What to do in Alishan: A guide to sustainable travel experiences and local, indigenous culture
Updated: Jul 28, 2020
In July of 2020, the Taiwan Ecotourism Association organized an ecotour of Alishan that highlighted the environment and local, indigenous culture. Read below for unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences that you can explore on your next trip to Alishan
Chukou Visitor Center (Alishan National Scenic Area Administration Office) 觸口遊客中心
On your way to the Alishan mountain range, be sure to stop by the Chukou Visitor Center. A 30-minute drive from the Chiayi High Speed Rail (HSR) station, the friendly staff at the visitor center will fill you in on all the special activities happening in the forest area. They are a valuable resource that can also provide transportation suggestions and tour recommendations. Reserve some time to watch the 18-minute introductory video at the center, and to learn how the building was constructed using architectural techniques that allow it to blend in with nature.
On the weekends, be sure to check out the Yokeoasu Market behind the visitor center, an indigenous farmer’s market that sells food, drinks, and indigenous handicrafts made by the local Tsou tribe.
Photos by Tony Coolidge, Indigenous Bridges
Shengli Farm 生力農場餐廳
Once you get up into the mountains, be sure to make a pit stop (or make a reservation for lunch ahead of time) at Shengli Farm. The mountaintop restaurant and farm offers picturesque views of terraced tea fields and the Alishan mountain range.
The tea-themed lunch they serve is prepared with all organic vegetables grown by the owners (think: oolong tea chicken soup). Visitors can also book a tea-picking experience in advance.
Alishan’s indigenous tribes 阿里山原住民
The Alishan mountain area is primarily dominated by members of the Tsou tribe (鄒族) while Han Chinese and members of the Bunun tribe make up a minority.
Dabang village is the largest of the Tsou villages with its own hunting grounds and fishing area. It was founded roughly 300 years ago and sits across the Iskiana River from the Tefuye, the other main Tsou tribe in Alishan.
Visitors to the Dabang village can take a tour guided by the village's chief. In addition to the Tsou Nature and Culture Center, visitors can take a close look at the village’s Kuba, a male assembly lounge that is central to the Tsou tribe. Kubas can only be found in the Dabang and Tefuye villages, and the annual Mayasvi (War) Festival is hosted in rotation at the two kubas. In the past, skulls of enemies were hung in wicker baskets in one corner of the Kuba.
The four supporting pillars of the Kuba are made from 500-year-old trees, and the Kuba was built using traditional methods. A red banyan tree sits directly across from the Dabang’s Kuba. It is believed that it serves as a ladder to the God of War
Guests can stay overnight with the tribe inside the village at the Secret B&B (秘密旅民宿) or at the Mimiyo B&B (白紫茶香居民宿), a 15-minute drive from the Dabang village. Also owned by a Tsou tribe member, the Mimiyo’s B&B’s owner offers his guests the chance to learn how to shoot a bow and arrow:
Dining (with song and dance!)
The Dabang tribe also likes to perform their beautiful music for their village guests. They will even teach you their tribe’s dance so get your dancing shoes ready- it’s a great bonding experience and an honor to learn their culture in this way! Watch below:
Leye (Lalauya) village 樂野部落
The Leye, or Lalauya people, are a sub-tribe of the larger Tefuye tribe. In their language, “Lalauya” means “beautiful maple forest,” a name which refers to the original geography of the tribe’s land before the timber industry and coffee cultivation efforts depleted most of the maple trees.
DIY indigenous experiences 不插電咖啡體驗:
In addition to a comprehensive village tour, the Leye tribe offers a unique, hands-on experience called the “Unplugged DIY Coffee Experience” (不插電咖啡體驗) where they teach guests how to make coffee from bean to cup without the use of any modern-day equipment. It is a fun, physical activity where you get to work closely with the tribe members while singing and dancing and having fun! Watch below:
FKUO is an indigenous-owned restaurant and tea house. In fact, it is the only indigenous-owned tea house on the Alishan Highway (Provincial Highway 18 台18 縣). [See this Google guide to more indigenous-owned restaurants throughout Taiwan].
In the Tsou language, “FKUO” means “Mountain Hibiscus,” a flower that holds deep, cultural significance to the tribe. All of the tea served at FKUO is cultivated using traditional, labor-intensive methods. The picking, fermenting, and roasting of the tea leaves are all done in-house by the indigenous owner and his younger brother. They hope that their labor of love can be tasted in the tea that they serve.
Additionally, FKUO serves traditional indigenous cuisine, such as “abaye,” a meat and sticky millet “dumpling” wrapped inside a leaf. The colorful food is also made using traditional methods and served on natural materials available in the Alishan area.
To learn more about the Tsou people of Alishan, check out this bilingual (雙語) guide:
Alishan Four Seasons Tea Tour (Alishan Tea Festival) 阿里山四季茶旅
The Alishan Four Seasons Tea Tour is an annual, year-round event that takes place high up in Taiwan’s beautiful Alishan forest area. A hands-on experience with live music, arts & crafts, and local food, visitors can learn about the art of the Taiwanese tea ceremony as well as the local indigenous culture in the Alishan area.
Alishan Four Seasons Tea Tour: Summer Tea Festival 夏季茶會
The annual tea festival is divided into seasons, each with a unique theme that highlights the surrounding Alishan environment and culture. Each seasonal event - scheduled to align with the lunar calendar’s six solar terms - is meticulously planned by local tea experts. In 2020, the summer session took place on July 18th was divided into four intimate events at different locations around the Alishan Forest area. I attended the tea ceremony inside the Dinghu Trail, a pristine hiking trail lined with bamboo trees. The entrance to the trail was decorated to lead guests to the event space, using natural flowers, plants, and glass bottles tied to square, wooden arches; the sound of the glasses clinking together represented “nature’s doorbell” and thus signified our arrival.
The ceremony took place inside a terraced tea garden, set against the backdrop of Alishan’s towering trees. Chinese poems were read to begin the ceremony, then, two women began to pluck the traditional guzheng as tea sommelier’s performed the century-old tea ceremony flow in sync.
After the beautiful musical performance, guests had the chance to try their hand at conducting a Taiwanese tea ceremony by themselves. Groups of 5 were seated with 1 local sommelier each, who first demonstrated the gestures, technique, and flow of the tea ceremony. Then, it was each guest’s turn to try to mimic the graceful hand movements of the tea masters.
Off-the-beaten-path: Tour Alishan’s hidden treasures
The Alishan National Forest Recreation Area makes up 1,400 hectares of natural terrain at about 2,200 meters above sea level. The area is famous for its towering trees, sea of clouds, sunrises and sunsets that span across the 18-peak Alishan mountain range. Together with the iconic red train, these attractions are known as “Alishan’s Five Wonders.” A national tourist attraction with cooler temperatures than Taiwan’s subtropical areas, the forest can get quite crowded, especially during the summer. Below are some recommendations for those wanting to take the road less traveled.
Alishan’s “hidden” 360-degree viewing platform 小笠原山360度觀景台
To view Alishan’s beautiful sunrise, visitors must wake up at around 2:15 AM in the summertime and around 4:00 AM to catch the train that brings guests to the Zhushan Viewing Platform 祝山觀景台. Every morning, 500 to 1,000 tourists stop here to view the sunrise.
However, just behind the popular viewing platform is a 10-minute, uphill hike that will take you to an even better spot called the Xiaoliyuanshan Lookout 小笠原山360度觀景台. The 360-degree viewing platform was newly completed in 2005 and is located at an altitude of 2,448 meters. Because it is a bit far and a bit of a challenge to reach (at least at 4’o’clock in the morning) few tourists make it to this lookout in the morning. Those who veer off the traditional path will be rewarded at this lookout with a 360-degree view of Taiwan’s Central Mountain range, (Yushan) Jade Mountain and Alishan Mountain range, all with fewer tourists!
Mountain Ali Tea No.35 茶田35號
Along the trek to the Xiaoliyuanshan Lookout, you will pass a wooden tea house called Mountain Ali Tea No. 35. Because most tourists don’t venture the steep incline towards the viewing platform, this tea house also remains a hidden gem where you can sip tea outdoors amidst the Alishan forest.
Mr. Wu Chih-Ching is an Alishan local who opened Mountain Ali Tea No. 35 to share his tea farm with the world and make tea accessible and affordable for all. Now a respected tea sommelier, Mr. Wu has won tea competitions for the past 30 years. He grows his tea at an altitude of 8,200 feet in the high mountains of Dabang (Tapangu) village, mentioned above. Mr. Wu also roasts his own tea, managing the whole leaf-to-cup process.
Visitors can learn more about tea, including how to brew it, from the owner’s older sister who speaks English, Japanese, and Mandarin. The shop offers YingXiang Oolong Tea, Black Tea, Oolong Tea, and Jin Xuan Tea.
Address: 605, Chiayi County, Alishan Township, 103號
Alishan House is an iconic, 4-star hotel that dates back to 1913. In addition to serving as a historical landmark and luxurious hotel, they are also home to a 1950-style coffee shop. Formerly a dance hall from the 1950’s, this space has been converted into a coffee shop that serves coffee, soft drinks, wine, and dessert, and Halal meals. The vintage gramophone still plays classical music!
Guests can also enjoy their coffee outside at the Song Ting Coffee Cafe, right outside the 50’s coffee shop along a trail of the Alishan Forest Recreation Area. While you sip your coffee under alpine trees, you can also enjoy views of the sea of clouds or beautiful sunset from the outdoor cafe.
Location: Alishan Guest House Historical Building, 6 Floor
50’s Coffee Shop Hours: 1:00 PM - 9:30 PM
Song Ting Outdoor Coffee Shop Hours: 9:00 AM - 5:00 PM
Other places in Alishan worth the hike:
This tour was sponsored by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, MOTC in conjunction with the Alishan National Scenic Area Administration Tourism Bureau, MOTC. Special thanks to the Taiwan Ecotourism Association and Japan-Taiwan Exchange Association in Taipei.