One day after returning from my trip to Penghu, I hopped a train to Chiayi with Alishan in my sights. My friend Ellen and I had traveled together before, over the summer to Green Island, and I was looking forward to spending more time with her before leaving Taiwan.
When we arrived at the train station in Chiayi, we knew we had to catch a bus out to Alishan. What we didn’t know is that our train arrived just 10 minutes before the last bus of the day departed the station. So we ran across the street to the bus depot, only to find out that the bus seats were sold out and we’d have to buy a standing room ticket for the 2.5 hour ride up the mountain. No thanks. Luckily there was a crazy old taxi driver lady offering to drive us up. Ellen used her masterful negotiating skills and finally secured a decent price for the trip. Our cab ride was truly international; the two other passengers were tourists as well, one from Japan and one from Malaysia.
The crazy taxi driver lady was also a crazy driver, and I was envious that the other passengers were able to fall asleep and be oblivious to the frightening twists and turns at top speed along narrow mountain roads with no guardrails but plenty of passing coach buses. I couldn’t help but imagine how my obituary would read: “American dies in fiery death after taxi catapults off Taiwanese mountain road.”
But we survived.
By the time we arrived at the hotel, it was nearly dark. The air was clear, clean, and cool. It was only about 55°F, but people were of course all bundled up in their winter gear, as if we were at a ski resort in Aspen, instead of a mountainside town in Taiwan. I will admit, it did feel colder than I expected, so when we settled in to a tea shop for a free tasting, I was happy to have the warm beverage.
The next morning, we woke up at 4:30am, took the train up the mountain to Zhushan Station, walked up the road a bit to the Ogasawara Mountain Viewing Area, and saw this:
|Sunrise on Alishan|
Peak of Yushan to left of sun
|Sea of Clouds|
|Ogasawara Mountain Viewing Area|
|Good morning, Sunshine|
We waited for the crowds to thin out after the sunrise. The last train back down the mountain leaves about 30 minutes after the sun rises, so we didn’t have to wait long. Instead of taking the train, we hiked back down the mountain roads towards Alishan Station. Along the way, we saw many beautiful sights, including the Duigaoyue Viewing Area and the Alishan Forest.
|Hiking along the Duigaoyue Trail|
|Duigaoyue Viewing Area|
|Alishan National Park|
Just past the Zhaoping Station, we came across a set of abandoned railroad tracks leading to the Shuishan Giant Tree. From what I remember from reading the sign, the rail line used to lead to a depot station for the workers on Alishan, but the line is no longer in use. The trail leading out to the Giant Tree was about 2km going directly down the old tracks. My camera battery was running out, but I managed to snap a few shots. At the end of the tracks, there’s a train trestle over a small stream that puts you close to the Shuishan Giant Tree. After climbing up some rocky steps, there’s a beautiful viewing area around this humongous tree!
|Abandoned train tracks|
|Bridge near Shuishan Tree|
|Shuishan Giant Tree|
(with normal-sized trees for reference)
Feeling quite accomplished for just 11 o’clock in the morning, we ate an early lunch, took a quick nap, and recharged our batteries. Next, we took the train from Alishan Station up to Zhaoping Station, just a 7-minute ride. From there, we hiked out to the Sister Ponds, passing many animal shaped (and named, of course) tree roots and boulders.
|Watch your head|
|Younger Sister Pond|
|Three Brothers Trees|
next to Two Sisters Pond
(three trees growing from single fallen trunk)
|Pig Tree Stump|
|Eternal Love Roots|
Hiking on, through the ever-present masses of Chinese tour groups, we arrived at the Elephant Trunk Tree and Three Generation Tree. The Elephant Trunk Tree just looks like an elephant, but the Three Generation Tree actually has a story behind it. Something like 1,000 years ago, the first generation tree died and fell down. A seedling then began to grow from the decaying trunk, thus becoming the second generation tree. After the second tree was struck by lightning, the third generation tree began to grow from the same trunk! The sign in front of the tree told the story much better, but either way, kudos to you, nature.
We wanted to free ourselves from the tangles of tourists, so we took the path less traveled on the Giant Tree Boardwalk. The raised walkway wandered through the forest past countless old giant cypress trees, finally looping back to the touristy monuments and museum.
|Bridge to the Giant Tree Boardwalk|
|Giant Tree Boardwalk|
|Giant tree / tiny Ellen|
|Alishan National Forest|
|Giant Tree Boardwalk|
We skipped the museum, but took a photo stop at the Tree Spirit Pagoda and the 1000-Year Cypress.
Finally we came to Shemu (Sacred Tree) Station, were the famous Alishan Sacred Tree lies. Once the largest tree in Taiwan, this tree has been through the ringer. It stood through earthquakes, typhoons, and was hit by lightning at least twice before eventually falling a little over ten years ago. The Taiwanese government chose to help the falling process, preserving a larger portion of the tree to lay down by the tracks near its original location. The tree was thousands of years old and apparently it took more than ten people to circle the circumference.
From Shemu Station, we took the train back down the mountain to Alishan Station. The train on Alishan is so unique. The mountain is so steep, the train cannot go straight up the tracks from station to station. There are a series of switchbacks along the tracks at each station, where the train pulls in one way, then leaves for the next station going the opposite direction. Basically, the train zigzags its way up and down the mountain. And the scenery is breathtaking!
|Train pulling in at Shemu Station|
|Train leaving Shemu Station|
|Train pulling in at Alishan Station|
|Train parking for the night at Alishan Station|
That night, we watched the sunset, to balance out the earlier sunrise. Equally beautiful:
After a very good nights’ sleep, we woke up refreshed and ready to say goodbye to Alishan. Ellen once again used her excellent negotiation skills and confirmed a ride for us from Alishan back to the Chiayi Train Station, with a stop at Fenqihu along the way.
Fenqihu is an old Hakka village that used to be an important stop along the railway between Chiayi and Alishan. However, due to typhoons, earthquakes, and landslides, the railway through this area is closed. The village is still a popular stop for tourists, and we spent maybe an hour and a half wandering the streets and trails.
Another terrifying taxi ride back down the mountain later, we arrived at Chiayi just in time for our train back to Taipei. I have to wonder how I got so lucky to visit this wonderful gem of Taiwan, and to travel (again!) with my wonderful gem of a friend Ellen!