Bounded by the densely populated cities of the north, and the lush tropical plains of the south, central Taiwan is a region principally defined by mountains: the mighty central ranges contain a vast array of tantalizing landscapes, from the mesmerizing beauty of Sun Moon Lake to the awe-inspiring peak of Yushan, northeast Asia’s tallest mountain.
Taichung is one of the most dynamic cities in the country and gateway to the region, noted for its innovative teahouses and vibrant nightlife. To the south, the flat river plains sandwiched between the hills and the sea are rich in traditional Chinese culture; worship of Taoist deity Mazu, known as Goddess of the Sea and often regarded as the country’s patron saint, is more intense here than any other part of Taiwan. The towns of Beigang and Dajia are home to the most important Mazu temples on the island, and the annual Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage is Taiwan’s largest religious festival. Lugang is one of Taiwan’s oldest towns, a living museum of master craftsmen, narrow streets and temples, while the Great Buddha Statue in Changhua is one of Asia’s biggest. The geographical centre of the island, Puli, is home to the mind-boggling Chung Tai Chan Monastery, a staggering monument to contemporary architecture and Zen Buddhist philosophy.
Further south, the narrow valleys and traditional Tsou villages of Alishan National Scenic Arealie to the east of Chiayi, an area best explored on foot or with your own transport. The Scenic Area’s appeal is compounded by an array of attractive and highly individual homestays, while aboriginal culture is particularly strong here. Alishan borders the Yushan National Park, offering a more challenging hiking experience, though the stunning path up its main peak is tackled by hundreds of visitors every year.
Top image: Lion statue in Chung Tai Chan Monastery © hobbyarm/Shutterstock
Alishan National Scenic Area
Stretching from the foothills of western Taiwan to the Yushan National Park, the extraordinarily diverse ALISHAN NATIONAL SCENIC AREA (阿里山國家風景區; ālǐshān guójiā fēngjǐngqū) covers some 420 square kilometres of picturesque tea plantations, tranquil homestays and inviting Tsou aboriginal villages. The whole area took a real beating from Typhoon Morakot in 2009. The Tsou villages of Laiji and Shanmei were particularly hard hit, with the Danayigu River Ecological Park effectively destroyed. The spectacular Alishan Forest Railway is expected to reopen at the end of 2013.
Confusingly, there is no single mountain called Alishan; the actual peak that attracts the most sunrise viewers is named Zhushan, the centrepiece of the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, the region’s main tourist hub and what most Taiwanese refer to as just “Alishan”. Ruili and Fenqihu are traditionally stops on the railway line, but also accessible by road, while the other main attractions are close to Highway 18.
Alishan Forest Recreation Area
The ALISHAN FOREST RECREATION AREA (阿里山森林遊樂區; ālǐshān sēnlín yóulèqū), at the terminus for both the Alishan Forest Railway and buses from Chiayi, is the National Scenic Area’s premier attraction. Its pristine alpine forests are dotted with mostly easy walking paths and several scenic overlooks offering superb views of the surrounding mountains and the surreal “sea of clouds” sunrise. However, what attracts the most tourists to the Recreation Area are its cherry trees, which come into full bloom from mid-March to mid-April. During this period, the area is inundated with ten thousand visitors a day, completely choking walking trails and making accommodation scarce. If you visit during this season, it’s advisable to come during the week, though hotel and food prices skyrocket for the entire period. The area is especially cherished by busloads of mainland Chinese tourists – the Taiwanese folk song ālǐshān de gūniáng (Alishan Girl) dates back to 1949 and remains wildly popular amongst middle-aged Chinese (you’ll probably hear them singing it).
Bear in mind that given the area’s 2200m altitude, it can get cold here even in the height of summer, and afternoons tend to be quite chilly once the usual midday mists roll in.
Alishan’s red cypress trees
While the area’s cherry blossoms are indeed a moving sight, most of these trees ironically inhabit a still-visible cemetery of once-mighty red cypresses, logged by the occupying Japanese in the early twentieth century to be turned into thousands of smoothly lacquered tea tables. In place of these ancient giants, many of which were well over 2000 years old when they were felled, the Japanese planted an assortment of their cherished sakura cherry trees. Sadly, apart from taking perfunctory photos before a handful of celebrated cypress stumps, most Taiwanese tourists pay scant attention to them, instead rushing to admire the cherry blossoms in an unwitting salute to the Japanese colonial legacy.
Learn a few Tsou words before you visit Alishan and you’ll definitely raise a few smiles, though most Tsou today speak Chinese as their first language. The most commonly used word is aveoveoyu (sounds like “aview-view-you”), literally “my heart is happy” and used both as a general greeting and also for “thank you”. Similarly, yokioasu (“yoki-a-soo”) means “good health” or “good luck” and is often used when saying goodbye. Other words you might be able to use are mafe (“ma-fey”; delicious) and emi (“emee”; millet wine).
Just 16km southwest of Taichung, CHANGHUA (彰化; zhānghuà) is best known for the Great Buddha Statue that overlooks the city centre from its lofty perch atop Baguashan. But while this is certainly Changhua’s most remarkable attraction, the city has many other charms, from imaginative culinary specialities to its engrossing temples. Most of the noteworthy sights are within easy walking distance of the train station, making the city an easy stopover on your way south.
Rising majestically on Changhua’s eastern fringe is the 92m Baguashan (八卦山; bāguàshān; open 24hr), from the top of which its crowning glory – the Great Buddha Statue (大佛像; dàfóxiàng) – keeps a constant vigil over the town. To get there, keep walking along Kongmen beyond Zhongshan and follow the signs. Towering 22m above its brightly coloured lotus-flower base, the statue has become one of Taiwan’s most recognizable landmarks since its construction in 1961. It is made entirely of reinforced concrete and has a hollow, six-storey interior; you can go inside to check out the dioramas depicting the stages of Buddha’s life. Behind the statue to the east is the three-storey Great Buddha Temple, the top floor of which is a superb place to watch the sun set over the Great Buddha’s shoulders. Still further east is the tranquil Baguashan Scenic Area (八卦山風景區; bāguàshān fēngjǐngqū), interspersed with short walkways leading to pavilions and city views.
Backed by the tantalizing peaks of Taiwan’s mighty central mountain ranges, CHIAYI (嘉義; jiāyì) is the gateway to the Alishan National Scenic Area and Yushan National Park, as well as one of the country’s most famous Mazu temples at Beigang. Just north of the Tropic of Cancer, it also marks the beginning of Taiwan’s tropical south and, as one of the island’s earliest cities, has plenty of historic temples and lively markets tucked in between the usual neon and concrete.
Immigrant farmers from Fujian established the first settlement in the area in 1621, though the city formally dates its creation from 1704 when the county government was moved here and the first wooden city walls were constructed. The area was originally called Chu-lô-san in Taiwanese, a transliteration of Tirosen, a Hoanya word (one of the píngpŭtribes). Following the Lin Shuangwen Rebellion of 1787–89, Emperor Qianlong renamed the town Chiayi, an honorific title meaning “praising them for their loyalty” to reward the inhabitants for resisting the rebels. During the Japanese occupation, it gained the more creative epithet “city of painting” when masters such as Wu Meiling and Chen Cheng-po spearheaded the first Nativist art movement. With a population of around 270,000 Chiayi is now the largest city and commercial centre of Chiayi county, though the county government is located in Taibao (太保; tàibǎo), 15km to the west.
The otherwise unexceptional town of BEIGANG (北港; běigǎng), a short bus ride northwest of Chiayi, is worth a visit for the Chaotian Temple, 178 Zhongshan Rd (朝天宮; cháotiāngōng), one of Taiwan’s most significant religious sites. Dating back to 1694 (it’s been expanded many times since then) to enshrine what many consider the country’s most powerful Mazu image, the temple is one of the island’s greatest mother temples. As such, it’s constantly filled with worshippers, making it arguably the best place in Taiwan to grasp the fundamental importance of Mazu to the Taiwanese, as well as featuring some of the most exuberant temple art on the island.
The most dramatic time to visit is during one of the weekends preceding Mazu’s birthday, on the twenty-third day of the third lunar month, when hundreds of thousands of devotees besiege Beigang for the goddess’s annual inspection tour; the image is paraded around town to a chaotic backdrop of fireworks, lion dances and stilt performers.
Jiji Branch Rail Line
The JIJI BRANCH RAIL LINE (集集線鐵道; jíjíxiàn tiědào) beginning southeast of Changhua and stretching 29.5km to an old depot near Sun Moon Lake, is one of the country’s four narrow-gauge railways that have been preserved for tourists. It chugs its way through tranquil countryside, stopping at a handful of historic towns that offer glimpses of a Taiwan that is fast disappearing. Much of the area is linked by easily navigable bike paths and dotted with a growing number of family-run homestays, many in restored traditional homes.
First opened in 1922 by the occupying Japanese to transport construction materials to Sun Moon Lake, the railway begins in the quaint town of Ershui – about thirty minutes by train from Changhua – and runs west through Jiji and Shuili before terminating in the rustic old village of Checheng, just south of Sun Moon Lake.
One of Taiwan’s oldest port towns, LUGANG (鹿港; lùgǎng) has preserved much of its architectural and cultural heritage, largely thanks to the efforts of its famously conservative inhabitants. Lugang’s historic temples are wonderfully atmospheric, but much of the town’s fame derives from its tasty snacks and traditional handicrafts, created by the greatest concentration of master craftsmen in the country. But while the town is eulogized in Taiwan as the epitome of classical China, its appeal tends to be exaggerated – the historic centre is relatively small, and it’s surrounded by urban development that’s classic modern Taiwan. Adjust your expectations accordingly and Lugang can still make a fascinating day-trip from Changhua or Taichung. Thanks to the gradual silting up of its harbour, one of the oddest things about Lugang today is that the Lugang River is a long walk from the old part of town, and the sea is now several kilometres away.
Lugang means “Deer Harbour,” an allusion to the herds of deer that once roamed the Changhua plains, now long since hunted to extinction. Settlers from Fujian established the town in the early seventeenth century, and it became Taiwan’s second largest after Tainan for most of the 1700s. Lugang’s decline began in the late nineteenth century as the harbour began to silt up and by 1895 it was closed to major shipping: the town rapidly became a conservative backwater in the years that followed, avoiding the modernization engulfing the rest of the island until the late 1970s, when tourism gave the economy a much needed boost.
Mazu Holy Pilgrimage
The annual eight-day Mazu Holy Pilgrimage from Zhenlan Temple (鎮瀾宮; zhènlángōng) in Dajia (大甲; dàjiǎ) to Fengtian Temple (奉天宮; fèngtiāngōng) in Xingang (新港; xīngǎng) has become one of the greatest and perhaps most bizarre of all Taiwan’s religious festivals. The event has become a veritable media circus, attracting ambitious politicians and even street gangs who in the past have ended up fighting over who “protects” the goddess during the procession.
The pilgrimage traces its origins to the early nineteenth century, when Taiwanese pilgrims would cross the Taiwan Strait to the Mazu “mother temple” in Meizhou in Fujian every twelve years. The practice was suspended after the Japanese occupation in 1895 but cattle herders are believed to have restarted the pilgrimage in the 1910s, making the more permissible journey to Chaotian Temple in Beigang, long regarded as Taiwan’s most senior Mazu temple. In 1987 however, after Meizhou officials assured Dajia that its Mazu statue was equally sacred, Beigang was snubbed with a new annual pilgrimage route to what was considered a “sister” temple in Xingang, 5km east.
The core procession comprises a series of palanquins that ferry Mazu and other senior Taoist deities 300km through rice fields and small villages, the roads lined with believers who kneel to allow Mazu’s palanquin to pass over them for luck. Stops are made at smaller “branch” temples to enhance the power of local deities, and a constant stream of free drinks and food is handed out to the pilgrims trudging along behind. If you want to experience the mayhem you’ll need to plan ahead – the best locations to watch the procession are in Dajia itself when it leaves town and returns eight days later, or in Xingang at the end of the third day when the town becomes a massive carnival of parades and traditional performers. The statue remains in Xingang for a day of celebrations (confusingly termed “Mazu’s birthday”, though the official birthday is Lunar March 23) before embarking on its four-day journey back to Dajia. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know when the parade will start until a few weeks before: the day of departure is determined by a special cast of “throwing blocks”, on the eve of the Lantern Festival (usually in January or February). The parade itself usually takes place in April in the period leading up to Mazu’s official birthday (see wmazu.taichung.gov.tw for the schedule; Chinese only). Dajia Bus Company runs minibuses from Taichung train station (on the corner of Jianguo and Chenggong Roads) to Dajia throughout the day, but you can also pick them up on Taizhonggang Road.
Puli and around
Located in the heart of Taiwan and surrounded by mountains, sprawling PULI (埔里; pŭlǐ) is an easy day-trip from Sun Moon Lake, and lies at the start of the spectacular road to Wushe and Hehuanshan. The best reason to visit is the mind-blowing Chung Tai Chan Monastery on the outskirts of town, one of Taiwan’s most remarkable sights. With more time and, preferably, your own transport, Puli offers an assortment of secular attractions associated with traditional manufacturing and crafts that have flourished here for decades. Much of this is linked to the quality of the local water and surrounding natural resources – the town once produced eighty percent of Taiwan’s lacquer and was the centre of a flourishing paper trade; it is still the home of Taiwan’s most famous Chinese wines. Puli was also the birthplace of glamorous 1960s film star Chang Mei-yao – perhaps the real reason why tourist literature claims the town is famous for “water, wine, weather and women”.
Chung Tai Chan Monastery
Just a few kilometres north of Puli, the Chung Tai Chan Monastery (中台禪寺; zhōngtái chán sì) is one of the world’s most lavish modern monuments to Chan Buddhism, fusing ancient tradition with contemporary building techniques. Designed by C.Y. Lee (the architect of Taipei 101), at an estimated cost of US$110m, the monastery is worth half a day of exploring.
Chan is better known as “Zen” in the West, though you’ll see few signs of the more austere Japanese version of the practice here. Chung Tai founder Grand Master Wei Chueh began a life of simple meditation in the 1970s in the mountains of Taipei County, and established Chung Tai Chan Monastery in 1987. Today he is head of Chung Tai World, a Buddhist order that includes several monasteries and over eighty meditation centres located throughout Taiwan and the world.
The monastery complex is dominated by the massive central building with its 37 floors, and surrounded by a series of ancillary halls and statues. The 150m central tower is its most distinctive feature, flanked by two sloping dormitory wings and topped by an ornate gold pearl, set on gilded lotus leaves. From the entrance, it’s a short walk to the main building and the Hall of Heavenly Kings, with its impressive 12m-high guardians and colourful Milefo (the chubby, smiling incarnaton of Buddha). They protect the Great Majesty Hall where Sakyamuni Buddha is enshrined – this incarnation represents the historical Buddha and the virtue of liberation, carved from Indian red granite. To the right is Sangharana Hall, where in typically eclectic Taiwan style, Taoist deity Guan Di is enshrined as temple protector, while to the left you’ll find a statue of Indian monk Bodhidharma (or Damo, the 28th Buddhist patriarch and founder of the Chan school) in the Patriarch Hall, along with the inscribed religious lineage of the temple’s founder, Wei Chueh. To go further you’ll need to have arranged a guide in advance – this is highly recommended.
The fifth floor contains the Great Magnificence Hall, housing a graceful statue of the Rocana Buddha, crafted from white jade and positioned on a gold-covered thousand lotus platform. This incarnation represents the virtue of wisdom. From here it’s customary to walk up to the ninth floor via a series of inclined corridors, eventually leading to the Great Enlightenment Hall. Everything here is brilliant white: the ceramic glass walls and floor, the doors, ceiling and even the statue of the Vairocana Buddha, which represents the spiritual or “dharma” body.
The sixteenth floor is usually as far as most tours go: the Hall of 10,000 Buddhas contains a seven-storey teak wood pagoda, facing Puli through two giant windows. The walls of the hall are decorated with twenty thousand tiny copper Buddha statues. From here you can descend down the pilgrims’ staircase, or if you’re lucky, continue up into the sacred higher levels of the monastery – this will depend on the mood of your guide. The 31st floor is the Sutra Treasury Pavilion, containing the monastery’s most valuable texts and decorated with soft jade carvings, while the very top, the 37th floor, is known as the Mani Pearl. The shell is made of titanium, but the interior of the ball is a simple shrine finished in wood containing a small Buddha statue and is rarely open to visitors.
Sun Moon Lake
Hemmed in by lush tiers of mountains in the heart of Taiwan, SUN MOON LAKE (日月潭; rìyuè tán) is the island’s largest freshwater body, its calm, emerald-green waters creating some of the country’s most mesmerizing landscapes. The lake’s name is inspired by its distinctive shape, with a rounded main section likened to the sun and a narrow western fringe compared to a crescent moon. Encircling it all is a 33km road, dotted with fascinating temples and picturesque pavilions, each offering a unique perspective on the waters below, while the cable car provides a stupendous panorama of the whole lake.
Given its abundant beauty, Sun Moon Lake attracts large crowds throughout the year (it’s a prime draw for mainland tourists), especially at weekends when hotel rates skyrocket – weekdays, particularly in winter, are the best time to visit.
Swimming in the lake is allowed on only one day each year, when at least ten thousand yellow-capped Taiwanese take to the waters for the annual Sun Moon Lake Swimming Carnival, a 3km cross-lake race that takes place around the Mid-Autumn Festival, usually in September. The lake is also the ancestral home of the Thao (pronounced “Shao”, meaning “people”), Taiwan’s smallest officially recognized aboriginal tribe.
A brief history
Until the early twentieth century, the lake was a shallow marsh called Shuishalian. In 1919 the Japanese started work on a dam for hydroelectric power, finally flooding the area in 1934 – and destroying the last traditional Thao community that had clung to the slopes of pyramid-shaped Lalu Island in the marsh’s centre. Those inhabitants were forced to move to the lake’s south side, into a village that today is known as Itashao. After 1950 Chiang Kai-shek made the lake his favoured summer retreat, spurring further development that continued into the 1970s. In 1999, the 921 Earthquake severely damaged much of the lakeside infrastructure, levelling hotels and restaurants and rendering some hiking trails temporarily impassable. However, the tourist villages on the lake’s northern and southern shores were gradually rebuilt and have long surpassed their former grandeur.
Sprawled over the flat coastal plains west of the mountains, TAICHUNG (台中; táizhōng) is Taiwan’s third-largest city, the unofficial capital of central Taiwan and an important transport hub for the region. It’s also regarded as the country’s most attractive place to live: the climate is drier, the air less polluted, housing cheaper, and the streets greener and less crowded than Taipei or Kaohsiung. Taiwanese tea culture is particularly developed here; the city’s appealing mix of elegant classical teahouses and stylish contemporary cafés are the perfect setting for a varied range of teas. Taichung’s old centre still contains attractive remnants of its Japanese colonial past and a smattering of unusual temples, while in the modern western half of the city, I.M. Pei’s Luce Memorial Chapel is a striking piece of modern architecture and the National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts is a world-class contemporary art gallery. Beyond the suburbs, the chief attractions are Dajia and its famous Mazu Pilgrimage, and the 921 Earthquake Museum.
Taichung traces its origins to a military post and village known as Datun, established in 1733 on the site of today’s Taichung Park, but the modern city is an amalgam of several places, explaining why its oldest buildings and temples appear to be scattered all over the city – the western district of Nantun grew up around another army camp, founded in 1721 on the site of a farm that was built sixteen years earlier, and was absorbed by Taichung in 1950. Datun was briefly the capital of Taiwan after the island became a province of China in 1885, but local infrastructure was poor and Taipei, which was provisional capital, assumed the official role in 1894. After the Japanese occupied Taiwan in 1895 the city’s name was changed to Taichung, or “Central Taiwan” and development began in earnest, with Englishman William Barton hired to design the new road layout for the city. The economy boomed in the 1970s and 1980s, with manufacturing and particularly shoe making leading the way, and by the 1990s the commercial centre of the city had drifted west towards Taichung Port (Taiwan’s third largest). The city’s population topped the million mark in 2003 (the current population of the metropolitan area is around 2.3 million).
The 921 Earthquake
All over Taiwan, but particularly in the central part of the country, you’ll hear about the 921 Earthquake (九二一大地震; jiŭèryī dàdìzhèn): the epithet refers to the 7.3-magnitude quake that ripped across the island at 1.47am on September 21, 1999, killing 2455 people, injuring more than 8000 and destroying 50,652 buildings. It’s also known as the Chi-Chi Earthquake – the epicentre was beneath the town of Jiji, 12.5km west of Sun Moon Lake. In fact, many of the casualties in Nantou county occurred during an aftershock five days later that measured 6.7 on the Richter scale, flattening buildings weakened on September 21.
Despite the heroic efforts of rescue services in the days after the disaster, the government was criticized in some places for its slow response. Though it established the 921 Earthquake Post-disaster Recovery Commission to oversee around NT$106bn in funding to help affected areas, many building contractors responsible for illegal construction – blamed for many of the deaths – have never been prosecuted.
Earthquakes are a problem in Taiwan because the island sits on a fault line between the Eurasian and Philippine tectonic plates, causing almost constant seismic activity, though 75 percent of all quakes occur in the sparsely populated eastern half of the island. When western Taiwan is affected, the results can be catastrophic, though most buildings today can easily absorb all but the strongest tremors.
The 921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan
Located near the small town of Wufeng (霧峰; wùfēng) in the village of Kengkou (坑口; kēngkǒu), roughly 14km south of Taichung train station, the 921 Earthquake Museum of Taiwan (九二一地震教育園區; jiǔèryī dìzhèn jiàoyùyuánqū) is a vivid, if sobering, introduction to the damage and destruction wrought by the massive earthquake of 1999, particularly in this part of the country. Though it has attracted a fair amount of criticism from people who say it ignores the controversial aspects of the 921 earthquake (such as substandard construction), it’s extremely informative and very moving.
The museum is centred on the former site of Guangfu Junior High School – most of the school collapsed during the quake and pictures of its mangled running track were some of the most visually shocking images in the days afterwards (it was mercifully empty at the time). The ruined school buildings form the outdoor area of the museum; on both sides of this are two futuristic exhibition halls packed with interactive displays labelled in English and Chinese; the Chelungpu Fault Gallery, which crosses the actual fault line – a clearly visible ridge created by the quake that cuts across the running track; and the Earthquake Image Gallery featuring a selection of audio-visual images of the quake and its aftermath, climaxing in hourly shows in a huge theatre.
Yushan National Park
Taiwan’s most untarnished breadth of backcountry, YUSHAN NATIONAL PARK (玉山國家公園; yùshān guójiā gōngyuán) is an archetypal mountain wilderness with a seemingly endless proliferation of 3000m peaks separated by yawning river valleys. The park is primarily known for the majestic Yushan (Jade Mountain) – at 3952m the tallest peak in northeast Asia. Climbing to the summit is an exhilarating experience, and not as challenging as it might sound.
Yushan National Park is by far Taiwan’s largest, covering over three percent of the country and accessible by road from three sides (the park is also, nominally at least, the homeland of the Bunun tribe, who remained semi-independent until they were brutally crushed by the Japanese in the 1920s). As such, its entry points and information centres are spread widely, making it seem like several different parks. If you’re planning to climb Yushan, Tatajia (from Alishan/Chiayi) or Dongpu (from Sun Moon Lake) will be your gateway into the park: from Tatajia, the climb is easier and much more heavily trafficked, while the Dongpu approach is longer and more physically demanding.
Yushan National Park is revered by Taiwanese conservationists, who since its establishment in 1985 have worked tirelessly to protect its natural treasures. Sheltering six distinct vegetation zones, the park contains more than half of the island’s endemic plant species, as well as some of Asia’s rarest animal species. Chief among these is the elusive Formosan Black Bear, an omnivorous beast that mostly roams the foothills below 2000m. Far from being a threat, these bears are extremely rare and are seldom spotted by humans. Much more visible is the profusion of deer species, some of which can be seen by watchful trekkers, especially on the northern fringes of Yushan, near the beautiful high-altitude meadows of Badongguan. The most commonly seen of these is the diminutive Formosan Reeve’s Muntjac, recognizable by its tan coat and stubby, single-pronged antlers.