Tall Taiwan Tales: Mountains of Mist at Alishan

The next morning, we woke up bright and early so we could catch the reason we’d come to Chiayi in the first place, namely the Alishan Forest Railway. The name doesn’t sound like much, and indeed, it was built by the Japanese for the rather un-noble purpose of stripping their island colony of its prized giant cypresses. (Obscure trivia: the massive torii gate of Tokyo’s famous Meiji Jingu Shrine is built from Taiwanese cypress, because none large enough could be found in Japan.) Today, though, it’s considered one of the engineering marvels of the world: in 3.5 hours, narrow-gauge engines putter and wheeze their way up from 30m to 2450m, with countless tunnels, bridges and scary dropoffs along the way.

Train pulling into Alishan station Alishan Forestry Railway track near Jhushan

On weekdays, there’s only one afternoon train a day, but on weekends (like this Sunday) they put on an extra morning train and today it was packed — it was standing room only even at Chiayi, and somewhat to our surprise more people just kept piling in at each stop. (We thanked our lucky stars for having the foresight to book ahead; not an easy task, as bookings are only accepted in Taiwan, but fortunately Z’s Taiwanese colleague had arranged it for us.) The initial stretch through rice paddies and people’s backyards, often at little more than walking pace (at 3.5 hours for 71 km, the average speed works to around 20 km/h), wasn’t too exciting, but soon enough the climb started. While coastal Taiwan sweltered in tropical heat, with banana trees and pineapple orchards, as we went uphill the vegetation started to change: less palm trees, more bamboo forests, more cypresses (still with the occasional creeper vine!). The toy train’s pitiful air-con had been stretched to its limits earlier, but the air started to cool down despite the ever-increasing masses.

At Fencihu, most passengers got off and we picked up the famous Fencihu biendang (a uniquely Taiwanese Mandarin import of bentou, Japanese word for lunch box), and it was tasty indeed. Suddenly the train felt very quiet, the previously bright blue sky had clouded over, and by the time we reached Shermuh station, the penultimate stop, there were wisps of mist flitting among the cedars. We reached our terminus, Alishan, at noon and the first drops of rain fell at the same time.

Staircase in the cedar forest Tree Spirit Pagoda in the swirling mists

Alishan (“Mount Ali”) isn’t the highest mountain in Taipei or even particularly close — that honor goes to Yushan, a ridge down and over 1 km higher — but it’s Taiwan’s top tourist spot and it was soon obvious why. We headed out for a walk in the woods, and the alternating drizzle and swirling mist made it all seem scarily hallucinatory: the Tree Spirit Pagoda, rising out of the mist like the monolith of 2001 and surrounded by gigantic 2000-year-old red cypresses tens of meters tall, was downright awe-inspiring. But as we pottered around, the rain started to increase, with accompanying cracks of thunder, and we took refuge in the amazing Jhaoshen temple, whose second story hides an altar so golden it hurts the eyes to look at it and an eerie dark room with countless Buddhas in niches, each lit by a single LED.

Golden altar at Jhoushen temple Miniature Buddhas at Shoujhen Temple

The rain didn’t let up, but the lightning moved further away, so we sloshed back to the hotel and warmed our bones (the temperature had fallen from Chiayi’s 35 C to just 10 C) with some pretty tasty hotpot, a firm favorite in these parts. We set our alarms for 3:30 AM, in time to catch the sunrise… but at 3:30, the pitter-patter of rain continued, so we decided to sleep in.

Once roused, it was a beautiful sunny morning without a cloud in the sky, yet the pitter-patter continued — there was a pipe leaking onto our roof. D’oh. In the sunshine, yesterday’s eerie scenery had become unrecognizable, with the ghosts gone and lofty Swiss-style mountain peaks and stately trees in their place. By noon, though, the clouds had rolled back and will-o’-wisps were again flitting through the forest, which was wrapped in impossibly dense blankets of moss due to the constant moisture. (As Z discovered the hard way, drying your laundry in Alishan isn’t very easy.) This time, we hotfooted out before the downpour started, and sampled some stinky tofu for lunch. I, for one, think the English translation is misguided and they should use the literal meaning of the character 臭 instead, namely “shitty”. While I have, to the best of my knowledge, never consumed feces, I have no doubt that the aftertaste would be exactly the same as that of stinky tofu. Bleargh.

Just before dawn on Jhushan Misty dawn at Jhushan

The next morning, we did manage to get up at 3:30 AM, and in slightly less frigid conditions than I’d expected we made our way by the special sunrise train service to Jhushan to share a romantic mountaintop sunset with approximately 1000 other Taiwanese, one of whom was equipped with a megaphone and was kind enough to provided running commentary in Chinese at very loud volumes, non-stop, laced with plugs for his brand of plum candy. Alas, we didn’t get the famous “sun rising over sea of clouds” effect, but it was a clear morning with a few wisps of fog in the valley below, so it was pretty cool. (And we didn’t buy any candied plums.)

Up next: Guanzihling