Taiwan Part 1: Ghost Train of Alishan

by janet on December 4th, 2008


So, for Thanksgiving this year I went to Tokyo and then to Taipei and Chiayi in Taiwan. My friend Venus was getting married in Chiayi, Taiwan, and had asked me to sing in the wedding. I was reluctant, because the last time I sang in a wedding I sang At Last in 4/4 time, while the string quartet was playing At Last in 6/8 time (WHY and WHAT THE FUCK?), not to mention I cracked really horribly like 4 times.

Anyway, water under the bridge. THIS time I was determined to succeed and sing brilliantly. And the trip was going to be the trip of a lifetime, because Venus’ family was picking up the tab for ALL of the lodging and ALL of the food while we were there~! And many, many fun things were planned, like karaoke, night markets, and epic sightseeing on tour buses.

I have to say, it was epic as promised. Here’s what happened on Day 1.

Our first activity was a trip to Alishan (a.k.a. Mount Ali or Ali Mountain). We were loaded onto two gigantic tour buses – one for English speakers and one for Japanese speakers. [Venus’s fiance, now hubby, is Japanese, so many of the guests were from Japan.] Shimi and I got on what I called the whoring bus for English speakers.

Frank, our “English-speaking” tourguide, was very sweet and VERY excited as he clutched his mini-megaphone and told us about the plan. From what we could decipher from his English, we would stop by a tea factory on the way to Alishan National Scenic Area. The trip would take 3 hours there and 3 hours back.

What was not mentioned was that the 3 hours was 3 hours of driving up a mountain. This meant 180 minutes of a very tall and enormous bus weaving through impossibly curved, steep roads that, for some reason, had huge, very deep drainage trenches on either side. Frightening. It was around this time that we also discovered that the tour company had taken out life insurance policies on all of the guests. Bad timing to get this info. Anxiety all around plus extreme nausea.

Frank had the sense to distract us from our misery by putting in a DVD about Alishan. The focus of the DVD was the Alishan Forest Railway, which is super famous and was described in Shimi’s Lonely Planet book as a “must-see.” It is a train that has multiple switchbacks that takes you from the bottom of the mountain through three different climates – tropical, temperate, and finally alpine. The film footage looked absolutely gorgeous (Taiwan is so amazingly lush with vegetation) and I couldn’t wait to get on a vehicle that traveled in a relatively straight line.

But first, the tea factory! First we visited the actual tea plants and watched the workers pick the tea leaves. It was EXACTLY, and I mean EXACTLY, like the Snapple commercial with the old Chinese man jacking off a baby tea leaf:

I did my own “Whiiite tea is a baby tea leee” impression on Shimi and she thought it was spot on. : D

Then we went to the actual factory, and watched as they bundled the leaves into giant cotton-wrapped balls, squeezed them in machines, threw them into a huge spinning vessel, took them out, re-wrapped them into balls, re-squeezed them, re-threw them into the vessel, repeat, repeat, etc. etc.

We were then invited to sample the tea, which was just stellar. They kept saying it was green tea but specifically it was Oolong tea. David Lin, Venus’ dad’s spy/chaperone sidled up to me when I tried to buy some and said something to me. I think he was trying to communicate to me that we would receive free tea as a gift from Venus’ dad, but that that tea would not be as expensive/high quality as the one I was attempting to buy. I thanked him for the hot tip and waited for the free stuff, which, sure enough, appeared at the end of the day as a souvenir. Not one, but TWO boxes~!

Then, another two hours of bus-riding that brought us to the brink of vomming (no WONDER there were barf bags in every seat pocket!). We finally reached the top and jumped off and headed for the gift stalls that were selling all manner of dried fruit that we could sample (mostly yummy plums, but also, to Shimi’s dismay, congealed wasabi powder that looked disarmingly like a yummy plum – sorry babe).

Then, softly pressed into my fingers, was this abomination:

Crunchy slime. That’s the only description.

Frank came around, chastising us, yelling, “NO! BETTER FOOD OVER HERE!” and led us farther up the mountain street. We went inside a restaurant and sat down at huge tables with soup already bubbling away in the center of the lazy susan.

SO! MUCH! FOOD! I counted 10 courses here. It was my first real foray into Taiwanese food so I totally dug in…

…Hmmm. Maybe it is because I am of Japanese descent and our blood is actually a mixture of blood and soy sauce, but everything tasted underseasoned.

Doesn’t this LOOK like it should be salty?

This, combined with the rather gristly/fatty meat that was part of many of the dishes left me a little disappointed. I should mention that what we thought was beef turned out to be venison, so it should have been expected that that meat be tough.


I should also definitely mention that I’m deathly allergic to crustaceans, so I couldn’t eat the really good stuff – shrimp, crab, lobster.

Off limits to Janet. Cry.

But it was the general consensus around the table that the best dish was the simple stir-fried cabbage.

Most entertaining, however, was the whole-fried chicken head. A shout came up at every table as they respectively discovered the existence of the head. I should have eaten it. I really regret this now.

Then, we were herded into the Alishan Visitor’s Center. After all the buildup and the long journey, I was ready to just see the damn mountain already. However, we were told to sit in a mini auditorium to watch another movie about the Railway. This movie was…I don’t even know. I was speechless. It started out as locomotive sounds played on top of pictures of trains. Then it morphed into a crazy, philosophical biopic of a young woman on a journey, who, while riding the train, would say (through voice-over), things like, “On Ali Mountain, will you find a beautiful landscape? Or, will you find…yourself?” THEN it morphed into a scene on top of a bridge, where a young boy is told by a young girl (ostensibly his crush): “I’m…sorry. I’m sorry.” And then the young woman runs off as the train passes underneath. Fade into the next scene, where the young boy is now a grown man, visiting the bridge with his new girlfriend. The train passes underneath, and he turns to his new girlfriend and says, “Every time I see a train, I think of her.” This struck me as not a very nice thing to say to your current girlfriend, and I said that out loud. Shimi then said, “Can we leave?” and we ditched the theater to go to the 7-Eleven, where I bought hot pads to warm my freezing self.

Finally, after half an hour, we were ready to see the goddamn mountain. Jerry, the husband of the cousin of the bride, asked Frank where the train station was. Frank responded that we weren’t going on the train.


Sigh. So we set off on a walk around the mountain. The first stop, which Frank was really excited about, was to be the Alishan Hotel, which he gushed was “Werrry espeneev!” I kind of preferred stopping at naturey things rather than a hotel plunked into the middle of nature, but whatever. The Japanese guests asked the Japanese tourguide (whose Japanese was astoundingly good – better than mine!) how long the walk would be, and he said 6 kilometers. Shimi then fretted that the little children of the English-speakers (some were JUUUST old enough to walk and certainly wouldn’t survive 6 km) wouldn’t make it and should she tell the parents or what? She is very considerate like that.

We set off on the hike at the pace, naturally, of a child JUUUST old enough to walk. Shimi and I power-walked to the front of the line and tried to take off, but Frank was not having any of it. He said “Eh-Stoppu!” and made stern, come-hither waving motions with his hands. We then negotiated that we would meet the group at the hotel, and the two of us jetted off.

The hotel, though, was literally 3 minutes away, so we didn’t really get any exercise. The group caught up with us and took another bathroom break, and we realized that we had to get our cranky asses away from this epically-slow-moving group. We worked on Frank and he finally relented, saying to meet back at the tour bus by 4 pm.

So we went on a hike through the absolutely gorgeous trails of Alishan. Particularly stunning was the “Giant Trees Trail,” which was an elevated, wooden, meandering trail through astonishingly lush trees and brooks, with the age of each tree (thousands of years!) marked on a placard. I was in heaven.

We killed as much time as we could, but still arrived back at the bus thirty minutes early. Balls. As we turned the corner, though, there was a clump of people from our group who saw us, threw up their hands, and said, “Oh, god! There they are!!!” and rushed towards us with open arms.





Oh, shit. Apparently Senile Frank (I will provide you with proof of his senility in future posts) totally forgot about our 4 pm arrangement and freaked out when the huge group got back to the buses after the children (predictably) tired after 20 minutes of walking and everyone turned back and we were nowhere to be found. I felt terrible, particularly for disturbing the stressed bride while she was prepping for the wedding back in Chiayi, and I could tell some of the (particularly English-speaking) guests were pissed at us, since they were hanging out for over an hour waiting for us (and all the while we thought we were EARLY!). Later on, though, the girls in the “search party” confessed to us that they didn’t really look for us – they just wanted to get in a hike of their own.

Shimi and I filed back into the bus, this time adding shame to our mix of nausea and anxiety on the 3-hour ride back home.

Up next: Chicken Food – How the Taiwanese do Thanksgiving

3 Responses to “Taiwan Part 1: Ghost Train of Alishan”

  1. […] post:  Taiwan Part 1: Ghost Train of Alishan Tags: english, food, lodging, lonely-planet, News, tour, travel, trip Post a comment or leave a […]

  2. […] Continuing with Day 1 in Taiwan, we weaved our way back down the mountain on the wretched tour bus, already greeeen at the gills from motion sickness even though we had just gotten a lot of nice fresh air. One happy thing that happened on the drive back was a bathroom stop – happy because Shimi was having a peemergency and because I made friends with a super cute stray dog with big glisteny puppy eyes. Taiwan is overrun with stray dogs, which sounds scary but was really fun for me. […]

  3. […] is one of his more, ahem, healthier obsessions, so I am supporting it. In fact, when I was at the tea factory in Taiwan, my friend Shimi bought a box for her dearest grandmother, and then turned to me and said, […]

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