Alishan, a cool mountain resort located at 8,530 ft/2,600 m, is a wonderful antidote to the humid world below. The best time to visit is at sunrise, when the jagged peaks are ringed in mist known as the Alishan Sea of Clouds, just like in Chinese paintings.
Spend the rest of the day hiking past Alishan's lakes, forests and 3,000-year-old Sacred Tree, an old-growth cypress.
The most scenic way to get to Alishan is on the narrow-gage mountain steam train, which slowly puffs through spectacular countryside. Bear in mind that although the trip is an adventure, it would not be considered deluxe. The railroad was first implemented by the Japanese in 1912 as a lumber operation and was never intended for passengers. Passenger cars were added in 1920 to meet the growing demands of lumbermen and area residents.
Because of the steep, mountainous terrain, ordinary trains are unable to complete the mountainous trek, which is why the small-gauge system was implemented. In fact, this is only one of three alpine railways in the world. The trip can be hair-raising for even the most intrepid travelers.
The train passes through 49 tunnels and over 77 bridges on its steady climb and it also traverses three different climate zones—tropical, subtropical and temperate. Travelers should dress in multiple layers. At the beginning of the trip, at sea level, it is hot, but it will turn breezy by the end of the line.
Travelers should book rail tickets in advance. The railway is very popular with locals and during peak seasons, such as cherry blossom season in spring, when standing-room-only tickets are commonly sold to late arrivals.
If adventure on the rails doesn't appeal to you or you are short on time, you can take a two-hour bus ride from Chiayi to Jhaoping, which will get you to Alishan with less drama, but also with fewer scenic vistas.
Travelers to Alishan planning to catch the sunrise should disembark in Jhaoping Station, where many of the area's hotels are located. Here, in the early morning, everybody crowds onto the Jhushan Rail line to catch the train's predawn departure (times vary, based on the sunrise schedule) to the east side of the Alishan mountain area.
After dawn has broken, most visitors climb back on the train to return to their hotels for breakfast or an early-morning nap. Some hike back to Jhaoping to enjoy the fresh mountain air.
Along the way, hikers connect with the Trail of Giants, which includes impressive Taiwanese red cypress trees and the 3,000-year-old Sacred Tree. Other popular sites in Jhaoping include the Sisters Pond, a magnolia garden, Jhaoping Park and Shoujhen Temple, which is known for its 10,000 miniature Buddhas, each one lit up with an LED light.
Alishan's stunning beauty is certainly worthy of a day trip; however, visitors wanting to make the sunrise pilgrimage should plan to spend the night in Jhaoping, as there are limited ways to get into the park at 4 a.m.
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