Taiwan is known for its delicious food, vibrant street markets, friendly people, and Taipei 101. Along with its numerous urban charms, however, Taiwan is also a land of breathtaking natural beauty. This small country is filled with cascading waterfalls, sheer canyons, lush forests, and spectacular mountain ranges. It is not surprising that early Portuguese explorers named the island "Ilha Formosa", literally "beautiful island."
Taiwan is rugged and has mountain ranges that run from north to south. The tallest mountain in Taiwan, Yushan, rises a lofty 3,952 meters above sea level. Unfortunately, I did not get a chance to summit the peak on my recent adventure, but I did explore the verdant beauty of Alishan National Scenic Area. This majestic park is home to many peaks over 2000 meters tall, thousand year old trees, and numerous bird species.
The night of our arrival we left the cramped bus, lifted our heavy bags, and trudged our way to the hotel. The mountain air was fresh, clean, and a slight breeze tickled our faces. We ate dinner at a small local restaurant and devoured a plate of stir fried beef and peppers, fried rice, and a soothing flower soup. Then we checked into our hotel and slowly drifted to sleep under an electric blanket as the temperature outside chilled.
In the morning the air was cold and every breath formed a small cloud. The rising sun was dazzling in the clear sky and the tops of the trees blazed in brilliant shades of green. Early morning fog danced among the trees and above us songbirds began their morning choir. After a cup of black coffee and a small bowl of steaming rice porridge we headed towards the park.
The first path we took followed the slithering tracks of an abandoned railway. We only passed one family on the trail that morning and the forest was still besides for the occasional croak of a crow or the chirping of hidden birds in the dense undergrowth. On either side of the tracks towering Japanese cedars blocked the sunlight and made a shifting patchwork of light shimmer on the rusted steel. We crossed an old wooden bridge and shortly after stood in awe at the base of a tree over 2000 years old. We admired its beauty, persistence, and enormity. It was humbling to stand in the presence of something so grand and ancient.
The second trail was bustling with vacationers, but still had spectacular views and moments. We hiked deep into the forest and gazed upon waterfalls, streams, and massive trees. Every breath was filled with the scent of life: rich soil, leaves, flowers. The forest was shrouded in a cool mist and the air was pure, the opposite of Taipei's scooter congested streets.
After hours of wandering we discovered a small, white and red Buddhist temple. We heard the temple before we saw it. Through the branches we heard the steady rhythm of chanting and could smell the burning of incense carried by the wind. As we approached the circular entryway, we saw a small golden Buddha. In the courtyard nuns swayed back and forth, their dresses sliding gently across the floor, to the music. We watched in silence for a few moments and left. We discovered a magnificent view of the mountains and decided to sit and appreciate the wonder taking place in front of us. The sun was just starting to set and through a scattering of clouds the sun pushed its last beams of light. The cold blue mist swirled and the tree tops become a sea of bright green. As the sun finally dipped below the tree line we started the descent and thought about our day in the woods accompanied by a symphony of crickets.
Alishan National Scenic Area is a sanctuary and place of reflection amidst Taiwan's urban explosion. It should not be missed on any itinerary of Taiwan.
The week before Chinese New year I went to Taiwan. During my trip I explored the alleys, night markets, and restaurants of Taipei. I also explored the lush and rugged mountains of Alishan National Forest, got chased by sheep at the Qingjing sheep farm, ate soup dumplings at Din Tai Fung, experienced the Taiwanese obsession with Hello Kitty, drank copious amounts of oolong tea, and walked the misty streets of Jiufen. It was an extraordinary trip and I look forward to going back.