I am intrigued by Alishan 阿里山; thousands of people ascend the misty peaks every weekend – but for what exactly? Some of the scenery is undeniably beautiful, but I find its deliberately planned walkways to be too ordered, too regimented. To me, they seem to keep you away from nature, instead of bringing you closer to it. Then there are the people themselves; every well signposted feature and path is crammed with them, it is near impossible to shake the crowds and get any time to yourself, and the Chinese phrase 人山人海 people mountain, people sea has never been more apt. But what do I know? Alishan is popular, it’s beautiful, people love it, and what’s more, when my parents were visiting Taiwan recently, it was the first place I thought about taking them.
Alishan is the perfect place for those who want to spend time in the mountains, but who are not serious about hiking. Its nature trails and scenic hotspots are carefully packaged pieces of countryside, none of them particularly strenuous or intimidating. You get the great outdoors, but are in no danger of getting either your hands or shoes, or for that matter your LV bag, dirty. The simple truths are that most people do not want to spend their weekends scrambling over dirt paths, and that the very reasons why I don’t love Alishan are precisely the reasons why you should probably join the crowds and head up there sometime soon.
Revisiting the resort after a 2 year absence, I finally overcame my enochlophobia (look it up), accepted the crowds, and was surprised to find it really quite pleasant. There are so many things to see and do, that you shouldn’t really ever be left with a dull moment.
Alishan's shopping arcade
Alishan’s main draw is probably sunrise, and I can’t help feeling that this is a little strange. How many other destinations have as their chief attraction, an exercise that involves waking up at some unearthly hour and standing outside in the cold, waiting for an event which quite often never happens? Sunrise viewing though, is an activity made by the people. There are few times in life that you can look at a stranger and openly, warmly, smile. This is one of them. Huddled together on the train up to Chushan you look at your fellow travelers with a smile that says, “Ooh, it’s cold”, “I can’t believe I woke up so early”, and “I’m happy I’m not the only one.” Even on the days when the sun fails to make an appearance, that mood of friendly intimacy continues, and it doesn’t matter that all your efforts were for nothing. On better days when the sun does come up over the mountains the crowd claps and cheers, and you can’t help but feel roused, full of enthusiasm for the coming day.
After heading back to Alishan you’ll probably want to stroll around the resort’s paths and trails. Setting out from the town, the first place you’ll come to is Shoujhen Temple. It is an interesting little place and well worth a visit, not least because of its location. The temple sits adjacent to the local elementary school, and though I say you should go there, I do feel sorry for the students, whose education must receive daily interruptions by loud and overly-curious visitors.
The nearby magnolia garden is charming at any time of year, even in winter when there isn’t a flower in sight. In spring though, with the flowers in bloom, the garden is very pretty indeed. The Sister Ponds, an old Alishan favorite, are nice enough, but it is only when the famous Alishan mist rolls in that they become beautiful; and I feel that the same could be said of the entire resort. There are many tourist destinations which are “made” by a certain light, or variance of climate, Alishan is certainly no exception. On a bright, sunny day it is merely a pleasant place to take a walk, with the mist however, the area is lent a wonderfully mysterious and alluring air.
The other attractions are largely centered on the park’s many trees. Alishan Sacred Tree may have fallen, but with the Giant Trees Trail, the heart-shaped Love Tree, the Three-Generation Tree (a living tree stands on top of an older tree trunk, which in turn lies on top of an even older tree stump), and Elephant Trunk, there should be more than enough to delight any pair of eyes.
Alishan may not be first choice if I want a long hard hike, but that’s missing the point really. What Alishan does, and does it better than any other place in Taiwan, is give you a place where you can wander through picturesque scenery before returning to the comforts of a decent hotel. Now that sounds like a pretty good weekend.
The heart-shaped Love Tree
The Elephant Trunk