29th April
written by Hope

A few weekends ago, Jeremy and I took our first big overnight trip in Taiwan to Alishan National Scenic Area. Independent travel is not a big thing in Taiwan—probably because there aren’t that many Western travelers here, and Chinese people like the ease of a tour group. So, I was a little intimidated by all the stuff we had to figure out in order to get to Alishan: where to stay, how to get there, how to book the tickets, etc. Luckily, the tourist information center at Taipei Main Station will help you with all of this…seriously, the girls there went above and beyond (remember what I said about the aggressively helpful people here?): finding a cheap hotel for us, calling to make reservations, booking our train tickets and even walking us over to the counter to pick them up. They were amazing! We couldn’t have done it without them.

Alishan is located in central Taiwan on the west coast, about 250 km south from Taipei. We took the high-speed train down to Chiayi (gateway to Alishan), which took 3.5 hours and cost NT$600 each (approx. US$18). It was incredibly comfortable, clean, and spacious, and once again, we thought: damn it’s civilized here!

There are several “must-do’s” in Alishan, and the first is to take the narrow-gauge railway (one of 3 narrow-gauge mountain railways in the world or something like that?). Tickets are NT$399 (approx. US$12) one way, and it’s a good idea to book them in advance, as they often sell out and you’ll end up standing the entire 3.5 hour ride to Alishan (which can’t be fun).

alishan narrow-gauge railway

It’s funny that it took the same amount of time to get from Taipei to Chiayi as it did to get from Chiayi to Alishan, even though the latter’s distance has to be about 1/10 of the former’s. Second realization: technology is a good thing. The ride, however slow, was totally worth it, as it was incredibly scenic, passing through cloud-shrouded cedar forests and mountainsides.

When we finally arrived in Alishan, it was around 5:30pm, and already quite cold: about 12°C (54°F, though it felt much colder due to the humidity). We quickly warmed ourselves with a meal of wild boar hot pot, a specialty (along with wild deer) of this region. Despite the fact that it was only about 7:30PM when we finished, we headed straight back to the hotel to bed…the other “must-do” in Alishan is to take the 4:30AM train to Chu Shan to watch the sunrise over Taiwan’s tallest mountain, Yu Shan (almost 4000m tall). I sort of doubted our mental stability over this decision, but it turned out to be awesome. Not only is the sunrise gorgeous, but the whole “cloud ocean” phenomenon here is breathtaking. Apparently we are super lucky to have actually seen the sunrise; Jeremy’s Chinese teacher has gone twice and not seen the sunrise due to cloudy skies. I would be pretty upset if I got up at 4AM TWICE and didn’t get to see the sunrise.

There are tons of people at Chu Shan…much more than you would expect with a 4AM wake-up call, but the crowds are not annoying; in fact, it was cute—everyone was eagerly awaiting the sunrise and they even started applauding when it finally happened. Also, some people buy these polarizing glasses so they can stare directly at the sun when it finally appears over the mountains. It’s awesome.

cloud ocean and sunrise, alishan
Sunrise and cloud ocean over Yu Shan, Taiwan’s tallest mountain.

the sunrise paparazzi at alishan
Sunrise paparrazi in Alishan.

polarizing glasses, alishan
One word: awesome.

Since it was still ridiculously early, we took a walk through the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, which has many beautiful HUGE ancient cedar, fir, and oak trees.

giant tree trail, alishan

There are also some nice temples nestled amongst the giant tree forests; outside of Shouchen Temple we tried something we were calling “wild boar toffee”: they were these super-thin sheets of boar meat rolled with sesame, sugar, and nuts, and fired to a crisp. While “wild boar toffee” may not be the best marketing on our part, we promise, they were really good!

boar jerky, alishan

Later on in the day, we took the train back to a town called Fenqihu, a town about halfway between Alishan and Chiayi. We were glad that we only had to sit on the train for an hour, because on the way back, the diesel engine is in front of the train, spewing it’s stinky emissions straight into the passenger cars. P.U.!

Our plan was to hike from Fenqihu to Rueili, along the 10km Fen-Rui Historic Trail. We made sure to stop and grab the famous Fenqihu lunchbox, consisting of a pork cutlet and carious pickled veggies over rice. I’m not sure why the Fenqihu lunchbox is so famous…don’t get me wrong, it was really, really good and the perfect thing to bring on a hike, but most lunchboxes we’ve encountered contain the same things!

fenqihu bento box

The trail navigates you through some incredible bamboo forests…I felt like we were in the middle of the movie Hero.

bamboo forest, fenqihu-rueili historic trail

When we finally made it out on the Rueili side, there was a big crowd of people from one of the tour buses hanging out by the trail head. Some kids in the group saw Jeremy, the foreigner (wai guo ren), and immediately started asking him questions in English they must have learned from their schoolbooks: Do you have any brothers and sisters? How old are you? Do you like Taiwan? The little boy on the right side of Jeremy even pulled out his camera and started taking pictures of the wai guo ren!

kids with jeremy shu shu

They were very enthusiastic and they had the cutest questions. Here’s one conversation we had with the little girl on the left side of Jeremy:

Little Girl (speaking Chinese): In English, why do you say “noodles” instead of “noodle”?
Hope (also speaking Chinese): Because one strand is a noodle, and a whole bowl of them together is called “noodles.”
LG: Then why do you say “rice” and not “rices”?
Hope: That’s a really good question!
LG: Ask him (pointing at Jeremy, as if he made up the language).

And another conversation we had with the little boy who took a photo of Jeremy:

Little Boy: Ask him if he has a girlfriend.
Hope: Um, he’s my husband!
LB (amazed): REALLY?!?
H: Yes, really.
LB: How come you can speak Chinese?
H: Because my parents are Chinese.
LB: So you were born here?
H: No, I was born in the US.
LB: Then why is your hair black?

The little frowning boy on the left side of the photo was not as outgoing as his counterparts…he was so nervous around us that he would interrupt the conversation by blurting out the most random questions, like “HAVE YOU BEEN TO CARREFOUR?!?” (Carrefour is like Target/Safeway). It was kind of adorable.

After much more raucous questioning, we finally tore ourselves away and headed down the hill to Rueili, passing a mountainous landscape full of tea fields.

tea fields, rueili

Even though we had had a very long day, we weren’t going to miss out on one of Rueili’s most famous attractions: fireflies! The owner of our hotel guided a group of us over to a dark path bordered by a steep hillside, and the mountain came alive with hundreds of flickering little sparkles. I obviously could not get a photo of this, but suffice to say it was magical. Growing up in New Jersey, we used to catch fireflies in little jars and it totally made me feel like a kid again seeing these magical little creatures come alive.

We HIGHLY recommend checking out Alishan if you’re ever in Taiwan. We absolutely loved it! From the incredible bamboo forests to the sparkling fireflies to the amazing tea plantations, much of Alishan felt like a little piece of magic, right in the middle of Taiwan.

poof!, rueili

roots, alishan

in the green tunnel bamboo forest, rueili


  1. Lisa

    A++++. What a gorgeous post.

  2. Bunny

    You grew up in New Jersey? Now that is something I would have never guessed.

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