Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Alishan, where you can kiss the clouds

Alishan was a place we had been interested in visiting for a long time but had never really gotten around to. The occasion of Erin's (Andrea's sister) stay with us mandated for getting up into the mountains. We live very close to the coast and so showing Erin the beach here was easy. But we couldn't let Erin leave the country without experiencing Taiwan at elevations greater than 100 metres above sea level, especially not when mountains are so central to the character of Taiwanese geography and at the heart of conceptions of Taiwan in general.

I've circled Alishan on the map above. To say that we went to Alishan is actually pretty vague and requires a bit of clarification. Alishan could refer to: A) The Alishan mountain range ("Alishan" in Chinese literally means "Ali Mountain"); B) The Alishan National Scenic Area, which is like a national park; or C) The township of Alishan. We caught a bus from Chiayi to Alishan township up in the mountains. The scenery on the way up was a wonderful reprieve from the flatness of Tainan.

And when we got to the top we found beautiful mountain vistas, cool fresh air, a different range of flora and fauna, and ... Starbucks. And a giant car park. Oh well, it wasn't a great surprise, just a disappointing inclusion within a beautiful setting.

We had booked our accommodation before we left Tainan and after a couple of queries we managed to locate our hotel down the hill from the main car park. Our room was fresh and light and didn't smell of stale cigarette smoke. Incredibly, the temperature was cool enough that we could lie under heavy quilts and feel very comfortable. Back in Tainan we would have been sleeping on top of our beds with the fan blowing on us all night. The temperature up here in the mountains had the effect of rapidly energizing us, or so I found.

We left our hotel room to do a bit of scouting about before the day's end but first we needed some nourishment, and what better place to find nutritious nourishment than the local 7-11. We consumed some nourishing drinks, pumpkin seeds, and baked snacks which fortified us against the demanding ramble that was to follow.

I think the wall upon which this mosaic resides is part of the wall that defines the boundary between the township and the National Scenic Area proper. We had passed through a checkpoint and paid an entry fee for the national park on the way up in the bus. Erin and Andrea could be sisters in this photo. I guess that's not as surprising as the implication that they might not be sisters in other photos.

We found our way to one of the two Giant Trees Trails within the park. These trails take the pedestrian sightseer through some magnificent stands of very tall trees, the cypress being notable among these. During the Japanese occupation of Taiwan from 1895-1945 the Japanese constructed a railway line from Chiayi up to the Alishan range to make logging of the cypress here feasible. Today the same railway line is famous as the Alishan Forest Railway, the red engine of which has become synonymous with Alishan and appears on all manner of related advertising and paraphernalia. The walk trail was fantastic. It was so refreshing to be among such tall trees and the air smelled of living things.

Erin and I stand in a shaft of sunlight that cuts its way through the blanket of shadow covering almost everything at ground level. This felt like a real forest.

On our walk-about we took a path through a grove of cherry blossoms and found this view of the clouds smothering the mountains at the end of the day. It was a beautiful evening, a world away from Tainan.

The following morning we took the famous Alishan Forest Railway down the mountains to Chiayi. You pass through three climatic zones (some sources claim four zones) on the way down and there was a noticeable change in vegetation as the train descended. However, there was also a noticeable change in our opinion of the forest railway as we realised that it was quite loud, clunky, and not too comfortable. The whole journey from Alishan to Chiayi took some four hours (including the short hike from one rail line to another halfway down the mountain) and we were more than happy to alight at the end of the journey.

Inspiring views on the way down compensate for some of the discomfort of the old train.

The end of the line in Chiayi and relief for us all as we are able to experience the joy of walking again. You can see that famous engine behind us.

Our trip to Alishan really broke up our routines, both practical and psychological, and allowed us to exist in a very different space for a weekend. Andrea and I want to return to the area and hike the Fenqihu trail but there's no word yet on when the Forest Railway or the Fenqihu trail will reopen after being damaged by Typhoon Morakot.

A few links: Forestry Bureau site, really nice National Scenic Area site, the Wikipedia site.

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