Friday, August 24, 2012

Nantou's Unsung Treasures

This article was published in Verve – EVA Airways’ in-flight magazine – in September, 2011.

Situated in the mountainous heart of Taiwan, Nantou is a county of colossal peaks and heart-stopping scenery. While the jewel in the region’s crown would have to be the idyllic Sun Moon Lake, those who travel through Nantou will discover a land of dense forests, hot spring resorts, and gorgeous mountain destinations.

An Alpine Paradise

Known locally as “Taiwan’s little Switzerland,” Chingjing Farm is home to some breathtaking views. The scenery is a bizarre but beautiful mix of European and Taiwanese sights, in which fir trees and lush, green, Alpine meadows sit side-by-side with terraced tea plantations and precipitous valleys. Located 1,750 meters above sea level, Chingjing Farm has a relatively cool climate, and it rarely gets above 25 degrees. However, it’s easy to get burned when you’re this high in the mountains, so remember the sun cream – especially if you’re with children. To enjoy the scenery at its best, wake up early in the morning, when the sky is usually at its clearest.

Chingjing Farm’s pastures are usually occupied by large flocks of sheep grazing on the abundant grass. Although sheep are generally recognized as being skittish creatures, the animals here are incredibly tame and even allow people to pat their heads and stroke their fleeces. Twice a day from Thursdays to Tuesdays, there’s a sheep-shearing show featuring shearers all the way from New Zealand. The performance is entertaining and mildly educational, and it’s definitely one for the kids. All in all, Chingjing Farm really is a family-friendly location. Not only is it rare to get this close to animals in such a safe and clean setting, but there also shows with expert horse-riders and the walking paths here are short and enjoyable.

If you have enough energy left at the end of the day, you might want to spend some time stargazing. The altitude, coupled with the lack of city lights, means that you’ll get a fantastic view of the night sky.

Days spent in Chingjing could hardly be described as strenuous, but for something even more relaxing, head a few kilometers down the road to the Lushan Hot Springs. The waters here are without color or scent, and they’re supposed to be beneficial for those suffering with skin disorders or high blood pressure. If you want to take a dip, there’s a pool at the spring head, or you could head to one of the town’s many hotels. It is possible to spend the night in Lushan, but the surroundings are much nicer back up in Chingjing Farm.

Both locations are fairly easy to get to as regular buses run up and down the mountain from Puli. The trip to Chingjing Farm takes less than 1-1/2 hours and buses stop at the entrance to the Lushan Hot Springs area on the way. Puli itself is easily reached by bus from the Taichung High Speed Rail Station.

The Rooftop of Taiwan
At 3,416 meters high, Hehuanshan is one Taiwan’s tallest mountains. It’s also one of the island’s most accessible 3,000-meter-plus peaks, as the road that winds its way through Chingjing Farm continues on almost to the top of the mountain. It actually reaches a height of 3,275 meters before descending eastwards into Hualien County and the beautiful Taroko National Park.

On a clear day, the scenery here is nothing short of spectacular. In the early mornings, you’ll often find yourself looking out over a rolling sea of clouds that fills the valleys below you, and when the clouds clear, you’ll be met by perfect blue skies set against long, green mountain ridges.

Having come so far, it would be a shame not to stretch your legs and scale one of the many peaks in the area. The trailheads for both the Hehuanshan Main Peak and Shihmenshan can be found in the Wuling Car Park at the highest point on the road. Neither path requires that you be a particularly experienced hiker, but since it’s a 4-hour round-trip to the top of Hehuanshan, you do need to be fairly fit to take on the challenge. Shihmenshan is a much easier proposition, and most people are able to get up and down in under 45 minutes. If you do make your way up into the mountains, make sure you bring warm clothes as the temperature can drop very quickly, even in the summer.

You can get to Hehuanshan from Chingjing Farm by bus, but there’s usually only one service a day, so unless you’ve got your own transportation, you should think about spending the night in the Hehaunshan Cottage. Be advised that it can get busy, especially on weekends, so call in advance to book a room – 04-25229797.

Forest Hideaway

If you’re looking for calm and serenity, The Hsitou Forest Recreation Area is the place to come in central Taiwan. The forest stretches across 2,500 hectares of land in southern Nantou, and its scale and dense growth of trees ensures that the area retains a sense of tranquility even on busy weekends.

A number of trails leading around the site, and they range in difficulty from the very easy to the long and arduous. You don’t need to worry about accidentally stumbling onto the wrong path, though, as everything is well signposted in both English and Chinese. Depending on where you walk, you’ll come across plantations of tall conifers, the swaying stems and fluttering leaves of giant bamboo, and ginkgo trees, whose leaves will begin to turn a deep yellow in late September to early October.

Wherever you decide to walk, you’ll find the forest teeming with wildlife. Don’t be surprised to see squirrels leaping from tree to tree or to hear birdsong throughout the day. If you’re on one of the longer, steeper paths, you might also catch sight of families of monkeys playing in the trees.

To allow elderly and disabled visitors easier access to the park, there’s now an electric buggy available for hire from the campsite office. You will need to make a reservation at least seven days in advance. For further enquiries, call 049-2612210.

Getting to Hsitou is fairly straightforward as regular tourist shuttle buses run between the Taichung High Speed Rail Station and the recreation area. Accommodation is also easy to find as there are a large number of hotels in the area.

Waterfalls and Tea

Shanlinhsi, or Sun Link Sea as it’s generally called in tourist brochures, is known for its tea and its waterfalls. The Taiwanese love their tea, and the oolong leaves grown in the region are reputed to be among the best found anywhere on the island. Due to the purity of the air here, tea grown in this area is particularly smooth and has a slightly sweet aftertaste. To try it for yourself, just head into one of the tea shops you’ll find alongside the hotels and restaurants at the center of the Sun Link Sea Forest Recreation Area.

The relatively small recreation area is joined together by a series of short, wooden-decked pathways. None of them should take more than an hour to complete, and the scenery they pass through is very picturesque, especially during fall, when the leaves of the maple trees turn a bright red. The waterfalls in the area are all easy to get to, and the most impressive of them is the Qingyun Waterfall, which cascades down a 116-meter-high rock face.

A regular bus service links Sun Link Sea and Hsitou.

The Jewel in the Crown – Sun Moon Lake

For years, Sun Moon Lake has been Taiwan’s number one honeymoon destination, and it’s not difficult to see why. Its picture-book beauty is enchanting throughout the year and at all times of the day. In the sunlight, the sparkling, blue waters of the lake contrast perfectly with the surrounding tree-lined mountains, and when clouds envelop the landscape, the scenery takes on a more intimate and romantic atmosphere.

There are a number of interesting sights around the lake, including the massive Wen Wu Temple, the smaller, beautifully decorated Hsuanchuang Temple, and the Tsuen Pagoda. Climb to top of the pagoda for the best views of the lake – it’s especially nice to come here in the evening to watch the sun set over the horizon.

Sun Moon Lake is also an important center for aboriginal culture, as the area is the historical home of the Thao tribe. Large numbers of aborigines still live here, and you can find traditional crafts and foods in the lakeside town of Idasho.

To get to Sun Moon Lake, take the tourist shuttle bus from the Taichung High Speed Rail Station.

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