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Sun Moon Lake in Nantou County is the largest body of water in Taiwan.

The eastern side of the lake is round like a sun, while the western side is indented like a crescent moon. It is a natural embodiment of yin and yang, the Taoist concept of opposites as cooperative, interdependent forces, and for some visitors it is a spiritual place.

While Sun Moon Lake’s beauty is its main attraction,  the national scenic area is a lovely place to explore Taiwan’s cultural past and present. Here are five places to start.

Lalu Island
Sun Moon Lake’s shore is home to the Thao tribe, the smallest aboriginal ethnic group in Taiwan. In the middle of the lake, the tiny Lalu Island is regarded as home to the spirits of Thao ancestors. According to Taiwan’s Central News Agency, Lalu was a place of ancestral worship for the Thao until they were forced to leave to make way for a hydraulic power plant during the Japanese occupation before World War II. In 1999, a massive earthquake shook Sun Moon Lake, destroying a temple on Lalu. As part of its rebuilding efforts, the government planted jiadong trees, the spiritual homes of the highest ranking ancestors of the Thao tribe, all over Lalu Island.

Thao New Year
The Annual Harvest Festival in August, the most significant festival in Thao culture, marks the beginning of the Thao New Year. On that night, locals perform traditional “pestle music”, creating percussive sounds with wooden pestles and stones of different sizes. Drinking, eating, singing and dancing are other components of any Thao celebration. The New Year is celebrated for about two weeks, ending just after the Chinese Mid-Autumn Festival.

Places of worship
The houses of worship in the Sun Moon Lake area provide a glimpse into Taiwan’s religious diversity – from the Confucius Wenwu Temple, displaying palatial Northern Chinese architecture, to the Church of Christ, displaying regal Roman architecture. Other religions represented in Sun Moon Lake include Buddhism and Animism.

Natural resources
Sun Moon Lake is habitat for many freshwater fish and shellfish, while the surrounding fields grow black tea, mushrooms, plums and orchids. Fisheries and farms constitute the main industries, outside of tourism, for the area. Local dishes resulting from these resources include fried chili fish and preserved chili fish in salt, yeast and wine. Chili is the Thao name for a small deep-water fish known as “sharpbelly” in other areas.

The 921 Earthquake
The 921 Earthquake, a 7.6 magnitude quake occurring in 1999 on 21 September, left a path of death and destruction in its wake. The earthquake killed 2,415 people and left 100,000 people homeless. Rebuilding efforts around Sun Moon Lake focused on breathing new life into an old tourist destination. Today, new attractions have been built, including Meihe Gardens (a former military police station), and old attractions have been restored, including the Jiji Railway Station.

Travelwise is a BBC Travel column that goes behind the travel stories to answer common questions, satisfy uncommon curiosities and uncover some of the mystery surrounding travel. If you have a burning travel question, contact Travelwise.

 

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