Time: nearly seven hours including a couple of hours for coffee and wandering – if I did this again I would start as early as the shop opens so that I have as much time as possible to explore all the temples and places of interest along the way.
Difficulty: 4.5/10 – this number represents the mixed experiences of our group. For myself and Teresa on comfortable bikes, it was actually pretty easy, just long. We didn’t even have sore muscles the next day (which I often do on longer YouBike rides). My dad broke his hip just under a year ago and it wasn’t too challenging even for him. This only one of us who had a bit of a harder time was my mum who had a less suitable bike and was almost recovered from a chest infection. The hardest part is probably the length.
Total ascent: 1438m – despite there being only a minute 124m difference between the minimum (743m) and maximum elevations (867m), we managed to climb and descend higher than the highest mountain in the UK! I think all involved were probably glad that we found that out only after finishing the hike because I doubt we would have attempted it if we’d known. Since you’re presumably reading this before attempting to complete the Sun Moon Lake loop, I can assure you that the experience is not nearly as difficult as that crazy number suggests – the ups and downs are mostly spread out, and having a suitable bike makes it seem easy. (And yes, the highest mountain in the UK is really tiny compared to the mountains over here – Yushan’s impressive 3952m is nearly three times the 1345m of Ben Nevis.)
Water: each of us only took a 500ml refillable water bottle and filled it at a couple of points along the way. Wenwu temple, (I assume Xuanzhang temple too), and Xiangshan visitor centre all have free water machines – mum and dad were as impressed with this aspect of Taiwan life as I am. If you’re not a water fan, you can buy drinks from the starting point, from shop inside Wenwu temple, there are convenience stores in the Ita Thao village and there is a pleasant cafe in Xiangshan visitor centre.
Shade: not enough for a sunny day – we were lucky to get the perfect weather for it really, overcast but pleasant. If we’d gone on a sunny day, I would have almost definitely ended the day looking like a beetroot. Since even cloudy, overcast days can’t prevent those pesky UV rays from reddening my frustratingly northern-European complexion, I took precautions anyway: full-sleeved top, and a hat with a wide enough brim to cover the back of my neck and a chin-strap to prevent it from flying away.
Mobile network: clear throughout.
Enjoyment: 10/10 – I don’t always understand why hordes of tourists flock to specific places, but with Sun Moon Lake I think I can see the attraction. As our ride drew to a close and we joined the large number of cyclists heading back into Shuishe, we reflected on the fact that we felt very glad to have had moments of quiet around the other side of the lake to enjoy by ourselves – or perhaps it was just that we were glad not to have had to fight for road space with people who are cycling for the first time and electric tandem riders. The ride had been total enjoyment from start to finish – there were so many places to get off and have a little wander that I could have easily drawn the experience out longer.
Other: we picked up a few snacks for fuel in case we didn’t find appropriate fuel-stops in time, but as it happened, we were able to find things to snack on around the route as and when we needed it.
GPX file available here.
After a hearty breakfast of salty youtiao, fruit and nuts provided by our B&B, the first stop for the day was a rental shop to hire bikes. Three of us got Giant SNAP-24’s which were well suited to the demands of the ride but my mum had to get a less suitable bike with fewer gears in order to accommodate her shoulder bag. We were all saddled up and ready to go by 9:40am.
Leaving the shop we headed right to start our clockwise route around the lake. This way was recommended to us by the rental shop staff, and it just seemed to make more sense to ride clockwise since it would put us in the lake-side lane of the road for the sections where there is no bike path.
A short way out of town, we encountered the first section of bike lane. This part is Shuishe bike way – starting from Shuishe Pier, it is meant to take riders on a 1.5km ride to the Year of Steps at Wenwu temple, but in reality we got diverted off the bikeway and onto the road before reaching the temple, (which was a good thing, when we climbed down the Year of Steps, we encountered some cyclists who hadn’t read the sign and they had to turn around because the path leading on from there wasn’t up to much).
The start of the Shuishe bikeway is flat and beautiful. The wooden cycle path sits just above the water and hugs tight to the curves of the lake so that you can enjoy a comfortable, meandering ride. Trees that were there during the construction of the path have been preserved by building gaps in the path to accommodate them, (I wonder how many cyclists have diverted their attention for a second and ended up head-butting a tree). Close to the shore, there are some examples of the floating islands that Sun Moon Lake’s Ita Thao population are known for cultivating.
As well as the beautiful landscape over the lake, it’s worth paying attention to the flora and forna to the other side of the trail, we saw many different wildflowers as well as skinks and tree lizards that were warming up in the sun. In spring, the roadsides were coloured by Mexican paintbrush, Egyptian starcluster and West Indian lantana (that last one isn’t in this photo).
Since we were following the road rather than the bikeway, we had to climb up to Wenwu temple. We arrived at about 10:25 and asked the guy who seemed to be organising traffic where we should park. He told us to line our bikes up neatly off the road and said that’d be fine, he also strongly encouraged us to go down the year of twos because ‘the view is really beautiful’. So after steadying out bike legs after their first climb, we descended again in the full knowledge that we’d very soon have to climb back up all 366 days of the year.
It was clear that although you are meant to hang the charms you can buy from the temple on the appropriate step and fence rung for your birthday and age, most people never got much further down the year than December. (Unless, of course there really is a disproportionate number of December babies in Taiwan…) We made it all the way down to January the 1st and had a little sit in the pavilion which is built at the water’s edge at the bottom of all the steps, but the problem with scenic wooden pavilions next to water is that they are perfect mosquito meeting points and so I couldn’t sit around too long.
The way up was considerably slower than the way down. Mum couldn’t quite work out if it was a comfort or a torment to know how far through the year you had climbed. I think the view from the top was prettier than the view from the bottom, but at least the bottom wasn’t full of very fit people lifting their bikes aloft for a photo against the lake and cloudy sky.
Wenwu temple itself is rather grand – Teresa says she remembers coming here before it was refurbished. If you like these places, you could easily spend quite a while here wandering round (and climbing more steps at the back too if you thought you needed any extra exercise). The giant guardian lions in the front courtyard reminded me of the lions outside 大佛禪院 in Keelung.
Whilst there, Teresa decided that it would be a good time to ask for advice on a potential house move and finally got the answer she want after a few attempts – my parents, who had recently seen her bargaining skills in action in her own language for the first time, came away with the impression that she’s happy to try and make a bargain with anyone, including the gods.
Our bikes sat awaiting us just beyond the archway, and after filling up our water bottles and picking up some snacks from the shop inside the temple, we got back in the saddle.
A small climb up from the temple got our muscles heated again before a very comfortable section of down along another length of bikeway. Along the way we encountered a very chilled group of monkeys, one of which was using the railings as a walkway with absolutely no care for the people cycling mere metres away. We stopped to watch it and it stopped to watch us. Then we all got on with our journeys again.
As we nearest the northeastern edge of the lane, gaps through the trees let us see fish farms as well as the contours we’d seoon be climbing.
Mum, who had been enjoying the fact that most of the road since Wenwu temple had been downhill, optimistically continued down here, but had to double back up and we all continued on the road towards the next rest stop. We rode under the Sun Moon Lake Ropeway and passed the cablecar station before arriving at the small Ita Thao town.
We arrived into the main market street around 12:15 and had a wander around to see if there was a coffee shop, but the only ones we could find were closed and the streets were filled with families enjoying the first day of the national holiday, so we gave up and somehow managed to commandeer four seats in a row in the very busy 7-Eleven and refuelled on crappy coffee and a strange assortment of snacks.
Leaving our bikes parked outside the convenience store, we walked towards the pier to watch the ferries coming in from the opposite side of the lake. From here we got a good idea of where we were headed and looking at my map my fears were confirmed, we would very definitely be going up.
With three hours of travelling done, (probably only a little over an hour of which was actually cycling), and only about a third of the distance covered, we couldn’t afford to dally around too long and so it was back on the bikes. My map didn’t lie, it was a whole lot of up leaving the village. The three of us with 21 gear bikes were pretty comfortable, but I think mum was struggling with her seven-gear bike. It wasn’t really steep, but it just kept going up…
One benefit of all that climbing is that it gives you some pretty amazing views. As the road approached Xuanzhang Temple, there is a viewing platform with clear sight over the lake towards the opposite shore. There’s also a very clean toilet block with a shower (in case you were feeling in need of a mid-cycle freshen up).
The best thing about this temple is that, at 867m high it is the high point of the ride and signals that the funnest part of the ride is about to start: the down…
and down part.
Mum came into her element here, riding off into the distance whilst I brought up the rear like the scaredy cat that I am. There’s one more glimpse of Ci’en pagoda before it disappears into the tree-line and and then reappears behind you once you’re further round the lake.
It’s not totally downhill though, a few smaller ups seemed disproportionately tiring after all that giddy excitement of freewheeling.
Just a short way beyond the southernmost corner of the water and just before Huantan tunnel, the Sun Moon bikeway section B leads away from the road and starts another series of climbs.
Near the entrance to the bikeway, there were strings of vines bedecked in the most luxuriant looking deep purple flowers with a pale green outer petal. Research after the ride suggests that these are probably mucuna macrocarpa, and now I’ve seen the seeds, I think I’ve picked up something similar to these somewhere.
This was the only place where the path seemed a little unclear, so we kept to the middle, (which is the one plastered with warnings), and it turned out to be the right one.
This section wasn’t exactly flat, but the ups and downs were small in comparison to where we’d been earlier in the day.
By this point my mum had clearly been driven slightly doolally by all the excitement and required an upside-down break.
Quite a few sections on this bit of bikeway had steps where it got a bit steeper. I think you’re meant to walk up and down the steps whilst pushing your bike along the slope but only half of our group seemed to find this method successful – perhaps it’s height dependent.
Eventually the pathway flattens out and suddenly became full of people who seemed to be learning how to ride a bike.
Despite the inferior and unprofessional quality of the cyclists, I was very impressed by the extremely pro-standard of the fishermen. Look at that car-tent set up – that is definitely living the dream! (Assuming you don’t have to do fishing.)
The next stop on our list was Xiangshan visitor centre. I’d been told about this by someone before coming, they said it was really beautiful. They weren’t wrong.
Designed by Japanese architect, Dan Norihiko, the two curving arcs of the building are meant to look like arms embracing the earth when viewed from above. You never quite get that impression from ground level, but the structure has a beguiling mix of airy spaciousness and comforting enclosement.
Everywhere you look, the greys, greens and blues of nature fold in on themselves. The whole thing was just very pleasing.
We parked our bikes below the visitor centre complex and ordered coffees and cake (…and ice cream) from the cafe. The cafe is situated in a long, glass-windowed space facing the lake and the shallow infinity pool so we were able to watch hundreds of people taking Instagram-ready selfies with a double water backdrop.
The last section of bikeway is certainly the most frequented – the combination of wobbly newbies, frustrated pro cyclists and local grandpas out for a spot of flanneuring made for an interesting game of bike-based chicken. There were a couple of tight moments where I wasn’t sure if someone either could or would cede the right side of the cycle lane to me.
But it’s easy to see why it’s so popular – this section is mostly flat and runs close to the lake so you get some stupendous views.
Shuishe dam in particular seemed to be the spot for those iconic Sun Moon Lake photographs. As we pushed our bikes across the picturesque (but evidently not safely functional) wooden path, we passed scores of star-jumping tourists earning their “I came to Sun Moon Lake and jumped” certificate.
The final stretch is a big curve which delivers views over towards Shuishe before curving round to join it. Parts of this section have the path running above the lake with water to both sides which is a pleasant way to conclude the day.
Upon arriving back into Shuishe, we dropped the bikes back off at the rental shop with about thirty minutes to spare before they shut. After that it was time to locate a suitably substantial dinner – we ended up heading back to Puli to eat at a cute little Italian style vegetarian place.
How to get there
google maps address: Zhongxing Parking Lot, Zhongxing Road, Yuchi Township, Nantou County, 555 – we arrived by car and we parked in the largest parking lot. I’m not sure if this offered the best deal, $40 per hour was the rate when we went.
GPS location: N23 51.980 E120 54.670 – this will take you to the visitor centre in Shuishe which is almost next door to where we rented the bikes.
Public transport: Sun Moon Lake is a tourist destination, so it is pretty well served by public transport, however given its location in the middle of the island and not on any train routes, it is still not particularly convenient. There is one bus (the 1833) which departs several times a day from Taipei main station. Also, the 6670 bus can be caught from various train stations in Taichung as well as from Puli.
Further reading: the official Sun Moon Lake website gives detailed information about each of the sections of cycle path that you can expect to find here as well as some safety tips which basically amount to “ride slowly”. Elsewhere on this website, you can find more info about the various attractions around the lake. This article covers the route from a cyclist’s perspective. This is the CNN article which has spawned so many “voted one of the top ten cycle routes in the world” quotes – they have somewhat strangely said that the route takes three hours, this may be true, but I think it wouldn’t be in the top 10 most enjoyable rides in the world if you did it that way, you definitely need time to explore.
My new words learnt on this hike:
- 新幹線 / xīn gànxiàn / shinkansen (the Japanese bullet train)
- 調皮 / tiáopí / very naughty – I’ve leant 頑皮 before which is a similar thing.
- 妳很愛逗她 / nǐ hěn ài dòu tā / you love to tease her
- 你在開玩笑嗎 / nǐ zài kāiwánxiào ma / Are you kidding me? or Are you joking?