Life in Taiwan

2-Day Alishan Trip (Guesthouse, Trails, Train Recs)

Last week, I took off Wednesday-Friday to go to Alishan, a mountain range in central Taiwan. It was pretty mind-blowing.

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📸: Alice

The boyfriend was supposed to come, but his grandfather passed away so of course he had to stay in Japan with the family. On my end, I had been looking forward to this holiday for a while and couldn’t cancel anything, so found myself in a dilemma :/

Luckily, my friend Alice saved the day! She is way more adventurous and outdoorsy than I am, and happened to have never been to Alishan. I can’t imagine a better person to traipse around a mountain/forest with 🙂

We did a two-night, three-day trip, though it was more like two days as it takes a day to get there and back. So what did we do?

Stay at a Guesthouse in a Field of Tea

This guesthouse was truly a highlight of the trip…

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I came across this guesthouse on Instagram about a year ago and immediately bookmarked it. This room was about $120USD per night (off-season weekday price). Pretty sure a room with this view in the US or Japan would cost at least twice as much. They’ll also drive you to the Shizhuo bus stop, where you can catch buses for Chiayi City, Chiayi High Speed Rail, and the national park.

Here is the view from the roof of the guesthouse in the early morning:

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sun peaking out of the clouds

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Near the guesthouse are a few trails, including the “Trail of Tea” 茶之道步道. It is literally a trail through tea fields:

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tea fields + mountains + clouds = perfection

Just keep walking down the tea fields while wondering if the walk back up will hurt.

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Then you hit this bamboo grove:

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📸: Alice (“keep walking”)

And you pop out of it and it’s tea fields and mountains again:

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We took this trail on the first day. Then we got back to the guesthouse and waited for the hotpot dinner (400NTD per person, but cheaper than the hotpot in the national park). We killed time by reading a children’s pop-up book about Alishan:

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On this page, you open up the folds and see what Alishan would have looked like back then with Formosan spotted deer. On another page, we learned the word 參天, a pretentious way to describe trees “reaching toward the heavens”.

After hotpot was tea time. We sat next to a minor celebrity and her family:

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Madame Tseng is the founder of the Maison des Trois Thès tea salon in Paris. (Around ten minutes into the conversation, the owner of the guesthouse and I remembered seeing reports about her.) Besides running the tea salon, she introduces tea to chefs, pastry chefs, and other artisans in Europe, showing them how to pair their creations with her teas from around the world.

Her son (currently in CE2 second grade) introduces tea to elementary school students in Paris. He’s also in a mini-film that plays at the Musée Guimet (museum of Asian art) about tea. Alice and I swear we’ve seen him in a movie.

This was the first time in over a year that I’ve spoken in French. I did a lot better than expected — way better than my Korean, but I guess I’ve only been away from France for a year vs three years from Korea, so the muscle memory is still there. And speaking French is literally translating from English 😛 Interestingly, there were quite a few French people in this guesthouse and in Alishan.

Take the Forest Train

The next day, the guesthouse folks dropped us off at the bus stop and we took the Taiwan Trip 台灣好行 bus up to the “National Scenic Area” 國家風景區. On the way up, we passed by lots of entrances to trails — the mountain is crawling in trails!

The ride is not easy though; the father and son across from us were clearly car-sick and near the end, the boy puked :/ But as a reward for taking the bus, you get a 50% discount on entrance. That’s 150NTD instead of 300! ($5 instead of $10 in USD).

Then we walked to Alishan Station, by far the classiest station in Taiwan:

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📸: Alice

This aesthetic is a huge departure from the typical train station in Taiwan. To see what I mean, check out this piece of work, in which a guy gradually photoshops “Taiwanese characteristics” onto a train station in England, turning it into a masterpiece of the Taiwan Rail Administration.

Anyhow, we hopped on a train. At some 2000 meters, it’s one of the most highly-elevated railways in the world and was constructed in the early 20th century to ship logs down the mountain.

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📸: Alice (“best pic from the trip!”)

For us, it was a magical train ride through the forest:

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📸: Alice (“This doesn’t feel like Taiwan”)

Traipse Around the Woods

After getting off at Chaoping, we started walking along the tracks…

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Or on the tracks, though this is not recommended.

…until we reached the trail. There were a lot of cool arched trees and such, though my phone camera doesn’t do them justice. My phone camera however did capture this uncle and his epic hiking playlist. #台灣最美的風景

We reached this large clearing which had lots of food options. After breaking for some lunch, we started the 巨木群棧道 “Giant Tree Cluster Trail”, where you see lots of large trees. We recommend you play the “guess its age” game.

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📸: Alice

Here’s the oldest still-living tree (guess how old?):

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Hint: basically as old as Jesus.

Even some of the thinner-looking ones were in the hundreds. Makes you realize how much time these trees take to grow.

We finished the two main circuits(?) and then got to this museum. We, or more like I, needed a break and there happened to be this projector room where you can watch a sleep-inducing video about the national park. Perfect for napping.

There was also this tree ring from an 835-year-old tree. The years are mapped onto the years for the dynasties of China, which would make (some) sense for most East Asians, even if they’ve forgotten everything else from history class:

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Song Dynasty in the center (184 years), then the Yuan Dynasty (104 years), then the Ming Dynasty (278 years) and the Qing Dynasty (266 years)

You can actually think of the Qing Dynasty as the “Manchu Empire” and the Yuan Dynasty as the “Mongol Empire”, but most East Asians learn these as dynasties of “China”.

It got me wondering what would be an equivalent  representation of time in the West. The periods of Western history (e.g. “the Middle Ages” “the Industrial Revolution”) don’t have clearly defined beginnings and endings, but we could punctuate this vast expanse of time with “big events”: from the Magna Carta to the Black Plague to Martin Luther’s 95 Theses to Christopher Columbus’ arrival in the New World to the outbreak of the French Revolution to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Buy Tea

At any rate, we returned to Alishan Station, this time on foot instead by train. We stopped by a tea boutique whose unique packaging caught our eye:

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picture taken back at the guesthouse

This is apparently the Ministry of Foreign Affair’s recommended souvenir brand. And unlike other tea boutiques, they don’t let you taste the teas, which seems strange but means less pressure on the shopper to buy. (In fact, Alice and I had hesitated to enter a tea store earlier in the trip, as we were afraid of this.)

We still ended up getting a free tasting anyways, though not before spending a lot of time listening to the brand story and her explanation of their selection. Whereas she turned away another lady whose first question was, “can we taste the tea?”

Apparently their cheapest teas are from the oldest tea trees whereas the most expensive ones are from the newest. With tea leaves from the newer trees, you don’t need to be as careful about how long you steep, as they won’t end up being bitter.

The tea we tasted was like this— she poured in the hot water, talked to someone on her Bluetooth for a few mins, and then poured us tea. It was strong but not bitter. And a little nutty. As someone who inveterately steeps too long, I was curious to try that at home so bought a small pack.

She also talked about how difficult it is to sell tea to people not from East Asia. They’re more likely to buy a bottle of tea, but not tea leaves. They figured out that they are willing to buy tea bags though.

Fail to See the Sunrise

We walked through this creepy pitch dark forest trail at 5am to try to catch the sunrise but alas it was too cloudy. On the way back Alice took this photo so I guess it was worth it!

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Little Yellow Riding Hood or Serial Killer? You be the judge.

Take the Forest Rail Down

So in addition to taking the forest rail around the national park, you can also take it up and down the mountain. The total trip lasts 2.5 hours and you zigzag around the mountain and through tunnels.

In theory it’s cool, but I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart. It was very shaky and every few years, it gets into an accident or is wrecked by a typhoon and needs to be rebuilt. The train also only takes you to Chiayi Station, so you’ll have to transfer to a bus if you need to get to the High Speed Rail station. Plus, if it’s raining, you can’t see that much outside beside betel nut trees. ^^’ The forest train through the national scenic area is much more worth it and you don’t have to book in advance.

At any rate, we took the 14:00 train from Fenchihu, so we had about three hours to kill in the town after the guesthouse folks dropped us off. We walked around the covered market and stopped by this cafe:

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Aiyu jelly (Alishan specialty) on the bottom of the ice cream puff

The waitress here was from Mindanao in the Philippines. There were a few guesthouse staff who were from the Philippines as well.

There are only a few trains that stop here everyday so for most of the day you can walk on the tracks / chill on the platform.

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PC: Alice

We bought bentos and ate them here. The bento came with a cup of tea (on the floor next to me), which was probably the best tea I’ve ever had with bento 😋 Usually you get some sort of cheap overly sweet black tea, but this was legit oolong. Fenchihu is apparently a bento town because workers would come up the mountain on train and get here around noon. Trains would refill here before heading up further.

If I look tired, it’s because I _was_ really tired o_O There are actually lots of trails here too, but we were all trailed out by this point!

Next Time…

Actually got a lot of recs from friends this time that I didn’t get to do. Saving them here:

  • My friend Michael recommended: “Stay in one of the aboriginal villages, Laiji is great, they have some hikes, nice people. Scooter the 159A out of Shijhuo, prettiest road in Taiwan. Drive/scooter the 169.”
  • The tea boutique lady also gave us a lot of tips on making the most of the National Park. We had done the main circuit that day and were wondering if that’s all there is to the park. Turns out there are more trails and you do wanna stay in the park to take advantage of all the other facilities, such as the train up to Zhushan (which everyone had recommended) and the Ogasawara Viewing Deck to see the sunrise and a 360 view of the mountains. That’s where you want to go to see the “sea of clouds” 雲海 as well.

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