On tracks laid by timber-seekers over one hundred years ago, a four-carriage, narrow-gauge forest train carries passengers up steep mountains shrouded in mist. The train shudders with effort as it climbs to an altitude of 2,216 meters above sea level across bridges, through dark tunnels and past all manner of lush, unruly vegetation.
This is the Alishan Forest Railway, an imagination-defying rail line that zig-zags and corkscrews up into southcentral Taiwan's mystical Alishan mountain range. Though not the only way to explore the mountains—a provincial highway also runs through the range—it is undeniably the most impressive. Beginning in the village of Chiayi, its storied tracks snake through tropical farmland, upward past a semi-wilderness of Indian rubber figs, camphor trees, and elephant grass, and deep into cloud forests of evergreens, cypresses and broadleaf trees.
Conical, bamboo hats bob up and down on the heads of local tea pickers scattered throughout the region’s terraced tea fields. Though numerous teas grow in Taiwan, none is as highly regarded as the high-mountain oolong tea of Alishan. Perpetual mist and cooler mountain temperatures reduce bitterness in the tea buds grown here, producing leaves of an incredible creamy texture with a divine flowery, slightly fruity, flavor that has won international renown.
Halfway up the mountain, the train lumbers to a stop at the scenic village of Fenchihu, used by the Japanese loggers who built this railway as a midway point and repair depot. Today, a narrow street lined with heritage shops, food, craft and tea stands is the main attraction. Local specialties include traditional railway lunch boxes of rice, meat and veggies, sweet "train cakes," wasabi products and bamboo shoots soaked in cane sugar. Above the tracks, wooden cafes gaze out onto the forest below. A number of hiking paths surround Fenchihu, such as the 2.3-kilometer Mihu Trail, offering visitors a chance to stretch their legs through scenic bamboo groves.
Nearby, a cultural park named YuYuPas showcases the traditions of the region’s first inhabitants, the Tsou, who operate the park and live in several villages around the Alishan. Mayasvi, the male Tsou coming-of-age ceremony in which the tribe offers a sacrificial pig to the God of War, is particularly impressive to behold.
The railway track from Fenchihu to Alishan Station is currently under repair, but a convenient bus line connects the two stations, giving riders opportunities to explore additional rail routes further up the mountain. From Alishan, the Sacred Tree Station line transports visitors to the site of a cypress that was roughly 3,000 years old at its felling in 1997. From there, choose from multiple hiking trails, including the famous Giant Tree Trail, whose platform walkways weave around clusters of similarly ancient red and yellow cypresses. Another favorite site is the pavilioned Two Sisters Pond named for two sisters who, according to legend, committed suicide rather than lose their friendship over love. Or visit the ornate Shouzhen Temple, built by Taiwanese who continued to log after the Japanese occupation, the highest temple by elevation in all of Taiwan.
The Zhushan section of the Forest Railway line, however, is perhaps Alishan's most popular attraction. This so-called 'sunrise train' – a short 30-minute ride – climbs to a viewing platform on Zhushan, or Celebration Mountain, in the pitch-black hours of the morning. Sunrise goers hope to witness a phenomenon known as the "sea of clouds" when a thick blanket of red-tinted clouds gathers around the mountain tops. Visitors can ride the train down the mountain or walk back, the early morning light rewarding hikers with beautiful views. Fragrant and colorful flora – among them magnolia and rhododendron – grace the mountain range, and in March and April, cherry blossoms planted by the Japanese dust the forest floor with pink petals.