“High mountain green,
Creek water blue;
the lass of Alishan is as pretty as water,
the lad of Alishan is as strong as mountains.”
I grew up listening to my mum singing this Taiwanese folk song, this folk song is so popular that even till today, many Chinese know this song by heart and is still one of the fun songs to belt out at Karaoke. This folk song “Gao Shan Qing” sometimes also known as “The lass of Alishan”, depicts the serene beauty of Alishan (Ali mountains) of Chiayi County in Taiwan. The song also portrays the Tsou ( 鄒; Zōu) indigenous tribe who lives in the mountains where the young ladies are well known for their beauty and the blokes for their strength.
I always imagined Alishan as a magical place where misty mountains are high and wild animals roam free amongst the lush green forest. I never thought I would be visiting this ‘magical’ place in my lifetime, and yet, here I am. And I am glad Alishan doesn’t disappoint, it is truly a piece of heaven on earth.
Alishan is around 415km² in area and at an elevation of 2,190 metres above sea level. It has a subtropical highland climate with extremely wet and mild conditions, perfect for agriculture. It was originally settled by the Tsou tribe of the Taiwanese aborigines, then Han Chinese settlers first settled on the plains at the foot of the mountains around mid-17th century and slowly moved into mountains until the late 18th century which caused armed clashes and pushed the aborigines even further into the mountains.
Following the cession of Taiwan to Japan at the end of the First Sino-Japanese War, Alishan became an important place for logging industry where local cypress were exported to Japan. A series of narrow-gauge railways were built to move logs and now they are one of the tourist attractions at Fenqihu village.
Many tourists and mountain climbers come to Alishan National Scene Area all year round to enjoy the calm, serenity and beauty of nature. Apart from marvelling the landscape, there are other many things you can do and here are a few of my highlights.
Food Tasting in Fenqihu
For food lovers, a visit to Fenqihu (奮起湖) village is a must. This small town is the midpoint of the Alishan Forest Railway, with many low wooden buildings built into the mountainside at 1,400 metres above sea level. It was a rest stop for the loggers where the Japanese would had their lunch in bento box before descending down to the bottom of the mountains. The nostalgic tradition of having lunch in bento box remains here in Fenqihu and you simply have to try it. There are many places selling the bento box lunch, right by the railway station is a little wooden stand where you can order a very simple, basic economical lunch that comes in a traditional round metal bento box. We receive our bento box lunch from a shop called Wooden Wonderland, where the bento box is a lot fancier with grilled pork chop, braised egg, pickles and lots and lots of vegetables served on a bed of steamed rice. This shop also serves one of Alishan’s specialties, the Aiyu Jelly iced drink.
Since agriculture is the main industry in Alishan, here you can expect to taste the best produce this country has to offer. You will find food shops sprawled along the laneways here in Fenqihu where you can try all kinds of local specialties. I have listed the 10 must-try local produce in Alishan further down this post.
Watch sunrise at Jhushan
Alishan has its primary claim to fame – the sunrise. Any local will tell you the one thing must do in Alishan is to catch the sun slowly rises above the ‘sea of clouds’ at the top of Jhushan. As early as 5am, our hotel Alishan House provides shuttle buses to transfer guests to Alishan station where we join dozens of other tourists on the old Alishan train which takes us up to Jhushan station. Then we have to hike another 500 metres or so up to the top of the mountain that offers the most breathtaking view over the valley. At the top, there is a horde of tourists with cameras and selfie sticks ready, hoping to catch a glimpse of the phenomenon.
Whilst Alishan might be famous for the sunrise spectacle, but actually catching it can be a rare occasion. We waited in anticipation for the sunrise for over an hour and unfortunately the low clouds are still hanging around above the mountains, it ain’t going to happen today – there is no sunrise. Everyone feels rather disappointed and slowly wanders back to the station to catch train back to hotel for breakfast.
Watch the Fireflies
One of the highlights of our trip to Alishan is to watch fireflies dancing in the dark. Despite it is not the fireflies season, but we still managed to stumble upon a cluster of them by the side of the road, glimmering and glowing in the dark. This brings back a lot of childhood memories as I used to catch them when I was kid growing up in Malaysia. It is quite a phenomenon sight if you have never experienced before. The best time to view fireflies is between April and June.
Giant Tree Trail
There are many hiking trails around Alishan, and the closest to our hotel and also the most frequent trek is the Giant Tree Trail. Along the trail reveals more natural wonders, impressive hundreds of years old towering giant cypress trees with dramatic roots unearthed from the ground. During Spring between February and April is the Cherry Blossom season and it can get very busy here at Alishan.
Hands on tea appreciation masterclass
The prime condition of cool wet climate and high elevation makes Alishan famous for its internationally-acclaimed high mountain tea. Anywhere you look, there are green rolling hills of tea plantations as far as the eye can see. Alishan is most famous for its high quality grade Oolong Tea. The high elevations result in much thicker, firmer leaves with high concentration of flavour-producing components and antioxidants. The steeped tea has a pale yellow colour matching light orchid aroma and a slightly sweet, yet complex flavour with a light creaminess. The best way to appreciate this highly sorted mountain Oolong Tea is to visit a tea farm and experience the whole process of tea making. So off we go to Sheng Li Tea Farm (生力農場) for a hands on tea appreciation masterclass.
We all put on conical straw hats, clutching large woven bamboo baskets and head off to the tea plantation to learn how to pick tea leaves. The tea plants probably look nothing more than just a few long lines of neatly trimmed hedges to us, but for tea grower and proprietor Wang Yue Hao (let’s call him Ah Hao), these highly-prized tea leaves are his precious and we’ve been told (off) to handle them with care. He shows us how to pick the leaf, “Eyes must be sharp, hands must be fast”, as his hands darting in and out in all directions, picking tea leaf buds in precision.
To produce high grade Oolong Tea, we only pick the leaf bud which is the first three leaves on the plant that’s where the flavour is most concentrated. There are also techniques on how to pick the leaves, with a twist on the wrist and snap the stem away between index finger and the thumb, it is definitely not as easy as you’d imagine. After 30 minutes, we hardly make a dent and our baskets not even half full.
Ah Hao tells us that the tea ladies usually can pick 200kg per day. I only managed to pick for 45 minutes and had enough of it! LOL! We all head back to the factory and Ah Hao is going to show us how to roast the tea leaves.
The tea leaves we picked are going to be roasted into green tea as it is the simplest tea to prepare, whereas Oolong Tea will need a longer fermentation process. The leaves are spread onto a large straw rack, Ah Hao then wobbles it like Rolf Harris playing a sheet of aluminium to the tune of “Tie me kangaroo down”, instantly the tea leaves are spread evenly on the rack, ready for air drying oxidation process, 24 hours for Oolong Tea.
The leaves are then roasted at high temperature where the tea leaves will lose about 30-40% of its weight. The next step is the most important part, rolling the tea leaves. We are shown the traditionally way of rolling tea leaves by hand. The wilted tea leaves from roasting are still hot, but we have to act fast when the leaves are still warm and pliable. We gather all the leaves into a ball and then rolling them continuously after they are tacky and sticky, that’s when the flavours are released within the leaves.
Eventually is time for us to sit down and enjoy a nice cup of tea from all the hard work we’ve put in. Well, I totally earn it, okay? We then learn all the process on how to brew the tea without burning it. We smell the aroma and then sip it like a fine wine to release all the aroma on the palates. The flavour peaks at each brew until all the essence runs out then it gets weaker and weaker until it taste like diluted tea water.
Ah Jiang’s Home
If you are looking for a piece of heaven to unwind and relax, away from the tourist trail in Alishan, then look no further and visit Ah Jiang’s Home. Sadly we don’t have time to stay an extra night in Alishan, so we will only stop here for a meal. Nevertheless, I am so glad that we get to see this place and it is truly a hidden gem that you simply need to be there to experience it.
Ah Jiang and his wife Mei Hua are both Tsou indigenous people from Alishan. In 1995, they escaped the city life in Taipei and moved back to Alishan for a simple country life to reconnect with their Tsou tradition and culture. Stone by stone, nail by nail, piece by piece, Ah Jiang built this whole place with his own two hands and 20 years later, it is now a beautiful home where Ah Jiang welcomes guests to visit his little piece of heaven with open arms.
Obviously Ah Jiang is pretty hands on with everything at this place. Every tree, every flower, he planted himself, every room he built using local woods and stones. Now guests can come and stay at one of the five rooms that he built. There are three rooms that sleeps two, and the other two larger rooms can sleep six and seven people, great for party.
When we arrive at Ah Jiang’s home, he is actually busy preparing our meal in the gathering ground. The gathering ground with the pupuzu (fire pit in Tsou language) in the centre is a very important place to the Tsou people because fire gives them food from cooking, light from the flame and warmth from the heat. Ah Jiang is flame-grilling some pork chops and belly. He has also prepared sweet potato rice on an outdoor wood-fired stove/oven.
Whilst Ah Jiang manning the fire pit, Ah Jiang’s wife Mei Hua is also cooking up a storm in the kitchen. Tonight’s dinner is an abundance of home cook dishes, the grilled pork is tender and smokey from the fire pit, but the best part is the dipping wasabi salt and pepper powder that is utterly addictive! We are determined to buy some and bring back to Australia. Then there is also the taiwanese signature dish three cups chicken, and Mei Hua’s version is a winner, not too oily and nice balanced of sugar, soy and the aromatic basil leaves. Another specialty of Alishan is the wild boar, the rind is boiled and shaved thinly then stir-fried with the meat and spinach. The crunch from the rind and the tender meat works beautifully.
After meal, we all gather at the common ground around the pupuzu for story telling time, just like the old days for the Tsou people. Ah Jiang tells us how he built this whole place from scratch after the first house was demolished by the typhoon. The latest addition to the property is Cafe 23. Ah Jiang reveals that Mei Hua thought he is not the romantic kind, very reserve and never express his love for her through flowers or words. Ah Jiang knew his wife loves coffee and wished to own a cafe one day, so little did she know that Ah Jiang had been secretly built this cafe as a gift for her to celebrate their 23rd wedding anniversary. Everything in the cafe was designed for her, Ah Jiang even built the chairs and tables according to her height. Ah Jiang invited over 100 friends when they launched the cafe as a surprise party for Mei Hua. Then Ah Jiang says to us, “Sometimes the most quiet person, can be the most romantic one.” Mei Hua blushes with a bashful smile.
There is simply no better way to conclude our memorable trip in Alishan by having a sing-a-long session to a few traditional folk songs with this talented family.
10 Alishan produce that you must try
Only a few decades ago, Taiwan’s economy was mainly agriculture-based. Although Taiwan has now transformed itself into a manufacturing powerhouse, agriculture still plays an important part in the economy. Due to its geographic location with ideal climate conditions, Alishan is one of the regions where high quality produce are abundance. Here are the 10 local produce that you must try:
1. Aiyu Jelly (愛玉冰)
You will find this Aiyu jelly drink not only in Alishan but all over Taiwan. This popular drink is believed to be originated from Chiayi (a town near Alishan). The jelly is actually not made from setting agent like agar-agar or gelatine, but from the gel from the seeds of a variety of fig (Ficus pumila) found in Taiwan and East Asian countries. To make the jelly, the seeds are placed in a muslin bag and then rubbed in cold water until a slimy gel is extracted. Eventually the yellow liquid will set into jelly within few hours. You can assure that the aiyu jelly you going to try is fresh because they can’t keep for long as it will turn back into liquid after several days. The aiyu jelly drink is usually served with honey and lemon juice but also can be included in other sweetened beverages or shaved ice.
2. Alishan Coffee Prince
Coffee is still a rarity in Taiwan (Starbucks doesn’t count), but in Alishan you will find Coffee Prince Fang Zhen Lun who grows and roasts his own coffee beans. Since there weren’t resources about coffee in Taiwan, this self taught coffee barista learnt the art of coffee brewing all from books and internet. There are three blends to choose from, mild to strong, and you can also choose to have espresso, drip-filter or siphon. Whatever coffee you choose, it sure will keep you buzzing for the rest of your trip, as they are ‘strong’!
3. Bitter Tea Oil (Camellia Seed Oil) – 苦茶油
Known as Bitter Tea Oil, this cold press oil is the actual green tea oil. It is extracted from seeds of Camellia sinensis, the tea tree plant which are widely grown in Alishan. The oil is great for cooking with a very low smoking point and with lots of healthy benefits. Camellia oil exerts many therapeutic properties, that’s why it is a popular cooking oil amongst Chinese women after giving birth for its healing and nutritional values.
4. Persimmon Ice Cream
Fanlu, in Chiayi County produces 70% of the persimmons grown in Taiwan. This sweet crunchy fruit is well loved by Chinese. However, the persimmons are only available during harvest season which is between September to November. No fret, you will find lots of products are made from persimmons. The one you must try is the persimmon ice cream, a whole dried persimmon ice is hollowed out then filled with vanilla ice cream, perfect snack for summer. Then there is also dried persimmon crisps in original flavour or coated in wasabi salt and pepper powder! Yes, wasabi salt and pepper powder, which brings you to next produce that you must try!
Wasabi, in Taiwan? I know right. Having the moist and cool climate, Alishan area is the perfect place to produce high quality wasabi. These fresh wasabi roots have a faint green color, light scented, mild but still with a kick! You will be able to find fresh wasabi roots at Fenqihu, but obviously going through Australian custom with fresh root will be a disaster. But as mentioned earlier in this post, the wasabi salt and pepper powder is the best thing EVAH! I bought a bag home and I pretty much sprinkle it on everything! It’s a must try!
6. Wild Boar
The indigenous people hunt wild boar for food and it is still a popular local delicacy here in Alishan. The wild boar meat is a little darker and chewier than pork, you will find BBQ wild boar meat on the menu at some restaurants, cooked the traditional way just like at Ah Jiang’s house. I find myself loving the thick wild boar rind, it is boiled then sliced into wafer thin sheets and fried in chilli oil, absolutely delicious.
7. Fenqihu Bento Box
A trip to Alishan is not complete without having a Bento Box lunch at Fenqihu.
8. High Mountain Tea
Tea drinking is an art form. Alishan is very proud of their high mountain tea, Oolong Tea in particular. There are techniques we need to learn from brewing the tea, to how to hold the tea cup. At Sheng-Li Tea Farm, they’ve been producing award-winning Oolong Tea for three generations. Best way to experience and learn is to sit down for a tea tasting session with the master.
9. Fenqihu Donuts (奮起湖甜甜圈)
Seriously, who doesn’t like donuts? Not to mention, these donuts are not fried but baked using a waffle machine, so you definitely don’t have to worry about watching your figure. Trust me you can never stop at one with these donuts, they are super light, sweet glazed crusty on the outside and soft pillow on inside.
10. Cypress and Cedar
Last but not least, it is not edible per se, but cypress and cedar wood are still one of the main exports in Alishan. You will find all kinds of souvenirs made from cypress or cedar. For the food photography enthusiasts, you are in props heaven as there are lots of kitchenware made in wood. But they don’t come cheap, so choose wisely.
[A Table For Two travelled to Taiwan as a guest of Taiwan Tourism]