Taiwan. Jan 2019. Part 4

Day Five (11th Jan 2019) “Journey to Alishan”


Our 2D1N trip to Alishan began on the fifth day. After we have prepared ourselves since 5 am that morning, our first order of business was to grab a bite. As we got a train to catch at 9 am, we made a quick venture out to the vicinity around the hotel to look for breakfast.

Stopping by a small roadside stall selling rice balls which you can customise to your taste, choosing from a wide range of ingredients. As usual, Constant Companion RR stepped in and assumed control of ingredient selection although it was supposed to be my rice ball, which was fine since she can actually read the menu and I eat just about everything. I think she was worried that I would pick the “silly” and the “unhealthy” ingredients from the lot.

That morning, she went slightly overboard with her choosing and I ended up with a rice ball of an impressive size, morbidly shaped like a human heart. It was delicious. Even had a sunny side up egg inside too.

Chiayi Train Station

Constant Companion RR helping out with the backpack as I handled the luggage.

After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel and started walking towards Chiayi Train Station, guided as usual, by GPS on Google Map. We had a bit of issue en route to the station because of Google Map. Firstly, the arrow indicating our current location, was strangely and confusingly pointing the opposite direction. Secondly, the recommended path took us to dead end right under the highway. With only 30 minutes left and no idea how far we were from the station, things got a little frustrating.

Fortunately, an elderly man saw our confused look (and we were really out of place with our luggage in tow) and he called out to us. When we told him we were trying to get to Chiayi Train Station, he told us to turn right out of this alley, and walk straight all the way. Just as the elderly man was pointing us towards the right direction, an auntie pulled into the alley on her scooter, she paused and asked what was wrong. Then she repeated exactly what the elderly man said, adding the station is very prominent, we will not miss it. Remarkable how friendly and helpful the locals are. We thanked the two profusely and quickly went our way.

In no time, we reached the station with time to spare. From a ticket booth strangely located at the side of the main station, we collected the tickets which were booked a couple of weeks in advance. With them, we went to the designated platform for our train and waited for our 3 hours ride on the historical little red and yellow train up to Fen Qi Hu.

Chiayi Station was a quiet (that morning) and rustic-looking train station. Despite having everything looking worn and old, the station was kept clean, devoid of any litter. I enjoy being in train stations where there are always plenty of lines and space.

On the dot, our little train chugged slowly into the platform. Quickly, we went aboard and found our seats. The carriage we were assigned to was right at the end of the train, it was pretty small with not more than 20 seats. Inside the carriage up at the front, there was even a small toilet. Very thoughtful and I reckon would come in handy because of the long ride ahead.

According to an article I have read online, the view on the right side of the train during the ride, is a lot nicer than the view on the left. It was a stroke of luck that we were given seats on the right, individually, with Constant Companion RR right in front of me. I was rather please with this arrangement because that meant that we both could enjoy the view from our window seats and I did not need to deal with a snoozing Constant Companion RR, resting her body weight on me when she, without a doubt, takes one of her “traveling naps”.

Notable fellow passengers in that carriage that day were a group of 3 ladies and 1 gentleman, that was a bit loud and noisy, disrupting what could have been a slow and peaceful train ride up to the mountain. Coincidentally, we would encounter this group of four the next day too, taking the same bus ride down back to Chiayi, from Alishan. Must be our fate, or just bad luck.

Soon the train started moving off from the station. Excitedly, Constant Companion RR and I quickly forgotten about the noisy group of four and focused on enjoying ourselves. My first impression was that how slow the train was moving which I thought was just the standard speed which the trains were supposed to travel while leaving a station. Not long after, I realised that that was probably maximum speed our train could manage. Once we have reached the mountainous part of the ride though, I was completely engrossed with the beautiful scenery outside my window to care much about anything else.

Train ride to Fen Qi Hu

From my train seat, taking pictures of the outside with the glass window pane in between, it was hard to take any interesting pictures and sometimes, you just need to be lucky. Below are the shots I have taken during my train ride, a lot of hit and miss, these are the ones which I felt, turned out decently.

For the most part, I have enjoyed the ride. As we were leaving the city, our train went by some residential area. Quite a number of these houses were built right next to the track; a couple of them was so close that I was sure I could easily reach out and touch them from where I was sitting. It must be a nuisance to have a train roll by every morning around 9 am; I hope those residents are early risers.

After leaving the city, we passed by vast space for plantations/ farm before going into the forest and started on our ascend. Slowly, the scenery changed as the foliage thickened. We went through a few tunnels through the mountains. A couple of times, we even saw some hikers who were just as excited to see us and we waved at each other. As we got higher and higher, I saw more of the landscape below, backed by majestic mountains.

About 2 hours after we left the station, Constant Companion RR, as expected, fell asleep, with her head on the window sill. Who could blame her? By this point, I badly wanted to stretch out my limbs from my prolonged sitting posture. Just before things gotten too uncomfortable, the train came to a stop at our destination, Fen Qi Hu.

Fen Qi Hu

After alighting from the train, we did some quick and much needed stretching, breathing in all that fresh, chilly mountain air. Unlike our time in Jiufen a couple of days back, it was a beautiful sunny day with clear blue sky and fluffy white clouds. Constant Companion RR and I were eager to spend a couple of hours to explore Fen Qi Hu and to take a short break before we continue on our journey up to Alishan.

Right next to Fen Qi Hu station, there was a small museum about the history of Alishan Railway. As it was just a barn sized building, Constant Companion RR and I quickly walked through it and we came to the main road. Being first time visitors there, we were quite clueless where to go from here. When we noticed a coffee house sitting on top of a small slope, we decided to stop by for a coffee. However, the coffee house was closed.

From here, out came the trusty Google Map and we navigated our way to Fen Qi Hu’s Old Street where all the tourists were.

Fen Qi Hu Railway Lunch Box

A few months before our trip, during my online research on Fen Qi Hu, I came across this Fen Qi Hu Railway Lunch Box which is highly recommended to all visitors. For early lunch that day, that was exactly what we had. Did not have to search too hard for it, with all the signage and standee directing visitors to where the famous lunch boxes can be bought. I believe there are several places you can get the lunch boxes, but we had ours in what felt like the basement of a hotel.

From the counter, Constant Companion RR ordered one of their special lunch box (one with everything) and in the attached room opposite the counter, they offered wooden tables and stools for guests to dine in. In fact, the stools are lacquered stumps of wood of various height, and the table tops are entire horizontal cuts of a large tree, lacquered, organic and very irregular. Unique? Kind of I guess. Comfortable? No way!

Now regarding the actual lunch box, for the dine-in option, they came in oval metal boxes. Felt really cool eating out of it; in fact we were wondering if we could bring ours back home (we did not). The utensils were all disposable and with every order, you get a paper bowl which you can help yourself to the free soup in a large, boiling metal cauldron in the dining room. The soup was made from some mountain vegetable and tasted a little odd, however the focus was on the highlight of the meal, the railway lunch box and it was delicious.

Our Fen Qi Hu Railway Lunch Box, over a bed of rice, had a chicken drumstick, a slab of pork, 4 different kind of vegetable side dishes and half a braised hard boiled egg. The meat were tender and flavourful. The side dishes offered different tastes and textures to each bite and complimented each other nicely. Even the braised hard boiled egg was seasoned properly. Great lunch, lousy soup, weird furniture.

Once we were done with lunch, we returned the metal box and went off to see the rest Fen Qi Hu has to offer.

A Word of Advise! Friendly local.

Password to unlock the locker. Do not lose it!

At this point, I was still lugging our luggage around up and down the many slopes of the mountain town. Soon after lunch, we were heading towards the “Old Street” and when we came upon the end of the street with a long flight of stairs.

Somewhere in the middle of all that steps, was the entrance to the “Old Street”, all the way to the top, was Fen Qi Hu station. With my luggage, I stared at the stairs ahead in dismay.

Suddenly, as I was bracing myself for the long climb up the uneven stone steps with my heavy luggage, I heard a lady calling out to me. The lady working in the store nearby, was trying to get my attention. Perhaps it was because she saw the look on my face, she suggested leaving my luggage in the lockers provided in the train station. After thanking her, we did exactly just that, carrying the luggage all the way to the top and deposited it into one of the many spacious lockers.

That single piece of advise made it to my hall of life’s greatest advices.

Fen Qi Hu

Fen Qi Hu on a sunny and warm day.

Free of my luggage, we walked around the “Old Street”. Though there were other visitors around, the whole place was not too packed and we had a good time wandering from stall to stall, looking at their products.

We did not venture too far when we started snacking again. Myself, I made a purchase of a box of these local pastries with a mochii filling. There were two flavours within the box; the darker one is chocolate flavoured and the other one, is sakura flavoured which I preferred.

Constant Companion RR after eyeing around the many stalls selling natural “Aiyu Jelly“, settled on one which to me, looked the least impressive. As usual, she told the lady that she did not want any sugar on her “Aiyu Jelly” and the lady was almost shocked by her request, claiming that it will not taste as good without sweetening. But Constant Companion RR stood firm with her decision and after I stepped in, the three of us came to the middle ground decision of approximately 25% sweetness. Adding a squeeze of calamansi (or lemon, I cannot remember), the lady handed Constant Companion RR her cup of “Aiyu Jelly”.

Constant Companion RR took a taste of her “less sweet” jelly and exclaimed how good it was, quickly feeding me a spoonful. I certainly did not react the same way as her.

We went on looking around, taking pictures. Saw a couple of banners advertising Alishan coffee, but we had no luck finding a cafe. There was a few other shops selling Fen Qi Hu Railway Lunch Boxes, which I feel was not exactly false advertising since they too are located at Fen Qi Hu. Besides, I encourage friendly and new competition to keep the old and established on their toes while maybe even encouraging innovations.

What is this?! A Hundred Year Old Donut Shop?!

Browsing through Google Map, somewhere south from the “Old Street” there was a spot with the words “Donut Shop” prominently stated above its Chinese name. The first two words read, “百年” which means “one hundred years” and the last three words read, “甜甜圈” which means “donuts”. This is an extremely bad case of selective reading, I immediately thought that it was a hundred year old donut shop and told Constant Companion RR that we HAVE to try it.

Guided by Google Map, we made our way down to the “100 years old” donut shop, and when we were nearer to it, there were flag set up to direct guests to the shop. The “shop” was basically two long tables set up in front of, I assumed, the owner’s house. There were a small group waiting, at the two tables with tall bar stools. Manning the shop, were an elderly man who was busy trying to producing the donuts, assisted by another lady.

Apparently, the group ahead of us had placed an order for 2 boxes of his donuts. We went up to the elderly man and told him we would like 2 of his donuts and in reply, he told us we would have to wait for a while. It did not take too long before he handed us two freshly baked and piping hot donuts, in thin paper pockets.

I was reminded of the donuts we had in Tai-O, Hong Kong. These “100 years old” donuts were basically flaky danish pastry in a donut form, then drenched in sugar. Constant Companion RR wondered if they are truly from a 100 year old recipe because how “modern” they tasted.

When we were walking out of the “shop”, to the main road, we saw the full name of the shop, “百年檜木甜甜圈”. It means “100 Years Old Elm Tree Donuts”; nothing about the shop being 100 years old. I was such a fool.

Just a bit more of Fen Qi Hu

After that, we walked back to the “Old Street” where we sat down in a cafe which is located at the back of a shop which sells traditional biscuits and pastries. To go with our coffee, we picked two items from the shop.

We lazed in the quiet cafe for about 2 hours before heading back to the station to collect our luggage and asked for direction to the bus stop to wait for the coach to finally take us to Alishan.

As we sat down in the sheltered bus stop waiting for the bus to Alishan, something interesting happened. From across the street, this female black dog came into the shelter and approached this Caucasian couple sitting opposite us. The man was having some food and the dog was trying to get lucky and tried to beg for a morsel of his food. No luck for the dog that afternoon, the man did his best to ignore her pleading eyes and quickly finished his food. Seeing that the man had no more food, the black dog lost all interest in him and lied down on the floor

Soon, a black puppy, which I assumed was one of her litter, appeared. Constant Companion RR took out the egg roll we bought earlier from the cafe and the puppy immediately came to our feet with the most soulful eyes. The puppy would sit down patiently at Constant Companion RR‘s feet, only to stand up the moment she broke a bit off her egg roll. Being an animal lover, Constant Companion RR proceeded to feed the puppy part of her egg roll all the while talking to it. I think the puppy tolerated her because of the egg roll in her hands.

Soon our ride to Alishan came and we had to leave the doggies and Fen Qi Hu behind, taking with us beautiful pictures and a half-eaten egg roll.

Zzz… All the way to Alishan.

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I design fine jewellery for a living.