something we see much of in our arid home country!  The lake is a popular spot for sightseeing, and it’s not hard to see why.

We arrived just after lunch time on a grey day, but the weather had done little to deter the cyclists and sightseers who, like us, were looking to grab a boat and see what the lake has to offer. With our arms stamped to show our day pass for the ferries, we waited for the first boat out from the wooden wharves. The ferries all had a tour guide who gave details in Chinese, and our friends translated a few bits of what was being said for us.

The lake’s area is home to the Thao aboriginal people, and many of the shops, statues, and murals around the lake tell the story of its original discovery, as Thao hunters were led to the lake while hunting a white deer. In the middle of the lake there is a tiny island with a statue in honour of this story. In fact, all around the lake there are bits of history and culture, with a statue of the lake’s guardian goddess looking over it from high on a hill, and a number of temples on the lake’s shores.

Our first stop was to get a quick snack, in the form of some famous tea eggs, after our first ferry ride. Snacks in hand we were about to start exploring when a sudden downpour chased everyone under the limited cover for a few minutes. Hoping to get umbrellas in the market, and feeling a bit washed out, we took the gap in the rain to head back for the next ferry. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones with that idea and the ferry was full, leaving us waiting at the front of the queue for the next one. A second downpour caught us completely in the open, but we were saved from a soaking by  classic Taiwanese hospitality. All along the wharf, those with umbrellas offered some cover to the rest, and a kind couple helped the four of us huddle up under one of their umbrellas until the next ferry.

No discussion of any sightseeing in Taiwan is complete without talking about food. Our second stop on the trip was the street market, where we were given samples to try of all sorts of food. Following the repeated advice about Taiwanese food and long queues, we joined a wait to try the area’s famous black tea stall, and it was definitely worth the wait (although I skipped on some of it to get umbrellas in case of another downpour). We also tried sticky rice on bamboo, one with honey glazing and the other coated with salt. Both options were delicious and the perfect snack for wandering the market.

As night fell we decided to head home, leaving both of us wanting to come back and do a more thorough exploration of all that the beautiful lake has to offer, and to try out more of the food at the market!

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Commuting

One part of life in a city that I had not really experienced before coming to Taiwan  was using public transport frequently. Apart from a few trips on the Gautrain in Johannesburg, I’d never used South Africa’s pretty limited buses or trains. Now, I catch the bus daily between Changhua and Hemei township, and it has been a crash course in the highs and lows of commuting by public transport.

Any public transport system can be daunting to the unititated, with an overwhelming number of obscurely-numbered buses and colour-coded train lines. How much more so, when all of this is in a language and writing system so different to what you’re used to. I found my first few weeks using the bus to be a stressful time, hoping desperately that I’d got on the right bus, and wondering where the myriad other buses that seemed to go on the same route were actually going.

Since then, I’ve got much better at the whole thing. Partly, it’s through familiarity with the names of the stops, and learning to recognize a few key characters has made all the difference in spotting which bus is going where, and for knowing when to get off the bus! I’ve also found that my phone has made things so much easier.

At first, I relied on Google Maps, because the directions it gives include the number and frequency of buses that you could catch to reach wherever you are heading to. But the real help has been an app called Bustracker Taiwan – a comprehensive guide to each and every bus route, with live updates of where buses are along any given route. Not only has it helped me to learn the stops, and the variety of other buses that go past my stops, but it’s helped me to never miss the bus with its alarms and live tracking.

However, when I got the app, it was only in traditional Chinese characters, with no option to switch to English! After a while, I resigned myself to using the basics and figuring out slowly but surely what everything did and meant through guesswork and bugging the teaching assistants at my school with translation questions. But a couple of weeks ago the app updated and, marvelously, I could switch to English. What I discovered was that I had actually grown quite good at spotting the characters for my stop, and many landmarks along the way as well, and now that I was reading the pinyin (the characters written in Roman letters) I was a little lost again!

Now that the stress of figuring out the bus system has passed, and technology has equipped me for the daily commute, I have become quite happy on my journey to Hemei. Podcasts and audiobooks help to pass the time, although the bus drivers sometimes have particular and peculiar tastes in music that blares throughout the journey, so a good set of earphones is a must have!

Having started this post by saying how much of a novelty public transport was at first, I can safely say the charm wears off quite quickly. From bus drivers who completely ignore the bell for the next stop to one who, despite still being parked at the bus stop in heavy traffic refused to open his door because I was 15 seconds late, public transport can be a frustration. However, the convenience of Changhua’s buses to the surrounding towns and visitor spots is hard to complain about, and, after a long day’s teaching it is so relaxing to watch the dark rice paddies flit past between Changhua’s outskirts and Hemei.