When the Japanese conducted the first comprehensive topographical survey of Taiwan, shortly after seizing control of the island in 1895, they were stunned to discover that their new colony had at least three mountains higher than their own beloved Mount Fuji. The island’s tallest point was given the Japanese name Niitakayama (“New Highest Mountain”), and in 1904 it was recorded as being 3,945 meters high.
Half a century later, the U.S. military estimated the height as 3,997 meters. By then, Taiwan was ruled by Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese Nationalists, who renamed the mountain Yushan (“Jade Mountain” or “Mount Jade”).
The most recent official measurement of Yushan’s height is 3,952.43 meters (12,967 feet). Although it is the tallest mountain in northeast Asia, any fit individual with suitable clothing and footwear can reach the summit. Technical climbing skills are not required, but planning well ahead is essential.
Trekking to the top of Yushan in time for the sunrise has become a rite of passage for many Taiwanese. To protect the area’s fragile ecology, however, the number of people allowed on the mountain each day is strictly controlled.
Usually permits must be applied for weeks in advance. These can be obtained via Yushan National Park’s website, or with the help of one of Taiwan’s specialist hiking-tour companies, who can also help book beds and meals at the Dongpu and Paiyun Lodges.
The Dongpu Lodge, located close to the highway at Tataka, is used by both hardcore alpinists and tourists exploring the mountains by car, motorcycle, or bus. Paiyun Lodge, 3,402 meters above sea level on the trail to Yushan’s main peak, is where hikers sleep before making their predawn push for the top, using flashlights where the trail switchbacks through thick forests. Very often, moonlight illuminates the final scramble over frigid rocks. When conditions are good, the reward for all this exertion is a breathtaking set of glorious panoramas.
If the ascent of Taiwan’s highest mountain sounds too daunting, instead devote a few hours to exploring the trails around Tataka. There is no permanent human settlement here, some 2,610 meters above sea level, but meals and hot drinks are available inside the Tataka Visitor Center.
Bird and butterfly enthusiasts will want to look at the exhibitions inside the center, while the botanically inclined will enjoy reading the information about high-altitude trees and plants. One of the most fascinating examples is Formosan pieris, an endemic evergreen shrub. Until a generation or two ago, indigenous people living in Taiwan’s highlands used to mash up its leaves to make an organic pesticide.
Visitors wanting a less strenuous workout than Yushan can make for the top of Mount Lulin (2,845 meters), Mount Linzhi (2,854 meters), or Mount Dongpu (2,782 meters). In terms of views of Yushan, the last of these three peaks offers the best return on time and energy invested.
The majority of those visiting Tataka or tackling Yushan approach via Alishan. A leading tourist attraction since the Japanese colonial era, Alishan National Forest Recreation Area is also the terminus of the Alishan Forest Railway, one of the world’s most remarkable railroads. The 71.4-kilometer-long line climbs from 30 meters above sea level to an altitude of 2,216 meters. For detailed information about the Alishan region – including the forest railway’s schedule – go to the website of the Alishan National Scenic Area Administration.
There are plenty of eating and accommodation options in and around the recreation area, and several buses per day connect it with Chiayi City and the Chiayi High-Speed Railway Station. In addition, bus route No. 6739 links Alishan with Sun Moon Lake via Tataka and the intensely scenic New Central Cross-Island Highway. Seats on this bus should be booked in advance; English-language information about the route can be found online.
About nine kilometers along the highway from Alishan to Tataka, tourists often stop at Zizhong to take in the view and use the bathroom. Many also stretch their legs on the Tefuye Historic Trail. This 6.32-kilometer-long path cuts through temperate woodlands between Alishan and Yushan National Park, and offers one of the region’s finest hiking experiences.
Because getting to either trailhead by public transportation is impractical, some mountain enthusiasts park at Zizhong, hike downhill to the path’s southern terminus, then retrace their steps. Only the fittest individuals should attempt this, however, as it involves first descending and then climbing approximately 600 meters. Arranging to be dropped at the northern entrance and collected later in the day from the southern trailhead makes for an ideal ramble through the woods.
The Tefuye trail is historic in that it was once part of a network of footpaths that connected the region’s communities long before roads crisscrossed the hills. The trail takes its name from Tefuye Village, a bastion of the Tsou ethnic group.
The Tsou tribe now numbers around 6,700 persons. Tsou families live throughout Greater Alishan, and many of them work in the tourist industry. For the most part, the Tsou dress like Taiwan’s Han majority, and use of the Tsou language is declining. Only during their exuberant tribal festivals does their distinctive identity become obvious.
The uplands north, south, and east of Yushan are the traditional stomping ground of another of Taiwan’s 16 Austronesian tribes, the 60,000-strong Bunun people. Unlike some of the country’s other indigenous groups, their society is patrilineal.
Until recently, the Bunun lived by hunting and gathering rather than agriculture, a way of life reflected in the annual Ear-Shooting Festival. Known as mala-ta-ngia in the tribe’s language, and held in late April or early May, it is an opportunity for Bunun men to show off their archery skills by aiming for an animal’s ear nailed to a post.
Christianity became the principal religion in Taiwan’s indigenous communities more than half a century ago, yet the Ear-Shooting Festival includes rites that express ancient animist beliefs. The gathering is also an occasion for feasting. Home-cooked dishes and millet wine are consumed.
Certain Bunun culinary traditions are likely to surprise Western visitors. For example, the Bunun are fond of raw flying-squirrel intestines pickled in rice wine. More palatable to outsiders, perhaps, is the so-called “lovers’ soup.” It is believed that a couple that shares a serving of this dish – which combines Chinese yam (representing the man) and papaya (for the woman) – is destined to grow ever closer. Whether you travel to Taiwan with your significant other, a good friend, or by yourself, you are sure to leave with a treasure trove of fond memories. For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website, or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll free within Taiwan).