When it comes to sightseeing in Taiwan, each season has its distinct themes and particular advantages, and summer is no exception.
Between May and September, if you can handle sea-level temperatures that often top 34 degrees Celsius (93 degrees Fahrenheit), you can enjoy the wonderfully vivid outdoors. The skies are bluer, the rivers are fuller, and Taiwan’s stunning mountain ranges are clearly visible from the lowlands. In the countryside and the foothills, butterflies and wildflowers are abundant.
Fortunately, relief from the heat is never far away. Taiwanese people like air-conditioning just as much as Californians or Floridians. Countless vendors offer iced drinks and local cooling treats like aiyu jelly, mango ice, and cuo bing (shaved ice topped with delicacies such as fresh or candied fruits).
There is another option when the mercury begins to climb, and it is one many people find highly appealing. Taiwan’s rugged topography means that anyone willing to drive or sit on a bus for two or three hours can swap a sweltering city for cool breezes at a scenic spot a mile or more above sea level.
One of the island’s most popular summer retreats – and a major destination throughout the year – is Alishan. This miniature town, perched high in the hills of Chiayi County, has drawn tourists since the 1895-1945 period of Japanese rule.
More than a century ago, the colonial authorities, who were itching to exploit the area’s tracts of red cypress and yellow cypress, built a remarkable narrow-gauge railroad that still connects Chiayi City with Alishan. The former is just 30 m above sea level. The latter is 71.4 km away, 2,216 m above sea level, and several degrees cooler.
Trains go through no fewer than 50 tunnels and over 77 bridges. To reach Dulishan Station (altitude: 743 m), they make four complete circles as they corkscrew their way uphill. Closer to Alishan, to get the tracks across some especially challenging terrain, the railway’s builders resorted to a system of switchbacks where trains changed direction.
Because the Alishan Forest Railway is vulnerable to landslides and earthquake damage, services are sometimes suspended. Currently, passenger trains from Chiayi terminate at Shizilu, 1,534 m above sea level and 13 km from the entrance to Alishan National Forest Recreation Area.
If you have an interest in experiencing this historic railway — which Taiwan’s government has listed as a potential World Heritage Site — see https://afrch.forest.gov.tw/ for timetables and ticket-booking information. For general information about the region, visit the multilingual website of Alishan National Scenic Area Administration (www.ali-nsa.net).
As tourism in Taiwan has developed and diversified, the Alishan region has seen a proliferation of eating, lodging, cultural, and ecotourism options. This has greatly benefited the Tsou people, one of Taiwan’s 16 Austronesian indigenous tribes. Numbering fewer than 6,800, they are one of the country’s smallest ethnic groups. Tsou communities which sightseers used to bypass – or simply did not know about – are now firmly on the tourism map.
One of them, Dabang, is the western terminus of the Tefuye Ancient Trail. Part of this gorgeous hiking path follows the route of a long-dismantled logging railroad. Another part used to be a tribal hunting trail. Farther along Road 169, Lijia has become a destination for birdwatchers and firefly fans. Twenty-five of Taiwan’s 56 firefly species have been recorded here.
Just a few kilometers from Lijia as the crow flies but more than an hour’s drive away because the terrain is so rugged, Danaiku Ecological Park has been lauded as a model of community cooperation. Back in the 1990s, Tsou households agreed to pool fishing rights in the upper reaches of the Zengwen River and create a conservation zone for the shovel-nosed minnow, an endemic species found only in Taiwan.
At Laiji, one can join a guided tour that includes tribal stories and a hunter’s feast. Laiji is not far from Fenqihu, a quaint little town that owes its existence to the Alishan Forest Railway.
Tsou heritage is also well represented at Yuyupas Cultural Park, where performances of indigenous music and dance are mixed with opportunities to taste locally-grown tea and coffee.
Not all Tsou people live in the uplands. Zhulu, at the foot of the mountains, was established after 2009’s Typhoon Morakot prompted a number of Tsou settlements to relocate to safer ground. Zhulu (or Veoveoana, as it is known in the Tsou language) has become a base for indigenous-owned cultural-creative businesses, as well as a destination where tourists can sample Tsou cuisine and feed Formosan sika deer.
Getting to Alishan has never been easier. The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle service offers two routes. Route A sets out from Chiayi’s high-speed railway station and takes just over two hours to reach the entrance to Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. Route B connects the TRA railway station in Chiayi City with Alishan. Some buses detour to Fenqihu before making the final climb to Alishan.
For full details of routes and fares, plus schedules you can download and print out, go to www.taiwantrip.com.tw. This website describes Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus services throughout the country, and is a great help when planning any Taiwan vacation.
Properly exploring the Alishan area requires three or more days, but not everyone has the time or inclination to do that. Many Taiwanese like to punctuate July and August, when children and college students have a lot of free time, with day-long outings to the coast.
This year’s edition of the annual Taiwan Summer Tourism Festival will be celebrated in all 13 of the country’s national scenic areas, including Alishan, with a series of creative activities through which sightseers and excursionists can find relief from the heat, enjoy seasonal delicacies, and reinvigorate their mind and body.
In addition to showcasing the individual character of participating cities and counties, events developed in cooperation with a variety of businesses are set to enhance the range and diversity of the tourism industry, opening additional avenues through which visitors from home and abroad can appreciate Taiwan’s beguiling charm.
For more information about the summer festival, and all other kinds of travel intel about Taiwan, visit the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw), or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline 0800-011-765 (toll-free within Taiwan).