Alishan – Into the Misty Mountains
Xin nian kuai le and Happy Chinese New Year! As countries throughout Asia welcome the year of the ox, it marks the beginning of the busiest travel period of the year for this part of the world. So why not join in the fun? As both Jess and I had more time to play with, we looked for a more thorough adventure, something a little more challenging. So this holiday, we headed for the forest blanketed mountains of central Taiwan to Alishan National Forest Park.
A Furry Welcome
After a quick dash on the high-speed train, we arrived in Chiayi and quickly hopped onto a bus towards the mountains. On the way, we stopped off at a little culture park dedicated to the smallest of Taiwan’s many aboriginal tribes, the Tsao at Veoveoana Totxsx (good luck pronouncing that one).
Though it wasn’t anything too special (especially compared to the one we saw in Sun Moon Lake), it did have one pleasant surprise, it was full of deer! More specifically, they were Silka deer, a species native to Taiwan and was hunted almost to extinction. Thankfully projects like this kept that from happening and boosted the numbers of these little cuties.
As always I was in complete heaven getting up close and personal with the animals. Jess on the other hand thought she was on the verge of death every time one of the adorable little Bambis came near her. Needless to say, she didn’t enjoy herself.
An Acid Trip
Down the road from the deer was a strange little exhibition/park/mindfuck. Scattered across the grounds were several mangled figures made out of worn and faded fabric, each representing a different fairytale such as Beauty and the Beast and The Nutcracker. But why were they there?
Most of the figures were falling apart or just plain creepy. Enormous books had kind of satanic markings all over them. The entire thing was just in the middle of nowhere and didn’t have any real point to it…very strange.
First Hike of the Trip
It was time to get back on the road and head along the winding roads that led up the mountains. The higher we got the deeper into the thick mist of the clouds we went until we completely disappeared into the fog. Across the cliff’s edge, all you could see was a dense white blanket of nothingness, very eerie!
This trip would be all about trekking, so might as well get started! The area had a countless number of trails, so we had to hit as many as we could physically handle. Neither Jess nor myself are what you would call “athletic“, so we were curious how well we’d cope, and how long until we broke down.
For our first, we picked the Eryanping trail, which led from one mountain top to another. From the start, we were walking through a horror movie. The thick fog broke through the bamboo forests along the trail, making everything in the distance hazy. It’s easy to believe why so many ghost stories came from this place.
As soon as we broke through the terror, we had our first chance to see Alishan’s most famous product, tea! The combination of high altitude and a constant stream of moisture that comes with the fog creates the perfect conditions to grow some of the country’s best tea. In the gaps between the extensive bamboo forests were blankets of tea fields full of waist-high mazes of greenery. Each row of bushes looked so perfectly laid out, there were just too many photo ops!
Left for Dead
The trail came to an end at a little village where we had a reservation at a little hotpot place. Good thing that we had one, as every step of this trip had to be planned carefully beforehand. We had no choice, there were only a handful of buses a day so we had to be exact.
Though even after we arrived at the station 20 minutes early just to be safe, the bus passed us right by and completely ignored us…the last bus of the night…shit.
We were fucked. No more buses, no taxis in the area, and the hotel was an hour and a half walk away in the dead of night. We had no choice but to call the hotel we were at and begged for help. Thankfully the owner, a man from Mauritius and his Taiwanese wife, saved us.
The owners continued to be friendly the next morning and offered to drop us off at the start of another nearby trail, predictably called the Tea Trail. The routes snaked through some more spectacularly symmetrical tea fields that covered the hillsides for miles around.
No doubt each view was more spectacular than the last, even better view than the day before thanks to clearer skies, but there’s only so much tea you can see. I guess the day before kind of took the amazement away from us.
We finished the trail early in the afternoon and headed to our next stop, a town called Fenqihu. The town became an important hub for the logging industry that once ruled the area and has always been the last stop for visitors before they’d explore the rest of the area.
BUT, according to Jess, we had to go there for another reason. Her ever-reliable list of all things famous in Taiwan kept mentioning one of Fenqihu’s most famous items, a lunch box. No, not like the one’s you had at school with a cheesestring and a Capri sun, these are Taiwanese style.
Lunchboxes here consist of a bed of rice topped with all manner of vegetables like cabbage, mushrooms, soybeans, bamboo etc. and with a healthy portion of chicken or pork, kind of the greatest hits of local cuisine. You find these throughout the country and I even saw them back in China. This particular one was a train lunchbox, often given to travellers on their way to Alishan.
Jess and her list of hotspots picked out the most famous of the lot, which came in adorable authentic little tins, just like you would have been served a hundred years ago.
Exploring the Town
The town itself was pretty small, it had no reason to grow after the logging industry disappeared. Now it’s more of a quaint little stepping stone on the way to Alishan itself. Either way, we explored what we could!
As the theme of the trip, there were plenty of hikes on offer, but we were more interested in Fenqihu’s most famous site, the train station. Even though it was a still-functioning train station, you could literally just walk onto the tracks. The perfect place to get those Instagram likes.
In true Taiwanese fashion, the town also had its own miniature Old Street lined with repetitive lines of shops full of snacks and crafts. Jess yet again popped up with another well-known item, some sort of jelly drink that was famous in the area. She insisted on finding the best one, but I had no interest whatsoever. I hate anything with a jelly consistency, particularly a drink that looked like a fucking frog pond.
Arriving in Alishan
Now it was time to head to Alishan National Park itself, which was still another 45-minute bus journey away. Our hotel was in the national park itself, in a little village just behind the park’s entrance. It had a handful of hotels, a few restaurants and the train station that began the journey through the mountains.
Our hotel was nothing special, except for one very important feature, a bath! Good fucking almighty Jesus, I almost broke down in tears. I LOVE baths and haven’t had one in over 2 full years. It was all I thought about for the rest of the day.
No Time to Waste
Though the bath was calling me, we had to make the most of our time. We went straight to the National Park itself and tried to see as much as we could. The wooden board-walk led visitors deeper into the forests and past some of the regions most notable sites.
Throughout the forest were monstrous stumps that at one point fell victim to the height of the logging industry. Nevermind, nature is one persistent bitch. Today the stumps were reborn with many young shoots stretching upwards from their elder beneath them, bringing new life to the forest. These stages of life were most obvious at the Three Generation Tree.
There were still some very notable trees that had survived the logging industry, some of which had been there for over 2000 years old…they’d been there since Jesus was walking the earth (apparently) and the Romans ruled everything!
Walking in the Misty Forest
Even today the misty haze had followed us to the peak of the mountains. We walked around the trails that led around the cliff edges until we came to one of the forests train stations. Alishan is renowned for the authentic mountain trains that take visitors to different points along the forest. Riding along it was one of the must-do things in Alishan, but we’d get our chance the next day
These stations can become quite eerie places. Some are in the middle of nowhere, without anyone around, just a completely empty station amongst the eerie fog. We delved deeper into the mist towards the Sister Ponds, famed as another one of Alishan’s highlights. Yet again, there was such an eerie vibe to the area. A peaceful reflective pond that had a stream of fog briskly flowing through the brake in the thick tree canopy like poisonous gas seeping in. Even the most serene places here can quickly turn creepy, and I loved it!
The Last Walk
The next day, we didn’t have that much left to see. Obviously, we’d just have to find another hike, which wasn’t that hard to do. But first, we had our chance to ride the famous mountain train that slowly chugged its way deeper into the forest. Once we were dropped off, we followed the sunset trail that led to higher peaks so we could have a better look at the area.
The pathway was lined with street-lamps, which would light the way for early morning travellers. We didn’t need them as by the afternoon the sunshine broke through the evergreen trees casting rays of light onto our path. The trail led to another train station, it was pristine and brand new, just completely abandoned. Not a single person, not a single sign of life.
We kept hiking further along the train tracks and delved into the mountain trail that led to its peak. Though I was in high spirits, the walk was tougher than we were used to with a harsh steep incline, Jess wasn’t pleased. The hike was long and hard and eventually led to a lookout that was covered in tree branches and the persistent fog hiding everything behind it. Jess was even less pleased.
Good Morning Sunshine
One of the other must-do things in Alishan was to witness the sunrise, so why not? BUT we had to get up at 5 am, making us wish we hadn’t bothered. We jumped into a mini-van with other hotel guests and made our way through some nearby sites as the guide told us about some nearby sites. I’m sure it would have been interesting if I understood what he was saying…
Just before the sun popped over the horizon, we were taken to a viewpoint with about a hundred other people, all with their tripods and £1000+ cameras waiting for their shot to come. It kind of took the shine off the experience.
Regardless of the lacklustre end, it was still yet another successful Taiwanese adventure.