Alishan, or Mount Ali, as one would say in English, except that "Alishan" is such a fixture in tourist-speak - including in English - that it would be a shame to call it by any other name, lies roughly in the center of the north-south, east-west axes of the island of Taiwan. Sun Moon Lake, which is situated about 45 kilometers north-northeast of Alishan lies closer to the island's imaginary center, but it is a pretty close approximation to claim that Alishan lies at the center of the island. Alishan sits astride parts of several townships, including most of Alishan Township, in Chiayi and Nantou Counties. Properly speaking, Alishan is a collection of mountains which in turn belong to the Yu ("Jade") Mountain Range.
Taiwan Ali Shan
There are a number of legends about Alishan, most of them related to the aboriginal peoples who inhabited the island of Taiwan long before the Chinese people arrived, though many, if not most, of the legends are said to be of more recent lineage, with some sources claiming them to be completely manufactured, therefore we will elegantly pass up the opportunity to further the cause of these perhaps dubious legends.
However, there is every reason for you to visit Alishan, genuine legend or not, and the main reasons are that it is a beautiful mountain (set of mountains, in fact), it offers a truly (genuinely!) spectacular sunrise that borders on the surreal, the train that takes you there is antiquated (it stems from the Japanese period) and doesn't always run on time - and it makes numerous stops and "slows", i.e., it slows down enough that the local people can shove off their "parcels", then hop off after them at unofficial "stations", all of which, precisely because the train requires the visitor's indulgence, will bring the visitor into close contact with the people of Taiwan, who, the visitor will quickly find out, are some of the most generous and kind people on the planet.
The train trip (the train itself is officially referred to as the Ordinary Train, though those who have ridden it say that it is anything but ordinary) will expose you not only to the generous side of mainstream Taiwanese people, it will show you glimpses of social aspects of Taiwan that you would probably never have noticed had you not taken the Ordinary Train. They say that a trip to Taiwan is not a trip to Taiwan until one has visited Alishan. Perhaps the reason for making such a claim is because of the unique train trip, which will introduce you to aspects of life on Taiwan that a visit to the modern city would probably never expose you to.
The attractions on Alishan include: the beautiful mountain wilderness itself, not least of which is Zhu Peak, where one can view the sunrise, the sunset and everything in between; four villages that each house forestry personnel, including many descendants of former Japanese-era logging employees; waterfalls; high-altitude tea and wasabi (Wasabia japonica) plantations; the Alishan Forest Railway, aka the Ordinary Train; and if we haven't mentioned it yet, the sunrise over Jade Mountain (Mount Yu), viewed from Zhu Peak.
The main attraction on Alishan is catching the sunrise, but this is only a good excuse to take the ancient railway. The ancient railway that leads to Alishan begins at the city of Chiayi, where you might want to arrive a day in advance in order to visit certain sites there, such as the old Sugar Factory, the prison (Chiayi Prison, which was built by the Japanese while they were here, but modelled on an American prison in the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania), and Chiayi Park. There are numerous trains that operate on the narrow-guage railway that stretches between the city of Chiayi and Alishan, but only one of these trains is the ancient, coal-powered, steam-hissing, Japanese-era train known as the Ordinary Train. The other trains are express trains that get you there in half the time, but correspondingly, with half the charm. If ever the saying, 'the journey itself is half the experience', were true, it is most certainly true of the journey up to Alishan on the extraordinarily Ordinary Train!
The sunrise is observed from atop Zhu Peak (observing the sunrise is a ritual that dozens partake in, so don't think that only backpackers do it, and note that the Taiwanese themselves and their fellow Chinese mainlanders are just as eager to observe the sunrise over Alishan as are foreign visitors). From atop Zhu Peak the "sun worshipper" observes Jade Mountain in the distance (in the east), across a valley. The sun comes up behind Jade Mountain, lingers for a second, then seems to leap over the crest of Jade Mountain, bathing the entire area in between in the blindingly bright rays of the morning sun.
On most days, the valley below is blocked from one's view. Instead, the valley is filled, almost to the rims of the mountains - stretching from Zhu Peak over to Jade Mountain - with a "sea" of clouds. This sea of white clouds can resemble anything from a thin, gauze-like sheet stretched tightly across the valley to a billowly series of choppy waves that fill the valley almost to the brim, beside one's feet. The experience is said to be eerie and a bit surreal, as if one could step out onto this white expanse and walk over to the rim of Jade Mountain in the distance (decidedly not recommended!).
If getting up early is not your cup of tea (btw, they serve piping hot tea to all the brave souls who make it for the sunrise seance), the sunset on Zhu Peak is supposed to be almost as rewarding, if not as famous an event. If there is still a sea of clouds present (often it burns off, or at least partially), the play of light of the setting sun on the sparse sea of clouds is claimed to be even more beautiful than witnessing the sunrise on the thicker sea of clouds. But if neither the sunrise nor the sunset can inspire you to make the needed sacrifice, the midday view from Zhu Peak, once the clouds burn off, reveals a forest alive with movement in the valley below.
Also on Alishan are a number of very, very old trees. The oldest living tree is called Ali Saint Tree. The current Ali Saint Tree replaced a slightly older (by 300 odd years) Ali Saint Tree that eventually died, leaving its cousin to fill its shoes, i.e., to take its name, and before that there was an even older Ali Saint Tree that eventually perished, making the current Ali Saint Tree the third generation of Ali Saint Trees, all three of which sprouted from the same trunk. Another name for Ali Saint Tree is accordingly "Three Generations Tree". Ali Saint Tree stands some 520 meters and its girth measures roughly 23 meters, meaning that it takes 10 adults with outstretched arms and linked hands to encircle Ali Saint Tree.
The original tree stems from the time of Zhougong, the Duke of Zhou, brother of the founder of the Zhou (BCE 1027-221) Dynasty, Emperor Wuwang, and later regent for the space of 7 years while the son and crown prince of the deceased Emperor Wuwang was too young to command the helm of state. The Duke of Zhou could himself have usurped power, but in fact Zhougong fought off his two greedy brothers who tried just that, dutifully reserving the office of emperor for Emperor Wuwang's son when the latter would be old enough to ascend the throne, so yet another name for Ali Saint Tree is Zhougong Bolt, the word "bolt" being a reference to any plant that produces a shoot, or bolt, from an older, existing trunk, or stem.
Yet another reason for visiting Alishan is its many cherry blossoms, which - one can easily divine - are owing to the island's Japanese heritage, as is the narrow-guage railway that leads from the city of Chiayi to Alishan's Zhu Peak. Other interesting sites within the Alishan National Scenic Area include Sisters Lake, Peacock Lake, Shouzhen Temple and Ciyun Temple. Just beyond the Alishan National Scenic Area, but within reasonable distance, is Fenqihu Scenic Area, where one can observe beautiful forests, mountain streams, many splendid waterfalls, strangely-shaped, craggy trees and equally strangely-shaped karst stones, as well as bamboo groves. Many wild fruits and vegetables, including bamboo shoots, are harvested in the Fenqihu forest area, and visitors are naturally welcome to taste them.
When all is said and done, when the sunrise has been seen (like crossing the international dateline), and the trip up to Alishan via the Ordinary Train (one of 100 such alpine railways, but unique in that it climbs over 2000 meters from start to finish, albeit in a zig-zag fashion (otherwise it could not make the trip up the mountain!)) has been done, there is the mountain itself, which offers three weather zones ranging from a tropical zone at the mountain's base to a temperate zone at the top, in passing through a subtropical zone. The tropical forests, which include banana, coconut, orange and palm groves, end at about 800 meters above sea level, where the subtropical forests begin to take over, while these disappear at about 1600 meters, making way to temperate-zone forests. Very occasionally, snow can fall atop nearby Jade Mountain, but it is a rare event indeed.
Above all, Alishan, with its many nature trails, is a hiker's paradise. And don't be surprised if you catch sight of aboriginal hunters roaming the forests; though they may no longer live here, since Alishan has become a national treasure (if the Americans could kick Sitting Bull and his band of Hunkpapa Sioux out of the Black Hills in the name of digging for gold, surely the "Taiwanese" could bar their "natives" from living on Alishan, once the mountain had become the very symbol of Taiwan), they still enjoy hunting rights on Alishan.