Finally, it's time for my first adventure outside the larger Taipei area. I take a high-speed train from Banqiao to Chiayi (HSR) on Friday night to catch the Alishan Forest Railway's morning train. It's possible to go on the day itself, but there's no need to rush.
The Forest Railway takes you back in time as it ever so slowly works its way up the hills of Alishan. I love trains but if you want to move fast, take the bus. Initially opened under Japanese rule in 1912 to transport logwood from Alishan down to Chiayi, the line currently runs from Chiayi to Shizilu after typhoons damaged large portions of the tracks in 2009 and 2015. There are many small towns, villages and trails along the way and they'd be well worth checking out some other day (if only to avoid the Alishan crowds). After relaxing with a coffee at , I take a short bus ride to arrive in Alishan proper.
The forests of Alishan are a beautiful place to relax and recharge. The afternoon sun shining through the trees and the fog create an almost magical atmosphere. The air is clean and fresh, and even though it's still a bit crowded, Taipei's hustle and bustle feels worlds away here. I sketch out my plan for a sunrise hike which mostly consist of finding the start of the trailhead so I wouldn't struggle to locate it in the dark the next day. I'm tempted to hike Tashan for sunset but then settle for a small platform with Jade Mountain views instead. There's not a soul around after sunset as I head back to the hotel. I walk with my headlamp through the dark, startled by every noise and movement of the night forest.
I start around 4 am the next morning and realise I should've probably bought water and snacks from the convenience store the night before. Would you believe a queue at 7-11 at four o'clock in the morning? Then again, I shouldn't be too surprised. Sunrise is one of the major attractions in Alishan, and there are a few popular viewing platforms a short train ride or walk away from the main road. I want to avoid the masses and decide to hike 大塔山 Datashan (Mount Daito) instead. Headlamp on again and off I go into the forest, still blanketed in darkness.
Things go well for about 15 minutes before my hiking boots start to detach themselves from their soles. There's no need for sturdy boots on this trail (my usual attire would be barefoot shoes or no shoes), but I want to test them before going on any more demanding hikes in Taiwan. It turns out this is a good idea because I rather have such an equipment mishap happen here than on Snow Mountain. I decide to carry on, but both soles peel off more and more. Maybe it's my shoes’ way of telling me how they feel about having been locked away in a humid bomb shelter in Singapore for the last three years. I finally rip the soles off proper and continue my way up to the summit.
When I arrive, there's already a group of hikers from Taipei taking pictures of the sea of clouds, and the sunrise for which Alishan is so famous. I make some new friends and have my photo taken a decent amount of times (Taiwanese are serious about the number of photographs to take on top of a mountain).
If you come here for sunrise take note that the view to the East is partially blocked by the Tashan observatory. You could get the best views from its roof but you are not allowed to go there. After enjoying the early morning sunshine for about an hour, I hobble back down in whatever is left of my shoes (no worries, they've been repaired since).
If the forest has looked nice the day before, the morning light brings out even more of its beauty. Two sika deer jump across the trail a few metres in front of me, and all I think of at first is why I've just put my camera away. I still have a lot to learn (about my priorities).
After getting some rest and a good shower, I buy a few boxes of Alishan coffee. Later, I almost loose track of time chatting with the store owner over multiple rounds of the most delicious black tea, interestingly served to me in a shot glass. I never knew black tea could be smooth and light enough to be palatable without any milk or sugar. Around lunchtime, I embark on my long journey back to Taipei, reminiscing about my weekend, hoping I can come back soon while the old train is chugging gently down the slopes again, not in a hurry.