Even the activity challenged can reach Taiwan’s stunning Alishan Forest Recreation Area without losing their breath. Brent Hannon urges them to hop on a charming vintage train
You’ve no doubt heard about the magnificent mountains of Taiwan, those sun-drenched beauties that rise 4,000m into the sky, high above the clouds and murk of the coastal plains. This rugged range is beset with lovely meadows and filled with groves of pine and fir, and it echoes to the music of waterfalls and the soul-soothing sounds of soft breezes through distant peaks.
So you’re familiar with these wonders of nature, and perhaps you’ve even seen them from the seat of an aircraft.But alas, you are not a hiker.You are sedentary, and prefer a barstool to a bicycle, a good restaurant to a good workout. And it is true that the rarest gems of the central range – Jade Mountain, Chilai Ridge and Tapachien Mountain – yield their charms only to the strong and vigorous, who are eager and willing to strap on a backpack and brave the steep forested trails.
But even for you, oh lazy one, the gods have provided an answer, and it is called Alishan Forest Recreation Area where Alishan offers up its mountain magic to one and all, including the activity-impaired and the hardship-averse. The kindly deities have even provided a mindboggling means of accessing this highland paradise: the Alishan Forest Railway. This classic narrow-gauge railroad is one of the finest train trips on earth.
The venerable 90-year-old workhorse starts at sea level, in the town of Chiayi, and heads straight into the rocky jaws of Taiwan’s Central Mountain Range. It passes over countless jawdropping bridges and through dozens of tiny tunnels, and travellers are treated to a rich visual feast through the train’s broad picture windows. As the train chugs higher into the mountains, the papaya and banana trees give way to bamboo and tea, which in turn yield to dark forests of cypress and fir.The scenic views are pure eye candy: trackside stations and temples, fertile green valleys, towering groves of red cypress, and, eventually, the massive cliffs and rocky spires of the Central Mountain Range itself.After four hours and 71km, the tiny fourcarriage train pulls into Alishan Forest Recreation Area, at an altitude of 2,200m. There is also a bus to the recreation area, which is quicker, but to miss this mountain train would be a minor tragedy.
In the sun-dappled Alishan Forest Recreation Area, even the sedentary must walk.But the walking is easy, on boardwalks and broad trails that lead to gentle sights like the Two Sisters Pond, the Thousand-Year Cypress and the Village God Temple. There is also a pair of Giant Tree Trails, each featuring several dozen ancient red cypress trees. These modest sights are secondary to the overall setting, a magnificent melange of clear blue skies, tall trees and cool mountain air.
After an afternoon stroll, a cup of coffee on a sunny hotel patio prolongs the feeling of well being and contentment. Seemingly, one could sit here forever.But that would be forgetting the signature feature of Alishan: the sunrise and the Sea of Clouds.
The sunrise requires no walking, but it does entail an early wakeup. In the chilly pre-dawn darkness, visitors pile back into the narrowgauge rail cars, for the half-hour trip to the sunrise viewing platform. From this lovely spot, everyone watches as the sun bursts above the eastern horizon, in all its glittery glory. The tall, sharp peak that dominates the skyline is Jade Mountain, or Yushan, the easiest of Taiwan’s major mountain hikes.Even an unfit climber can summit Yushan, and this view from Alishan has inspired many Taiwanese to push themselves from their office chairs and onto the Jade Mountain trail.
If that is too strenuous, there is also an easy, two- kilometre walk from the sunrise platform back down to the recreation area.And if even that is too taxing, there is always the ancient train back to the recreation area, and from there, on down to lowland Taiwan. And what a train ride it is.
Alishan House, the 100-year-old former Japanese Officers’ Club, is the best lodging in the forest recreation area (www.alishanhouse.com.tw, tel 886 5 267 9811). Rooms from US$130, on weekdays. The recreation area has some 12 small hotels and hostels, many with restaurants, meeting rooms, laundry facilities, guide services and other amenities. These include Alishan Qingshan Hotel (tel 886 5 267 9533);
Gaofeng Hotel (tel 886 5 267 9739) and Alishan Youth Convention Centre (tel 886 5 267 9811). Prices throughout Alishan are much higher on weekends and holidays.