Finding myself in the forest: Taiwan's "Hidden Treasure of Asia" tour through Alishan & Kenting
Updated: Nov 28, 2020
A BIT OF BACKGROUND
I became a blogger in Taiwan by accident.
As a (half) Taiwanese-American, I grew up knowing very little about my heritage. My Taiwanese-born father fled the island when he was just a child to escape religious persecution and the KMT's oppressive martial law. The first time he returned to his motherland was when I decided to study Mandarin (and Taiwanese) at the National Taiwan University (NTU) in 2006. I was 19 years old, and it was the first time in over 50 years that my father had set foot on the island.
After my 3-month study abroad program, I graduated from UCLA and then returned to Taiwan to teach English from 2008-2010. After meeting my future husband, the two of us moved to the States where I pursued law school and where we eventually got married.
Neither of us thought we'd be living in Taiwan again, but fate had other plans.
Three years ago, my husband was relocated to Taipei for his job. As an ex-lawyer, I had no idea what I would do in Taiwan (but I knew that I never wanted to practice law again). As soon as I returned to Isla Formosa, I sent an email to the Editor of Travel in Taiwan, an international publication that I had written for as a side gig during my English teaching days in Taiwan. Johannes Twellmann, for whom I had previously written, immediately responded that he "was still here in Taiwan" and offered me a writing assignment the very next week. I wrote about kayaking in Fulong, and Rick Charette edited the article (and all future articles I would write.)
My writing eventually caught the attention of the editor at Taiwan Scene, the official blog for MyTaiwanTour. My freelance assignments eventually evolved into a full-time position at the company where I got to explore Taiwan deeply- scouting the entire island for unique, off-the-beaten-path experiences tailored to foreign visitors.
Unfortunately, due to COVD-19, I lost my job at MyTaiwanTour when Taiwan closed its borders to the outside world. But thanks to Taiwan's exceptional response to the pandemic, I never stopped traveling the island. So I turned all of my travel experiences (both work-related and leisure-related) into a blog, while simultaneously sharing Taiwan via my Instagram, Facebook, blog, and even YouTube channel.
And thanks to my social media presence, I was selected as 1 of 10 winners to participate in Taiwan's Forestry Bureau's Hidden Treasure of Asia tour. Together with the 9 other participants, we explored Taiwan's National Forests, including the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area and the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area. Below is my experience.
TAIWAN FORESTRY BUREAU'S 4-DAY, 3-NIGHT TOUR
THROUGH ALISHAN AND KENTING FOREST RECREATION AREAS
DAY 1: The journey begins
Chiayi Railway Front Station (Alishan Forest Railway Ticket Office) 嘉義車站
I woke up at 5:00 AM to catch the 6;30 AM high-speed rail (HSR) from Taipei to Chiayi. The minute I stepped off the train, I ran into Johannes. Given that he was responsible for my start as a travel writer, it was no coincidence that he was the first person I ran into.
Shortly after, I found his counterpart, Rick. For years, Rick had edited the articles I wrote for Travel in Taiwan, but we had only met the previous year. Together with Johannes, the duo had also started a personal blog called Taiwan Everything. It was no surprise to me that they were 2 of the winners of the contest.
The three of us greeted our tour guide, Moon Liu, at the Chiayi HSR station, and together with the staff and the winners we hopped on a bus and headed to the Chiayi Railway Front Station:
On the bus ride over, I met Flavio Noriega, an international student from Peru who was pursuing his studies in Taiwan. He was 20 years old, almost the exact age as I was when I first stepped foot on this island. His passion for life and Taiwan reminded me so much of myself at that age.
Alishan Forest Railway (Chiayi Railway Station to Shizilu Station)
Although this was my third time to Alishan, it was my first time riding the famous Alishan train track. We took the train from the Chiayi Railway Station to Shizilu Station, riding the highest narrow-gauge railway in Asia (only 762 millimeters wide!) The train track also has a spiral section (Dulishan Station), and the horseshoe bend (Shuisheliao Station), making this railway journey a truly rare attraction.
We were accompanied by Teacher Liu (劉淑敏), a passionate local who accompanied us on the 3-hour journey. She explained the historical significance of the line, the engineering features of the train and track, and even pointed out her childhood house!
During the train ride, I met two other, passionate students, Shiela and Raudlah. Although they had just met for the first time and were from the Philippines and Indonesia, respectively, they got along like old friends. During the journey, it was so cute and inspiring to watch them laugh at each other's jokes, and practice Tik Tok dances together on the bus.
I also met Eric and Ian of "The DoDo Men, - 嘟嘟人" two YouTubers whose goal is to inspire people to step outside their comfort zones. Just 2 months prior, they had quit their 9-5 jobs and moved back to Taiwan where they lived as children. They had just taken a huge risk (and escaped COVID-19) to pursue their dreams and begin exploring their motherland for the first time as adults.
They reminded me of where I was exactly three years ago when I moved back to Taiwan after quitting the law.
Shitzilu Station 十字路車站)/ MX Café 鳴心咖啡
Shitzilu Station is currently the terminal station of the Chiayi-Alishan line (a part of the track was previously destroyed by a typhoon). "Shitzilu" means "crossroads," as the four intersecting paths at this station lead to the 1) The Dabang tribal village 2) The Laiji tribal village 3) Alishan and back to 4) Chiayi.
As soon as we disembarked the train at Shizilu Station, we walked a few feet to MX Cafe. Opened by Max Wu, a local who came home after pursuing education in the big city (返鄉青年) the cafe's goal is to revive the area by bringing more business to the train tracks and engage with visitors by sharing the area's history and culture. Max began studying coffee brewing in high school as a hobby. One day when he saw his mother selling vegetables by the train tracks, he came up with the idea of starting a cafe that combined his passion for coffee and his mother's cooking.
Today, MX Cafe serves high-quality coffee made from Arabica beans grown in the famous "high mountains" of Alishan. Max collaborates with local coffee farmers and rotates which beans are used on a regular basis. He also serves hearty Sesame Oil Chicken Noodles and a boba and fig seed jelly (愛玉) dessert featuring their house-made tapioca pearls; they coat the boba pearls in sugar so that they don't harden when served on ice.
Alishan National Forest Recreation Area (阿里山國家森林遊樂區)
After the delicious meal at MX Cafe, we headed to the iconic Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
The name "Alishan" refers not to a single mountain, but, rather an entire mountain range. Specifically, the Alishan mountain range is a ridge of Taiwan's highest mountain, Jade Mountain. The scenic area is famous for its five wonders:
The forest railway
The "Sea of Clouds"
The area's eight most popular sights are:
The Tashan Peculiar Rocks
Shuishan Giant Tree
Xianglin Arch Bridge
No. 28 Giant Tree
Ciyun Temple Scenery
Alishan Sacred Tree Relics
We enjoyed an illuminating and educational tour of the forest area by Forestry Bureau's volunteer guide, Lanny Huang (黃聯海):
Sadly, almost all of Taiwan's native red cypress (hinoki) was depleted during the Japanese colonial rule. So be sure to see the giant trees that are still standing!
Alishan house 阿里山賓館
That evening we stayed at the Alishan House. Alishan House is the highest altitude five-star hotel in Taiwan. According to historical records, it has housed many national leaders, including a Japanese Prince. The hotel features breathtaking views, a viewing deck to watch the sea of clouds and sunset, as well as a preserved, 1950's cafe.
That night I dined with and met my tour roomie, Ami, of Taiwan's Trails and Tales, an inspiring blog that encourages city girls like me to get out of the city and "into the hills." Ami's passion for the outdoors and the amount of work she puts into her blog posts and Twitter account really inspired me to both appreciate nature and work harder on my own passion for sharing Taiwan!
DAY 2: Reaching new heights in the mountains
We woke up before 4:00 AM to catch the Alishan train to Zhushan station to view the iconic Alishan sunrise. Most visitors view the sunrise at the Zhushan platform, but a 10-minute, uphill- hike will bring you to an even better viewing spot with fewer tourists. So we hiked.
Mt. Ogasawara Viewing Lot 小笠原山觀景台
The Mt. Ogasawara Viewing Lot is a 360-degree viewing platform that was newly completed in 2005 and is located at an altitude of 2,448 meters. We got lucky with a clear day and were able to see all three major Taiwan mountain ranges at once (Central Mountain Range, Yushan Mountain Range, and the Alishan Mountain Range). We saw the sun rising over the summit of Yushan (Mt. Jade), the highest peak in Taiwan, and we bonded over this magical moment by sharing and taking pictures together.
TIP: If you wait until all the tourists leave, you will likely see two of Taiwan’s endangered bird species, the Mikado Pheasant and the Swinhoe's Pheasant.
Mountain Ali Tea No. 35 X Alpine Botanical Garden Mountain 茶田35號
On our descent from the Mt. Ogasawara Viewing Lot, we stopped at Mountain Ali Tea No. 35, located at 2,488 meters above sea level.
The tea house is run by a brother-sister duo. The younger brother, 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.
Mr. Wu's older sister was a very hospitable host. She taught us how to properly brew and drink tea. It was my second time meeting her, and we bonded very quickly over similar views on seeing the world and following one's passion. Having spent 1/3 of her lifetime overseas, she speaks three languages including Mandarin, English, and Japanese.
The tea shop's ground floor hosts exhibitions on a rotating basis. During our visit, we were able to explore "My Homeland," an exhibition by Lin Pan Song (林磐聳) that explores the infinite visual possibilities of the shape of Taiwan through pointillism.
Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park, Chiayi Forestry Materials Factory
After enjoying local high mountain tea in the morning, we visited the Alishan Forest Railway Park.
The Alishan Forest Railway Garage Park, located near Chiayi Railway Station, contains the headquarters repair factory, which houses a variety of locomotives and factory equipment. Adults and children alike can get up close to several decommissioned steam trains, diesel locomotives, power railcars, as well as freight cars, and also have a look at the turntables used for changing the direction of locomotives.
Next to Park is the Chiayi Lumber Factory, and our local tour guide, Mr. He Sheng-jie (何昇階), gave us an educational tour of both historical attractions.
Hinoki Village 檜意森活村
Then, our tour guide led us to Hinoki Village.
Originally a dormitory cluster for Japanese officials of the Alishan logging industry, the 26 buildings here are mainly constructed of Alishan cypress (hinoki) wood. The village covers an area of about 3.4 hectares.
Currently, all 26 buildings have been converted into modern-day restaurants and stores, an intentional tactic to upkeep the precious wooden buildings. Visitors can even experience wearing traditional Japanese kimonos while learning about the way the facilities were operated under Japanese rule.
Liuyuan Shahai Cuisine Restaurant 留園上海精緻料理
That evening, we dined at one of Chiayi's most famous restaurants. Liuyuan Shahai Cuisine Restaurant was founded by the well-known gourmet Li Qingyang. It is a famous local chef's tasting menu in Chiayi that uses fresh seasonal ingredients.
We made a toast with the refreshing passion fruit beverage served in champagne flutes.
Sheding Community nighttime eco-tour 社頂部落夜間觀察遊程
We continued to explore nature, this time with a thrilling nighttime eco-excursion tour in Sheding Nature Park, led by Mr. Wu Fu-sheng (鄔甫盛). He was the most passionate naturalist I had ever met- he made the tour enjoyable and comical at the same time!
For some amazing pictures of snakes, butterflies, and other wildlife we found on the night tour, check out Johannes' blog post.
Day 3: Local traditions and nature expeditions
Houwan Community's An Jia Chun Eco Leisure Village (Traditional tofu and sea salt experience) 後灣豆腐小學堂
On our third day of the tour, we visited the southernmost township in Taiwan: Hengchun. "Hengchun" (恆春) means "eternal spring," as the Hengchun Peninsula is blessed with abundant sunshine and beautiful weather almost all year round.
We learned how to make tofu and tofu products the traditional way from Sister Heimao (Black Cat), a retired ballroom dance teacher who returned to her hometown to preserve local traditions and the natural environment.
During the Japanese era, the locals had limited access to salt because of tariffs. But salt was essential to the locals in Hengchun's Houwan community, as it was used as a preservative during the days before refrigeration and for making things like miso and soy sauce. Thus, the locals resorted to their own, natural resource nearby: the ocean.
The locals harvested sea salt from the natural coral reef rock terrain. Sister Heimao taught us how to produce sea salt by frying seawater in a wok over a wooden fire, giving each of us a turn to try. "Clean salt comes from a clean ocean," she said. An advocate for ocean conservation, Sister Heimao collects trash from the ocean every day.
Next, she taught us what the locals used to make tofu products before the days of chemical additives: bittern. Bittern, or nigari, is a very bitter-tasting solution that remains after evaporation and crystallization of sodium chloride (salt) from brines and seawater. Using the bittern that she already prepared from the seawater, she and her staff taught us how to make hard tofu, soft tofu, and my personal favorite- tofu pudding.
Houwan Tour- Kayak fun (後灣社區生態旅遊)
After filling up on tofu, we headed to Houwan Tour (後灣社區生態旅遊) where we suited up for a kayaking adventure.
The Houwan Tour company is based on the west coast side of Kenting National Park, close to the National Museum of Marine Biology and Aquarium. The sea here is calm and safe, which was perfect for our kayaking outing. We kayaked to the shore, learned what to do if we capsized, and even "surfed" the ocean waves on our kayaks - something I had only ever done on a surfboard!
ME TIME food cart ME TIME 餐車
After our water adventure, we showered and enjoyed a hearty meal from the ME TIME food cart, parked right next to our base. We enjoyed the Fermented Tofu Chicken sandwich, placed inside chewy Ciabatta bread, and served with a refreshing salad, healthy fruits, and appetizing cold carrageen that was picked from the neighboring ocean.
Chateau Beach Resort 墾丁夏都飯店
That night, we stayed at the 5-star resort where Cape No. 7 (海角七號) was filmed, the Chateau Beach Resort.
DAY 4: Time to say Good-bye
Kenting National Forest Recreation Area/Tree Climbing
On our last day, we toured the Kenting National Forest Recreation Area and climbed trees!
The tree climbing experience was intentionally designed to help visitors connect with nature. In fact, the mere fact that you had to "look up" at the trees the whole time was meant to counteract the habit of always "looking down" at one's cell phone. The experience was an individual and challenging one, but I could feel the support from my new group of friends at all times. And we were assisted by an amazing group of instructors (蔡國鐘、葉玲薇) and volunteers (昭雄、余楊新化、陳亭云) who helped us.
The Kenting National Forest Recreation Area can be described as an "Uplifted Coral Reef Forest," thanks to the plate movement of the Earth 500 thousand years ago. A major feature of Kenting National Forest Recreation Area is its limestone landform. Geological treasures, including stalactites and stalagmites, can be found in the caves.
Walking through the Fairy Cave felt like being in a different world; we were experiencing what Taiwan looked like when it was underwater! We enjoyed a tour of the park's diverse ecosystem by six generous English-speaking tour guides: 吳美慧Mabel、黃志忠Julian、陳靜瑜Jean、陳美津Jasmine、黃景華Alice、毅凡YiFan.
A final poem
It was really hard to say good-bye at the end of this trip. I had explored the beautiful island, learning about its rich history, its struggles, and triumphs, and connected deeply with its natural geography while bonding with amazing people. To quote Johannes,
"This trip has once again shown me why Taiwan is such a fascinating place to visit. One day you watch the sunrise and sip tea in the temperate zone forest of the high mountains, the next you are capsizing a kayak off the coast of the island’s tropical south and are rewarded with a big delicious hamburger afterwards."
And it inspired this poem I wrote:
And as the sun rose over the tallest mountain in Taiwan,
she felt her soul come alive.
It was her second time here,
but the first time, in a long time,
she felt whole again,
surrounded by people who shared
the same passion for Taiwan,
the same passion for following their dreams, and
the same passion for life.
She saw herself in each and every one of the 10 winners.
The 19 and 20-year-olds who just arrived in Taiwan for the first time
and wanted so desperately to learn the language and the people.
The 30-year-old vloggers who had just returned to the island to travel and
pursue their dreams.
And even the established editors who had seen the sunrise a handful of times
but could never grow old of it.
She had found herself in the forest.