Alishan Adventure- An Unconventional Bike Trip through Scenic Mountains

Text / Marloes Schoonheim and Marjan Onrust
Photos / Tourism Bureau, Vision Int'l, Chiayi County Government

On assignment by the National Youth Commission, two young travelers from the Netherlands recently explored the mountainous Alishan area. Here is their story.

Day 1

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Taipei - Chiayi - Beigang - Chiayi - Bantianyan - Fencihu

Nearly everyone in Taiwan, locals and tourists alike, will recommend visiting the Alishan National Scenic Area in central Taiwan. While many travelers only visit the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, located at the end of the famous Alishan Forest Railway , there is much more to what locals simply call "Alishan." The forest recreation area is just a small part of the national scenic area and there are a lot of attractions - natural and cultural - to explore in other parts of Alishan.

The scenic area covers about 37,000 hectares of mountainous terrain, with dense forests known for rich flora and fauna. As our trip showed, you are rewarded if you venture off the beaten track. If not, you will be missing some of Alishan's most spectacular sights. Though public transportation is available in the area, it is much more convenient if you have your own means of transport - it allows you not only to visit less touristy places, but will also help you better understand the capricious ways of nature.

We visited the Alishan region during the week, meaning that we had roads and trails almost to ourselves. Prepare to share them with many other people if you come on weekends. We bought train tickets from Taipei to Chiayi, which is also the starting point for the alpine railway, one day in advance - generally a must as trains are usually fully booked.

Bear in mind that there are three types of trains, Zihciang, Jyuguang, and Fusing, of which Zihciang trains are the fastest and Fusing the slowest. Get yourself a Zihciang seat, as even the fastest express journey takes more than three hours. Tickets cost NT$600 (Zihciang), NT$462 (Jyuguang), and NT$386 (Fusing). We didn't mind the long trip as the seats were comfy and we thought we needed some extra sleep. Be sure to be awake when the train arrives at your destination; stations are announced in Chinese only and at times it can be difficult to see the name of the railway station on the platform. If you want to book train tickets online, visit the Taiwan Railway Administration website:http://railway.hinet.net/trw_/net_eng.htm.

Chiayi has a visitor information center right inside the railway station, where you can get detailed maps of Chiayi (city and county) and the Alishan area, as well as much more useful travel info. The lady who served us spoke good English and pointed out where we could rent a motor scooter, which would be our means of transportation for the next three days. We paid NT$500/day for the scooter, NT$200/day on gas. Luckily, our small backpack fitted under the seat and we stuffed our 40-liter backpack on the footboard.

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Whooping with joy over this pint-sized motorized mode of movement - we desperately missed our BMW motorcycles back home - we first headed in the direction of Singang, about 15 kilometers northwest of Chiayi city, to visit famous Fongtian Temple, which is dedicated to Mazu, the Goddess of the Sea. The trip was quite long (two hours return) and uneventful, but it was worth the time because we had the chance to visit one of the most vibrant and important temples in Taiwan. During the annual Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage, an eight-day/seven-night roundtrip journey during which the Mazu icon of Dajia's Jhenlan Temple is carried by devotees to more than 60 other Mazu temples, Fongtian Temple is the terminus of the outward leg. If you happen to be in the area when the pilgrims are on their way (usually in March/April), you have the rare chance to witness a wide range of unmatched religious activities and rituals.

After this educational excursion into local religious culture, we headed straight back to Chiayi before taking County Road 159 inland in the direction of Fencihu. We left the crowded city on a search for stunning views of lush forests, rushing rivers, and lofty mountains. Before heading into the mountains proper, however, we made a stop at Zihyun (Purple Cloud) Temple near Bantianyan. After visiting the pulsating Mazu temple at Singang, Ziyun Temple was quite a contrast. Being a Buddhist temple, it is a more tranquil place where you can contemplate while enjoying the fine views, including those of Bajhang River in the distance.

From Bantianyan onwards, the road signs were easy to follow and we soon arrived at an intersection marked by a sign pointing us to Fencihu. The road proved to be under construction, and Marjan had many opportunities to practice her off-road skills. We reached the Catholic Hostel in Fencihu in the late afternoon, where we stayed overnight.

Fencihu Catholic Hostel

Add: 26, Jhonghe Village, Jhuci Township, Chiayi County

Tel: (05) 256-1134

Room rate: NT$800/US$25 (double)

Welcomed by the nun who runs the hostel, we soon felt at ease. Though we spoke German with her (she has the most adorable Swiss accent) we learned that both her English and Chinese are excellent.

For dinner we went out. Trying to order a vegetarian meal in Fencihu proved to be difficult at first because no one understood our Mandarin for "we are vegetarians." Note: if you want to find an all-vegetarian restaurant in Taiwan look for the posted Chinese characters ("su-shih"), which mean "vegetarian food." Some vegetarian restaurants run by Buddhist devotees also feature a swastika (EA), a symbol of Buddhism.

Luckily, two very kind Taiwanese tourists turned up, one of them an English teacher, and helped to order a delicious and cheap meal of "mixed vegetables" for us. The good thing about traveling in Taiwan is that while there certainly is a language barrier that can slow down communication at times, there is almost always a friendly local person around who is more than willing to help you out with the translation.

Day 2

Fencihu - Alishan

The next morning we went for a hike in the mountains surrounding Fencihu, which is, by the way, one of the major stops on the Alishan Forest Railway line. We couldn't leave, however, before accepting an invitation from our friendly host to have coffee and Swiss chocolate with her.

We walked along the recently completed Muma Trail, which offers splendid mountain views and lets you retrace a route once used by timbermen to transport heavy logs from the alpine forest to the railway station. If you take the train to Alishan, Fencihu is a good stopover place. The town and surrounding scenery are well worth exploring and there are many affordable options for overnight stays. Also, don't forget to sample one of Fencihu's famous old-style railway lunchboxes.

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We left the town early in the afternoon, meandering along County Road 169 and then County Road 162?DO to Rueili to visit the scenic attractions of the area, which include Yuntan Waterfall, Yanzih Cliff, and the Green Tunnel.

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Yuntan Waterfall is probably the best-known sight of the Rueili area. In order to get there you have to walk along a scenic trail, including a climb of 540 steps. The majestic falls have a height of 200 meters, the silk-like water gently cascading over massive boulders.

Yanzih (Swallow) Cliff is one of the most remarkable geological features youOll come across in Taiwan. It is basically a huge wall with holes in it. The thousands of holes, created by erosion, are nesting places for swallows, hence the name.

The Green Tunnel is an easy-to-manage scenic trail through lush bamboo groves. This refreshing 2-kilometer hike takes about 1.5 hours to complete and is a highly recommended way to get up close to the rich flora and fauna of Alishan.

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After exploring these scenic wonders we returned to Fencihu, on the way passing some Tsou tribe villages with beautifully decorated houses and bridges. As it was getting late, we decided to go straight to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area by following the "big road," Provincial Road 18. Night was falling when we arrived at the Alishan Catholic Hostel in dense fog.

Note: on this trip, we stayed at two Catholic hostels in the Alishan area, but these are samples of just one style of affordable accommodation at Alishan. You can also spend a night at the Alishan Youth Activity Center or stay at one of the many "homestays" (privately run guesthouses) in the area.Please note that early reservation is always recommended, especially if you plan to visit on weekends/holidays or during the summer months of July and August.

Alishan Catholic Hostel

Add: 57, Jhongjheng Village, Alishan Township, Chiayi County

Tel: (05) 267-960

Room rate: NT$1,200/US$37 (double)

Alishan Youth Activity Center

Add: 106, Erwan Ping, Sianglin Village, Alishan Township, Chiayi County

Tel: (05) 267-9562

Day 3

Alishan - Chiayi - Taipei

The Alishan Forest Recreation Area is what most people are talking about when referring to Alishan. After having taken in the pristine delights of the greater Alishan area, we found the forest recreation area, especially Alishan Village, a bit too commercial and touristy, with shops selling souvenirs and crowded restaurants offering less-friendly service than we had experienced elsewhere on our trip.

Marjan and I didn't do exactly what most people usually do at the forest recreation area; instead of taking the dedicated narrow-gauge train to the western summit of Mt. Jhu (Jhushan) to see the sunrise, we went by foot through beautiful dense forest. Though in the end the view was blocked by thick fog, we had a great time. The hike was nice and quiet because most other tourists had either stayed in or near the town or were sitting on the train.

At about two in the afternoon, just when we were to start the long journey back to Chiayi, it started to rain - and not just a little. Fair enough...we had been lucky with two days of sunshine. Sitting on the back of the scooter, I was glad that Marjan is an experienced motorcyclist. She got us safely past flooded roads and the occasional landslide. Completely soaked, we arrived back in Chiayi after a three-and-a-half-hour ride.

During the last leg it seemed our poor scooter was on its last legs. It started making a strange clicking sound, refused to indicate mileage, and hardly had any brakes left. Luckily the friendly rental-shop owner didn't seem to care. We hurried away to a very delicious vegetarian meal in a restaurant opposite the railway station and were lucky to get two tickets for the express train five minutes before it left - though we could not sit next to each other. This was bad news for the stranger in the seat beside me, who had to endure the wet dog-like smell that hung around me the next four hours. She remained friendly and polite - like the Taiwanese always do.