The high-altitude resort of Alishan has long been one of Taiwan’s most popular tourist destinations, thanks to an alluring blend of mountain scenery, pristine forests, indigenous culture and temperatures appreciably lower than the 30-plus degrees Celsius often experienced on the lowlands.
For some, the narrow-gauge railway that climbs from 30 m (98 ft) above sea level to 2,216 m (7,270 ft) is reason enough to visit Alishan. This century-old railroad – built to carry supplies up and felled trees down – features no fewer than 77 bridges and 50 tunnels, and delivers passengers to the heart of Alishan National Forest Recreation Area.
Public buses ply Highway 18 between Chiayi City and Alishan; these stop at each major settlement en route. A few services start at Chiayi’s high-speed railway station and some that go all the way to the quaint little town of Fenqihu. However, reaching the most attractive parts of the 415-square-km Alishan National Scenic Area means either driving yourself or joining a Life of Taiwan personalised tour.
Because it sees far less traffic – and offers some superb views – many repeat visitors prefer Road 159A to Highway 18. Suitable for both cars and motorcycles, this road links a string of tiny villages where ginger, runner beans, cabbages and tea are grown. Road 159A joins Highway 18 at the crossroads town of Shizhuo, a good place to pause for lunch before heading onto Alishan or taking the side road that leads to the aboriginal communities of Dabang and Lijia.
An alternative road not far from Shizhuo connects Xinmei, Shanmei and Chashan, all of which are inhabited by members of the Tsou tribe. This road also provides access to the northeastern corner of Greater Tainan.
Not everyone living in the Alishan area is aboriginal. The handful of families who have the excellent luck to live in Dinghu (elevation: approximately 1,650 m / 5,413 ft) are Hakka. There’s a very good reason to arrange for a driver to bring you to Dinghu, which a few km north of Highway 18. From the village it’s possible to tramp along well-marked and well-maintained trails through gorgeous woodlands and bamboo groves all the way to Fenqihu or Duolin. If you’ve strong legs, consider making your way to the top of Mount Dadong (1,976 m / 6,483 ft). Hiking, secure in the knowledge that your driver will be waiting for you at the other end, is pleasure no one on a self-driving or public transport itinerary can enjoy!
In Laiji, another remote indigenous community in Greater Alishan, coffee is grown and outsiders are warmly welcomed – as more than one Life of Taiwan traveller can testify!