Alishan — "Mount Ali" — is Taiwan's most-visited national park since the 1920s.
The area has been settled by Taiwanese aborigines since time immemorial, but ethnic Chinese began settling only in the 19th century. Development really took off only when the Japanese completed the Alishan Forest Railway (1912), a remarkable narrow-gauge train originally built for logging the area's giant cedars. By the 1970s, logging had pretty much ended and tourism had become the area's primary earner, and the entire area was declared a "national scenic area" in 2001.
Alishan is not a single mountain, but a range on Taiwan's spine, averaging 2,500 meters in height and with the highest peak Datashan (大塔山) reaching 2,663 meters. Taiwan's highest mountain, Yushan (3,952m) is easily visible from Alishan on a clear day.
Flora and faunaEdit
Due to its elevation, Alishan's flora are more temperate/alpine than tropical, and the slow transition from bananas and palms to evergreens on the way up is interesting to watch. The dominant feature are giant Taiwanese red cypresses (Chamaecyparis formosensis), some of which have been growing in the area for well over 2,000 years, although most are now managed forests for logging. In spring, crowds flock to view cherry blossoms, while in summer the mountainsides are blanketed with orange montbretia blossoms.
Due to its elevation, Alishan is considerably cooler than the coast, with daytime highs averaging 14-24°C in summer and 5-16°C in winter. Even for a mountain, Alishan's weather changes extraordinarily quick: an average day starts with a cloudless morning, theatrically dense clouds of rolling mist by noon, and ends with a lightning storm and torrents of rain; the process is repeated all over again the next day. Humidity is always very high, and indeed most surfaces in the park seem to be covered with a layer of luxuriant green moss.
The famous Alishan Mountain Railway narrow-gauge train from Chiayi will not get you all the way to Alishan due to the typhoon damage; it only goes as far as 'Fenchihu'/Fenqihu (奮起湖). Don't miss this trip, especially if you're a train or architecture buff, as the line is largely the same as it was before WW2.
As of January 2017, there is a daily departure from Chiayi at 9:00am. There are extra trains on weekends on holidays, leaving Chiayi at 9:30am and 10:00am. Detailed timetables can be found on . The trip takes 2:20h and costs 384NT$ for the entire route.
Note that trains can be sold out for days in advance, if so you might be better off trying your luck coming downhill. During peak periods like summer and the cherry blossom season trains can get very crowded, so book ahead by calling operator Hungtu Alishan at (05)225-1978, preferably in Chinese, and show up at least 30 min before departure to collect your tickets. Alternatively, there are sometimes "scalpers" standing outside the ticket window selling tickets at-cost, in the hope that you will also book a room in the hotel they work for or if seats are sold out on the train, they still sell standing only tickets (managed to get midweek in cherry blossom season 20 minutes before leaving) and if you're lucky you will get a seat anyway. In Chiayi station, note that the Alishan ticket counter is on the outside of the building, separate from the ordinary TRA counters.
To continue, you will need the Bus (minivan) connecting Fengqihu and Alishan. There are daily departures at 10:30 from Alishan and 14:40 from Fenchihu (on the weekend there are more). These busses can only be reserved on the same day. 
Very comfortable buses from Chiayi to Alishan leave roughly every hour. The journey takes just over two hours and tickets cost NT$221 each way. However, the route isn't quite as scenic, with more tea plantations and small villages than cliffs and mountains, but it is still beautiful. The bus ride can also be quite windy, so be careful if you have motion sickness. Buses stop at Ruili on the way.
As of Oct 2011, there is a direct bus service from Chiayi HSR station to Alishan. Only two buses a day, between 10:00am to 11:30am. Go to the visitors information counter at Chiayi HSR station for more info. Cost is less than NT$300 one way, takes about 2.5 hrs.
Note: The last bus to Alishan from Chaiyi is at 2PM. After that the only way to get to Alishan is by taxi which will cost 1600NT$.
Note: The last bus back to Chiayi from Alishan leaves at 17:10. Buses leave from the 7-11 store across from the tourist information center. Tickets are also purchased inside the 7-11.
From Sun Moon Lake:
There is a daily bus from Sun Moon Lake to Alishan at 8am and 9am, costing 350NT$ and taking 3.5 hours.
Directions for GPS navigation: Alishan station (阿里山火車站)
Whether coming from north or south, take freeway 3 to Chiayi, then change onto road 18 towards Alishan. In the beginning, directions to Alishan on road 18 are well signposted in English, later you just need to head straight until the end of the road. Although it's just about 45km along road 18, you should plan well over an hour to arrive due to steep curves and high elevation (from about sea-level in Chiayi to 2000m in Alishan).
Entry to Alishan costs NT$150 per person if arriving on public transport (need to use a yellow ticket, available in the bus, but only in Chinese so far (2017)), NT$300 (Sep. 2016) if arriving by car, charged on arrival. If you show a (Taiwanese) student ID, the cost is NT$100.
Maps in English, Chinese, and other languages are available for free at the Visitors Center.
There is a special train on the Zhushan Line (see below) to catch the sunrise from the top of Zhushan. Tickets for the sunrise train can be bought one day in advance from 13:00 to 16:30 and also on the same day from 30 mins before departure. The departure time depends on the sunrise time (usually 1:30h before sunrise), both are posted outside the ticket office. As of January 2017, tickets are not limited, and if more than one train is required to carry all waiting people up, additional trains will be used. These leave Alishan station 30 minutes after departure of the previous train, so you should show up early to avoid catching one of the later trains that might arrive during or even after sunrise.
The Alishan Forest Railway (in the hills around Alishan township, not to be confused with the Alishan Mountain Railway from Chiayi to Alishan) has three very popular spur lines within the recreation area:
- Sacred Tree Line, from Alishan to Shermuh (神木). This is actually just an hourly extra service running along the final stretch of the main line. Service was disrupted after an accident in May 2011 but was resumed on 27th October 2011. Departures approximately every 15-20 minutes between 9:00am and 16:30pm, costs 100NT$.
- Zhushan Line (祝山線), from Alishan to Zhushan (祝山, sometimes romanized Jhushan or Chushan). Has a daily departure very early in the morning (the exact time varies by season) so you can catch the sunrise over Jade Mountain (玉山, Yushan). There is also an all-day hourly service on the short section from Alishan to Chaoping (沼平車站). Like the Sacred Tree Line, this service was resumed on 27th October 2011 after the disruption in May 2011. Cost is 150NT$ per person, 75NT$ discounted.
- Mianyuei Line (眠月線), from Alishan to The Stone Monkey (石猴). Closed due to earthquake damage in 1999. Local people state that this railway will not be rebuilt because the main attraction of this line (The Stone Monkey) was also destroyed in the earthquake.
Trails around Alishan are ridiculously well signposted: every intersection of two paths not only has signs in Chinese and English, but a map pinpointing your exact location and all possible routes. You can also pick up an English map from the tourist office. All the main routes are very well maintained, with stairs for steeper sections, guard rails, etc.
Sights around Alishan are signposted in Chinese, English and Japanese, and as you walk around the trails you'll find that nearly every tree of size, age or unusual shape has been dubbed with a fanciful moniker like "Elephant Trunk" or "Three Generation Tree".
- Jhushan (祝山), (train from Alishan station). The top attraction in Alishan, everybody crowds aboard the predawn trains for the half-hour trip to this peak on the east side of Alishan, where you can see the sun rise over Yushan. There's a viewing platform right next to the station, but it's worth it to hike an extra 15-20 minutes past the helicopter pad to the very top, where the crowds are a little thinner. As the sun is already up behind the mountain, the sky is already quite light by the time you get to the top, and the sun is very bright when rising up -- hawkers sell disposable $10 eclipse-style filtered glasses, but it's better to not stare at all. On the way back, skip the train and walk back instead, it's a pleasant 3-4 km downhill hike. edit
- Giant Trees Trail, (near Shermuh station). There are in fact two of these, both near Shermuh station, and they can be walked in a pleasant half-hour loop. True to the name, the cypresses here are giant indeed, and many have been growing for well over a millennium. The small Cihyun Temple, originally built by the Japanese, and the Tree Spirit Pagoda are along the way. The trail is particularly spooky when the mist rolls in. edit
- Shoujhen Temple (受鎮宮). The largest temple in Alishan and definitely worth a visit. The exterior and first floor are imposing enough, but don't miss a visit to the second floor, featuring an incredibly ornate golden altar and a surreal room with 10,000 miniature Buddhas, each lit up with its own LED. edit
- Two Sisters Pond (姊妹潭). Two scenic little ponds in the forest. The Elder Sister Pond, the larger of the two, has a much-photographed octagonal little pavilion in the middle. The (demanding) trail to Tashan starts from here. edit
- Giant Tree of Mt Shuishan (水山巨木), (Walk along the unused railway tracks from Chaoping station). The oldest tree in the park, 2700-year old Giant Tree is an amazing sight. The trail leading to it, 1600m along unused railway tracks and over an old wooded bridge, is worth visiting itself. edit
The hardcore hiker or sports enthusiast will likely find Alishan's offerings rather too tame, and might do better to go conquer Yushan next door instead.
If you stay overnight in Alishan, you can avoid crowds of tourists who do day trips. You should pretty much have the place to yourself by late afternoon. Wear comfortable shoes with good traction as the steps can be wet and mossy.
You can leave your luggage for free at the Visitors Center (ask the staff) and take it back before 5pm. You can also leave your luggage in sizeable lockers on the 1st floor of Alishan station (same floor for boarding sunrise train). This costs NT$50 for three hours. If you go overtime, you will have to pay extra (another $50 for every 3 hours) to release your bag.
Alishan is famous for all sorts of mountain produce, notably tea (see Drink) and wasabi, as well as carvings and handicrafts made from red cypress. Souvenir shops also sell tasty cookies and pastries flavored with ashitaba (明日葉), a medicinal herb reputed to give long life. The name is Japanese for "tomorrow leaf", as (according to legend) if you pluck a leaf early in the morning, a new one will replace it by the next day.
Stalls selling noodles, rice dishes and basic street food can be found at the Alishan main square, at Jhushan and the Jhoushen Temple.
While you are waiting for the sun to rise, a hot drink from the vendor will warm your hands. Also try the egg crepe, scallion pancakes and French toast. Hot Clear soup with blood rice cake is also available. Hot Sakura flavoured honey in the early morning is great too.
Last but not least, there are two 7/11 stores near the main square, selling instant noodles, microwave meals, fruits, baked goods and a couple of fresh Taiwanese soups.
Alishan's main square has half a dozen largely identical restaurants specializing in hotpot (火鍋), using mountain vegetables and mountain game like deer and wild boar. Most cater mostly to groups and thus offer vast spreads (eg. 10 dishes for $1000), but if you stick to the menu, a "small" pot for two-three goes for around $300.
- Juh Shan Yuan Restaurant (玉山園餐廳), (behind clocktower on main square). One of Alishan's many hotpot restaurants. English menu (well, kinda), reasonably priced and tasty. edit
Alishan is famous for High Mountain Oolong (高山烏龍 Gau-shan wulong) tea and you'll see plenty of plantations on the way up. There are a number of tea shops in the main village that will serve up a pot the traditional way for $200 or so. They will also let you try a number of teas for sale, and this is a good way to pass the evening. But this is with the expectation that you will buy something. Teas are mostly sold in vacuum sealed bags of 150g, and usually will cost between $400-$800, although some can be as high as $3000 for this amount.
Nightlife in any sense is virtually nonexistent, but all restaurants are happy to sell you a beer and you can pick your own poison at the convenience stores.
Most of Alishan's accommodation is clustered around the main Alishan railway station, which is very convenient for eating and shopping, but means a one to two km hike (or short train ride) for visiting the park itself. They can be found in the hotel area, which is behind the visitor center, the stairs down can be found just to the left of the building. While touts meet incoming trains, it is best to reserve the hotels ahead of time, since on weekends (Fri, Sat) and holidays most rooms will be booked almost every day of the summer. Weekday rates are much lower.
- Catholic Hostel. 400NT$ in dorms. It's better to call to make reservation or to send an email. The owners don't speak English, but they will understand your email if it's written in simple English (the answer will be in Chinese). Hot water and warm blankets. Just after the park gate, turn left on the small road and it's the first building (a church) you will see on your left. 267-9602 [email protected], website with days of operation (in Chinese) at https://sites.google.com/site/svdalishan/
- Lixing Villa (力行山莊), 605, Chiayi County, Alishan Township, 中正村52號, ☎ 05-2679634. checkout: 10am. Wanted to stay at the Catholic hostel but they were closed on the day I was visiting. Fortunately, the woman at the desk in my hostel in Chiayi knew about Lixing Villa in Alishan and hooked me up. Not a glamorous place by any means, with four beds to a (cold) room that you'll probably share with strangers, but it's clean enough, and at 700 NTD a night is great for budget travelers. Located right next to the post office, in the same area of the park as all the shops and restaurants. Also, you might want to have some Mandarin in hand, because it doesn't look like the place caters to English speakers. $700 weekday. edit
- Dafeng Hotel (阿里山大峰渡假山莊), No.46, Jhongjheng Village, Alishan Township, Chiayi County, ☎ 05-2679769 (fax: 05-2679577), . Complimentary wifi internet access in the lobby, and also reaches most nearby rooms, for those traveling with laptops. The rooms don't have heat unless it gets very cold, although the beds have electric blankets. Also there was no hot water, but I got the feeling this is par for the course at the cheaper hotels in the area. $1600/2600 weekday/weekend. edit
- Gao Shan Ching Hotel (高山青大飯店), No.43, Jhongjheng Village, Alishan Township, Chiayi County, ☎ 05-2679716 (fax: 05-2679780), . Large resort. $1800/3000 weekday/weekend. edit
- Shermuh House (神木賓館), No.50, Jhongjheng Village, Alishan Township, Chiayi County, ☎ 05-2679666 (fax: 05-2679667), . Recently renovated 5-story hotel. Rooms are pleasant enough, but they're stingy with the heating, which is only turned on when temperature in the rooms falls below 7°C! 5 min on foot downhill from the railway station. $1600/3200 weekday/weekend. edit
A few hotels can be found elsewhere in the park.
- Alishan House (阿里山賓館), No.16, Xianlin Village, Alishan Township, Chiayi County, ☎ 05-2679811 (fax: 05-2679596), . checkout: 11 AM. The grand old lady of Alishan's hotels, with both a traditional Chinese wing and a very modern, slick new wing. The best views in Alishan and well-located for venturing into the park. Free shuttle bus from railway station. Breakfast and dinner included, but watch out for the dinner, as it is not very good. From $3800, up to $5000 for the largest rooms with the most beautiful view. edit
- Alishan Gou Hotel (阿里山閣大飯店), ☎ 05-2679611 (fax: 05-2679614), . Free shuttle bus from the train station. Coats can be rented for $100, if you came dressed for summer, and don't want to get chilled to the bone while waiting for the sunrise. Price includes Taiwanese style breakfast in the hotel restaurant. $2200 and up. edit
Camping is not permitted anywhere within the Alishan Scenic Area. If you have your own car, there are a few campgrounds within striking distance outside the park, notably at Dinghu (頂湖).
There are no dangerous animals or unusual health risks around Alishan. Be prepared for rain at any time and bear in mind that, especially outside summer, it can be quite cold. It is about 10C colder in Alishan than Chiayi.
At the risk of stating the obvious, while the trails are exceptionally well guided during the daytime, there is next to no lighting — so head back when the night starts to fall.
February 2015: A direct bus to Sunmoon Lake leaves at 1pm and 2pm. It costs 328NT$ and takes 3h30. You need to buy your ticket the same day at 9am in the restaurant at the left of the 7/11. You can also choose to arrange for a cab there. A cab from Alishan to Sun Moon Lake is NT$3000 one way.
- Fenqihu has some nice trails and interesting old streets to wander around (used to be called "Jiufen of the south", but does not really stand up to Jiufen). A lot less crowded than Alishan (especially after the train patrons have left), can easily fill an afternoon here after getting of the train and staying the night.
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