Floyd and I just got back from an overnight getaway in Ali Shan, one of Taiwan’s beautiful mountain areas. It’s famous for its spectacular sunrise, which is the main reason most people visit. (However, I must confess that in the picture below, we’re standing in front of a mural!)
We arrived Monday late afternoon, and they let us check in early. Then we got back in the car and drove up to Ali Shan National Scenic Area to make sure we knew how to get there for the sunrise the next morning. It was about an hour’s drive from Mountain Hometown along steep, winding mountain roads. The park entrance fee was pretty reasonable (450 NT – about US$14 – for the two of us and our car, with Floyd’s student discount). We found ourselves in a little shopping area with a visitors’ center, restaurants, gift shops, and even a 7-Eleven, all surrounded by scenic forest criss-crossed with hiking trails. There was a train station there too, where we bought tickets for the next day’s 5:10 a.m. departure to Chushan, the famous sunrise spot.
Ali Shan’s Forest Railway is quite famous in Taiwan. We saw lots of tourists taking pictures of each other in and in front of the little red train, on the tracks, and by the various railway signs.
Back at Mountain Hometown, we enjoyed a tasty dinner (ordered in advance on their website when we made our reservation) and hit the sack early. The alarm rang at 3:30 a.m., which I think is probably the earliest I’ve ever purposely woken up to start my day! We packed up, loaded our car, and drove back up the mountain in some of the thickest fog I’ve ever seen. It was a little scary, but we made it safely back up to Ali Shan Scenic Area with time to spare. We boarded the train (standing room only) and enjoyed a 40-minute ride up to Chushan.
There was an observation area at the top with a viewing platform, souvenir shops, restrooms, and stands selling savory-smelling hot foods and drinks. Yep, that’s how people enjoy the beauty of natural wilderness here in Taiwan!
When we first got there (a little before 6 a.m.) it was still pitch black, but as the sky gradually lightened, we saw that the mountainscape below us was covered in clouds. Gradually the clouds began to clear, and everyone waited breathlessly, hoping hard that there would indeed be a spectacular sunrise worthy of the tales we’d all heard.
The sun was supposed to rise at 6:15, and as the moment approached, more and more of the mountains became visible. But at exactly 6:14, a massive bank of fog came surging in from the south and settled heavily over everything, reducing visibility to a few yards. And that was our Ali Shan sunrise.
We took the train back down through the fog to where we’d started and then enjoyed a long hike along one of the trails through the forest.
Of course, bear in mind that a “hiking trail” in Taiwan is usually a wide, smoothly paved route with handrails when it gets steep and frequent warning signs in the “dangerous” sections. Ali Shan’s trails were no exception!
You can also expect lots of strict signs about what is not allowed in that particular corner of nature.
I guess they didn’t want us to leave the path?
The warning sign above was on a suspended bridge over a stream.
I like the parts that prohibit “frolicking” and instruct visitors not to “make annoying sounds” or “engrave text and graphics” on “panels”!
The trees in Ali Shan’s forest are mostly Taiwan red cypress. They were all covered with moss and were quite beautiful. Through a combination of the growth process and the effects of rot, many of the trees and stumps had twisted themselves into all sorts of unusual shapes.
Various animals supposedly live in the forest, but besides the occasional bird, the warty little guy below was the only wildlife we spotted in Ali Shan.
Below: trees have the right of way on Ali Shan trails!
Partway through our hike we came to a little museum with displays about Ali Shan’s historic railroad, lumber industry, and aboriginal people. It would have been more meaningful if we could read Chinese, but the exhibits were still interesting. I wouldn’t recommend a trip to the area just to see the museum (it only took us about ten minutes to see everything), but if you’re there anyway, it’s worth taking a look.
At one point we came to an open area by a temple where people were selling trinkets and snacks. We bought pork sausages on sticks from this lady; they came with a saucer of seasoned powder for dipping. (The powder was tangy and complemented the salty sausage flavor nicely – but be careful not to inhale as you’re about to take a bite!) We asked what other kinds of sausages she had, and turns out there were several different meats represented. The black ones are cuttlefish!
After several hours of hiking, we returned to the visitors’ center area for lunch. It felt as though we had stayed all day, but of course that was because our day had started so early. We drove back to Taichung tired but satisfied that we had done (as far as we could tell) nearly all there was to do in Ali Shan. Too late, we discovered that the sunset is apparently pretty impressive there too, but for now we’ll have to content ourselves with the pictures we took by a mural.
Yesterday Floyd and I and some friends drove up to the mountains to enjoy a day in a national park called Sun Link Sea. Why is it called that? I have no idea! Though it boasts of some beautiful waterfalls, flowerbeds, forested mountain peaks, and even snow at certain times of the year, there is nothing remotely resembling a sea for miles around. Except maybe the sea of clouds visible when you look down from some of the viewpoints.
It took about two and a half hours to drive up from Taichung, counting a few pit stops and wrong turns. It was a beautiful blue sunny day, and we enjoyed some great mountain views along the way. It’s always nice to get out of the smog and be reminded that there’s more to Taiwan than city. For the last part of the journey, we drove through thick green forest, with strikingly bright poinsettias growing wild beside the road. Huge spider webs stretched from tree to tree or from branch to ground, but we saw no other wildlife.
Once we were up at our destination, we enjoyed a picnic lunch beside a slow green river, near a few restaurants, gift shops, cabins, and a tourist information center. From there we decided to hike to the “Blue Dragon Waterfall” a mile or two away. (I hesitate to even use the word “hike”, since we were on a paved path the whole way, reminiscent of some of the so-called “hiking trails” I remember in Yosemite. But it was a pretty walk, in any case, with the river on one side and forest on the other.)
As we were walking, the mist started to blow in up the river. We were all surprised at how quickly it was moving in. Within a couple of minutes, the sky was no longer blue, and we couldn’t see more than a few yards in any direction. It gave the forest a mysterious, spooky look, and as for the river, we could barely see it at all.
It was kind of fun walking through the misty woods. You can imagine our disappointment, though, when we got to the grand viewpoint, with the thunder of falling water all around, and were unable to get even the tiniest glimpse of the waterfall through the fog!
After walking back to where we’d started from, we decided to try to see another waterfall, but we were tired and unwilling to risk walking all the way only to be disappointed again. So we “cheated” and took a little tour bus a few miles upstream, where it dropped us off right by the other waterfall. There was less mist in this area, so we had a good view, and were able to walk right up to it. Once again, they had walkways all around, so it wasn’t exactly wild and pristine, but it was beautiful nonetheless. We were even able to walk around behind the waterfall into a shallow cave, and look out at the river and the plunge pool from the other direction.
When we returned to base once again, we decided to enjoy the water for just a little longer before we had to leave. We rented two paddle boats for half an hour or so, and Floyd and three of the others had a great time pedaling up and down the river, racing each other, feeding the ducks, and switching boats mid-stream. I ran along the bank, meanwhile, and took pictures and video.
We had to hurry back home so as to be out of the mountains before it got dark. The mist was bad enough, but driving down that twisty road in the dark as well would have been a little too scary for some of us. We hated to leave such a scenic spot, but it was good to know we had discovered a place where we can go to retreat into nature again sometime.