Taiwan is known throughout the world for its cutting-edge tech industries and the vibrancy of its democracy. Among birdwatchers and butterfly aficionados, it is famed for harboring fabulous biodiversity. But few people realize that, for its size, it can claim to be the world’s most mountainous island.
Taiwan is only slightly larger than the U.S. state of Massachusetts, yet two-thirds is rugged uplands, and there are five major mountain chains. Almost a third of the country’s total land area is 1,000 meters (3,281 feet) or more above sea level, while a tenth reaches 2,500 meters (8,202 feet). The highest peak is Mount Jade, called Yushan in Mandarin, at 3,952 meters (12,966 feet). It is also the highest mountain in northeast Asia.
Not surprisingly, the vast majority of the population lives and works on the plains, venturing into the hills only to hike, enjoy the scenery, or soak in some of Taiwan’s many natural hot springs. On a clear day, high mountains are visible from Taipei, and well-maintained roads provide easy access to many high-altitude locations. But short of renting a car or a motorcycle – and risk getting lost – how is a tourist to explore these alluring realms of forest, mist, and indigenous culture?
Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau has come up with a solution. Taiwan Tour Bus (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw) provides access to a number of places which tourists who do not speak Chinese would find very difficult to reach by public transportation. Each service comes with a guide who introduces sights along the way (in English, Japanese, or Chinese – the website has full details), and makes sure no one gets left behind.
The Tour Bus system has been in place for more than a decade, and each itinerary has been fine-tuned to maximize visitor enjoyment.
Most Taiwan Tour Bus excursions are a day long. One exception is the Qingjing and Lishan Two-Day Tour to the highlands of central Taiwan. The weekend/holiday price of NT$5,090 for adults and NT$3,690 for children includes transportation, meals, admission charges, and overnight accommodation in Lishan Guest House, formerly a country retreat for the late President Chiang Kai-shek. On weekdays, prices are around 20% cheaper.
The tour stops first at a winery in Puli before proceeding to Qingjing Farm. Established in the early 1960s as a place where veterans of the Chinese Civil War could settle and take up animal husbandry, the farm’s sheep and pasturelands are a big hit with Asian tourists. Lishan is 60 kilometers away, but every minute of the drive is a scenic delight, as the road first climbs to 3,275 meters above sea level near Hehuanshan, then drops down into a valley where fruit-farming is the main activity. On the second day, passengers are given a guided tour of Fushoushan Farm, sometimes called “Taiwan’s Little Switzerland,” before returning to the lowlands.
Qingjing Farm can also be visited by booking the one-day Wushe and Qingjing Tour. The price of NT$1,850 per person includes lunch, afternoon tea, and admission to Evergreen Grassland, where animals graze in an alpine setting. One of the most interesting stops on this excursion is Chung Tai Chan Monastery, a striking Buddhist edifice designed by C. Y. Lee, the architect behind Taipei 101.
The Shei-Pa National Park and Guanwu Tour is another two-day exploration of spectacular mountain scenery. The national park is named for two of Taiwan’s iconic peaks, the 3,886-meter-tall (12,749 feet) Snow Mountain (also known as Mt. Xue or Xueshan) and Mount Dabajian (3,490 meters or 11,450 feet).
For NT$3,999 (children pay NT$1,500), those who sign up for this trip get transportation from the Hsinchu High-Speed Railway Station to the northwestern corner of the national park, and accommodation at Shei-Pa Leisure Farm some 1,923 meters above sea level. Blueberries and kiwis are among the fruits grown here, and those who stay on the farm typically spend the afternoon wandering through its orchards. Evenings are given over to stargazing.
Inside Guanwu Recreation Area, five short hiking trails allow visitors to gaze at distant mountain ridges while getting close to ancient cypress trees. The weather here is often foggy – the place name translates as “behold the mists” – and when visibility is limited, outsiders will soon grasp why Taoist mystics in ancient China believed mountain mists could invigorate and rejuvenate.
In southern Taiwan, the most famous high-altitude tourist destination is Alishan. Developed as a logging center in the first few decades of the 20th century by the Japanese, who then ruled Taiwan, Alishan has long been renowned for its magical scenery. Linked to the lowlands by one of the world’s most remarkable narrow-gauge railways, the resort can also be reached by private car, taxi, regular local bus, or Taiwan Tour Bus.
The one-day Alishan Culture and Nature Tour sets out from major hotels and railway stations, and approaches Alishan via one of Taiwan’s premier tea-growing districts. A stop is made at the highly-rated Yuyupas Tsou Cultural Tribe Park, which was created to promote and celebrate the traditions of the local Tsou people, one of Taiwan’s 16 Austronesian aboriginal tribes. There, tour-group members enjoy not only a lunch featuring indigenous cuisine, but also as a performance of Tsou songs and dances.
The tour then proceeds to Alishan National Forest Recreation Area for a couple of hours of gentle hiking through sublime woodlands. Depending on the season, the view may include delicate pink cherry blossoms, or autumnal shades of red and yellow.
The price of NT$1,600 per person includes everything except admission to the forest recreation area, which is never more than NT$200, and cheaper on weekdays.
Travelers who prefer to organize everything themselves, yet still want to let someone else do the driving, have various options. For example, the mountainous township of Sandimen in Pingtung County, which has an impressive range of indigenous eateries and stores selling aboriginal arts and crafts, is well served by regular public buses.
Several buses per day link Qingjing Farm and Wushe with Puli, which itself is very easy to reach by public transportation. The daily 6506 bus service from Fengyuan in Greater Taichung also passes through Puli, then follows the exact same route as the Taiwan Tour Bus Qingjing and Lishan Two-Day Tour. This bus does not make sightseeing stops, of course, but it does reach Lishan early enough to allow visitors to explore some of the town’s pleasant walking trails, such as the one that starts right behind Lishan Guest House.
For additional information about Taiwan’s attractions, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within the country).