Legend has it that Portuguese sailors bound for Japan happened upon Taiwan and were so enchanted by the island that they called out “Ilha formosa” (beautiful island) when landing on its shores. Today, the scenic island nation, which is roughly the size of Maryland and Delaware combined, continues to amaze visitors with its rich diversity of pristine forests, ruggedly carved coastline and tropical waters.
Although a trip between the nation’s two largest cities — Taipei and Kaohsiung — takes no more than six hours by car or train, visitors using the country’s high-speed rail can considerably reduce their travel time. The rail, which races along the countryside at 186 miles per hour, takes just 90 minutes to complete a full trip between the two cities.
A popular stop, about halfway down the line, is Chiayi, which is a jumping-off point for the nearby Alishan National Scenic Area, a gorgeous, mountainous park with peaks towering up to 8,200 feet high. One of the country’s most popular visitor destinations, Alishan is best known as the place in Taiwan to watch the sunrise.
However, getting to the mountain area may be adventure enough for the faint of heart. A four-hour train ride on the Alishan Forest Railway from Chiayi to Jhaoping is the most scenic way in, but its small-gauge mountain track is narrow and travel is sometimes hair-raising. Bear in mind that while the trip can be described as adventurous, deluxe is not often a term used with this excursion. The railroad was first implemented by the Japanese in 1912 as a lumber operation and was never intended for passengers. Passenger cars were only added in 1920 to meet the growing demands of lumbermen and area residents.
Because of the steep, mountainous terrain — the rail climbs from 98 feet to a final elevation of 7,460 feet above sea level — ordinary trains are unable to complete the mountainous trek, which is why the small-gauge system was utilized. In fact, this is only one of three alpine railways in the world. Four narrow mountain switchbacks will have even the most intrepid travelers taking a worried breath; switchbacks are so narrow that the Chinese translation for this area is “Alishan bumping into the walls.”
The train passes through 49 tunnels and over 77 bridges on its steady climb and it also traverses three different climate zones — tropical, sub-tropical and temperate. Travelers should dress in multiple layers for this trip as what will start as a hot day down at sea level will turn quite breezy at the end of the line.
If your clients plan to travel to Alishan, encourage them to book their rail tickets in advance. The railway is hugely popular with locals and during peak seasons, such as cherry blossom season in spring, standing-room-only tickets are commonly sold to late arrivals. If adventure on the rails doesn’t sound right for your clients, those short on time can also take a two-hour bus ride from Chiayi to Jhaoping, which will get them to Alishan with less drama, but also less scenic vistas.
Travelers to Alishan planning to catch the sunrise should disembark in Jhaoping Station, where many of the area’s hotels are located. Here, in the early morning, everybody crowds onto the Jhushan Rail line to catch the train’s pre-dawn departure (times vary, based on the sunrise schedule) to the east side of the Alishan mountain area.
Kodak may well have been thinking of this exact location when they defined their signature “moments.” Lingering mountain mists form a sea of clouds below visitors, and dawn’s first rays rise above distant Yushan Mountain, Taiwan’s highest peak at nearly 12,000 feet.
There is a photo platform right next to the Jhusan Rail station, but with guides bellowing photo instructions through megaphones, visitors seeking Zen in their mountaintop experience should consider climbing the 10 or 15 minutes up to the nearby helicopter pad. They might miss the very first morning rays, but the thinner crowds up here are worth the walk.
After dawn has broken, most visitors will climb back on the train to return to their hotels for breakfast or an early morning nap. It is easy enough, however, to hike the two miles or less back to Jhaoping, skipping the rail altogether to enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Along the way, hikers connect with the Trail of Giants, which includes impressive giant Taiwanese red cypress trees and the 3,000-year-old Sacred Tree. Other popular sites in Jhaoping include the Sisters Pond, a magnolia garden, Jhaoping Park and Shoujhen Temple, which is known for its 10,000 miniature Buddhas, each one lit up with an LED light.
Alishan’s stunning beauty is certainly worthy of a day trip; however, visitors wanting to make the sunrise pilgrimage should plan to spend the night in Jhaoping, as there are limited ways to get into the park at 4 a.m. While there are plenty of accommodations around the station, the Alishan House is the most deluxe property. With both a Chinese wing and a modern “new wing,” every room has gorgeous balcony views of the mountainside. Even the soaking tubs are designed to take in the area’s scenic wonders. The hotel also features communal wood cabins, allowing guests to enjoy a camping-cum-dormitory experience.
At night, the hotel’s most popular location is the Star-Viewing Tower, which is located in its aptly named Air Garden. From here, guests have an unlimited view of the sparkling nighttime starscape, undisturbed by pollution, city lights or noise.