嘉義 Chiayi to 阿里山 Alishan

Hiking Taiwan

紅毛埤山 Hongmaopishan is a small hill (150 m) west of Chiayi near the shores of Lantan Lake. Only a few minutes’ walk from the main road, it’s a rather unremarkable peak hidden on a small patch of trampled grass between residential houses. There’s constant barking coming out of the properties. A local man feeds a dog in a cage next to his house, a specimen so large and terrifying I can only pray to never encounter it when it’s not securely tied to the massive metal chain clanging with its every move. I feel bad for the poor animal being locked in like this, and I wonder why people have to keep “attack dogs” here.

As underwhelming as the Hongmaopishan peak, or lack thereof, is, Lantan Lake is a picturesque place worth visiting, especially around sunset. It’s late in the day, and I only have a little time to explore the other trails encircling it. I hike down to and follow the main road along the Eastern shoreline. Half an hour later, I reach National Chiayi University. The bright lights of a 7-Eleven illuminate the bus stop outside. The waiting area quickly fills up with young students finishing their courses. I buy some dinner and squeeze into the next bus for a short ride back to the city.

The following day, I wake up early, taking a bus to 松腳 Songjiao. My destination is 獨立山 Dulishan, an 840 m high hill near the tracks of the Alishan Forest Railway. Ever since I first visited Alishan, I have wanted to explore it more. Wishing to take my time getting lost in its lesser-visited lower areas. Craving to gaze at the sea of clouds hanging over the tea fields and watch the small settlements and food stalls that merely fly by your window when you take the journey by train. Although “flying” is a strong word given that the trains rattle up the mountain at a peaceful 30 km/h. The other day, a fellow ex-pat told me about their journey to Alishan, taking a straight bus from Chiayi. I took that trip too, whenever I went to Yushan. There’s only little to see along the way except for the winding mountain road and passing traffic. I wanted to move slower. Walking is a good pace to take in your surroundings. And sometimes, we have to just stop and wait and feel before we continue.

My partner and I took a self-organized backpacking trip from Chiayi to Shizilu (and Alishan) in a 3-day mix of trekking and train rides one and a half years ago. I wrote about some of it for a German magazine. Today, I want to see how far I can get in a single day.

The morning air is fresh, moist and foggy as I climb up narrow stairs from Songjiao. Still, I soon reach above what’s called the “Sea of clouds”, one of Alishan’s landmark sights. The early morning sun illuminates a sheet of white hanging like the most comfortable blanket between the palm trees and the valley below. The road is steep, and my body is tired from all the hiking of the previous days and weeks. All of this is quickly forgotten each time I turn over my shoulder, taking another look at this beauty of nature.

I pass through a small village (Zhangnaoliao?) where the trail up Dulishan starts. It leads through the forest and over an old suspension bridge. Once in a while, there’s a clearing offering delicious views of the clouds and the mountains. I huff and puff my way up to where the trail intersects the railway. Food and drink vendors are already setting up their stalls, waiting for the first trains of potential customers to arrive. I crave some cold drink too, but I decide to complete the last twenty minutes to the top of Dulishan first. On the way, I can see some tunnels the train has to travel through to achieve its unlikely journey to the top of Alishan. At Dulishan, the track spirals up the mountain, forming three clockwise and one counter-clockwise circle along the hill before pushing on towards Fenqihu. It’s quite a sight on aerial photos or route maps of the area, and it’s interesting to witness this piece of early 20th-century engineering up close.

After a quick rest on top (no views from the summit itself), I descend to a stretch of the railway above the tiny Dulishan station. A cup of Aiyu jelly with some lime juice and loads of free refill ice is the perfect thirst quencher to regain my energy. On a side note, the preparation of Aiyu jelly is a curious affair (I had the chance to try it at a workshop some time ago). The seeds look inconspicuous at first, but once you submerge them in water and begin rubbing them against each other, a yellowish jelly slowly (very slowly, in my case) begins to emerge. Mix it with fresh lime juice and ice, and you’ll soon enjoy a yummy and healthy summer drink.

Being cautious about time, I have booked myself train tickets for a later train, so I have more than an hour to spare. I wander around the station area and rest on a steep section of road near a restaurant, stretching my legs and relaxing under the warm sun. After watching two trains pass, it’s my turn, and I catch the next one from Dulishan station to Fenqihu.

畚箕湖 Fenqihu is a popular rest stop along the Alishan railway. It’s at about the halfway mark of the original line. Logging workers would get their lunch here, a tradition that gave birth to the famous bento boxes sold next to the station. Today, it’s also accessible by road, so it’s usually busy on weekends. Not having had breakfast besides my Aiyu jelly, I happily buy one lunch box of type “E”, which is wild boar meat with rice and some vegetables and devour it quickly.

Having food in my tummy gives me a boost of fresh energy, and I decide to hike 大凍山 Dadongshan as well. The trailhead is a short car ride away. Not having my own transportation, I, once again, walk there. It’s about 2.5 kilometres, first on a trail but mainly along the road. At the trailhead, vendors are selling drinks and fruits.

The trail to Dadongshan is a joyous walk through a beautiful, dense Alishan forest. Halfway up, I greet a group of workers replacing wooden steps to repair the trail. I listen to music and climb up steadily until I reach the viewing platform at an altitude of 1976 meters, where local hikers are already enjoying their afternoon meals.

Back in Fenqihu, I have time to visit my favourite coffee shop. I’m taking a break from drinking coffee, but I still buy a bag of freshly roasted beans for a friend. I try to ask the owner whether their beans are organic, but either my question, his answer, or both got lost in translation. Alishan coffee is not the cheapest (especially for Taiwanese prices), but I enjoy its mild taste. It also has a sweet spot in my heart for reminding me of my many hiking trips.

I also queue up to buy the famous Fenqihu doughnuts. Their warm, sweet smell fills the entire street, emanating back to the end of the queue where my tired legs are waiting in line. I usually ignore queuing for food, but the Fenqihu doughnuts are as simple as they are soft, sweet and delicious. I also want to bring some back for my friends in Taipei.

I pay and hurry back to the bus stop. After taking the slow way up, my return trip is much speedier. The bus takes me to Chiayi HSR, and the high-speed rail carries me back to Taipei in no time.