Sunrise at Alishan – Postcards from Taichung

Sunrise at Alishan – Postcards from Taichung

In this last travel diaries I will be sharing here, I want to tell you about my trip to Alishan (阿里山) at the end of July. While our grant formally ended at the end of June, our residence permit allowed us to return or stay in Taiwan until July 31. As such, I chose to travel to Japan and China before coming back for a few days to check off one of the last few places I wanted to visit this year.

The Alishan National Scenic Area is a nature reserve and mountain resort located in Alishan Township in Chiayi County at about 2,190 meters elevation. Alishan is a traditional territory of the Tsou people and its name comes from the aboriginal word Jarissang. The mountainous area is one of the most talked about and visited destinations in Taiwan, famous for seeing sunrise, hiking, the Alishan Forest Railway, and its production of tea and wasabi.

Getting to Alishan from Taipei or Taichung

The fastest way to travel to Alishan from Taipei is first by taking the Taiwan High Speed Rail (THSR) to Chiayi Station, which costs $1080 one way for a reserved seat and takes between 87 and 103 minutes. From Taichung, the THSR ride is just 23 minutes and costs $380.

For budget options, you can look into getting to Chiayi by Tze-Chiang Express trains operated by the Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA) or by bus. It’s about 4-5 hours from Taipei or about 2 hours from Taichung by TRA train. Since I was running on a tight schedule, I opted to take the THSR.

At Chiayi THSR Station, you catch a bus directly to Alishan Township by exiting through Exit 2 and going to bus platform 7. Buses leave at 10:10 and 11:40 and it takes about 2.5 hours to get to Alishan Bus Station. It’s very zig zag road up the mountain, so be prepared with anti-sickness medication if you need it.

You used to be able to take a train from Chiayi TRA Station to Alishan Station, but due to landslide damage related to Typhoon Morakot in 2009, stretches of the service have been suspended. The only operating stretch right now is between Chiayi TRA Station and Fenchihu Station, which reopened in 2015.

Accommodations

There are a handful of hotel choices within the Alishan National Scenic Area, which there is a small fee you must pay to enter the area. Since I took the public bus up, I got a small discount and paid 150 NT. I booked one night at Ying Shan Hotel, which is located about five minutes away from Alishan Station, nearby 7-Eleven, and restaurants.

Pro tip: If you’re saying with a hotel in the Scenic Area and arriving by public bus, call ahead or when you arrive to ask if they offer a complimentary pick-up service. My mom’s tip saved me from having to walk 10 minutes uphill in the pouring rain.

If you have the means to scooter or drive, there are definitely many more accommodation options available to you. There are bed and breakfasts and Airbnb rentals peppered throughout the mountain towns. I think those offer a much more pleasant and sometimes cheaper stay than most hotels in the Scenic Area.

Day 1

I learned quickly that the weather at Alishan during the summer months can be a bit unpredictable—sunny one moment, then foggy, and pouring rain the next. Monsoon season extends from April to September and during the peak summer months, you can expect a lot of rain (an average of 22 rainy days in August). It was pouring rain and foggy as I arrived at Alishan Bus Station whereas it was sunny in Chiayi. It also doesn’t get hotter than 65-70 degrees on an average summer day, so it’s important to bring layers.

After dropping off my stuff at the hotel, I first went to the train station to buy tickets for the sunrise train to Zhu Shan. Online resources informed me that tickets go on sale 1:30-4:30pm the day before. You can buy tickets the day of, but they often sell out before and trains have a maximum capacity, so it’s best to buy your ticket in advance.

Afterward, I went in search of lunch and was happy to have found a hot pot restaurant to satisfy my craving. It was a little expensive for the quality and lukewarm service, but much needed in the mountain chill.

It was still too early to check in after eating, so I opted to take the mountain railway to Sacred Tree or Shenmu 神木 Station (100 NT). It was about a seven minute train ride compared to a 50 minute hike. The station is named for the Sacred Tree, a giant red cypress that was at least 3000 years old at the time of discovery in 1906. It was a staggering 50 meters in height and 25 meters around the chest. It was struck by lightning twice, once in 1953 and 1956, and became severely damaged on the inside. It toppled in 1997 and much of it remains in the same place it fell. The tree is one of the first landmarks you can see after getting off the train.

From there, I followed the trail and was blown away by how peaceful and beautiful the park is. There was light fog enveloping the forest, setting quite a mood. I was a little apprehensive about hiking by myself, but there were always people around. I was never too far from another group, yet there weren’t too many people to take away from the serenity.

There are many signs along the way pointing out trees of significance, explaining the natural processes of the forest, and sharing the design of the trail. The complete giant cypress trail takes about 1.5 hours to complete and will take you by 36 Taiwan Red Cypresses.

I spent a very pleasant hour walking and staring at trees. There were some trees so large and majestic that a photo on my phone didn’t do them justice. It also started to pour earnestly around 3:30pm and eventually I ended up rushing back down to catch the 4pm train back to the village.

Since I was already soaked, I went to 7-Eleven and bought two bowls of ramen to make back in the hotel room for dinner. I was committed to not leaving the room again that day.

Day 2

The sunrise train leaves on different times seasonally and sometimes even daily. The train time gets announced at 4:30pm the day before. When I was there, first sunrise train was set to leave at 4:20am.

I woke up at around 3:10am with the goal of leaving the hotel around 3:45am since it was only about a five minute walk to the train station for me. In retrospect, I could have left earlier and had a better chance of snagging a seat on the train. The ride from Alishan to Zhu Shan is about 30 minutes, and it was very packed.

When you walk up the stairs after exiting the station, you will face Zhu Shan Sunrise Observation Deck where most people will go to see the sunrise. However, from online tips, I learned about Xiaoliyuanshan Lookout, which is about a 10 minute walk to the right of the station. According to online claims, it’s positioned higher with a better view and fewer people.

I noticed that most people were rushing to get a prime position on the Zhu Shan Observation Deck and no one was walking up that pathway. Even though it was lit, it was dark, and I wasn’t sure if I should go up by myself. But then, I saw a couple walk that way and I rushed to follow them. I eventually overtook them and was the first person to arrive at the lookout that morning at 4:45am, just as the sky began to develop colors.

More people started to arrive after 5am, but I still wouldn’t say it was crowded. I didn’t have to jostle for position and it was really amazing watching the sky change colors over the mountain range. I could see Yushan, Taiwan’s highest peak across the way. It was over the Yushan range that the sun was coming up. The sunrise that morning was around 5:32am. The clouds prevented us from seeing a true rising of the sun, but it was a little easier to take photos.

The last train down that morning was at 6:10am. I opted to stick around longer and hike down to really soak in the early morning and good weather. According to the cafe owners who were promoting their shop and providing some information about the view from the lookout, it was the first day that week that the weather was good enough to see sunrise.

I wasn’t dressed for the cold morning and was happy to pay for a cup of Alishan oolong tea, even though it was overpriced ($150 NT on the mountain compared to $80 in the village). I needed the warmth and the break from the outdoors.

The most exciting part of my walk back down to Alishan village was this one stretch to Chaoping Station. There was a nature trail that was closed for repairs and I wasn’t going to follow these four people who decided to walk that way until I realized that was the fastest route down. I doubled back and caught up with them. It was two Taiwanese women and a married couple who didn’t know each other, but we were all traversing the unknown together.

Only in Taiwan would I decide to follow some strangers down a path marked closed. It turned out to be pretty fun though. I got to talking with the married couple because I noticed they spoke English. The guy was Chinese, born in Cleveland but lived and worked in Taiwan.

When we got down to Chaoping Station, we all split up and went our different ways. I decided to walk to see the Jiemei (Sister) Ponds and explored a different part of the park I didn’t see the day before. I saw some new points of interest, like the Three Generations Trees. At the bottom, you can see the aged and withered tree roots of the first generation tree. A dropped seed blossomed into a second tree, taking in the nutrients from the tree roots. The second tree itself aged and became hollow, but soon a third tree sprouted from its roots.

Paved portion of the pathwayFreaking large tree stumps

The tree that probably blew me away the most was Sianglin Sacred Tree. I missed it the day before because of the pouring rain, but found it when I walked through the Giant Tree Cluster trail again. It’s about 2300 years old, 45 meters tall, and 12.3 meters at the circumference. It was designated in 2007 as the successor to the former Sacred Tree. For good reason, too, as it’s absolutely massive. I can’t even imagine what the first Sacred Tree would look like still standing, as that one is even larger than Sianglin.

I got slightly lost on the way back down to the village, ended up doubling back at one point, and walked more than I had to. Eventually I made it back to the hotel with about 1.5 hours to relax in my room before I had to check out at 11am and find a way to kill some time before 12:40pm. I arranged a car service with the hotel to stop at Fenqihu before going to the HSR Station.

Three Generations TreeSianglin Tree

Fenqihu, also known as Fenchihu, is a small village in the Alishan mountain range. It started as a home for people working in the logging industry and has since turned into a popular tourist destination for people going up or down to Alishan. It has a famous Old Street with shops selling tea, wasabi, and nick knacks, akin to a small Jiufen Old Street, as our driver compared it.

We had an hour to explore the area, which I thought wasn’t really enough time to enjoy the village, but then it was pouring throughout the time we were there. I first ducked into the Fenchihu Garage, also known as the Old Railway Museum. It’s a small shed featuring a few iconic retired locomotives that used to run on the Alishan Forest Railway. There’s also a gallery of famous trains around the world.

The main thing I wanted to do while in Fenchihu was eat the famous lunchbox, or biandang (便当). In the 1950s, when the trains up to Alishan used to arrive in Fenchihu around noon, vendors would rush to sell lunchboxes to passengers and the Fenchihu lunchbox became a local icon.

The same Lin family that runs Fenchihu Hotel runs the famous lunchbox restaurant under 7-Eleven and they still serve their lunchboxes in a traditional tin container for diners eating in. There are two options: one with just chicken ($160 NT) and one with chicken and pork chop ($180 NT). I wasn’t super hungry, so I picked just the chicken. It comes on a bed of rice with half a boiled egg and a selection of veggies. Apparently the recipe hasn’t changed in decades, so visitors can still get a very nostalgic and authentic experience.

From there, I rushed to grab a donut at 百年檜木甜甜圈 (Zhuqi Township, 第4鄰奮起湖50之2號). I wanted a sweet treat and found that shop on Google with good reviews, so I decided to stop by before going to wait for the van. It was 20NT for one and they also offer a buy 10, get one free deal. It was crispy, chewy, and coated in a light layer of a sweet glaze of some sort.

That rounds out my time in Alishan, which was the perfect trip to close out my year in Taiwan. I was looking to do a small getaway on my own this year and Alishan is not a bad place to be by yourself if you’re seeking some peace and quiet. I was worried that Alishan was going to be overhyped, but it was very stunning as people say it is. I would love to go back in the future and see what’s beyond the Scenic Area and maybe even hike Yushan!

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Author: Vincent Williams