December 21, 2007
Alishan vies with Taroko Gorge in Hualien and Sun Moon Lake in Nantou to be the top tourist destination in Taiwan, and with good reason. The stunning mountain views and the famed sunrise bring thousands of tourists every week.
Alishan is said to be named after a chief of the Zhou tribe, Abali, who was both a great leader and hunter. There probably aren’t as many animals as in Abali’s day, and although many of the great trees were cut down during the Japanese period, without the Japanese built Alishan Forest Railway, Alishan would not exist as a tourist destination.
As you'd expect when staying in a hotel at over 2000m in a national park, it isn't going to be as cheap as staying elsewhere. Nevertheless, you should be able to find a twin for around NT$1,500 if you don't come during the weekend or peak periods. It is definitely advisable to book your room before you make the trip up the mountain though.
In general, you can expect to find comfortable hotels with friendly English speaking staff. The views from most rooms will be quite lovely, clouds permitting, and you can enjoy the crisp alpine air.
Western food is limited, but that shouldn’t put you off. There is a good range of “normal” Chinese food (kung bao chicken, friend beef and spring onions etc.) which will keep you going.
If you choose to come by train, make sure you ask your hotel how to get there from the train staion. Many will have shuttle buses to pick you up if you ask.
Alishan "Town" (Zhongchen Village)
The "town" where the bus and train end up is really more of a village. There is plenty to buy here, including the famous square cookies (endian su) that you should have bought in Chiayi. You will also find tea, which is unsurprising seeing as Alishan is so famous for tea, but also coffee. Not many people realise that coffee is grown in Taiwan, albeit in very small amounts.
A large variety of your favourite snacks including preserved and dried fruit, and a lot of wasabe products as wasabe is also grown in the area. There are also some aboriginal products available, including a potent looking alcoholic drink which the lady described as, "A bit sweet and a bit sour but very good!" The prices will probably be a bit higher than in town, but you aren't in town!
The only ATM is at the Post Office, which is in a very grand building. Don't expect your overseas card to work however, so prepare cash before you come. If you are craving anything remotely Western to eat, there is a convenience store which will be your only option (you might be able to get a sandwich, but there are no guarantees).
The Visitor Center has a useful English leaflet on the Forest Recreation Area which includes a map of the things to see and do in the area. There is also a film room and a display center on the second floor outlining the history of the Alishan railway, the wildlife you might see and a bit on the native aboriginal Zhou tribe.
You can get buses to Chiayi (the nearest large town) across from the Visitor Center, although the Taipei sign seems to be a bit misleading. Still, the Chiayi County buses go to the train station in Chiayi where transportation elsewhere is plentiful.
Sunrise in Alishan
You will obviously have to be prepared to wake up early to see the sunrise, and despite the mad rush, it is still worth doing. Our hotel gave the morning call at 4:50 regardless of whether you asked for it or not. Times vary depending on the time of year and should be posted at the front desk of your hotel.
There are several places to watch the sunrise from, one of them being Jhushan. You can take the train from Alishan and then Chaoping Stations up to Jhushan where there is a viewing platform, or you can walk up. Both take about the same time of 30 mins depending on your level of fitness. The train costs NT$100 one way or NT$150 return, and expect it to be packed.
When you get to the viewing platform, there is an upper area (just above the helipad) and a lower area. The view of the actual sunrise from the lower area was great and directly in front of you where you can see the peak of Yushan.
After the sunrise it is worth going up to the upper platform as the views are fantastic in the early morning sun, and there is a good chance of seeing the "sea of clouds". The walk down is also recommended unless you have a fondness for being a sardine.
The one problem with all this is the weather. Naturally with Alishan being at such a high elevation, the weather can and does change very quickly, with clouds swooping in from nowhere in no time. So your sunrise viewing does come down to luck to a large extent but you should at least give it a try.
Ideally, you can get up at 5am, watch the sunrise, walk back to your hotel, have breakfast sleep for a couple of hours and it still won't even be midday.
Hiking in the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area
"Hiking" here depends on your definition. This is not scrambling up mountain paths by any means, as most of the paths are paved or on wooden platforms. They are reasonably well marked with maps showing where you are every few hundred metres.
While the hiking in the National Forest Recreation Area then is not hugely challenging, it is still in the mountains and therefore there are a lot of steps. While your level of fitness does not have to be fantastic, elderly visitors might like to try one of the shorter routes first.
The map that you have picked up from the Visitor Center or your hotel is the best guide, and we would recommend the "Giant Trees Trails" as the pick. The path is mostly on a wooden platform (not high enough to be scary though) and winds its way up and down a part of the mountain with what's left of the giant Taiwan red cypress trees, that the Japanese built the Alishan Railway for. It is wonderful to find a place in Taiwan where you can hear birdsong, running water and the gong ringing in the local temple without the noise of traffic.
The greatest tree of all was a great tourist destination for many years until it was finally felled in 1997. Several lightening strikes in the 50s had pretty much finished it off after more than 2000 years of life, and the angle it was left at was deemed too dangerous to leave. The tree known as the Sacred Tree is now therefore on it's side, just across from Shenmu Station.
Some of the attractions will depend on the time of year you come, with magnolia, rhododendron, hydrangea, maple and cherry trees bringing color at different times.
The Alishan Forest Railway is a must in at least one direction. Tickets cost NT$399 for a one way ticket from Chiayi to Alishan. The trip takes 3.5 hours and rises from 31m in Chiayi to 2216m in Alishan over 71.4km.
Note it is highly advisable to book tickets in advance, then pick them up from the Beimen Train Station. You can reserve tickets by phone on (05) 278-3441 although you will need a Chinese speaker to help. You can stand, but the train can be horrendously packed. If you want to take your chance, you can pick up the train from Chiayi main station where the train leaves at 9am and 1pm daily.
The scenery on the way up is fantastic and the trip is well worth it.
Note that when you get off the station at Alishan, you will have to pay NT$150 to leave the station and enter the park.
Buses also run to Alishan from Chiayi and are cheaper, more frequent and faster than the train taking 2 hours 40 mins and NT$200 depending on traffic. If you going off-peak it can take as little as two hours to get to Chiayi main train station. Although everyone raves about the train ride, the bus is more comfortable, faster and also provides excellent views of the Alishan National Scenic Area. You can book tickets back to Chiayi from the bus station across from the Visitor Centre. Although the sign says Taipei, you will most likely have to change buses in Chiayi.
There is also a helipad by the sunrise viewing station at Jhushan although it's not clear if this is for tourists or mountain rescue.
There is a lot to recommend about Alishan. Without a doubt it is one of the top tourist destinations on the island. If you like railways the Alishan Forest Railway is a must. If you like tea this is one of the best known places in Taiwan. If you like wildlife, there should be plenty to see.
Do remember that it will be much cooler up on Alishan. It does snow occassionally in winter, so make sure you have something warm to wear, as well as something waterproof, as it will most likely rain at some stage, or you might just get wet as the clouds swoop in.
Most importantly, if you want to escape the pollution and noise of city life in Taiwan, and enjoy a cooler, peaceful few days, then Alishan is for you.
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