Mobile phones
Getting around

Part 5: Guanziling, Alishan

Map of route in Taiwan
24-25.3: Munich -> Beijing -> Taipei
26.3: Taipei -> Hualian
27.3: Hualian -> Taroko gorge -> Hualian
28.3: Hualien -> Ruisui -> Hualien
29.3: Hualian -> Qingshui cliffs -> Kaohsiung
30.3: Kaohsiung -> Tainan
31.3: Tainan
1.4: Tainan -> Guanziling
2.4: Guanziling -> Alishan
3.4: Alishan
4.4: Alishan -> Lugang
5.4: Lugang -> Taipei
6.4: Taipei -> Beijing
7.4: Beijing -> Munich

1.4: Tainan - > Guanziling
Toong Mao hotel, Guanziling. 112 Euro for a nice room in one of the better places in Guanziling. The highlight of this hotel is the own spa area, consisting of a swimming pool (cold water), and an open air spa with hot mud spring basin (39.5C) a hotter hot spring basin (42.5C), a cold water basin and a basin with fish which feed on the dead skin of the feet. (Indoor) sauna facilities available, although we don't use them.
The room itself is pretty high end, with good soft beds and everything except a safe. The WLAN connection in the room is also too bad to be usable (I have to use the mobile phone in tethering mode to connect to the Internet with the notebook PC). Overall a very nice hotel, although not a cheap one. Still, this would be a place where to spend a few days. A pity we have only one day here.

Weather: overcast in Tainan in the morning, no rain however. The sky opens up when we are in Guanziling and we have mostly blue sky with a very, very thin clouds layer. Warm also in Guanziling (probably around 27-28C), no rain.

After checking out of the Good Ground hotel in Tainan we take a taxi to the car rental, Hotai Motors. We are there at about 11:20am, then have to wait for some time until it's our turn.

 Our car is a Toyota Vios, a small car which however is sufficient for our purposes, i.e. we manage to put all luggage into the boot. The engine is not particularly powerful (as I notice later when driving the mountain roads), but still ok. The car has an automatic gearbox, a navigation system and costs 10080 TWD for 5 days. All insurances are included, although I have to cover the first 10000 TWD of damage.

I am a bit nervous, because it's the first time I drive in east Asia. My nervousness seems to spread to Shirley and even to the kids. They are all a bit overexcited. Never mind, we complete the formalities and get into the car.

The navigation system is a small problem because it's the English version one (with instructions in English), but to enter the names of the locations in Chinese it uses the bopomofo system rather the pinyin transliteration. A little problem, because neither me nor Shirley are familiar with bopomofo and only know pinyin. So we have to ask the car rental to enter the address of the hotel into the navigation system for us.

Since it is already 12 something pm, we drive to the shopping mall opposite the car rental and have some lunch in the food court. My lunch costs just 109 TWD and consists of a pretty big dish with chicken steak, rice, vegetables and salad.

Around 1pm we start driving towards Guanziling. The idea would be to reach Guanziling driving along the scenic Dongshan coffee road.

Everything proceeds smoothly, but the navigation system brings us onto a big highway, not exactly the scenic country road I was imagining. I realise that when I ask Shirley to double-check our route with Google Maps.

When I get a glimpse of the smartphone screen I immediately notice that we took a northern, less interesting route. This is probably the fastest and simplest way to get to Guanziling, but not the most scenic one.

So I get out of the highway at the next exit and examine more closely what options there are to get to the Dongshan scenic road. In the end I conclude that all options are too complicated and that the best thing is to simply drive to the hotel first and from there drive to the scenic road.

So we proceed and around 2:15pm reach the hotel in Guanziling. Guanziling is in a very scenic area, a few km into the mountains after the end of the coastal plains area at an altitude of approx. 400m asl.

Since it's too early to check-in, we continue driving towards the Dongshan coffee road, which apparently is only a few km away. The entire area looks great. The vegetation looks tropical, but the air is quite fresh on this early April afternoon. It's a bit like a forest in Malaysia, but without the oppressive heat and high humidity. This is an area of gentle hills, covered with various plantations.

We drive bit along the street and notice a large gate which leads to a temple. Since it looks interesting, we make a small detour there at 3pm. It's actually a new temple, apparently still undergoing construction.

After half an hour we continue driving along the road looking for the Dongshan coffee road. It's supposed to be here, and there are even street signs showing the way, but somehow we can't find it.

Or let's say, we have no clear idea of what exactly we are looking for. I'm expecting sort of an area with coffee plantations, farms and places where you can stop for a drink or some food, similar to the Bolaven plateau in southern Laos, but can't find anything similar here.

To make things more complicated, because of the winding roads with many curves, the kids vomit. I guess we should have given them antinausea pills. The scenery here however is definitely beautiful.

 At 4:20pm we finally find a cafe on the hills with tables and chairs and a fantastic view of the hills and plains. So we stop here and have something. This place is run by a friendly lady and is surrounded by citrus fruit plantations. By now the sky is blue, and the late afternoon light and fresh air invites to stop here and relax.

We spend one hour in this place, having some drinks and fresh waffles (excellent waffles by the way). The lady explains that she rarely gets tourists from Europe, which shouldn't be surprising, given that we are pretty out of the standard "Euro tourist trail".

So at 5:20pm we drive back to Guanziling. We get settled into the room and then have a dinner in one of the roadside restaurants. The bill totals 600 TWD and according to Shirley this is one of the better meals we have had in Taiwan so far.

After dinner we get back to the hotel. Because there are coin washing machines we start washing some of the clothes. While we are doing this we use the hotel spa.

This consists of a number of different open air basins, with cold, hot and even hotter water. One of the basins is the mud hot spring one. We are back in the hotel room around 9:30pm.

2.4: Guanziling -> Alishan
Tea Homestay, Leye village about 28km from the Alishan station. 64 Euro for a room in a pension type of place. The room is big enough (probably around 25 sqm), has a flat screen TV, three chairs, a small table+mirror, a tray and not much else. The beds are very hard. No A/C because at 1300m of altitude it is quite fresh. No cupboard for the clothes. Bathroom with shower+tub, but you have to wait a while for the hot water. No breakfast. Fast WLAN in the room.
The biggest problem is that no towels are provided, only some small and thin paper towels, which have to be thrown away after the use. The location is not good, because you are 28km from Alishan proper (where the Alishan train station is), and it takes 40-50 minutes to drive this distance. When I booked this place I wasn't aware that the location was so bad.
As I hear today, there are several places where you can stay which are closer to Alishan. But these places cannot be booked online, i.e. you have to call them one by one on the phone and you need to be fluent in Chinese.

Weather: sunny blue sky in the early morning in Guanziling, later around 11am the sky is overcast. As we drive to Alishan the sky opens up a bit, then closes again. Quite warm, no rain.

We leave the hotel around 11am and, after buying some groceries at a convenience store, start driving towards Alishan. The navigation system leads us on a mountain road, narrow and with many curves. Not a road which allows to drive speedily, in fact we perhaps drive most of the time at 40-50 km/h, sometimes even less than that.

The road passes through a quite scenic area. Lots of betel nut palm tree plantations everywhere. In fact for a good deal of the duration of the trip we will pass through forests of betel nut trees.

At 12:50pm we stop for a while in a place (Fanlu?) with a pictoresque Chinese temple. We break the journey here for about 20 minutes. then continue driving. The road continues to be difficult, with many curves and many spots where it shrinks to just one lane. Shortly after 2pm we make a photo stop at a tea plantation, then continue driving.

Finally, at 2:45pm, we reach the Tea Homestay. Some discussion with the owner of this place, about what would be the best plan for today. The owner of this place also owns a tea plantation and a nearby tea factory. In fact the area here, at 1300m of altitude, is a tea production area.

After about 20 minutes of discussions and deliberations we unload our bags into the room and continue driving to Alishan. That is because tomorrow morning I will drive at 4am to the railway station and would like to know how the road to Alishan looks like and possibly buy the train ticket in advance.

The road now is a bit better, but is still an endless series of curves and curves which after a while get boring.

We finally reach Alishan shortly before 4pm. Initially we have to pass a gate where we have to pay a fee (200 TWD per adult, not sure why they are charging this). Then we get into what is Alishan. Surprise, surprise, it's not a village or city. We are at an altitude of 2200m and this seems to be some kind of commercial settlement centered around the train station. There are a couple of parkings, some convenience stores, several restaurants and not much more. I can't see a hotel. Probably people do not stay here.

It's not cold, but definitely fresh. I'm still wearing the shorts I put up this morning and quickly wear a jacket. We briefly explore this place. Then I buy a ticket for the sunrise train of tomorrow (100 TWD one way, leaving at 4:50am, sunrise is at 6am). Will walk back from the sunrise place to the Alishan train station

We then have some sort of early dinner in a restaurant and after that do some shopping. At 5:20pm we start driving back.

We are in the village near the homestay shortly after 6pm and buy some food for tomorrow's breakfast in a convenience store (the homestay doesn't provide any).

Tomorrow I'll have to get up shortly after 3am in order to be in Alishan on time for the sunrise train. Shirley and the kids will get up as usual and will take the bus to Alishan. We should meet around 11am-12pm.

3.4: Alishan
Tea Homestay, Leye village.
Weather: rain, heavy rain in the early morning, fresh. Overcast the whole day. In the afternoon the sun peeks through the clouds very briefly. Overall a very wet day.

The day starts early at 3:20am. I take a shower, get ready and at 3:50am start driving towards Alishan, with the aim of catching the 4:50am train for the sunrise.

Outside it's dark and raining heavily. I keep on hoping that by the time the sun rises the cloud cover miracolously opens or that the viewing point for the sunrise is above the clouds. None of these hopes will unfortunately be fulfilled.

The road is empty. Only every now and then there is a car passing by. I start to wonder if perhaps I'm the only crazy person driving at 4am towards a mountain summit with heavy rain.

I reach the parking of Alishan at 4:40am. Quickly I fetch my things and rush to the train station. I'm not the only one, as I run into two Asian girls who, when seeing me, say "We are not alone!".

I'm at the train platform at 4:45am and suddenly see that indeed I'm not alone. Like me, lots of people came this early morning to catch the sunrise train. There is a long queue and in fact the first train will leave at 4:50am and another one at 5:05am. There are even families with small kids. Everybody is wearing rain gear or is using umbrellas. All visitors are Asians, i.e. I cannot see no non-Asian visitors.

So at 5:05am I get into the train. The trip lasts about 30 minutes and at 5:37am we are at the Zhushan train station. This is at 2470m of altitude and from here there is supposedly a nice view over the sunrise.

A staircase leads from the train station to the viewing platform. On top there is luckily a roofed area, good in case it rains, and a viewing area. There are also some shops and toilet facilities. I also notice some roads leading here, i.e. apparently you can drive here by car if you are allowed to.

So we wait a bit and it gets brighter. But there is no sunrise, because the sun doesn't manage to peek through the thick clouds layer. But it is raining a lot and it is cold. I'm glad I didn't catch the 4:50am train, so I have to spend less time waiting in Zhushan.

A Chinese guy with a megaphone tries to generate some positive atmosphere, almost to counteract the hopeless situation. All these people got up very early in the morning to see a brilliant sunrise over a sea of clouds, but all they get is this mess.

By 6:30am the last people leave in order to catch the last train down which leaves at 6:40am.

Even me, I have been pondering for a moment whether I should catch the train instead of walking down as originally planned, because it is raining so heavily. But then I conclude that it will definitely be more interesting to walk down to the Alishan train station, because so I will experience the scenery.

And the scenery indeed is most likely great. With proper weather (sunny, blue sky) this forest for sure is a beautiful place. Tall cypress trees, magic setting.

I walk down on the paved road because of the rain (the forest trails are all full of water). While walking down I meet a couple of Honkies who are spending their holiday here. They seem pretty surprised when I tell them I'm from Europe.

Around 7:30am I'm down at the Alishan car parking where I left the car. It's still raining heavily. I get into the car and start driving down.

I have already informed Shirley by SMS that with such a weather it makes no sense for her to come up to Alishan and told her to just sleep long with the kids and wait for me.

I drive down very slowly. The problem is not so much the rain, the real problem is the very poor visibility. The road is in the middle of the clouds and depending on the clouds density in some spots the visibility is just 10 metres.

Also, in a few spots there are some big stones on the street which were not there yesterday evening when I drove down with Shirley and the kids. It must be the rain which has caused these stones to fall on the road. These precarious conditions do not hinder other people from driving the street down at much higher speeds.

While driving down I notice many, many buses which are driving up the mountain in spite of the bad weather. Must be people who have booked a trip a while ago and cannot or do not want to cancel the trip.

At 8:30am I'm back at the guesthouse. The owner sees me and smiles and asks "kan richu?". I reply "mei you richu" (went to watch the sunrise? ... there was no sunrise). I then get back to the room and crawl back into the bed. Shirley and the kids are still sleeping.

We'll spend the entire morning in the hotel room, because with this weather it's pointless to go anywhere.

After noon the weather improves markedly and it stops raining. So, since we also need to eat something, we leave the hotel at 12:45pm and drive to Fenqihu, a village the guesthouse owner has recommended us. It is a few km from the hotel.

With a small detour through the tea plantation to take some photos and some stops on the way to take photos of the cypress forest we reach Fenqihu at 12:40pm.

Fenqihu is a small village centered around the train station of the Alishan railway. Right now the trains do not operate. This is a touristic village with pictoresque houses and tourist shops and restaurants along a street. Quite a nice place, ideal for a day like this when the weather does not allow forest hikes.

We have a lunch in a simple restaurant, then do a shopping tour of the various shops. These offer the local specialities, i.e. handicrafts, tourist junk but mostly local culinary specialities such as moji, cookies, local made juice, cakes and so on.

At 4:10pm we leave Fenqihu and drive back to the Lehe village. There we buy some medicine in a pharmacy, then drive back to the hotel. I fuel up the car at the petrol station near the hotel (95 octanes petrol costs 35 TWD/litre).

In the evening at 6:20pm we get out again for dinner. This time we drive to the 7/11 convenience store, thinking of buying some snacks. It turns out that this 7/11 store sells ready-to-eat meals which just have to be heated up in a microwave oven, which the store has. So we have a not so bad dinner (actually quite decent) in this 7/11 convenience store. When we get out of the store we see other people eating here, i.e. this store doubles as a restaurant. We then drive back to the guesthouse.

Copyright 2013 Alfred Molon