Zen and the Art of Bicycling

When I’m faced with endless flight delays or find myself on a train that’s going nowhere fast, rather than bury my head in an electronic device, I write haiku. Similar to sensory-laden mindfulness meditation, it has a way of transporting me far away from the madness.

So, while riding a sleek bullet train in Taiwan recently, where the towering Taipei 101 skyscraper stands as testament to the country’s economic bustle, I never expected that a mere hour of cycling would locate me in a living, breathing haiku: a physical experience that occupies a brief moment in time, but, though simple, presents a great depth of experience.

Snuggled in a lush basin rimmed by foliage-coated peaks in the center of Taiwan, Sun Moon Lake casts a magical spell upon my arrival near dawn. Wisps of mist hang above the calm waters that brighten to ever-shifting shades of cyan and emerald as the sun crests the mountains.

I’m astride a sleek, 27-speed bicycle, pedaling along the barely four-mile-long Xiangshang-Yuetan Bikeway that hugs the waterfront much of the way. As the veil of mist slowly pulls back, the gentle outline of the mountains became apparent.

I look back at the eastern sky where Shueisheda Mountain traces a mighty profile, rising up some 6,700 feet. Coated with bamboo and Chinese fir, this silent protector of the lake, as it’s often referred to, is the highest elevation in the area.

There are many tales as to how the lake got its name, but it’s owed, at least in part, to its unique shape—the lake’s western half takes the shape of a crescent moon, while its eastern half resembles a round sun. The lake existed as adjacent fraternal twin bodies of water until the Japanese, who colonized the island nation for 50 years, erected a hydroelectric dam, flooding the region.

As I pedal along, every curve presents a wholly different perspective as the clouds shape-shift in the lake’s mirror. Lalu, a mere speck of an isle that’s considered sacred by the native Thao people, is visible, dividing the water in two, at the beginning of my ride near Shuishe Village. The indigenous tribe, just several hundred members strong and Taiwan’s smallest, has lived in this area for thousands of years, and retains strong ties to the ancestral spirits believed to inhabit the land.

In the humid climate, ferns of all shapes and sizes thrive, including sword ferns that carpet the rocks and bird’s nest ferns that cling to tree trunks. The latter grows in clumps, and its fronds, when steamed, make for a Taiwanese delicacy rich in vitamin C that I enjoyed for breakfast many mornings.

Biking along, I discover a cornucopia of botanical treasures. Floating hearts, so named for their white, heart-shaped blossoms, are one of the lake’s many aquatic plants. I also pass palms, water willow, banana and betel nut trees lining the shore, as well as clusters of maples and bamboo.

Sitting above this idyllic scene, visible on a ridgeline to the northeast, the nine-tiered Ci-en Pagoda was built at the behest of Chiang Kai-shek, the head of the Chinese Nationalist government in the first half of the 20th century, who made this lake a vacation retreat in honor of his mother.

At this early hour, the path is relatively pedestrian-free—just an isolated jogger or two. But the air is alive with a whirring chorus of cicada songs. An iridescent butterfly with baby-blue wing bands flits across my path while a little egret perches nearby. Several varieties of dragonfly, drawn to the high humidity, flutter gracefully about.

Below the white-washed Tongxin pedestrian bridge, a prime spot for wedding photos, I spy a father and son fishing for grass carp, one of many species found in the lake that attracts quite a number of anglers. On the other side of the bridge, a lone table sits at the bottom of a staircase, along a landscaped waterfront setting. This is, by far, my favorite of the many picnic spots along the bikeway.

From here, I wander to the nearby Norihiko Dan-designed Xiangshan Visitors Center. With its curved lines and vast windows, this organic concrete structure is so minimalist that nature can’t help but take center stage. Light pours into the café, where visitors sip coffee made from locally sourced beans and get more intimate with the scenery from their balcony perch.

As I near the end of the bikeway, all is still—just me and an expansive camphor forest with spindly, gray-barked trees. But as 8 a.m. approaches, the lakefront suddenly wakes up, with an ever-increasing crush of joggers, older walkers, and parents cycling with their young children filling the path.

The Zen-like ambiance vanishes, not to return until dusk. But darkness brings its own haiku experience, with light from numerous fireflies appearing like sprinkles of fairy dust.

Jeanine Barone is a freelance travel and food writer who writes for National Geographic Traveler and other publications. Keep up with her on Twitter @JCreatureTravel and on her blog

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  1. jeanine barone
    United States
    August 31, 2014, 12:51 pm

    Hi Robin, Sounds like an exciting trip. I’ve visited Ecuador but not from the seat of a bicycle. Glad you enjoyed your travels there.

  2. Robin
    August 14, 2014, 4:38 pm

    A very nice article, I as well like to travel by bike and want to share with you another experience that I had in South America. We were in Ecuador and climbed the second highest volcano of the country, the Cotopaxi…but what was the most fun was going down – by bike, as you might have guessed…one hour on a volcano road, going down from over 4000 meters to a beautiful laguna, seing wild horses on the way and tasting some mystical flowers of unsuspected mental effect ;-) If you are planning a trip to South America soon be sure to check out my blog for further information…

  3. Jeanine barone
    New York City
    August 14, 2014, 1:40 pm

    Hi Yu-Chiao Lin, thanks so much. If I find myself in Taiwan again, I will be sure to contact you.

  4. Jeanine barone
    New York City
    August 12, 2014, 3:30 am

    Hi Gretchen, I’m so happy you had the opportunity to visit this wonderful venue. Glad you enjoyed my article.

  5. Yu-Chiao Lin
    August 11, 2014, 12:41 pm

    It’s my first time to read an English article of Taiwan bike trip so interesting and it’s written by a foreigner!! If you want to know more secret bike trip in Taiwan, welcome to contact me.

  6. Gretchen Winters
    Littleton, CO
    August 8, 2014, 9:32 pm

    I loved this article! It really captured the essence of how I saw Sun Moon Lake four years ago when I had the good fortune to visit there with our son’s Taiwanese in-laws. It was hard not to be transfixed by the lake and Lalu Island no matter where you were around the perimeter. A magical spot indeed!