Alishan National Scenic Area

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

My friends and I decided just last week to go to Alishan, which is a mountain region famous for its sunrises because of its altitude, high up above the clouds. I've discovered that Taiwan doesn't make it easy to travel to its "must see" destinations like the U.S. does ... to get to Alishan from Taipei, you have a couple of options, all of which include some type of train ride (ranging from 1.5 hours to 5 hours), followed by a winding (and often queasy) 2.5 hour bus ride up the mountain.

Everyone warned me to bring all my heaviest winter clothing because it would be COLD up in the mountains. So, armed with a wool sweater, tights, lots of socks, sucking candy and Coke, I nervously boarded the 4-hour regional train (about $20) headed to Chiayi (or Jiayi), where I would board a bus ($7.50) up to Alishan.

I really liked Chiayi, from what I saw of it. I'd been told that there is nothing of note to do there, but I found the city to be really clean and airy, completely unlike Taipei in many ways. The biggest difference I noticed was the lack of crowds on the streets. During our wait for our bus, we had a light lunch of turkey rice, which is a Chiayi specialty. For just $1, we had this delicious dish:

The yellow thing is pickled radish, and the orange-brown bits are fried shallots

And the bus ride up was not at all bad. After I asked the bus driver if we could sit up front (they had earlier sat us further in the back), the driver became very friendly and even offered us the seat next to his. There were originally 5 people on board the bus, but as it was a local bus, after a few stops, just us three girls remained for the long ride to Alishan. He gave us lots of tips on what to do while up there, and told us that it hadn't rained in weeks and weeks, but guess what? It was raining, and we'd probably brought it with us from Taipei.

Not sure how old this ad on the bus was, but the guy looks like a member of Kris Kross with a rat tail!

When we finally arrived at Alishan, it was completely and utterly misty and we were exhausted. But we decided to make use of the afternoon and walk one of the trails anyway. Here are some photos from that misty afternoon:

How the comforters in the hotel room were presented to us ... bizarre.

... this was at the transit museum at the Alishan train station. 
Not quite sure what it is.

Outside the Alishan train station/museum

The famous red trains

We were walking on a path along the Alishan Hotel ...

... when they suddenly switched the lights on

For dinner, the hotel recommended a place called Shan Bin for dinner. We had the restaurant's specialty, stone hot pot with fried pork of some sort ($7.50/per person and considered somewhat expensive). I've never been a big fan of pork, but this was the least pork-y tasting pork I've ever had, so it wasn't bad. By this point in the night, the mist combined with the sun having set made for a very chilly evening, so the soup from the hot pot (another "cuisine" I'm not usually too fond of) was just what we needed. To my delight, the restaurant's soundtrack was a mish-mosh of songs from the late 80s through the late 90s, so we had fun seeing who could guess the song the fastest, as well as singing along to the music. There was a lot of Whitney, a lot of songs from soundtracks, and Sixpence None The Richer, Aerosmith and LeAnn Rimes.

The restaurant admits to nuking its food!?

Fried pork

Hot pot

When we returned to the hotel, they offered us tangyuan (sweet glutinous rice balls) because it was the Dongzhi Festival (or Winter Solstice Festival). There's a saying here that goes something like, "eat tangyuan, gain a year" because it's so close to the end of the calendar year. The hotel staffers did say that to us as we headed back to our room.

The next morning, we were woken up bright and early at 5 a.m. by the hotel so we could board the train to see the sun rise. The train ride is supposedly legendary because it's part of the Alishan Forest Railway, which was originally constructed by the Japanese Colonial Government (from when Taiwan was under Japanese rule) in 1912. Though it wasn't raining, it was just cloudy enough that we couldn't see the sun actually rising. (Click here to see what it's "supposed" to look like.)

We got one sunbeam out of it ... 

A little disappointed, we walked as many of the trails as we could before our check-out time at 11 a.m.

This looks like a New England college campus ...

The sunrise train returning to the Alishan station

I'll bet this is beautiful at night

I was amazed at how unsafe the paths were. Luckily it had not just rained and the stone paths (and stairs) weren't slippery. As I was cautiously walking down these steps, I couldn't help but think, "in the U.S., there would be at the very least rails to these steps ... and if not, someone would have already slipped and sued!"

Pink lifesaver along the "Younger Sister Pond" (of the Sister Ponds)

The "Older Sister" Pond

This tree stump is supposed to look like a pig

After checking out, we headed towards the 7-11 to buy bus tickets heading back to Chiayi. While walking, we were accosted by a man who offered to take us on a tour ($10) of Fenchihu, a town nearby, and a suspension bridge before bringing us back to Chiayi. Me being me (skeptical and a New Yorker, born and raised), I immediately said no, but my two other friends overruled me, so off we were with this guy to a town I had never heard of before.

The man was a nightmarish driver. All my nightmares about riding the bus on the mountain came true with the guy, except for the part where I got sick, because thank goodness, I didn't. But a little boy sitting behind my friend did. The driver seemed to take pity on the boy for about 5 minutes before resuming his maniacal ways. (By that, I mean passing 6 cars at a time on a winding mountain road at about 60-70 mph. And speeding through fog with visibility of about 3-5 feet. And driving on the side of oncoming traffic while making turns on the mountain.)

We had lunch in Fenchihu, which apparently is famous for its bento boxes ($3.33). It was only okay. We walked the markets for a little bit, sampled a few more specialties (tea eggs and brown sugar ginger tea), checked out their famous old train depot and station, then boarded the bus once again. That's when the little boy got sick, and we still went to the suspension bridge. I was really in no mood to cross a bouncy bridge on foot, but I did anyway. And then, thankfully, we returned to the bus and to Chiayi not long afterwards. I took the high-speed rail back to Taipei, which took about 1.5 hours and cost about $32, and slept almost the entire ride.

The bento box

Inside: chicken, flattened pork, bamboo shoots, rice, pickled radish, tea egg and some sort of unidentified roasted meat (the red shreds)

A vintage train at the Fenchihu station

The suspension bridge: max. capacity was 25!

Interesting statues near the bridge

I took about 400 photos during this trip, but things started looking all the same to me, particularly the so-called "points of interest" in the forest, which were mostly centuries-old trees, tree stumps and logs. While my friends gave the trip an 8 out of 10, I give it a 6 out of 10. I got some nice photographs out of it, but I don't think it was really worth all the effort. Maybe I'm just a spoiled American!

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