【Treasure hunters】Taiwan: Hidden Treasure of Asia. Truly Indeed/by Shiela Mecha Cabahug

Hello there! I am Shiela Mecha Cabahug from the Philippines. I am currently studying for a master's degree in Taiwan and I have recently discovered and unlocked hidden adventures and beauty in Taiwan with the help of the Forestry Bureau. I am so lucky to have made the 4-day-3-night Hidden Treasure of Asia trip to Alishan and Kenting together with a large group of fellow travelers. It was my first time to visit these places. In the following story I will take you on a journey to the astounding hidden beauty of Taiwan, its culture, and its nature.
On the way to Alishan

On the way to Alishan

First I took the High-Speed Rail from Taipei to Chiayi. It was a comfortable ride lasting about two hours. I almost did not make it in time for the departure of the Alishan Forest Railway train that would take us from Chiayi City up to Alishan. After boarding the train at Chiayi Railway Station we traveled from near sea level to an elevation of more than 1,500m. The railway is very famous and has a vintage vibe.

During the train ride we could see beautiful natural scenery, changing from subtropical to temperate-zone forest. I was wonderstruck by the big forest, the pictures in my science books seemingly coming to life. You will be fascinated with the wonders of nature while enjoying this train ride. At each station, you can see a sign indicating the elevation.

Did you know? The Alishan Forest Railway is the highest railway line in Asia. Even the geodetic engineer in our group was amazed at how the railway had been built on the steep slopes of the mountainous terrain. If you are curious about why this tremendous railway was constructed, I suggest you come and ride the train yourself and experience the wonders awaiting you.

It took us three hours to get from Chiayi City to Shizilu Station, currently the terminal station of the line. There, we had lunch at MX Café. I enjoyed the taste of fresh-brewed coffee, delicious true-love snacks, and chicken noodles. After such a delicious lunch we headed further on, by bus, to the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. We stayed at the Alishan House, which is located inside the recreation area. The hotel has two parts, one modern, where we stayed, and one old with a 100-year history. You can stay in either part (room rates in the old part are lower).
Exploring the Forest and the Sunrise
Exploring the Forest and the Sunrise

We went on a tour around the forest recreation area led by eco-tour guide Teacher Leo. There is beautiful greenery and you will see giant, towering trees in the forest. Teacher Leo told us that during the springtime cherry tree bloom Alishan is all pink and white. During our visit in later autumn, however, it was mostly green, but still fascinating. I want to come back during springtime. But I will need to book at least two months in advance because there will be many tourists and it won't be easy to get train tickets.

On the second day of our trip, we got up early to watch the beautiful sunrise from the Mt. Ogasawara platform. There were a lot of other visitors eager to witness how Mr. Sun rises from behind the highest peak in Taiwan, Mt. Jade. The view of mountain ranges with scattered clouds and fog was very spectacular. It was my first time seeing such a beautiful sunrise in the mountains during cold weather. This is a quiet place where people look at the elegant beauty of the sunrise and take good pictures while being mesmerized by the view.

The fun did not stop after the sun had shown up. We saw the national bird of Taiwan, the mikado pheasant, which is on the back side of the NT$1,000 bill. This is a rare bird only found in Taiwan. The male bird has stunning long feathers with which he attracts female birds. We had to keep quiet while watching it in order to not scare it away.

Our breakfast was served at Mountain Ali Tea No. 35 where you can enjoy superb high-mountain tea. Leave the tea leaf in your cup longer for a greater taste; the tea was much better than other teas I have tried before. In the past, this tea was presented by the president as a gift during visits to foreign countries. This is a vibrant place where you can enjoy the amazing views while sipping your tea. Make sure to enjoy the morning vibe, forget everything, and live in the moment.

Throughout this trip we did dine at fine restaurants, all serving very delicious food. Taiwan has so many good choices when it comes to food!
Learning about Lumber Industry History

Learning about Lumber Industry History

In the afternoon, we headed down to Chiayi City. The road downhill from high elevation has a lot of turns and though I thought I could handle the bus ride, I got a bit nauseous. So better bring some car sickness medicine. It took us 2.5 hours to get to central Chiayi. There we toured the Chiayi Lumber Factory and the Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park, where you can examine old trains and locomotives, learn about the history of the lumber industry, and understand the reasons why the Alishan railway was built.

Nearby Hinoki Village is very rich in Japanese culture as it was once a village housing officers during the Japanese colonial era. Now it is a place with gift shops and eateries. There is even a store where you can rent kimonos for taking pictures.

In the evening we enjoyed a fine multi-course dinner at Liou Yuan Fine Cuisine restaurant in Chiayi. They serve delicious mouth-watering dishes in a stylish ambiance. I have never enjoyed so many tasty Taiwanese dishes during one meal.

We stayed the second night in the City Suites hotel in Kaohsiung, which has an outstanding location close to the Pier-2 Art Center; from our guest room we had great views of the piers belonging to Kaohsiung Harbor.

On the third day, we headed to Pingtung County. This is the southernmost part of Taiwan. It is close to the Batanes islands in the Philippines, a fact that made me miss home.
Tofu Making

Sea Kayaking
Tofu Making and Sea Kayaking

There, we visited the Houwan Community where we were shown a traditional way to produce sea salt and to make sea salt tofu. This was a delightful cultural experience. Traditionally, the locals have made sea salt in a unique way, though it has similarities to methods used in Japan. So why is it unique? As far as I know, sea salt is usually produced by trapping seawater and letting it dry in the sun. Here they are producing a very fine crystalline salt you won't find in the market. To produce the sea salt they harvest seawater that is trapped on the surface of coral reefs and has been exposed to the sun for three months. The salt concentration of this water is very high. To compare the difference between this concentrated seawater and normal seawater, our teacher, Sister Heimao, put two eggs in two tall glasses, each containing one type of water. The egg in the concentrated sea water stayed afloat at the top, while the one in the normal regular sea water sunk to the bottom.

In a large wok over a large fire she boiled the water down until only the salt remained. Why do they do it this way instead of drying the water under the sun? It is because seawater today contains a lot of impurities, and by using this way those impurities can be filtered out. It took a while until all the water had evaporated, and constant stirring was needed to prevent the salt from getting burned.

We also learned how sea salt tofu, tofu pudding, and tofu cookies are made. The cookies were made with the leftovers of the tofu making process. Of course, the freshly made tofu, tofu pudding, and the cookies were all very delicious. I witnessed how passionate these locals are in their attempts to boost the local economy in a sustainable way, while trying to preserve their heritage. Traditional Taiwanese culture is very much alive here and you can envy them for having it.

Another example is the written language. Everything is written in traditional Chinese characters in Taiwan. I am not quite good at learning a foreign language but I try by self-learning, and hopefully I will get better over time.

In the afternoon, we went sea kayaking, tackling big waves in Houwan Bay. This was my first time kayaking on the open sea. It was a lot of fun and exciting, with our small boat bouncing on the big waves. It was very safe since we wore life jackets and helmets, and we were instructed what to do in case our boats would flip. I also had a reassuring and nice partner on my kayak.

Moving on to our third night, woahh! The Chateau Beach Resort. What a superb place to stay, right by the sea. Our room had a balcony and was facing the beach. The sea breeze was a bit chilly during the night and you could hear the peaceful sound of the waves. Before we went to sleep, however, we had dinner in a nice restaurant with a vintage vibe ambiance and delicious cuisine.
Night and Day Eco Explorations   tree climbing

Night and Day Eco Explorations

Then we headed to Sheding Nature Park for a nighttime eco-tour. We were immersed in nature and spotted many little creatures living there. We had to be as quiet as possible in order to not disturb them. It was very windy before going to the forest but once inside it was very calm. There was one type of plant that looked like a pineapple tree. Usually pineapple plants are short and on the ground but not this one.

We also saw some beautiful butterflies that had just emerged from their chrysalis. It’s amazing to see this kind of transformation with your own eyes in nature and not just in a science book. We also saw a lot of coral reef rocks. The giant coral reef rocks in the area are very impressive.

On our last day, we spent time in the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area. What can you find there? The area has a unique ecology because it is a tropical forest close to the ocean. Since the land was once under the ocean, giant upraised coral reefs are a common sight here. At an elevation of 200-300 meter, I could look south over the Philippine Sea.

In the forest's Fairy Cave we marveled at beautiful stalagmites and in the forest we spotted sika deer feeding on the leaves of plants. Since they are quite shy we were lucky to see them during the day.

We also had fun doing tree climbing using ropes under a giant old autumn maple tree. It was a very satisfying activity that brought me back to my childhood when I used to climb fruit trees. This was, however, a different climbing experience because we used ropes to climb up high to the canopy of the tree.
Let’s Travel to Taiwan!   Let’s Travel to Taiwan!

Let’s Travel to Taiwan!

I have already written too many words, I hope you will find inspiration in this little story for traveling and going out to see the beauty of Taiwan, the Heart of Asia. I am very grateful to have been part of this tour. I have never been so happy since I came to Taiwan, because I usually travel alone, although that does not mean I am lonely. It's still hard for me to believe that I was invited on this trip considering that my travel companions all seemed to be so much more professional than me.

Why Travel to Taiwan? Aside from the beautiful nature and scenery, Taiwan has very efficient transportation networks allowing you to easily get anywhere you would like to go. It is a very safe place, and it is great for all age groups, from young kids to seniors. One of the participants of this trip was actually a young boy who enjoyed the experience very much. During the trip, we also saw many older people having a great time in the mountains and hiking in the forest, so what is your excuse? Come and find the hidden treasure of Asia! Travel alone or travel with your family and friends!

Let me thank the Forestry Bureau of Taiwan, which is in charge of managing the national forest recreation areas on the island. We have only been to two of them. If you want to find more information about the others, you can visit the official website at www.forest.gov.tw.

Also thanks to the many people who made the Hidden Treasure of Asia tour possible, including the tour organizers of Tripbaa and the ever-dynamic staff that always looked out for us. Special thanks to freelance tour leader Ms. Moon and our photographers Yukno and Chris!

Follow Shiela on Instagram for more stories about Taiwan!