Day Six (12th Jan 2019) Alishan
05:00 am – Up Before the Sun
Constant Companion RR and I have booked a, sort of, private tour with our hotel, to go see Alishan’s famous sunrise. While it would be more fun to go on our own via the Alishan Forest Railway, but it would also be a lot more troublesome. To save some time and hassle, I thought it would be easier to let someone else plan ahead and bring us there. When the lady at the counter told us that the tour is the same price as the train tickets, I was sold.
That morning, we woke up around 5 am to prepare. The entire room was stupidly cold, filled with all that icy, morning, mountainous air. Shivering uncontrollably, I pathetically squatted in front of the electric heater as I put on my layers of clothing, trying to get as much warmth from it as possible. It was absolutely miserable.
Once done, we went down to the hotel lobby where we found an elderly man hard at work, sweeping the floor. He told us that our transport had gone off to pick up other passengers and would return for us soon. We waited in that freezing hotel lobby, huddled up, wondering if whatever we were wearing that morning would be sufficient to keep us alive once we are out there.
A van pulled up outside of the hotel entrance and the industrious sweeping man informed us that that was our ride. It was still very dark out, as we walked out to the driver, who got out and waited for us by his van, we immediately got assaulted by strong frigid wind. With a simple greeting from our driver for that morning, we quickly hopped on to the back of his tiny van to escape the wind.
Fellow Sunrise Tour Mates
In our “private tour”, we were in the delightful company of 5 other people. Constant Companion RR and I sat sandwiched between a young couple up front and a family of three at the back.
The young Asian-looking couple remained quiet whenever we were in the riding on the van throughout that 3 hours tour. As I had no chance of listening to them talk, I could not determine their country of origin. In fact, I could not helped but wondered if they were having a lovers’ tiff, that was why they remained so cold and distant with each other. In our books, the young Asian-looking couple was cool with us as it was crazy early in the morning, peace and quiet were greatly appreciated.
In life, you cannot always have things your way. The family of three at the back however, engaged in mind-numbingly amount of conversation among themselves and we were all at the back of a tiny little van. Helplessly, Constant Companion RR and I sat there listening to them, in total darkness.
As far as I could tell, (and I could tell a lot because I could not helped but overheard all their conversations) the elderly man and woman are husband and wife and the young chap is their son. Now something odd about their relationship is that the young man spoke in a (feminine) Taiwanese Mandarin while the parents spoke obvious Mainland China Mandarin.
Perhaps he was brought over to Taiwan at a tender young age where he was raised up by a pair of local surrogate parents, only to reunite with his biological parents in recent months and to celebrate their family reunion, they were on a trip to Alishan. Who knows? They did not mention anything about that in their conversation.
Whenever we arrived at some points of interest, the driver would point out and gave an brief introduction of that place. The young chap at the back, would patiently explained what the driver said, to his parents and even adding in extra information regarding that subject on hand and other relevant data. He was pretty knowledgeable, I must give him that. Everybody in the van was schooled by him whether we liked it or not.
Now what could possibly make non-stop chattering worse? Believe it or not, they were also a family extremely prone to singing. Their love for singing left Constant Companion RR and I speechless. And sing they did, wholeheartedly, from the very soul of their being. The father especially, sang his heart out, obviously inspired by all that nature outside him. Staring out of the window with a distant look in his eyes, he belted out song after song, completely oblivious to the existence of the other 5 people (including the driver) in that same vehicle.
In between conversations and songs, they would share the titles of whatever songs which inspired them that very moment (for example, they would discuss the best song to describe a passing scenery in nature outside as we drove by) and one of them would sing a short bit of the song only to have the whole family singing along. Amazingly, they knew all the lyrics.
From their chat, I ascertained that the father was some kind of singing teacher, which really explained a lot of things. To be fair, all three of them have lovely singing voices; they sang proficiently and well. Being surrounded by all that beautiful nature Alishan has to offer, could I really blame them for their spurred urges to sing? As a person of creativity, I am no stranger to such impulsive behaviour. Only difference is that I express myself more privately.
Honestly though, I truly feel that they have made that sunrise tour extra special and memorable.
The Hour before Sunrise
Before we arrived at the spot to see the highlight of the tour, the sunrise of 12th January 2019, the driver made several stops on the way to show us some other “points of interest”. According to the driver, it was a perfect day to view sunrise.
A couple of these “points of interest” was lacklustre, like when he brought us to this old signboard of some sort. Both Constance Companion RR and I failed to see anything remotely compelling about it, yet the driver was telling us to snap a picture with it. Instead, we went behind the signboard and used it as a shield to the strong frosty wind.
First stop, checking out the chance of seeing a sunrise.
At the first stop, the driver mentioned something about they need to determine the chances of seeing a sunrise that morning. I was not too sure what he said, because he seemed to always be mumbling. There were other groups of sunrise visitors with their guides. In the freezing darkness, we could see the constellations above, making me felt so small and insignificant by comparison.
Next, we saw the “Sea of clouds”; it was magical. It was that kind of beauty that leaves you admiring in complete silence.
I was not sure if that was the best spot to see the “Sea of clouds” as it seemed a little too far away. If you try to frame the entire scene in a landscape picture as it is, the actual “Sea of clouds” will only take up about 20% of the whole picture.
Right before the sunrise, we visited a 2,700 years old “Shen Mu” (Sacred Tree). To reach the location of the sacred tree, we had to walk down steep flights of stairs from the road. Mr.Driver encouraged all of us to make the trip for some health exercise.
It was packed with other visitors, there was even a temporary road side stall, selling some nuts and local snacks, right by the start of the stairs leading down to the tree. Going down was easy. It was return trip back up that left us with breathlessness (we were 2,350 metres above sea level) and burning thighs.
Moments Before Sunrise
There were a horde of fellow sunrise viewers and a handful of street vendors by the time we arrived on location. There was a strange charge of energy in the air as everybody waited for the sun. Vendors selling variously (tempting) hot food items and customers standing around consuming their purchase.
In the background, a guy slightly elevated standing on a platform, was addressing a group of people with a loudspeaker. I was not paying any attention to his exact words, but at first he was sort of telling his audience almost a lecture on the sunrise and general weather conditions, which quickly turned to some local product promotion.
Constant Companion RR and I were given a small square of polarized lens each to protect our eyes from the harsh sunlight we were about to see. Quickly, we navigated our way around the crowds and found a spot right by the edge and waited.
To prevent people from rolling down the mountain, there was a row of odd-shaped rocks cemented along the edge of this sunrise platform. As an added measurement, albeit a very weak one, they have erected wooden posts between every other few rocks, all chained together with a thin piece of rope, forming a feeble cordon. Paired with common sense, this set up was more than enough for accident prevention.
The sad fact is common sense is not always common and readily available. Out of nowhere, a sporty-looking young lady of about early 30s, requested that we shift out of the way a little so that her friend could snap a picture of her, standing on the highest of the rocks which just so happened to have a small and uneven surface area, on one foot.
As she stood there perilously on one foot right by the edge, trying to balance herself with her arms wide opened ala “Karate Kid“, my heart sank. I could not believe she was so willing to put her life in danger for a stupid picture which would not even be a flattering picture of her. Her pose was dumb and if my speculations were correct since she was taking a picture with the light source behind her, the picture would turn out either with her person under-exposed or the background over-exposed.
Genuinely fearing for her life as she wobbled in her Crane-style kung fu stance, I thought to myself that it would suck so bad if I were to witness someone’s death before my much anticipated sunrise. I did not haul myself out of bed at an unearthly hour and went through all that frigid discomfort just to be there to see someone accidental fall off the cliff. Before I could tell her off, her “photographer” “friend” informed her that the picture was taken.
At last, our daredevil was able to put both her feet down for much needed stabilization. Just when I thought it was over, our simple-minded friend could jump back onto solid ground and I could finally breathe easy, her “photographer” “friend” requested a re-shoot. No longer had the heart to continue watching, I turned away in disbelief.
By the lack of screaming there after, I assumed our reckless friend made it to see the sunrise.
Seconds before the sun rose up above the mountain, someone actually made an announcement, drawing everybody’s attention to the mountain range ahead. Holding our pieces of polarized lens to our eyes, all of us waited with bated breath.
I must admit I was looking at the wrong spot the whole time, and from the exclamations overheard from the people nearby, I was not the only one. With the entire mountain range stretching out in front of us, my assumption was that the sun would rise up right in the middle. Instead, it appeared from the higher mountain on the right side.
The first sight of sunlight drew a round of enthusiastic applause and cheers. It seemed to rise slowly at the beginning, then rapidly gaining speed. As the sun ray touched my skin, I could feel its warmth. In an instance, all that accumulated chilliness in my body dissipated, replaced by a gentle comfort and a general sense of well-being. Coming from Singapore where it is always hot and humid and the locals live life in giant, air-conditioned shopping malls, that morning, I learned to appreciate our sun’s glow.
With the sun well visible in the sky, I could see the surrounding in clearer lights. Took a few pictures for memory before we once again, got on the van. Now that we saw the sunrise, we longed for a hot breakfast before catching a quick nap back in the hotel before checking out.
Shen Mu II
However, Mr.Driver had to bring us to one last spot before sending us back. It was another of Alishan’s Sacred Trees.
If I have to compare the two Sacred Trees I saw that morning, I would say I kind of prefer this one. Visually estimating, while this Sacred Tree is not as huge as the previous one, I felt it looks a lot healthier, full of vitality, seen from its colour and amount of tree ferns latching onto it.
Now that I think back, Mr.Driver might have mentioned that the previous Sacred Tree was dying. That would explained a lot.
This Sacred Tree is also conveniently located right next to the road which gave us ample space to move back to admire it in its entirety.
A Chaotic Breakfast!
We were driven back to Alishan National Forest Recreation Area. With our hotel room, breakfast would be provided at one of the restaurants in the vicinity.
Something funny happened when we arrived at the rows of restaurants for breakfast. Since we were all from different hotels, arrangements were made with different restaurants. Mr.Driver stopped the van and opened the door for his passengers, naturally all of us got up to alight. Stopping only Constant Companion RR and myself, we were informed that our restaurant was in another place. Young, Asian-looking couple got off along with the Singing Family Trio.
As Constant Companion RR and I settled back into our seats, disappointed because we wanted to stretch our legs, Mr.Driver closed the passenger’s door, walked to the driver’s door, opened it and got into his driver’s seat. After putting on his seat belt (safety first) and disengaged his hand brake, he slowly reversed his van and, I kid you not, drove the length of 2 restaurants and braked. Then he pulled his hand brake, unbuckled his belt, got out of his driver’s seat, walked to the passenger side and opened the door for us to disembark.
Astounded, Constant Companion RR and I stared at each other. We could have easily walked that short 10 metres difference on our own if we were dropped off with the rest. Regardless, although it was a mad display of effort and movement, it was (probably) Mr.Driver’s way of providing us the best service that he could. After hopping off his van, we thanked Mr.Driver.
Breakfast was nothing special.
Handing over our breakfast vouchers to this young, chubby man standing outside the restaurant, we were told that we could sit anywhere we want. In an All-You-Can-Eat buffet style, the restaurant offered a small variety of food. Most notable was their huge pots of Teochew porridge (cooked with sweet potato) and the few simple dishes to accompany the otherwise plain rice porridge.
Food was simple, hot and decent.
The amount of patrons, no doubt fellow hotel guests, seemed too large for the tiny establishment to comfortably fit. In chaotic lines, we had to queue for food. There were always slight jousting between guests; unavoidable as it was that packed.
The scene was messy and noisy, one may expect from free All-You-Can-Eat buffets, but it was definitely not the worst I have seen. I have been to a paid buffet in Bali, Indonesia where the guests (tourists) acted like savage animals fighting for food. Some of them even lifted entire trays of food to their tables. It was an extremely off-putting ordeal. I exchanged looks with the Caucasian man next to my table sipping his beer. With a nod towards the buffet, he remarked, “What a sh*thole.” To his blunt comment, I agreed and we laughed.
Breakfast that morning was all about the harsh practicality to feed multiple hungry mouths than luxuriously pampering and satisfying a few. Not exactly an enjoyable experience, nor was it something too hard for me to swallow (hehe). For what it was, I left the restaurant with a full stomach.
It was about 9 am when we returned back to the hotel room for a quick nap.
We left our hotel around 11 am, headed straight to Alishan Bus Station with our luggage. Did not have a clue how to get back to Chiayi, but we figured we will find out at the station.
At Alishan Bus Station, we purchased bus tickets for an express ride all the way down to Chiayi Railway Station. We got lucky because our bus would leave shortly, within the next 15 minutes, so we did not have to waste too much time waiting at the station.
As we were boarding the bus, I recognised the same rowdy group of 3 ladies and 1 man from yesterday’s train ride up to Fen Qi Hu. Like us, they must have stayed overnight on Alishan too. That afternoon, they remained as loud and unruly, causing quite a scene getting on the bus. In fact, the whole boarding thing was almost riotous.
Mr.Bus Driver was a man of little patience, constantly giving out strict instructions in his gruff voice to boarding passengers, urging them to move along. Meanwhile, some lady lost her handbag, making quite a fuss as she went up and down the bus, confused whether to stay at Alishan Bus Station to search for her missing bag, or to stay with her group of friends on the bus. Mr.Bus Driver drove the bus off before she came to her decision. Luckily for her, as I overheard from her relief conversation over the phone later, someone found her handbag and left it at the bus station Lost and Found department.
Nothing much to do during that 2 hours bus ride down to Chiayi, except to stare outside at the passing scenery or to chat with your travel mates. Sooner or later, conversation will run dry and all that vegetation will start looking the same. Constance Companion RR got into a comfortable position and dozed off. I fell into a light sleep an hour into the ride and when I woke up, I realised we were back in the city; all the trees replaced by hard concrete.
When we got off the bus with our belongings, it was 01:44 pm (I have taken many pictures and under their file properties, I can easily obtained the time the picture was taken.) and we decided to grab some lunch before returning to Taipei.
After failing to find anything nice to eat at the local market (which is a huge shame, because I was looking forward for another hearty bowl of Geng), we popped over to the Chiayi’s Shinkong Mitsukoshi shopping mall which we first spotted riding past in the bus. The food department located at basement, was a little disappointing in terms of the food selection. Constant Companion RR ordered some Korean tofu soup while I decided to have bread for lunch that day. I may have ordered too much but everything looked so appetizing in that bakery.
Once we were done with lunch, we hailed a cab right right outside the shopping mall. When we tried to get in the first cab we saw, which was parked at the side of the main road in front of the main entrance, the lady driver politely asked us to wait for a while and spoke briefly into her walkie-talkie. Within seconds, another cab drove up from across the street and she handed us over to the new driver.
Uneventfully, we reached Chiayi HSR Station and returned back to Taipei.
I will love to visit Alishan again since there are still plenty of Alishan we have not explored. Next time, I will simply skip taking the Alishan Forest Railway up because once is enough and it is not exactly the fastest mode of transportation.
Though Fen Qi Hu’s Railway Lunch Box was delicious, I do not see myself visiting the mountain town again. Besides, I believe that the lunch boxes are also available for purchase at Alishan Bus Station.
If possible, I would also like to view the sunrise from another spot.