Early birds see Taiwan at its loveliest

Getting up at 4.30am in the cold weather may seem like a horrible task, but when waking up in the mountain resort of Alishan the rise can be a treat.
That’s because you’re waking up to head out on a mountain train and take in the spectacular climb of Chushan to witness the sunrise over a breathtaking sea of clouds.

Alishan, or Ali Mountain, one of Taiwan’s most-loved scenic wonders, is formed by the Dawu Mountain range, Jian Mountain, Zhu Mountain and Ta Mountain. The area includes 18 large mountains, stretching from Nantou to Jiayi across two counties.

The mountain is world-renowned for its well-preserved forests, seas of clouds, beautiful sunrises and mountain train.

"It is said that those who haven’t been to Alishan don’t know the beauty of Taiwan," said Taiwanese Weiling Liu.

In training

The Alishan Forest Railway was built by the Japanese during the 50 years that they occupied Taiwan. It was originally intended as a logging road, to get timber out of otherwise inaccessible areas in the mountainous interior of the island.

The railway is considered one of the top three most spectacular of such railways in the whole world, matched only by India’s Darjeeling Himalaya Railway and Peru’s Andes Railway.

Although these days there is also a highway to Alishan, the train ride is a must for tourists. The 72km railway starts from 30m above sea level in Chiayi City and climbs up 2,274m to finish at Alishan. Along the way it passes through 50 tunnels and 77 bridges, from which one can see tropical, sub-tropical and temperate forest scenery.

Tourists can either take the narrow-gauge train from Chiayi to Alishan or get to the mountainside by bus and stay at the Alishan House hotel in Ali Town at night to wait for the next part of the wondrous excursion starting early the next morning.

The second option seems to be more popular. Tourists get on the train that leaves as early as 6am from the New Station, bearing the cold weather and early morning darkness.

As soon as the sun starts to peek out, the old-fashioned train trundles up to the summit. The train ride brings an incredible view of the area’s surroundings, although it’s difficult to see too far in the distance with the early morning’s misty air, especially in autumn and winter. But as the mist lifts, the return trip promises to bring about fantastic views in bright sunlight.

There is a beautiful sun observation tower on the terrace of the famous Zhu Mountain peak of Alishan where tourists can take in the entire majestic scene of the sun peeking over the top of Yu Mountain, usually at around 7am.

People say that at that moment, when boundless radiance bursts into the air and a myriad of golden rays appear one after another from the blue mountain and verdant valley, you can make a wish and it will come true.

Just as pleasing to the eye is the sea of clouds in Alishan flowing from the mountain peak throughout the fresh air like waves breaking up against the shore. As the clouds hit the mountains, they envelop them like scarves keeping the jagged peaks warm and slowly opening up, revealing the beauty that lies underneath.

Local residents say tourists have the best chance of seeing the phenomenon in autumn.

Mountain tour

There’s hardly enough time for tourists to take in all the beauty as they must come back to the train at 7.30am to get back down the mountain. That’s the only train to take, and if you miss it, you’ll have stay another day at the peak or attempt the long journey back down by foot.

During the day, tourists can visit the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, one of the best places to view the Alishan Forest Railway and to find the famous Shenmu (God Wood), a mystical Alishan tree that’s over 3,000 years old. This is also where tourists can have a firsthand look at the results of the Taiwanese authorities’ efforts to preserve nature.

Instead of walking along dirt paths, tourists will find themselves being lifted up about 1m over the earth and above the flora carpets on incredible wooden paths.

"Built decades ago, the paths were to protect the trees and low-layer flora of the forests," said Hsi Hsin, 60, a retired professor at Jiayi University’s Department of Forestry, who is doing volunteer work as a guide in the area.

Having worked with Alishan forests for over a decade, Hsin believes that such wooden paths have helped the area keep its natural beauty intact as the site receives more than 6,000 tourists a year.

Taiwan’s efforts to preserve Alishan and other scenic sites began in 1976 with bans on cutting trees, campaigns to plant young generations of trees and different laws on forest preservation which laid the legal groundwork to punish environmentally destructive behaviours. The regulations are so stringent that even the wood to build the path had to be imported.

"It was the teachers and students of my university, including me, who planted these young trees in the late 1980s," said Hsin, his eyes sparkling with pride as he looked out on the fruits of his labour.

"They will soon grow and become big beautiful trees. The primitive look of this site, which was home to trees more than 33,000 years old in the period before the Japanese came, will be revived."

Hsin noted that preserving natural Alishan means preserving a perfect place for practising meditation and Buddhism, a popular religion in Taiwan.

With many other passionate Taiwanese sharing the same love for nature as Hsin, the famous Alishan should double in beauty and continue its priceless contributions to bio-diversity, forestry, the environment and tourism.