There’s a hugely popular Taiwanese song called Alishan De Guniang. Literally translated ‘Girl of Ali Mountain’, the song recalls a love affair between a boy and a girl of the indigenous Tsou tribe. With Taiwan’s Alishan mountain range as its backdrop, it’s a beautiful tune. But as much as it is a conventional love story, the song also pays homage to the famous peaks themselves:
‘The girl on Ali Mountain is as beautiful as the water,
The boy on Ali Mountain is as strong as the mountain.
The high mountain is always green,
The valley water always clean,
The girl and the boy will never part;
The clean water will flow around the green mountain forever.’
Around each bend of Alishan’s (very windy) roads, within its ancient forests, over every crest, lies something you feel could inspire a song – or from a traveller’s perspective, a long visit. It’s a natural allure that draws travellers from Mainland China; that, and the fact that until recently, Chinese read only two things of Taiwan: Sun Moon Lake and Alishan Mountain, says our local guide, Francis. And it’s an attraction international tourists are slowly discovering, although on our visit we see very few.
One of the most extraordinary aspects of Alishan National Scenic Area, as the region is officially known, is its diversity. One can travel through three bio geographical zones – tropical, subtropical and temperate, or from sea-level to 2,663 metres – within just three hours. But at the top of most visitors’ lists of things to see in Alishan, at the top of the region itself, is the ‘Sea of Clouds’.
Arguably Taiwan’s most iconic image, this remarkable sight forms when the sun rises over what looks like an ocean of clouds below, with a few mountain peaks appearing as islands. While most folk head to the area around the high-altitude Zhushan Station (the end of the line of the renowned Alishan Forest Railway) to witness the Sea of Clouds, better views can be had from nearby Mt Ogasawara lookout, which stands at a higher 2,488 metres.
Further down the mountain, past the Cherry Blossom Skywalk, and later ‘Sister Ponds’ (named for two siblings who fell in love with the same man, before committing suicide) lie the forests of Taiwanese red cypress trees. The Japanese logged most of the oldest trees during their occupation of the country, and according to Francis, only around forty giants remain. But those that exist today, of which many are over 2,000 years old, certainly make their presence felt.
On our first walk, we’re impressed by the Three Brothers tree (named for the three red cypresses growing out of one stump), bemused by the pig-shaped stump (named for obvious reasons) and fall for the massive, dangling heart formed by the intertwined roots of another cypress. And that’s only the beginning. Just beyond the very colourful Shouzhen Temple and requisite food stalls, which sell among things, Alishan’s acclaimed high mountain tea and equally admired fresh wasabi, await the oldest remaining trees.
The impressive, 450-metre Giant Trees Plank Walk takes you past the 16 largest mammoths, as well as over a few beautiful bridges. However, it is a fallen giant known as ‘Alishan Sacred Tree’ that garners the most attention. Adjacent to the derelict but charming Shenmu Station, the 3,000 year-old tree collapsed in 1997 following heavy storms, though it is still considered one of the most important attractions in Alishan.
A few steps away, next to the country’s highest (and best hidden?) elementary school, are the Pagoda of the Tree Spirit, the Kawai Memorial and the Alishan Museum. Close to this is the beautiful Cihyun Temple, built by Japanese Buddhists who thought Alishan looked like the Linjoushan, the place where Buddha preached in India.
But on a nature tour of Alishan, one can’t go past (though could easily miss) the Mihu Trail. Located about halfway down the mountain range, off windy Highway 18, the Mihu Trail stretches some 2.3 kilometres parallel to the pretty Miyang River. Wending its way through a stunning bamboo forest, the trail looks as though it’s been taken straight from a Chinese painting. And best of all, it’s deserted.
Francis describes the Mihu Trail as a place where one can “forget everything”. In this unpeopled forest, you feel the outside could forget you too.
During the rainy season, the tranquil sounds of the river can be heard; today, all we hear are the singing birds and insects. And as we’ve found out on our tour of Alishan, there’s a lot to sing about.