Friday, October 5, 2007

Fenchihu, Chiayi County


Back in the days when the only way to reach Alishan 阿里山was by rail, Fenchihu 奮起湖was the biggest and most important stop-off station. It was here that the train changed engines, and here where people rested, bought lunch, and relaxed. Following the opening of the Alishan road in 1980 however, the town went into something of a decline. Enticed by the prospect of getting to Alishan under their own steam, people left the railway behind and hit the tarmac in increasing numbers. As Fenchihu lies a few kilometers off the main road it was usually by-passed, and was almost forgotten. Almost, but I guess that in the end you can’t keep a good town down, and over the last few years it has undergone a real renaissance.

The town’s lure lies in the fact that it hasn’t really changed over the years, and increasing numbers of nostalgic people are drawn to its old streets. The main attraction remains the Alishan train. It seems that everyone, no matter how young or old, loves to see that little red locomotive go rolling by. Fenchihu, with its steep hills densely wooded by tall green fir trees, is truly one of the best places to see it. At the train station there is a large garage housing a couple of old steam locomotives. Throwbacks to an older and more simple time, and an interesting sight for anyone in today’s electrically driven world. In keeping with another of Fenchihu’s main attractions, its old shopping street, the train station also features its original ticket booth, a great photo opportunity.

The old shopping street, which was badly damaged in a fire a few years ago, has now been fully restored to its former glory and houses a number of interesting and inviting little shops. Apart from the souvenir stores, check out the old-style Taiwanese clogs and wooden soled sandals, there is also food, lots of it. Fenchihu is blessed with a diverse array of foods, and should have something to suit anyone’s tastes, remember that this was the traditional resting station on the Alishan line. The most famous refreshment must be the Fenchihu railroad rice box. There are also train cakes, a pastry dish with a sweet filling, and Tsa-ah-gwei草阿粿, a large dumpling like food, the outside of which is made from glutinous rice and a type of grass which are pounded up together, the insides are filled with meat and vegetables. This old street has also helped earn Fenchihu the nickname of, “The Jiufen 九份of the South”, after Taipei County’s old gold mining town.

There is another reason for that nickname, and it lies in the fog that often blankets both of these towns. Fenchihu sits in a natural basin where mist collects easily and can get trapped. Locals feel that this basin resembles a “benghi”畚箕, a traditional Taiwanese basket used for carrying dirt, leaves, and trash. When you look down on the town from one of the hiking trails that lead up the mountain, this benghi shape is easy to see. It’s also easy to see why people feel that this hollowed out area looks like a “lake without water”, and this is exactly where another one of Fenchihu’s names, “Benghior”畚箕湖 or Benghi Lake, comes from.

The area’s hiking routes are characterized by its localized climate. The damp, relatively cool conditions give the slopes around the town an almost unique range of lush plant-life that is always enjoyable to explore.

For a place that made its name as a resting station on the way to Alishan, Fenchihu has grown into a picturesque little town with enough attractions to make it, not just a stop-off point, but also a destination in its own right.

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