【Treasure hunters】A 4-day, 3-night tour through the Alishan and Kenting forest recreation areas/by Francesca Chang

2020.12.19
Climbing to New Heights in the Mountains

I became a blogger in Taiwan by accident

As a Taiwanese-American, I grew up knowing very little about my heritage. My Taiwanese-born father left the island when he was just a child. The first time he returned to his motherland was when I decided to study Mandarin (and Taiwanese) at the National Taiwan University (NTU) in 2006. I was 19 years old, and it was the first time in over 50 years that my father had set foot on the island.

After my 3-month study-abroad program, I graduated from UCLA and then returned to Taiwan to teach English from 2008 to 2010. After meeting my future husband, the two of us moved back to the States where I pursued law school and where we eventually got married. Neither of us thought we'd be living in Taiwan again, but fate had other plans. Three years ago, my husband was relocated to Taipei for his job. As an ex-lawyer, I had no idea what I would do in Taiwan (but I knew that I never wanted to practice law again).

As soon as I returned to Isla Formosa, I sent an email to the editor of Travel in Taiwan, a publication that I had written for as a side gig during my English-teaching days. Johannes Twellmann, for whom I had previously written, immediately responded and offered me a writing assignment the very next week, an article about kayaking in Fulong, which was then edited by Rick Charette, the English editor of the magazine. My writing eventually caught the attention of the editor at Taiwan Scene, the official blog for MyTaiwanTour, and my freelance assignments eventually evolved into a full-time position, which allowed me to explore Taiwan deeply – scouting the entire island for unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences tailored to foreign visitors.

Unfortunately, due to COVID-19, I lost my job when Taiwan closed its borders to the outside world. But thanks to the exceptional response to the pandemic here, I never stopped traveling the island. So I turned all of my travel experiences (both work-related and leisure-related) into a blog, while simultaneously sharing my Taiwan experiences via Instagram, Facebook, and even on a YouTube channel. And thanks to this social media presence, I was selected as one of ten participants to go on the Hidden Treasure of Asia tour. Together with nine other travelers, I explored two of Taiwan's national forest recreation areas, Alishan and Kenting, and much more. Below is my experience.


DAY 1

The Journey Begins/Chiayi HSR Station to Chiayi Railway Station


I woke up at 5am to catch the 6:30am High-Speed Rail (HSR) train from Taipei to Chiayi. The minute I stepped off the train, I ran into Johannes. Given that he was responsible for my start as a travel writer, it was probably no coincidence that he was the first person I met on this trip. Shortly after, I found Rick. Although Rick has edited the articles I have written for Travel in Taiwan magazine for years, we only met in person for the first time last year. It was no surprise to me that both were two of the selected participants for this tour.

The three of us greeted our tour guide, Moon Liu, at Chiayi HSR Station, and together with the staff and the other participants we hopped on a bus and headed to Chiayi Railway Station. On the bus ride over, I met Flavio Noriega, a student from Peru who is currently studying in Taiwan. At 20 years old he’s almost the exact age I was when I first stepped foot on this island. His passion for life and Taiwan reminded me so much of myself at that age.
 
Shizilu Station

Alishan Forest Railway/Chiayi Railway Station to Shizilu Station

Although this was my third time to Alishan, it was my first time riding the famous Alishan Forest Railway, from Chiayi Station to Shizilu Station. This is the highest narrow-gauge railway in Asia (the track is only 762 millimeters wide). The line also has a spiral section (near Dulishan Station), and a horseshoe bend (at Shuisheliao Station), making this railway journey truly a rare attraction.

Teacher Liu, a passionate local who accompanied us on the 3-hour train journey, explained to us the historical significance of the line and the engineering features of the train and the track; she even pointed out to us her childhood house, which can be seen from the train!

During the train ride, I got to know two other participants, the passionate students Shiela, from the Philippines, and Raudlah, from Indonesia. Although they had just met for the first time they already acted like good old friends. During this journey, it was so inspiring to watch them laugh at each other’s jokes and practice Tik Tok dances together.

I also met Eric and Ian who run the YouTube channel The DoDo Men with the goal of inspiring people to step outside their comfort zones. Just two months prior, they had quit their 9-5 jobs in California and moved back to Taiwan where they had lived as children. They had just decided to take a huge risk to pursue their dreams and explore their motherland for the first time as adults and they reminded me of where I was exactly three years ago when I moved back to Taiwan after quitting law.
 
MX Café

Shizilu Station and MX Café

Shizilu Station is currently the terminal station of the Alishan Forest Railway line between Chiayi and Alishan (a section of the track further uphill was destroyed by a typhoon years ago and has yet to be restored). “Shizilu” means “crossroads,” as this is the location where two old paths, connecting the tribal villages of Dabang and Laiji, the forest area of Alishan, and the plain area of Chiayi, intersect.

After getting off the train at Shizilu, we walked a short distance to the MX Café. This café was opened by Max Wu, a local who came back here after pursuing education in the big city. His goal is to revive the area by bringing more business to Shizilu and engage with visitors by sharing the area's history and culture. Max began studying coffee brewing as a hobby while being in high school. One day when he saw his mother selling vegetables by the train tracks, he came up with the idea for starting this café, a business that would allow him to combine his passion for coffee with his mother's cooking.

Today, MX Café serves high-quality coffee made from Arabica beans grown in the mountains of Alishan. Max collaborates with local coffee farmers and rotates the type of beans he uses on a regular basis. He also serves hearty sesame oil chicken noodles and a boba and fig seed jelly (aiyu) dessert featuring house-made tapioca pearls; the pearls are coated in sugar to prevent them from hardening when served on ice.
 
Sister Ponds

Alishan National Forest Recreation Area

After the delicious meal at MX Café, we headed by tour bus to the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. The name “Alishan” refers not to a single mountain, but to a large mountainous region, the Alishan Range, one of Taiwan’s five mountain ranges. The forest recreation area is famous for five “wonders”: The forest railway, the temperate-zone forest, the sunrise over Mt. Jade, the “seas of clouds” that form in the valleys, and the beautiful sky during sunset.

The area's eight most popular sights are: Tashan Peculiar Rocks (Tashan is at 2,663m the highest peak in the Alishan Range), Ogasawara Mountain (named after a Japanese official who inspected Alishan’s forests), Shuishan Giant Tree (red cypress, 30m tall, about 2,700 years old), Xianglin Arch Bridge (an old stone bridge), No. 28 Giant Tree (red cypress, 43m tall, about 2,000 years old), Ciyun Temple Scenery (scenery around an old temple built by the Japanese in 1919), Shenyi Waterfall (a scenic stretch of mountain stream), and Alishan Sacred Tree Relics (remains of a 50m tall, about 3,000 year old red cypress).

We enjoyed an illuminating and educational tour of the forest area led by a volunteer guide, Lanny Huang. Sadly, almost all of Taiwan’s native red cypress (hinoki) were cut down during the Japanese colonial era. Be sure to visit the giant trees that are still standing!

Alishan House

Overnight we stayed at the Alishan House, the highest-altitude five-star hotel in Taiwan. During its long history it has housed many national leaders, including a Japanese prince. From its rooftop you can enjoy marvelous views in the evening, including sea of clouds and the sunset. The hotel also has a well-preserved café dating from the 1950s.

At dinner I met my roommate for this trip, Ami, of Taiwan's Trails and Tales, an inspiring blog that encourages city girls like me to get out of the city and “into the hills.” Ami's passion for the outdoors and the amount of work she puts into her blog posts really inspired me to both appreciate nature and work harder on my own passion for sharing stories about Taiwan!

DAY 2

Climbing to New Heights in the Mountains


We woke up before 4am to catch the train from Alishan Station to Duigaoyue Station. Most visitors view the sunrise at the Zhushan platform, but a 10-minute hike further uphill will bring you to an even better viewing spot with fewer tourists. So we hiked.
 

Mt. Ogasawara Viewing Lot

The Mt. Ogasawara Viewing Lot is a 360-degree viewing platform at an altitude of 2,448 meters that was completed in 2005. We got lucky with the weather, it was a clear day and we were able to see three of Taiwan’s mountain ranges (Central Mountain Range, Yushan Range, and Alishan Range) from the platform. We saw the sun rising over the summit of Yushan (Mt. Jade), the highest peak in Taiwan, and we bonded over this magical moment by sharing and taking pictures together.

Tip: If you wait until most of the tourists have left, you will likely see two of Taiwan’s endangered bird species around the platform, the Mikado pheasant and the Swinhoe's pheasant.
 
Mountain Ali Tea No. 35

Mountain Ali Tea No. 35

On our descent from the Mt. Ogasawara Viewing Lot, we stopped for breakfast at Mountain Ali Tea No. 35. This tea house is run by a brother-sister duo. The brother, Mr. Wu Chih-ching, is an Alishan local who opened the tea house to share the products of his tea farm with the world and make tea accessible and affordable for all. A respected tea sommelier, Mr. Wu has won numerous tea competitions over the past 30 years. He grows his tea around Dabang (Tapangu) Village and roasts the tea himself, managing the whole leaf-to-cup process.

Mr. Wu's sister is a very hospitable host. She taught us how to properly brew and drink tea. It was my second time meeting her, and we bonded very quickly over similar views on seeing the world and following one’s passion. Having spent a third of her lifetime overseas, she speaks Mandarin, English, and Japanese.

In the basement of the tea house is a space for rotating exhibitions. During our visit, we were able to explore My Homeland, an exhibition by Lin Pan-song, that explored the infinite visual possibilities of the shape of Taiwan through pointillism.

Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park and Chiayi Lumber Factory

After enjoying local high mountain tea in the morning, we visited the Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park back in Chiayi City later in the day. The park is located near Beimen Railway Station, the second stop on the Alishan Forest Railway line. There you can get up close to numerous decommissioned locomotives and train carriages, and you can also have a look at the turntables used for changing the direction of locomotives. Next to the park is the Chiayi Lumber Factory. Our local tour guide, Mr. He Sheng-jie, gave us an educational tour of both these historic attractions.
 
 Hinoki Village

Hinoki Village

Originally a dormitory cluster for Japanese officials working in the logging industry, the 26 buildings of Hinoki Village are mainly constructed of Alishan cypress (hinoki) wood. The precious wooden buildings have been converted into modern-day restaurants and stores to give them a new purpose. While learning about the history of the village, visitors can also take photos wearing traditional Japanese kimonos.

Liuyuan Shahai Cuisine Restaurant

In the evening, we dined at one of Chiayi’s best-known restaurants. Liuyuan Shahai Cuisine Restaurant was established by local gourmet Li Qing-yang. We enjoyed a rich multi-course dinner made with fresh seasonal ingredients and made a toast with refreshing passion fruit drinks served in champagne flutes.

DAY 3

Local Traditions and Nature Expeditions
 
Houwan Community’s An Jia Chun Eco Leisure Village

Houwan Community’s An Jia Chun Eco Leisure Village
On the third day of our tour, we visited Hengchun, the southernmost township of Taiwan. “Hengchun” translates as “eternal spring,” the name referring to the abundant sunshine and pleasant weather almost all year round on the Hengchun Peninsula.

We learned how to make tofu and tofu products the traditional way from Sister Heimao (Black Cat), a retired ballroom dance teacher who returned to her hometown of Houwan to preserve local traditions and the natural environment.

In the past, the locals had limited access to salt, but salt was essential as it was used as a preservative during the days before refrigeration and for making things like miso and soy sauce. The locals resorted to their own, natural resource nearby. They harvested sea salt from the natural coral reef rock terrain.

Sister Heimao taught us how to produce sea salt by frying seawater in a large wok over a wooden fire, giving each of us a turn to try. “Clean salt comes from a clean ocean,” she said. An advocate for ocean conservation, Sister Heimao collects trash from the ocean every day.

Next, she taught us what the locals used to make tofu products before the days of chemical additives: bittern. Bittern, or nigari, is a bitter-tasting solution that remains after evaporation and crystallization of sodium chloride (salt) from brines and seawater. Using the bittern that she already prepared from the seawater, she and her staff taught us how to make firm tofu, soft tofu, and my personal favorite – tofu pudding.
 
Houwan Tour – Sea Kayaking Fun

Houwan Tour – Sea Kayaking Fun

After filling up on tofu, we headed to the Houwan Community’s kayak operation where we suited up for a kayaking adventure on the sea at Houwan Bay. Houwan is located on the west coast of the Hengchun Peninsula and the bay is also home to the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium. The sea here is calm and safe, perfect conditions for our kayaking outing. We kayaked to the shore on the north side of the bay and learned what to do in case we were to capsize. We even “surfed” the ocean waves in our kayaks – something I had only ever done on a surfboard!

ME TIME Food Cart

After our water adventure, we showered and enjoyed a hearty meal from the ME TIME food cart, parked right next to the kayaking base. I enjoyed a fermented tofu chicken sandwich, made with chewy Ciabatta bread and served with a refreshing salad, healthy fruits, and appetizing cold carrageen seaweed that was picked from the nearby ocean.

Sheding Community Nighttime Eco-tour
In the evening, we continued to explore nature, this time during a thrilling nighttime eco-excursion tour in Kenting’s Sheding Nature Park, led by Mr. Wu Fu-sheng. He was the most passionate naturalist I have ever met – he made the tour enjoyable and comical at the same time!

DAY 4

Time to Say Good-Bye

  
Kenting National Forest Recreation Area/Tree Climbing

Kenting National Forest Recreation Area/Tree Climbing
On our last day, we toured the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area and climbed trees! The tree climbing experience was arranged to help us connect with nature. In fact, the mere fact that we had to “look up” at the trees during the climbing was meant to counteract the habit of always “looking down” at one’s cell phone. The experience was an individual and challenging one, but I could feel the support from my new group of friends at all times. And we were assisted by an amazing group of instructors and volunteers.

The Kenting National Forest Recreation Area is a tropical forest with coral reef rocks uplifted by tectonic movement some 500.000 years ago. A major feature of the area is its limestone landform. Geological treasures, including stalactites and stalagmites, can be found in caves here. Walking through the Fairy Cave felt like being in a different world. We enjoyed a tour of the park’s diverse ecosystem accompanied by six generous English-speaking volunteers.
 
Walking through the Fairy Cave felt like being in a different world

A Final Poem

It was really hard to say good-bye at the end of this trip. I had explored more of this beautiful island, learning about its rich history, its struggles, and triumphs, and connected deeply with its natural geography while bonding with amazing people.

And it inspired this poem I wrote:

And as the sun rose over the tallest mountain in Taiwan,
she felt her soul come alive.
It was her second time here,
but the first time, in a long time,
she felt whole again,
surrounded by people who shared
the same passion for Taiwan,
the same passion for following their dreams, and
the same passion for life,
she saw herself in each and every one of the ten travelers.

The 19- and 20-year-olds who just arrived in Taiwan for the first time
and wanted so desperately to learn the language and the people.
The 30-year-old vloggers who had just returned to the island to travel and
pursue their dreams.
And even the established editors who had seen the sunrise a handful of times
but could never grow old of it.
She had found herself in the forest.