Located in the middle of the island, Alishan (阿里山) is one of the highest points in Taiwan at 2,500 meters above sea level. Famous for its sunrise above the clouds, one of the world’s most scenic mountain railroads, as well as giant cypress trees, it’s not hard to see why Alishan is Taiwan’s most famous national park. Very different from Taroko National Park, Alishan replaces the rugged rocky gorges with forests of giant trees. The base of the mountain is covered with tropical vegetation and palm trees, but as you ascend, a mountain climate alpine forest begins to take over.
To get to Alishan, we stayed overnight in the city of Chiayi and took a 6:30am bus up the mountain. The entire 2.5 hour one way ride was very winding, definitely not for those with a weak stomach. The park itself was not very big and most of the attractions can be walked within a day.
Three Generations Tree (三代木)
One of the coolest sights in Alishan was the Three Generations Tree. A symbol of continuous life, three generations of trees grew one on top of another. While the first and the second trees were already dead, they still serve as a strong and solid base for the third tree to flourish.
Alishan Sacred Tree and Tree Spirit Pagoda (阿里山神木)
Alishan was developed by the Japanese for logging of giant cypress trees. None is more famous than Alishan’s Sacred Tree – a 55m high, 3000 year old red cypress discovered in the park in 1906. Unfortunately, this revered sacred tree was killed by repeated earthquakes and storms, and in 1998 the Forestry Bureau was forced to cut it and lay it down due to people’s safety concerns.
The Japanese built a Tree Spirit Pagoda to worship the Alishan Sacred Tree and other tree spirits. The steps that lead up to the pagoda represent a 500 year growth tree ring and the six steps in total represent the age of the Alishan Sacred Tree.
Giant Trees Boardwalks
The boardwalk extends itself for 1.5km in the middle of the forest. The abundant rainfall and enveloping mist made Alishan an ideal place for giant cypress trees to grow. There were 36 of them along the entire boardwalk, all of them 1000+ years old.
It was a very quiet and scenic walk amongst the giant trees. We looked up and felt like the sky was very far away. The mist that would occasionally come to the mountain and surround the trees would turn the view very mysterious and spooky, which reminded me of terror movies.
Sister Ponds (姊妹潭)
Further into the park there were two ponds called Young and Elder Sister Pond, or together the Sister Ponds. The Young Sister Pond was just a small, shallow lake, nothing very special. However, the Elder Sister Pond was much more attractive due to its green-colored water, the surrounding alpine forest and the pavilion in the middle of the lake.
Alishan Forest Railway (阿里山森林铁路)
We ended our day with a ride back to the Visitor Center on an Alishan train! Famous for the beautiful scenery, the Alishan Forest Railway passes through 50 tunnels and more than 77 wooden bridges along the way from Chiayi up into the mountains. Unfortunately, part of the system was damaged during a typhoon in 2009 and the complete route wasn’t available to us. So we only took a short ride inside the park itself.
Although it was a short 5-min ride, it was quite fun and exciting to be aboard the train with the old diesel locomotive pulling it.
One thing we do regret missing was not being able to see the sunrise in Alishan. In order to catch the sunrise, most people spend a night in Alishan and take a train to the sunrise viewing platforms the next morning. Maybe it’s something we can look forward to should we come back to Taiwan in the future.
A bit of a rant here – we went to the park on a Monday to avoid the huge crowds, looking for a “just you and nature” experience, which is the best way to enjoy Alishan. Instead, we were surprised by a swarm of tour groups. They would come in waves of hundreds and were practically unavoidable and soon enough, we saw ourselves being forcefully pushed away by impolite people who couldn’t wait to take their pictures.
In an attempt to avoid this, we made our way to the Giant Trees Boardwalk, where the tour people, wearing their button down shirts and high heels would have no chance of survival. It was a smart choice and we were glad our Alishan experience wasn’t completely ruined by tour groups.
For more pictures from Alishan, please visit the gallery!