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International Mountain Day and the Glories of Taiwan’s Uplands

International Mountain Day, December 11, is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of mountains and their ecosystems to the entire planet — and in few places is this more relevant than in Taiwan.

It’s often said that Taiwan is two thirds mountains. Rugged hills surround Taipei, and on a clear day you can see the Central Mountain Range from central Taichung. Close to a third of the entire island is 1,000 metres (3,281 feet) or more above sea level, while a tenth of the land area is at an altitude of 2,500 metres (8,202 feet) or greater.

Formosan Sika Deer, Taiwan. Photo by Weichen_kh via flickr.
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These uplands are a magical realm of temperate forests, wild yet shy animals and unique bird species. You needn’t venture far into the foothills to spot Taiwan’s only primate, the Formosan macaque, also known as the Formosan rock monkey. Deeper in the mountains there are nocturnally-active Reeves’s muntjacs, as well as larger animals like the Formosan sambars and Formosan black bears.

Mountain birdlife includes the Taiwan partridge and the Mikado pheasant. Both are endemic species, meaning they can be seen nowhere else on Earth. As soon as you leave the lowlands, you’ve a good chance of seeing a Crested serpent eagle, circling as it hunts for rodents and snakes. 

At such elevations there are hardly any permanent human residents. However, trekking through Taiwan’s mountainous interior is popular with both local people and international travellers. With 258 named peaks above 3,000 metres (9,843 feet), it’s no exaggeration to say that one lifetime isn’t enough to scale every summit and tramp every trail.

Taroko National Park, Taiwan. Photo by Rich Matheson.
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Taroko Gorge, Taiwan

When combined with tropical weather patterns, Taiwan’s incredible topography results in rivers that are short but often violent. One of these waterways carved out — and continues to deepen — the breathtaking sight that is Taroko Gorge.

The gorge deserves its status as one of Taiwan’s top three attractions, but we love taking guests off-the-beaten-path to the lesser-visited inland section of the park too. Best accessed by private car and personal driver, it includes world-class mountain vistas and isolated villages where indigenous Austronesian cultures and languages endure.

Jade Mountain Southern Peak, Taiwan. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
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Mount Jade, Taiwan

The theme of this year’s International Mountain Day is sustainable mountain tourism, a subject dear to the hearts of Life of Taiwan and the island’s hiking fraternity. Because of the country’s tremendous population density (more than double that of the UK and eight times that of the US) and a growing interest in outdoors activities, the authorities take great care to manage the impact of tourism on ecologically sensitive regions.

Travellers hoping to hike to the highest point in Northeast Asia, the peak of Mount Jade (also known as Yushan; 3,952 metres or 12,966 feet above sea level) will need a permit to do so. Accommodation is limited and there’s a strict quota system. For at least a month each winter, the mountain is closed to all but researchers. The same applies at Snow Mountain (also known Xueshan), Taiwan’s no. 2 peak with a height of 3,886 metres (12,749 feet). If you’re interested in including one of these peaks in your Life of Taiwan journey, be sure to let your travel designer know and we’ll do the heavy lifting to secure your permits for you.

Alishan, Taiwan.
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Alishan, Taiwan

A historic mountain resort 2,216 meters (7,270 feet) above sea level about two hours’ drive from Chiayi’s high-speed train station, Alishan offers visitors gorgeous giant-cypress groves, several user-friendly hiking paths and (for those willing to rise before dawn) a sublime ‘Sea of Clouds’ experience.

At certain times, the authorities impose traffic controls on roads approaching Alishan and other popular spots in the mountains. Flower season in Yangmingshan National Park — which has several excellent half-day and day-long hikes — draws big crowds, so roads are closed to non-residents’ vehicles. Life of Taiwan can, of course, organize private guiding and transportation for those hoping to attend. To prevent traffic jams and reduce air pollution, similar arrangements are in place on busier days during Alishan Cherry Blossom Festival. Best of all, follow Life of Taiwan’s crowd-dodging advice: ‘Visit cities at the weekend, and mountains mid-week.’  

Cherry Blossom Season in Alishan, Taiwan. Photo via Wikimedia.
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Taiwan’s mountains are highly accessible but they must never be underestimated. Visitors should stick to the trail (so they don’t get lost, as well as to protect the environment) and come prepared for changeable weather. Even at high altitudes, close to midday it can be gloriously sunny and feel like 30 degrees Celsius (86 degrees Fahrenheit). When the sun sets, however, it can freeze.

When exploring high-altitude Taiwan, it makes sense to do it with someone who has experience and local knowledge. Whatever your interests, Life of Taiwan can pair you with an English-speaking expert.

To plan your next Taiwan journey, get in touch with us today. Our experienced travel designers would love to share their know-how and help you plan a customized trip that suits your every need.