Monday, December 3, 2007

Taiwan's mountain retreats

By Jonathan Adams
Newsweek Web Exclusive, November 17, 2007

Since 2004, Jonathan Adams has lived in Taipei, Taiwan, where he reports on politics, business and economics for NEWSWEEK and other publications. Whenever he can he tries to get out of Taipei and head to the mountains. Few outsiders know it, but the small island boasts some of the most impressive alpine landscape east of the Himalayas, with jagged peaks towering as high as 12,000 feet, dramatic gorges and natural hot springs.

Headhunters and other aborigines of Austronesian stock once roamed these peaks, bedeviling waves of colonizers—Dutch, Qing Chinese and Japanese—who tried to tame the island. Now you're more likely to be attacked by aboriginal kitsch, in the form of overpriced gewgaws and "traditional" aboriginal dance shows that cater mostly to Taiwanese and Japanese tour groups. Here are some the island's most popular mountain spots:

Sun Moon Lake

At 2,400 feet above sea level, this scenic lake is tucked on the western side of Taiwan's central mountain range. When the Japanese occupied the island (1895-1945), they dammed up the Juoshuei River, enlarging this natural freshwater lake. A massive 1999 earthquake, whose epicenter was nearby, further expanded the lake to its current size and nearly inundated an island sacred to the Thao aboriginal tribe. That island now lends its name to one of Taiwan's top luxury hotels, the Lalu (www.thelalu.com.tw, 886 49 285 6888). If you have about $500 to spare, spend an ├╝ber-romantic night here amid a Zen-like calm that can make this elite retreat seem more like a church than a hotel. Much cheaper digs are dotted elsewhere around the lake.


Take a boat tour on the lake, wander its many scenic hiking trails and temples, and be sure to visit the Tsen pagoda, built by the late Kuomintang strongman and Taiwan president Chiang Kai-shek in memory of his mother. President Chiang had porters shlep him up the steep trail to pay his respects to Mom; you'll probably have to make the climb yourself.

The lake is in betel nut country; look for groves of the mild stimulant, which is popular with Taiwanese truck drivers and other workers. Or if you're coming in on the road from Taichung, look for Taiwan's famous "betel nut beauties," teenage or twentysomething working-class girls who operate on a simple, effective calculation: the less they wear, the more customers they're likely to attract to their betel nut stands.


Alishan National Park

This is probably Taiwan's most well-known mountain resort, at least in the Chinese-speaking world, thanks to a beloved folk song that sings the landscape's praises. The name means "Ali mountain," but the resort covers a series of peaks. In my opinion the place is overrated, with ugly parking lots and concrete complexes of mediocre restaurants and souvenir hawkers lying in wait for tourists. And the social pressure to get up in the dark at 4 a.m. to see the sunrise over the mountains is intense; woe betide the tourist who would rather just sleep in.

But train enthusiasts should be sure to visit by the fantastic Alishan Forest Railway, which runs from the city of Chiayi to the west. The line was built by the Japanese in order to transport cypress and other woods from the mountaintop. It makes a steep climb across narrow bridges and over vertiginous ravines, and features a switchback toward the top in order to navigate the last bit. Be sure to check ahead that the line is running; the railroad is vulnerable to landslides and other obstructions, which frequently shut it down for days (www.railway.forest.gov.tw). Bus lines and tour groups also take visitors up to Alishan from Chiayi. For high-end accommodations, try the Alishan House (www.alishanhouse.com.tw, 886-5-267-9811).


Taroko National Park

This stunning marble-lined ravine is one of the island's most beloved sites. Tour buses driven by betel-nut-chomping drivers career down narrow cliffside roads blaring Taiwanese pop, periodically belching out camera-toting tourists at scenic sites along the way. Upscale visitors should spend the night at the Grand Formosa Taroko in Tienhsiang (www.grandformosa-taroko.com.tw, 886-3-869-1155); much cheaper and simpler accommodation is available just up the road at the Catholic hostel. The scenery is striking, sometimes literally—the gorge is one giant falling rock zone. Just outside Tienhsiang is an excellent outdoor natural hot spring. However, it's been closed ever since some rocks tumbled down in 2005, killing one person and injuring several others. Package tours, like those offered by Zion Tours (www.formosaholidays.com.tw, 886-2-2100-1256), include the gorge; otherwise get to Hualien by train and switch there to a bus, taxi or rented scooter to Tienhsiang.

Chihpen Hot Springs

The Japanese brought their hot-spring culture to the island as colonizers. One of their favorite spots, and now the location of a strip of hot-spring hotels, lies just to the southwest of Taitung, in southeast Taiwan. The best is the Royal Chihpen (www.hotel-royal-chihpen.com.tw, 886-89-510-666); a personal favorite is Dongtair (www.dongtair-spa.com.tw, 886-89-512-918), which boasts a massive outdoor hot-spring complex just across the road from the main building. Those springs are coed, and swimsuits and caps are required; other hotels have male- and female-only springs where it's de rigueur to soak buck naked.

Try an invigorating hike in the nearby forest park, then a half-hour under the jets for utter relaxation. To get there, fly Far Eastern Air Transport or Uni Air from Taipei to Taitung, then switch to a hotel shuttle, taxi or train to Chihpen station.

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