Daytrippers #7: All up Alishan

It’s been a long time since our last post! The summer holidays mean that lots of places are quite busy, and we teachers have a bit of extra work to do running summer activities at the school. That said, it’s important to blow off steam and so, in August, a troop of teachers made our way to the train station at an unholy hour of the morning (seven AM – madness!).

Our destination: Chiayi station, from whence we were going to ride the bus up to Alishan. Now it must be noted that this plan sparked confusion in lots of people I spoke to. The more conventional way up Alishan is taking the slow little train through the forest tracks up to the top. Wrangling a group of more than six, our head teacher and tour guide for the day elected for the faster and easier route.

Off at Chiayi station we encounted the first moment of mayhem. The bus stop was a construction site. However, we had no time to be confused as an elderly Taiwanese woman quite firmly ushered us in a direction, and we quickly found ourselves talking to Mr Xi, who offered us a very reasonably priced lift up the mountain in his shuttle. It turned out to be a good call, as the winding mountain road caused one of our company to take a green turn and Mr Xi kindly pulled over to allow her to recover. He also let us stop at the foot of the mountain to look at a charming temple and suspension bridge, stretch our legs, and buy some tea. The temple was fronted by a number of quite fashionable looking statues doing martial arts in what appeared to be sunglasses.

After our two stops, we made it to the top of the gorgeous Alishan mountain road. The road itself warrants a bit of description. It winds its way between the trees, and seems to go on forever. On our way back, the clouds had descended and in such a moment the road is both beautiful and terrifying! On our way up, though, we could enjoy the views down the mountain slopes, and we even spied a waterfall coming down practically onto the shoulder of the road.

At the peak, we stopped for a bruch at our leader’s favourite spot. We also picked up the tourist map that was full of promising places to see. Without losing anyone, we managed to escape the tourist shopping area and with the aid of an umbrella squeeze our way through a rather large tour group blocking the entrance to the wooden walkway. We were finally in nature.

The forest of Alishan is really beautiful. Enormous trees cover the mountainside and the cool mountain air was a lovely escape from the sweaty Taiwanese summer. The paths lead us up between the trees, passing some truly enormous stumps that looked like something off the set of Lord of the Rings. One was aptly named the pig log, as that is exactly what it looked like. We also learned a little of the folklore about the mountain, including the two sisters who turned into the matched pools and the brothers who became the sentinel trees watching over the water.

Alishan used to be a centre for Taiwan’s timber industry, which is why the narrow train tracks were laid up there. Now the train brings tourists, squeakily, up a long winding route to the summit. In the right season the tracks are overhung by sakura blossoms, according to all the tourism pics. We were far lot too late for any blossoms, but the deep green of summer was gorgeous nonetheless.  And then emerging from the forest to find a temple nestled in the low-hanging clouds felt quite magical. It also provided a nice break to get some of Alishan’s delicious tea and to gather the group who had spread out taking photos, searching for birds, and generally ambling along.

The final descent to the train station took us across a suspension bridge, around some long wooden walkways. We passed some ancient trees, Ents over a millenium old. They absolutely towered over us. We finally crossed a bridge over a river and went down to the station. Time was marching on and we had to hustle to get everyone a ticket and aboard the old diesel train. It was quite a fun experience, despite the quite squeaky train carriage noises, and a welcome opportunity to rest our feet. After watching the forest pass by, we went down to the tourist shops for coffee and postcard shopping.

Mr Xi picked us up, and the time he set for us was on the money – a little way into our drive down the mountain the clouds descended and the rain started. Suddenly Alishan’s forest looked like something from a werewolf flick. But we managed to avoid any lurking monsters on the way back to Chiayi station.

 

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Daytrippers #4: Sun Moon Lake

Yesterday we finally got a chance to get way out of Changhua! We took a drive with some Taiwanese friends up to Nantou county’s famous landmark, Sun Moon Lake. About and hour and a half out of Changhua we passed the green covered mountains of Nantou and followed along a striking river until we reached the lake.

To our South African eyes such a huge natural body of water was really amazing – nearly eight square kilometers of water is not something we see much of in our arid home country!  The lake is a popular spot for sightseeing, and it’s not hard to see why.

We arrived just after lunch time on a grey day, but the weather had done little to deter the cyclists and sightseers who, like us, were looking to grab a boat and see what the lake has to offer. With our arms stamped to show our day pass for the ferries, we waited for the first boat out from the wooden wharves. The ferries all had a tour guide who gave details in Chinese, and our friends translated a few bits of what was being said for us.

The lake’s area is home to the Thao aboriginal people, and many of the shops, statues, and murals around the lake tell the story of its original discovery, as Thao hunters were led to the lake while hunting a white deer. In the middle of the lake there is a tiny island with a statue in honour of this story. In fact, all around the lake there are bits of history and culture, with a statue of the lake’s guardian goddess looking over it from high on a hill, and a number of temples on the lake’s shores.

Our first stop was to get a quick snack, in the form of some famous tea eggs, after our first ferry ride. Snacks in hand we were about to start exploring when a sudden downpour chased everyone under the limited cover for a few minutes. Hoping to get umbrellas in the market, and feeling a bit washed out, we took the gap in the rain to head back for the next ferry. Unfortunately, we weren’t the only ones with that idea and the ferry was full, leaving us waiting at the front of the queue for the next one. A second downpour caught us completely in the open, but we were saved from a soaking by  classic Taiwanese hospitality. All along the wharf, those with umbrellas offered some cover to the rest, and a kind couple helped the four of us huddle up under one of their umbrellas until the next ferry.

No discussion of any sightseeing in Taiwan is complete without talking about food. Our second stop on the trip was the street market, where we were given samples to try of all sorts of food. Following the repeated advice about Taiwanese food and long queues, we joined a wait to try the area’s famous black tea stall, and it was definitely worth the wait (although I skipped on some of it to get umbrellas in case of another downpour). We also tried sticky rice on bamboo, one with honey glazing and the other coated with salt. Both options were delicious and the perfect snack for wandering the market.

As night fell we decided to head home, leaving both of us wanting to come back and do a more thorough exploration of all that the beautiful lake has to offer, and to try out more of the food at the market!