Alishan, Taiwan

Date of Visit: 6 – 7 Nov 2017

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Alishan is THE place to go to see a magical sunrise in Taiwan. Catching the sunrise is a hit-and-miss thing and we were blessed to catch it in all its glory. The weather is unpredictable in a mountainous region like Alishan so even if you don’t manage to catch the sunrise, don’t be disheartened because this place is beautiful nonetheless.

The closest city to Alishan is Chiayi, southwest Taiwan. There are various methods of getting to and from Alishan, but here’s the one I took. I’d recommend it as it worked out to be well-paced to explore the area and most importantly, to catch the sunrise.


1. High Speed Rail (HSR) Train: Taipei HSR Station to Chiayi HSR Station

Cost: 1080NTD per pax (Regular price)
Duration: Approx. 1.5hrs

We took a mid afternoon train out of Taipei so we could spend a relaxing night in Chiayi before the long trip up the mountain the next morning. The train tickets were booked online about a week in advance so we had a discount of 10%. This discount can be as much as 30% the earlier you place your booking.


2. Shuttle Bus/ Taxi: Chiayi HSR Station to Chiayi City Centre

Cost: Free (Bus)/ 200-300NTD (Taxi)
Duration: Approx. 45 mins (Bus)/ 30 mins (Taxi)

The intention was to take the HSR Shuttle Bus (No. 7211/ 7212) from the HSR station to the city centre. The buses are free if you show your train ticket to the driver, so hold on to it after alighting from the train. Follow the signs in the HSR station to the bus stop.

7211 travels a longer route, while 7212 travels on the same route but only between the HSR station and TRA (city centre) train station. Check out the routes on the Taiwan HSR website > Travel Info > Chiayi > HSR Shuttle. The bus schedules are posted as well. Google Maps is inaccurate about the duration unless you’re stuck in really bad traffic. I’ve taken this bus twice before and never took more than 45 mins regardless of traffic condition.

This time round we took a taxi for 200NTD, bargained down from 300NTD. The journey was less than 30 mins from the HSR station to the hotel.

We stayed overnight at Chiayi and took the chance to explore Wenhua Road night market for dinner. It wasn’t the best night market in Taiwan, but the food was still good.


3. Alishan Forest Railway: Chiayi TRA Train Station to Fenqihu

Cost: 384NTD per pax
Duration: 2.5hrs (9am to 11.20am) – Train No. 1

You can and you should book these tickets online 14 days in advance to ensure you get a seat. It is extremely popular and for good reason. Though the scenery on the ascend was not comparable to those you’d get in Europe (Swiss Alps = gawk-fest), to feel and hear the sound of the iconic red train making its way up on the historic tracks kind of completes the whole Alishan experience. Highly, highly recommended, so book your tickets in advance on the Alishan Forest Railway website.

Since the booking is done online, you’ll have to obtain your tickets at the Chiayi TRA station counter using the booking number issued at the time of booking. If you intend to do this on the day of departure, keep in mind that there will be a queue so get there at least 30 mins earlier to perform the exchange. We got our tickets at the TRA station the day before, so we only needed to be at the platform 15 minutes before the scheduled departure time.

Seating is in a 2-1 configuration (at least on the carriage I was in). There are luggage racks and toilets on board. Peeing in an old train rocking from side to side and on a steep gradient in the wrong direction makes for an interesting activity. If you’ve got a good sense of balance and/or a bursting bladder, give it a shot. Also, I found that the windows were old and dirty, so pictures and videos were blurry – what a pity. There’s commentary in English, Chinese, and Japanese, but only for the first ~30 mins. A pink slip of paper in the seat pocket has a timetable and a brief picture of the route for reference.

The train tracks were destroyed during two typhoons so the only section currently in operation is between Chiayi and Fenqihu. There are train stops along the way up, but very few people alight and board at these stations. Your journey on the locomotive will stop at the Fenqihu Railway Station, where you can take a walk around and fuel up.


Fenqihu

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Area map of Fenqihu

Fenqihu is a small township with restaurants and shops selling souvenirs and snacks, and famous for bento (bian dang) – a lunch box consisting rice, veggies, pork/ chicken, bamboo shoots, and other unknown sides. The one we tried one tasted a little strange. The chicken drumstick and rice were the only items I ate. We didn’t get a chance to try the bento at the Fenqihu Hotel (assuming this is the famed bento) since we passed by after being traumatized by the first one. Maybe you can give that a try instead, the reviews on it are mostly positive. The latter bento comes in a round metal container instead of the paper box ours was packed in.

Another Fenqihu favourite is the aiyu jelly, which I found acceptable but not memorable as the persimmons that were sold at a makeshift tent just around the corner from the Railway Museum.

There are a couple of walking trails in and around Fenqihu but we didn’t go around since we wanted to head straight up to Alishan.


TIP: Upon alighting at Fenqihu, go to the ticket counter at the Railway Station to get your Zhushan train tickets (a.k.a Sunrise Train). Tickets are sold there from 1pm to 4pm. It costs 300NTD per pax for a round-trip ticket, and departure timings will be announced by the Alishan Railway Station every evening. Your accommodation at Alishan will be able to advise you on this as well. Buying it here would save you the trouble of buying it on the morning itself at the Alishan Railway Station. Firstly, you’ll have to wake up super early, and secondly, the queues are so long you’ll risk not getting on the train in time (or at all!) to catch the sunrise.

If you get to Alishan by bus from Chiayi, get the Sunrise train tickets as soon as you get to Alishan (from the Alishan Railway Station). These tickets are sold between 9am to 4pm the day before.

More on the Sunrise Train later.


4. Bus: Fenqihu to Alishan Bus Station

Cost: 100NTD per pax (Payable using EasyCard)
Duration: Approx 1.5hrs

Buses up to Alishan follows a timetable:

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Bus timetable to and from Alishan

The buses from Fenqihu to Alishan only has 3 timings – 11:30, 12:50, 14:00. There are two buses from Chiayi to Alishan that stop by Fenqihu to pick up and drop off passengers, or allow onward passengers to take a toilet break. Do note that all buses leave on the dot.

If you’re continuing your journey from Chiayi and alight for the break at Fenqihui, do it fast – within 5 mins or so (the time it takes to load up the bus with the new passengers). A couple of people got yelled at by the bus driver when they took their time to decide whether they needed to use the loo. Unless you’ve got a quick-release bladder or are willing to take a gamble getting separated from your luggage and travel mates, I’d recommend just alighting at Fenqihu and take the next bus up if you really need the break.


5. Hotel Car: Alishan Bus Station to Hotel

Cost: Depends on your hotel
Duration: Approx. 10 mins

The hotel we stayed at – Wankou Hotel – arranged a car for us from the Alishan Bus Terminal to the hotel. The bus station is situated just outside the Alishan National Forest Recreation Area (ANFRA), away from the main tourist area. Most hotels provide this car service although cost may vary (or free in our case).

When you alight from the bus, the driver will hand you a ticket. That’s the ticket to prove that you’ve arrived at ANFRA by bus and your entrance fee will be 150NTD per pax, compared to 300NTD if you arrive by car. The hotel car driver exchanged our tickets + 150NTD per pax for the ANFRA entrance ticket.


6. Zhushan / Sunrise Train: Alishan Railway Station to Zhushan Railway Station

Cost: 300NTD per pax (round-trip)
Duration: Approx. 30 mins

You have to go to Zhushan to partake in the popular sun rise activity. Zhushan is a mountain within Alishan. Confused yet? Alishan is a mountain range, not a mountain itself and ANFRA is where most hiking trails and hotels are located.

If you followed the tip mentioned earlier about getting your Sunrise Train tickets in advance, all you have to do is get to the Alishan Railway Station towards the departure timing announced the day before. Your hotel can advise you on what time you’ll need to leave to make sure you get to the station in time for the first train to Zhushan.

You’ll have to queue at the entrance of the station to present your tickets to the conductor. Note that the earlier you get to the station, the higher the chances of getting a seat. Though the journey wasn’t long, getting a seat would be heaven at 5am in the morning. Nod off if you need, there isn’t much of a view anyway.

The seats are a long bench on either side of the train so people will squeeze in even if there’s barely an inch of space left. The later folks will have to stand, or will have to wait for the second train up.

Once you alight at Zhushan, take note of the departure time of the return train. If you miss these two timings, you’ll have to walk about an hour down. The viewing area is straight up the stairs. Get there as soon as possible so that you can book a front-row seat to the best view. Once most of the crowd has gathered, you’ll be welcomed by a guide over a loudspeaker. He’ll let you know some facts about where you’re at, the sunrise, the mountains infront of you, and lead you through breathing exercises. It’s pretty interesting stuff if you understand Mandarin. If you haven’t fully arose from slumber, his voice over the loudspeaker will jolt you awake like an alarm you can’t switch off for the next 20 mins or so. But appreciate it anyhow because this job is not easy – he’s there everyday regardless of rain or shine, foggy or clear.

When the sun rises, it is quick, and I mean it goes from dark to light within 5 seconds. I’m not a morning person so I’ve probably only seen the sun rise twice in my life, and both times it was a slow rise from the horizon. This sunrise was so quick I swear you’d miss it if you blinked. And when it comes up, the light blinds you. When people say you shouldn’t stare directly into the sun, this is one of the times to heed that advice. It was shooting straight into the corneas and camera lenses on the viewing platform. Despite not being able to see clearly for a while – because yes, I stared directly into the sun – it was one of the most beautiful things I’ve seen in my life. We normally don’t notice sunrise and sunsets so being able to witness this is something you’ll never forget.

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Sunrise from the viewing platform at Zhushan. Photo credit: Travel buddy

Once the sun is up and you’ve got all the photos stored, you can catch the return train or take the hour’s walk back down. There were a couple of shops selling snacks – we bought sweet potatoes to go.


Exploring the ANFRA

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You can take a walk on ANFRA’s trails. The weather was good throughout the 2D1N we were there so it made exploration easy. We went to the Alishan Sacred Tree, Three Generation Tree, and Sister Ponds. You won’t need hiking boots since majority of the paths are well-paved and on boardwalks but comfortable walking shoes is advisable for the number of stairs you’ll face on the routes.

There are buses that go around the ANFRA on different routes. You can get a map of these bus routes and walking trails from your hotel or the visitor centre. Bus fares are 50NTD per pax for a single journey, 80NTD per pax for return.

Take the chance to go around on some trails and soak in the fresh air amongst the giant trees. The air was so clean, my city nose was thankful.


7. Bus: Alishan Bus Station to Chiayi TRA Station

Cost: 210NTD
Duration: Approx. 2hrs

For the Alishan to Chiayi (TRA/ HSR station) route: refer to the right side of the bus timetable above (See No. 4)

For the other routes out of Alishan (to Taipei using Kuo Kuang or to Sun Moon Lake using Yuanlin): refer to the timetable below.

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You can purchase bus tickets from the counter in the convenience store at the bus station. The hotel car dropped us off about 30 mins before the scheduled departure time. Seats on each bus are limited so it’d be best to get your tickets as soon as possible.

If there was one thing I wouldn’t recommend, it would be to take a bus back to Chiayi (TRA/ HSR station). It was the most uncomfortable experience I’ve had. The mixture of zig-zag roads, a stuffy bus and a bus driver rushing down the mountain made for a ride from hell. Take the train down if you can. I assume it would be more comfortable than the bus even though it costs more and would require the same advance booking.

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