SUN MOON LAKE, Taiwan — Chiang Kai-shek used to entertain foreign leaders at this resort spot in central Taiwan, all the while plotting a triumphant return to mainland China.
But until his death in 1975, the generalissimo cut a peaceful figure at Sun Moon Lake, spending much of his time walking among the Chinese firs and staring out at the pagoda he built for his mother on one of the many peaks opposite his compound.
How times change.
Today, the businesses surrounding the 2.1-square-mile, or 5.4-square-kilometer, body of water actually hope for an invasion — in the form of mainland visitors as a result of a landmark tourism pact that President Ma Ying-jeou’s Beijing-friendly administration signed in 2010.
According to Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, the lake region welcomed 1.84 million visitors from mainland China in 2012, about a third of all arrivals that year. It was an increase from the approximately 1.15 million mainland residents on group tours who visited in 2010.
While tourism officials say the increase is a much needed boost for one of the island’s premier attractions, which has seen declining numbers over the past few years, they still hope for more.
The lake is a four-hour drive from Taoyuan International Airport, outside Taipei. Otherwise, it is a 50-minute ride by high-speed rail and a 90-minute taxi ride, which cost a total of 2,540 Taiwanese dollars, or $86.
On one recent Friday morning, there were hordes of camera-toting tourists booking boat cruises, fishing excursions and cycling trips in Shueishe, a small village on the lake’s northwest coast. By midday, the lake was dotted with tour boats, their loudspeakers blaring. From a distance, they looked and sounded like a gaggle of lost fluorescent ducklings.
While the boats are the quickest way to take it all in, a 23-mile, or 37-kilometer, road that rings the lake draws cyclists and walkers. And trails, nestled in the foothills of the island’s Central Mountain Range, either snake up to the peaks or hug the water’s natural contours. From Shueishe, the road meanders past fishing craft, walkways and groups of schoolchildren before climbing sharply past a bamboo rock garden and the ornate Wenu Temple, where worshipers honor Confucius or the gods of scholars or war.
The Sun Moon Lake Ropeway is a 1.2-mile gondola ride that, for 300 dollars, takes a traveler over two mountains and deposits him at the entrance to the Formosan Aboriginal Cultural Village. This large theme park, which takes note of all 14 of the island’s aboriginal groups, includes roller coasters, a gyro drop and concrete statues of wild deer. Entrance fees are 700 dollars for adults.
About halfway around the lake sits Ita Thao, a village once populated by the island’s Thao people. Only a few members of the aboriginal group still own stores, although some Thao, wearing clothing with the group’s hallmark red, white and black geometric designs, stand out front to give the place a sense of authenticity. They hawk wild boar tacos, plastic tribal headdresses, spears and T-shirts.
The Thao, who are said to be near relatives of the Maori of New Zealand, have been on Taiwan for thousands of years. But they are losing a race against time.
“There are fewer than 300 of us left,” said Panu Kapamumu, head of the Thao Cultural Association. “We need protection. If we get autonomy and land we may survive.” He said his people had been promised both, “but we don’t have either right now. We have nothing.”
Mr. Kapamumu, a trunk of a man with a winning smile and a gregarious nature, painted a dire picture.
“We want the next generation to continue our traditions, language and culture,” he said over plates heaped with fatty wild pork, venison, millet from the lake, bottles of frosty Taiwan Beer and shots of a local (and potent) sticky rice wine. “We don’t care about making money. It’s not our way. What we need is land. Without it, we are dead.”
Just a few hundred steps south of Shueishe is the Mount Maolan Trail, which is more of a leisurely walk over a paved path than a serious hike.
The 2.9-mile walk cuts through chicken farms, lychee orchards, betel nut groves and small tea plantations. The Japanese introduced black tea varieties here from the northeastern Indian state of Assam in the 1920s, back when Taiwan was the crown jewel of its colonial holdings.
At the 3,346-foot, or 1,020-meter, summit, an hour’s walk from the trail head, the view stretches over the lake and into the hardscrabble town of Puli about 12 miles away. Locals say that on clear mornings, the spot offers a panorama of the “sea of clouds” engulfing the peaks.
From the summit it also is easy to forget Taiwan’s cities, pockmarked by utilitarian pillboxes and the bundles of overhead power lines that mar any views.
There are a number of three- and four-star hotels at the lake, but most locals consider the Lalu, which stands on the site of General Chiang’s former residence, to be the most exclusive.
It was designed by Kerry Hill, an Australian architect who won the international Aga Khan Award for Architecture in 2001 for the design of a Malaysian hotel. The Lalu’s three wings were constructed in charcoal-colored granite, iron, steel and teakwood and have a series of water features. A 200-foot infinity pool at the base of the hotel’s six floors looks appealing until an attendant warns that swimming caps must be worn and beers are prohibited on the sunbeds.
Inside, the resort’s one- and two-bedroom suites offer private balconies, open-plan bathrooms and living areas. A one-bedroom suite is 17,800 dollars a night.
Sun Moon Lake becomes a different place at night. The lights go out, and most of the visitors disappear into their rooms. “It’s a sudden calm. No more tourist boats circling with blaring loudspeakers, no more flashy neon lights blinding my eyes, just complete silence,” Ruby Lu, a radio D.J. in Taipei, said over cocktails on one of the Lalu’s water-facing balconies. “I have to remind myself that I’m not on some Nordic islet.”
from The New York Times by CAIN NUNNS