Taiwan is a young island with a wide variety of ecosystems and natural resources. The Forestry Bureau is in charge of protecting these ecosystems and conserving the natural resources to build a healthy ecological environment, a high-quality homeland, and recreation areas for residents and tourists alike. Recently the Bureau invited me to go on a specially designed itinerary for nature lovers to experience the beauty of two national forest recreation areas – Alishan and Kenting – with the help of professional and passionate tour guides. Not only that, experiencing unique Taiwanese culture was part of the tour as well. Find out more about this exploration tour to discover the "Hidden Treasure of Asia" below.
We met at the Chiayi Railway Station
on the first day of our trip. At 9pm, we started our journey to the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area by taking the Alishan Forest Railway. From Chiayi Station to Shizilu Station, there is a large difference in elevation. While the first station is just 30 meters above sea level, the terminal station of the line is at 1,534 meters. During the train ride we truly enjoyed the view of the forest outside.
It takes three hours to get from Chiayi to Shizilu. The railway was built by the Japanese to transport wood from the mountainous Alishan area down to the city of Chiayi on the coastal plain. In more recent times the railway was turned into a popular tourist attraction. It is one of the three highest mountain railway lines in the world. I was amazed by how difficult it must have been to build and maintain this railway, which is running through forests and up steep mountain slopes. It was probably more difficult than building roads. Initially they had to plan and measure vertical and horizontal alignments. It's fascinating that the railway is still in operation these days after all those years, being subjected to many landslides in typhoon season. The railway is not just fun to ride but it is also a very educational experience, especially for students and government planners who want to better understand how to build and maintain a railway in such a difficult terrain.
After arriving at Shizilu Station
, we enjoyed great food, including dessert, at the MX Café. The best food here is sesame oil chicken. No need to worry if you are a vegetarian or a Muslim. They serve vegetarian dishes as well – I had vegetarian noodles – and also have a variety of fruits. As dessert you can order bubble aiyu jelly (made from fig seeds). They use lemon juice and mix it with jelly and sweet bubbles. It had a refreshing taste, a little bit sour and sweet – a unique flavor.
We continued our journey and arrived at the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area
. Here you have many scenic spots and attractions, including the railway, temperate-zone forest, seas of clouds, and beautiful sunrises and sunsets. You can walk easily and safely here while enjoying the fresh air as there is a network of boardwalks and stone slab paths. Taiwan has four distinct seasons and typical plants can be seen during different times of the year. So don't worry about which season you choose for coming. The most popular season is spring, however, because that's when the cherry trees (sakura) in the Alishan forest are blooming.
Our group went on a guided tour, accompanied by expert guide Mr. Huang Lian-hai. A retired professor and volunteer in the forest recreation area, he introduced to us a variety of plants and trees common in Alishan and showed us places of historical significance. During the Japanese colonial era, Alishan was an important area for logging and because of Taiwan's natural and climatic conditions the Japanese loved the high quality of the wood. Logging was banned by the Taiwanese government since, and this forest area was turned into a national forest recreation area where the natural resources are protected.
For the night we stayed at the popular Alishan House
, a historic place that has been in operation for more than a hundred years. At the same time it is a modern hotel with a rooftop from where you can take in nice views, an artificial waterfall, and many facilities, including gym, breastfeeding room, karaoke, and a children's playroom. Dinner is buffet style with lots of options; you can choose vegetarian, seafood, meat, various desserts, and drinks.
Our second day started at 4:30am. We boarded a shuttle bus that brought us from Alishan House
to Alishan Station from where we would take the train to Duigaoyue Station. Many people go to the Mt. Ogasawara
sunrise viewing platform, which is named after a Japanese engineer who first came here in 1904 to inspect the forests of the Alishan Range. The mountain scenery is magnificent. We did see a very beautiful sunrise. There was a volunteer guide who told everyone how to get the best angle for taking pictures and the exact location where the sun would rise.
After enjoying the sunrise, we saw a special bird endemic to Taiwan close to the sunrise viewing spot. It was a mikado pheasant, a large bird resembling a chicken with long feathers. You can see this iconic bird on the NT$1,000 bill.
From the Mt. Ogasawara platform, we walked downhill to the Mountain Ali Tea No. 35
teahouse and the Alpine Botanical Garden to have breakfast and enjoy fine Alishan tea. They served us Oolong tea with a delightful aroma. We were also shown the proper way of drinking tea. In the basement they have a small exhibition space with lots of information about Alishan tea. The owner introduced to us original teas, the steps of tea production, and why their products are of such high quality.
Next, we had lunch in a Chinese restaurant in the center of the forest recreation area. The specialty was hotpot, and we could choose seafood, meat, or vegetarian dishes.
Then we left the mountains and made our way to Chiayi City to visit the Lumber Factory
and the Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park
there. We learned a lot about the Japanese colonial era, including why they built railroads in the forest and about the logging industry. We also visited the Hinoki Village
, a popular tourist attraction. It is a collection of wooden Japanese-style houses grouped together like a small Japanese village. Here you can enjoy the culture, the food, and the atmosphere.
At Liou Yuan Fine Cuisine
in Chiayi City we enjoyed our dinner. They served delicious grilled fish, meat (including duck), and seafood. It was a multi-course meal with appetizer, main course, dessert, and drinks. They also provided vegetarian dishes. Next we spent the night in the City Suites hotel right by the Kaohsiung Harbor. It's a modern, comfortable hotel with a great location close to many of Kaohsiung City's tourist attractions.
The next day, we headed further south to Pingtung County where we visited the Houwan Community
. The residents there are mostly elderly, and the government has been assisting the community in the creation of local products and the development of eco-tourism. Traditionally the residents of Houwan have used the natural coral reef terrain to harvest sea salt and use bitter to produce tofu. We learned how salt is retrieved by cooking saltwater using firewood and how tofu and other tofu products, such as tofu pudding, are made. Leftover ingredients, including the tofu pulp, were used to make fried tofu cookies. This experience was great because we learned how a community can flourish by creating unique products in a sustainable way.
The Houwan Community also offers water sports and we had the opportunity to try sea kayaking in Houwan Bay, close to the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium. The sea was calm enough and it was safe – it was my first time trying kayaking. I am afraid of the sea and water sports because I can't swim. I also had some problems with my legs, so I hesitated to join the kayaking activity at first. After listening to the community's professional instructors, however, my doubts disappeared. They explained how to operate the kayak for the first time and told us what to do in case we would fall out of the kayak. I don't speak Mandarin, so thankfully the instructions were translated into English. All needed equipment, including helmets, life vest, and boots, were provided. The instructors were always close by to help us should we get into trouble. I will never forget this experience.
For lunch, we enjoyed sandwiches and a variety of drinks. A popular dish at the Me Time food bus, which is right beside the kayak operation in Houwan, is a fermented tofu chicken sandwich paired with chewy ciabatta bread, a refreshing salad, and fruits. There are different options, including vegetarian sandwich or egg sandwich.
For dinner, we went to the Blue Sea Restaurant
in the town of Hengchun; there you can order fine seafood, meat, and vegetarian dishes. I opted for vegetarian fried rice with eggs and various vegetables. The taste was delicious, and it did not look like a vegetarian meal at all. They also served tea with an excellent taste.
After dinner, we headed to the Sheding Community
near by Kenting National Forest Recreation Area. for a nighttime eco-tour. This community is active in promoting ecological conservation to protect rare animals and plants. The guide showed us some fascinating plants and animals inside Sheding Nature Park, including insects, butterflies, snakes, and frogs. We saw a large golden birdwing butterfly and a paper kite butterfly sitting right beside its chrysalis. We could take photos very close-up. Our guide also showed us different types of trees that are known for their good-quality wood. Nature-observing trips are usually organized during the day so I was glad to do this rare nighttime tour. Though I felt a little bit scared about walking in the forest, it was great to get close to nature at night and observe the beauty of the moon. I highly recommend going on this kind of tour.
On the last day of our trip, we had breakfast at our hotel, the Chateau Beach Resort.
It is right by one of Kenting's famed beaches. The beach is very clean and a great place to spend time and have fun.
Our next destination was the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area
where we would climb trees, a new outdoor activity for me. This is great for building a relationship with trees; you can learn about forest conservation, and understand the trees' vitality. We were taught the basics of tree climbing using ropes, the climbing positions, tying of ropes, and how to slowly descend back to the ground. Since this was my first time I felt a little bit scared in the beginning, but after the climbing had started, I felt pretty good. Also, the instructors were very patient when teaching me.
Next, we explored the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area a bit further. A long long time ago the Hengchun Peninsula was submerged under the sea, which explains the many coral rocks in the forest recreation area. Because of the movement of tectonic plates hundreds of thousands of years ago, large chunks of coral reefs came to the surface and that's the reason for the amazing upraised coral reef landscape here. The guides on our tour explained to us the impact the frequent earthquakes in Taiwan have on the island and how the shifting tectonic plates have uplifted the coral layers in the so called subduction zones. We passed beautiful coral rocks and also visited a lovely cave in the groundwater zone beneath the limestone layer. Inside the cave, the air was cool and humid; because of the installed lights following the path through the cave was very safe.
During our exploration tour of the forest recreation area our guide also showed us interesting plants and animals, including the looking glass mangrove tree, Formosan sugar palm, sea hearse, Formosan rock macaque, and sika deer. The looking glass mangrove tree is representative of the coastal plants in the area. The tree has an egg-shaped fruit, which can be turned into a toy or a key chain. The leaves of the sea hearse are thick and shiny and look like they are made from wax or coated with a layer of silver. In the forest you can see animals roaming about such as the Formosan rock macaques and sika deer. The deer was almost extinct at one point, due to intensive hunting and the destruction of their habitats. Fortunately, they have been successfully conserved. We were lucky to see one in the woods feeding on banana leaves.
The Kenting National Forest Recreation Area is indeed a fantastic outdoor classroom where you can learn about the history, geology, topography, biology, and ecology of this tropical part of Taiwan.
This trip was my first experience to explore two of Taiwan's best national forest recreation areas, Alishan and Kenting. Taiwan is quite different from other countries. It has a very safe travel environment, regardless whether you want to visit the forest or the beach. In many countries it is not possible for older people or those with disabilities to visit forests in the mountains, but not in Taiwan. You can see a lot of the elderly visiting the forest recreation areas. They are very accessible and there are facilities, like toilets, for the handicapped too. Finding drinking water is easy and the people at the visitors centers are always so polite and helpful. You'll find a lot of information about the tourist attractions. You can also see that Taiwan uses modern technology in forest recreation areas like Alishan, which is rare to find in other countries. I also encountered some ecological treasures I have never seen before. As a student, this trip helped me to better understand engineering, geology, topography, and ecology as well.
My tips for Muslim travelers who want to go on a tour like this is to bring a mat and do your prayers in the forest. This way you get closer to nature and God's creation. You can also inquire at the information centers. They often provide a small place for prayer and indicate the direction of the Qibla. Sometimes I prayed on the bus because the journey from one place to another was far. For food, you can ask for vegetarian food and seafood. Many of the restaurants here serve vegetarian and seafood food, so don't worry. You can also tell your tour guide about your need for halal food so you can choose food suitable for Muslims more carefully.
I highly recommend going on a tour like this to visit the national forest recreation areas. It was a great group experience. Before going on this trip I didn't know anyone, but on the trip I made many new friends. It was a lovely trip!