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The Alishan Forest Railway, Taiwan


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An account of a railway journey to the mountain resort of Alishan, Taiwan, on February 5th and 6th, 1996.
 

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Every guide-book to Taiwan seems to mention the mountain resort of Alishan. Neither our friends nor relations had been there, though they’d heard about it. When I realized that a narrow-gauge railway was the way to get there, we just had to go. The Alishan Forest Railway was built by the Japanese during the 50 years that they occupied Formosa (Taiwan). It was originally intended as a logging road, to get timber out of otherwise inaccessible areas in the mountainous interior of the island. Nowadays, there is also a highway to Alishan, but it's white-knuckle driving.

There are five classes of main-line trains in Taiwan, from air-conditioned expresses to breezy local trains. While the roads and streets of Taiwan have an American flavour (style and position of traffic lights and direction signs), rail transport is more European or British. The trains keep to the left, there are high level platforms, and the term “railway” is used in English signs, rather than “rail-road”. The first thing then was to reserve seats on the long-distance train, which we did with the help of an English-speaking person who saw us struggling.

Then, early on Monday Feb 5 we took a taxi to Taipei Main railway station and managed at the (Chinese-speaking) enquiry counter to find what time we were to arrive at Chiayi, the transfer point to the narrow-gauge railway, which is about half-way down the left-hand side of Taiwan. We fumbled our way down to the platform underground, and train 1017 arrived on time. The platform has glass disks embedded in it between the yellow line and the platform edge, and when a train approaches, these flash red!

When we boarded the train, we found two girls in our reserved seats, but they moved out when they saw us coming. The train starts in Keelung, so people without reservations take any seat and hope that those with reservations do not show up. Turned out that the train was fairly crowded. Three boys stowed their gear on the rack above us, then went and stood or sat in the vestibule - with the train door held open! We had expected that they were only going to the suburbs but they went as far as we did. It was a smooth uneventful trip down the electrified West Coast Main Line: we seemed forever to be in Taipei suburbs until we branched to the mountain route via Taichung. We had elected to take the faster train to Chiayi, even though the next, slower train should have got there in time. Just as well we did, because the next train was delayed and we would not have made the connection. At Chiayi, three girls who had been awaiting that train to go to school got into conversation with us, since we were the first native English speakers they had ever talked to. They were still there when we left!

When we tried to book seats on the Alishan Forest Railway (at Chiayi) we had a nasty shock. No seats left! (the ticket clerk told us this in English). Then it dawned on me: on the previous Friday, when we had tried to book through from Taipei to Alishan, the ticket clerk in Taipei told us he could only reserve as far as Chiay. I’d assumed it was because the Alishan line was a separate railway, but no, he must have meant that the train had no spare seats. Anyway, the woman behind us in the line at Chiayi also was out of luck. Then my wife had an idea: could we stand on the train to Alishan? (As youngsters, we used to stand mosts of the way on the London to South Wales train). No problem! the clerk issued us two tickets right away, unreserved. The other woman was furious! She probably thought that we foreigners could get seats when she could not. She tore into the ticket clerk but didn’t get much satisfaction. I suppose that his response was “If you too want to stand like those foreigners, I’ll sell you a ticket, but don’t complain to me about not having seats!”.

Once we boarded the narrow-gauge train and hung up our coats, we were not allowed to stand. A family party insisted on doubling up with their children so that we could sit. We tried to demur, and indeed throughout the trip we tried to stand, but we simply were not allowed to. The train loaded with more and more teenagers. Then we realized that there was a lesson here. We had assumed that as Alishan is set up for the numbers of people going there on summer weekends, there would be no problem on a winter weekday. Correct, but . . . do NOT travel on the Monday of one of the weeks preceding Chinese (Lunar) New Year. It’s the school break! and all these teens race to Alishan like Canadian teens racing to Florida on their school break. The aisle of our car was crowded with girls.

Another thing we learned was: don’t get on an excursion train without a visible bag of food. The family was sure these occidentals were going to starve on the trip, and kept plying us with fruit: they just would not take “no” or appropriate gestures for an an answer. All we could do was say “shi-shie” (“thank you”) gracefully. The girls got into the act too, and insisted we try out each of the snacks and candies that they had. They wanted to get into conversation, so with some words of English and fewer words of Chinese (and even Japanese) we had a great trip.

The train starts at 30m above sea level at Chiayi, and the weather is hot. The general climate is tropical: you see palms, coconuts, bananas, oranges, etc. growing. In 72km it ascends about 2200m, and the weather is chilly, in fact cold. Near the top there are tea plantations, and around Alishan the trees are all conifers: makes a Canadian feel right at home. It’s an average gradient of 1 in 36, which is amazing for a railway. But the low-slung diesel locomotives each push four passenger cars up the mountain at a steady speed. The leading two axles are coupled together, and the trailing two axles are coupled together: but the leading and trailing are not coupled. This gives a curious optical effect as you look at the side of the moving train, as the front wheels and trailing wheels get unsynchronized and go up and down and around apparently separately, causing nausea in the viewer!

The train hugs the edge of steep mountains and shoots through tunnels and across gorges. There are incredible views of things nearby and in the middle distance. It’s hard to see in the far distance though because of the misty air. There are several very small towns en route, and the train stops for a while at one of these. But it’s risky to get off, because you don’t know when it will start up again. One man did jump off, buy some fruit, and jump on again. Which brings us to another point: use the toilets at the station before you get on the train. There is in fact one toilet on board, but if the little train is crowded you’ll never get to it.

The map on the back of the ticket does tend to exaggerate the curves and spiral tunnels, but there really are three zig-zags (like at Lithgow, Australia) before you get to Alishan. They are at very steep sections of the line. You can actually see the change in angle of the train as it goes from the level to ascending or descending.

At Alishan, the train stops at the New station: a beautiful building with many, many steps. Not too surprising: Alishan is on the side of the mountain (Ali shan, or "Ali Mountain") and everything has many steps. The hotel bus showed up and took us to the Alishan House hotel. No problem booking in: off-season rates for the room. Hot water would be available from 8 to 9 pm, which made it a very easy decision whether to shower in the night or the morning! The lobby is on the 5th floor and we had to go down two floors to our room 303. I had a look around the area before we went to the dining room (at about floor 4.5). We made the usual mistake of ordering while we were hungry. We ordered soup, a shrimp dish, a beef dish, and “fried fresh vegetables” (we cheated here and looked at the English translation of the menu item). Of course, we didn’t finish it all. The shrimp was good, and so was the beef-and-green peppers in a ginger sauce. After dinner, we enquired whether there was any way to get heat into the room (remember, we were in the mountains, and the temperature was hovering near the zero mark). There wasn’t, but we asked for and got another “blanket” (actually a sort of comforter) and so by using the camping trick of one under and one over, we were warm enough, once we had closed the windows.

The next morning we had the standard Alishan 5AM wake-up call, and were dressed and ready for the bus by 5:30. There was no water: not just no hot water, no water at all. So we didn’t wash, no problem: but also, the toilets didn’t flush. Their problem, we were off to the top of the mountain. By 5:40, we were waiting in the crowd at the station. At 6AM, there was expectation as we heard the toot of a train. Tremendous anticipation in the (mostly young) crowd: but in fact a single engine trundled through the station to pick up its train. That pulled into one end of the platform track, and the crowd at the other end surged forward. The station-master blew his whistle and waved his arms, standing bravely in the path of the horde of teenagers. And they stopped! which was just as well, as another engine and train pulled in to the other half of the platform. We climbed aboard into a car with longitudinal benches like a subway car, brightly painted in red, green and white. The windows immediately steamed up but we were warm enough with t-shirt, long-sleeved shirt, sweater, leather coat with hood, and gloves.

The train trundled up to the summit and we started up (you guessed it) more steps. A teen turned back to us and said in English “Hurry up! You will miss it!” but in fact we had plenty of time. At the top, several stalls were being set up to sell hot foods and snacks. One stall had an enormous kettle going, with cups ready for people to warm their hands on hot tea. At the front of the crowd that gazed towards the mountain across the valley stood a salesman of the kind you see in every country. “And now I going to sell these beautiful pictures of Alishan, not for $200, not for $150, but for the unbelievably low price of $100! Not just three pictures, not four, but five pictures you’ll be glad to keep!”. The crowd loved it.

We fell in with a family, mother, father and daughter. They took our picture (with our camera) and we took their family group, with their camera. All this with sign language and one or two words, of which the most important was “Auto!” from him when I tried to adjust the focus on his camera.

At 7:04, on time according to the sign set up by the Sunrise Hotel, the sun sun peeped over the mountain, and we all took pictures. Actually, the views to the side were the more impressive: like some of the old Chinese pictures we had seen in art galleries and as reproductions, the layers of mist against the steep mountains gave an effect of unreality.

Eventually, we found our way back down the steps to the train. Many people chose to walk down the mountain, which I’m sure was nearly as fast as taking the train. Indeed, as we rolled down the track, at one point two men jogged alongside where the track crossed the road! We got off at the Old station in Alishan. Some of the original railway equipment can be seen there,  parked behind a picket fence. Before the Diesels, the railway used Shay geared steam locomotives, very similar, even to the style of number-plate on the firebox, to those still in use on the Georgetown Loop road in Colorado.

From the old station we were supposed to walk back to the hotel. We’d wondered about finding our way, which was along footpaths and, of course, down steps. We need not have worried. A small boy passed us, chanting the name of the hotel as a couplet:

Ali Shan
Bin quan
Ali Shan
Bin quan

His parents followed, and we followed them. On arriving at the hotel, we went immediately to the dining room, quickly followed by other dawn-watchers. While we were having a Western-style breakfast, the view from the picture window opposite us changed as the sun lighted up the mountain. And then we had a nap! Since the water had been turned on, we were able to wash and generally get cleaned up and packed. As we checked out, the hotel bus rolled up and the overnight guests piled on and rode down to the village.

We checked out every shop and restaurant in the plaza, I’m sure, before loading up on fruit and assorted kinds of baked goods to try them on the return trip. While circulating, we heard a shout - it was the party of girls from the train, the day before, greeting us like long-lost family members. They had taken over a whole refectory table at a semi-outdoor restaurant for a late breakfast/early lunch:  they didn’t make it to the dawn viewing (I was not surprised, I’d heard cheerful singing from the Youth Centre the previous evening).

We lugged all our purchases (up the steps) to the station, and my wife settled down while I searched for a good place for photographing the new station, which has the general style of a temple (a temple to trains?). The platform gates were closed and padlocked, and I didn’t feel like trespassing. When I re-entered the station, the ticket clerk rushed out and I wondered what I had done wrong. He explained that when I had presented our tickets the previous day, to get seats for the return journey, he had put the wrong dates on our tickets (he recognized us, but after all, we were I think the only non-Chinese in Alishan). He ushered me into the inner office while he attended to the paperwork. Striking while the iron was hot, I asked him where I could take pictures from - and he allowed me into the station and onto the tracks!

The return trip down the mountain was more misty than on the previous day, but as we had the last seats in the last car, we could look out of the back window and see the contortions of the track we had just passed over. There were several stops where people got on and off. At one point, a single hiker/camper climbed on. His back-pack had all kinds of stuff hanging from it: staff, cooking pots, and so on. He chatted with the conductor, and then went into the conductor’s cubicle in the vestibule. The conductor uses this when the train is backing up the zigzags: he radios instructions to the engineer on the footplate. Anyway, at one point the train started a long continuous whistle. The conductor leaped out of his seat (he read the newspaper for most of the trip) and shot into the vestibule. One of the cooking pots had pressed up against the brake valve, releasing the air pressure and sounding the whistle!

The remainder of the trip back to Taipei on an EMU (Electric Multiple Unit train) was pleasant but uneventful: we ate our way through the fruit, baked goods and bamboo-shoot cookies, and downed the Taiwan beer we had bought at Chiayi.

 
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