With the HSR to Chiayi

Much More than the Alpine Train to AlishanIt's

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It's a safe bet that most visitors to Taiwan will at least pass through the central city of Chiayi at some point in their stay here, if only for a brief stop on the way to one of the island's 'top three' tourist attractions, the mountain resort of Alishan . Give the area a little longer, however, and the traveler finds there's a great deal more to do in the city and surrounding countryside than catching the mountain train and admiring the magnificent forested slopes on the way up.

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Chiayi sits near the foot of the Central Mountain Range in the center of the island's flat western plains, and is easily accessible from Taipei by train or bus. Take an HSR (High Speed Rail) train and it's just eighty minutes to the tropics. Yes, the city sits right on the Tropic of Cancer: drive or take a taxi just a few minutes from the city center down Provincial Highway No. 1 and you'll pass under a long metal arch which officially marks the border of the tropics. Next to the road here stands a small park with a futuristic, five-story-tall monument that looks something like a UFO. Another decidedly modern-looking landmark is the 62-meter-high Sun-Shooting Tower in Chiayi Park. The coffeeshop at the top is a great place to relax and get an aerial view of the city.

Chiayi City

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On the whole, Chiayi remains a traditional city, and one which repays a little exploration. Walk around the old streets, enjoy the bustling street markets and old temples, and if you're feeling hungry, try the nutritious, inexpensive and very tasty rice with turkey, for which the city is renowned islandwide. Several small eateries in the city center have been serving up this delicacy for fifty years, and the food is absolutely delicious! Chiayi's other famous specialty is a kind of ceramic called 'cochin' or 'koji' . Originally used as a form of decoration on local temple roofs, cochin ceramic pieces in the form of everything from Chinese dragons and tigers to teapots are now produced for tourists and make a great souvenir of a Chiayi stay, although they're a familiar sight in giftshops elsewhere around the island as well. If you take the train to Alishan, which leaves from the little Beimen station in the north of town, visit the nearby Cochin Ceramics Museum to see some exquisite examples.

It's just a short shuttle-bus ride from the High Speed Rail station into the heart of Chiayi City and the main-line train station, where several bus stations provide regular services to Alishan and points all over Chiayi County. More adventurous visitors can hire a scooter from one of a couple of shops which rent out safe, new vehicles, and tour the area independently.

Zihyun Temple

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For a short trip out of town, try taking a bus or driving along County Highway 159 for about an hour to 300-year-old Zihyun (Purple Cloud) Temple at Bantianyan . Perched high in the foothills of the Central Mountain Range overlooking the flat plains of western Chiayi County, the temple offers stunning views over the lowlands below, and the air is refreshingly cool. In front is a large foodstall plaza offering all manner of traditional snacks, from sweet candy made from yams to roast boar.

Although Bantianyan is quite a popular place, especially on weekends, visitors with their own set of wheels can follow the beautiful route 159 further up into the mountains, where visitors are rare. This is one way (although rarely used) to reach Alishan by road. After running about thirty kilometers and negotiating through some spectacular scenery, it joins the much wider, faster Alishan Highway (Provincial Highway 18).

Fencihu

The cool, unspoilt pine-covered mountains of Alishan are understandably the most popular destination in the Chiayi area, but there's much to see on the way. If time permits, get off the train to Alishan at Fencihu , roughly the half-way point of the line (or take a bus from Chiayi). With a whole network of new trails recently opened, and a long list of fine homestays to chose from, Fencihu is a grand place to wind down for a couple of days. The surrounding countryside is interesting too, with caves, fine viewpoints, and a rare species of bamboo with square stems! Nearby Rueili is another popular mountain town, and an especially interesting destination for hikers. Well-maintained trails pass several fine waterfalls, rock formations, and an impressive gorge.

Zengwun Reservoir

To get a little off the beaten track, try branching off the Alishan Highway ten kilometers out of Chiayi onto Provincial Highway 3, heading south. Within an hour or so, the road reaches Zengwun Reservoir , the largest lake in southern Taiwan (and one of the most scenic). This area is prime hiking country, with many scenic waterfalls, and the nearby village of Chashan ( 'tea mountain') is, unusually, home to members of both the Tsou and Bunun indigenous tribes, who operate homestays and organize various outdoor activities such as hiking and kayaking for their visitors. While in town, check out the unusual Fire and Water Spring in the wooded hills just outside. Natural gas percolates naturally through cracks in the ground here, where it can be ignited with a match. Back near the reservoir, Chiayi Farm is one of the best places in the area to kick back and relax in inspiring surroundings.

Coastal Areas

Chiayi County is probably best known for its marvelous mountain scenery, but there's a lot to enjoy in the coastal lowlands as well.

Directly west of the county capital, and served by a regular bus service, the town of Budai sits on the coast, famous locally for two things: fish and salt. If you prefer oysters or other fruits of the sea to Chiayi City's delicious turkey, head straight to the tourist fish market here to feast on seafood that's as fresh as any in Taiwan. Budai is a town surrounded by water: the sea lies to the west, while countless artificial pools lie sprawled across the flat coastal plain around the village. Many are used for raising fish, while piles of a snow-white substance stacked beside others are proof of Budai's second main industry: salt extraction. Salt production is largely mechanized now, but workers can still sometimes be seen tending the salt-evaporation ponds, especially during the spring, when the sun is hot and rain rare.

Budai lies within the Southwest Coast National Scenic Area, established in late 2003, and just south of town lies Haomeiliao Nature Reserve , a huge area of sandbars, lagoons, mangrove swamp, and coastal forest. This area is a good place for watching marine birds and other animals, and if you have come this far you might also make a short trip further south to Cigu Wetlands , a favorite wintering spot of the endangered Black-faced Spoonbill .

Culture and Religion

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If history and culture are more your thing, the Chiayi area boasts several of Taiwan's most important temples. Chaotian Temple in the town of Beigang , a 45-minute bus ride to the northwest of Chiayi City, is Taiwan's largest temple dedicated to Mazu, goddess of seafarers and fishermen. Established in 1694, the temple was also (until 1987) the goal of one of Taiwan's most amazing annual traditions. Around the 23rd day of the third lunar month each year (April 28th in 2008) a team of pilgrims carried a sacred Mazu icon from her permanent home in Jhenlan Temple in the town of Dajia ( near Taichung) to this temple to be blessed, and then carried her back again. The procession lasted eight days, during which the pilgrims covered a distance of nearly 300 kilometers. Nowadays the icon is carried to Fongtian Temple in the nearby town of Singang , which is also well worth seeing.

Finishing Touches

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Chiayi County is one of Taiwan's most varied and fascinating counties, and it's well worth allowing time to see a few of its many attractions. Using Chiayi City as a base, a surprisingly comprehensive network plied by comfortable, modern buses gives easy access to most of the county's main tourist areas (and there are even several daily runs to some surprisingly remote places). Furthermore, an ever-increasing range of homestay accommodation (including many run by aboriginal families) makes a friendly alternative to the hotels found in the more developed tourist destinations.