Or “Ancient wizards of times past”
One of the greatest things about travelling is that weekends and weekdays lose their meaning and every day is as fun and enjoyable as the other. So when the weekend ended there was no Monday-blues, but rather the anticipation to get to a new destination and this time, one that I had been looking for. We had some spare time on our hands so we decided to take the local train from Taichung to Chiayi, enjoying yet again the fascinating stares of little children and old geezers alike, as they tried to decipher what these two white weirdos are doing with their humungous bags on the train. But as we had grown quite accustomed to these looks we politely smiled back and tried to act as casual as possible, deep down knowing that this was one of the by-products of visiting a country that is still developing on the tourism plain.
When we reached Chiayi we encountered the first Taiwanese touts in the form of two elder ladies who continuingly tried to sell us both a ride and a place to sleep in Alishan, on the top of the mountain. All that in Chinese of course! But when I heard the woman say mini-bus multiple times I finally turned around and said that I preferred the ‘maxi-bus’. This seemed to do the trick and finally she went away to hunt for other people to prey, ahmm sell, on.
Alishan is a town up in the mountains, mostly known for its beautiful sunrises and sunsets and views high up above the clouds. It is sadly also the main hub of all the tourists that come to visit the area, making it somewhat less attractive to us. We did however want the views of the mountains and therefore we found a place in Lungtou, which is somewhere in the middle between Chiayi at the bottom and Alishan at the top of the mountain. Four and a half houses and a bus stop is what makes this village so charming and as the bus dropped us off in the middle of nowhere, we looked around us, still unsure of how we had managed to land in this weird environment, with no English spoken or written in a radius of 30km.
The instructions we had gotten from the owner of the Minsu were quite easy when we read them but as we looked around us now, we started to get a little puzzled with all the Chinese signs and all. I saw a big yellow sign in Chinese and my mind somehow decided that this was our place. So up the hill we went, our quite heavy backpacks not making our steps any easier. When we finally reached the end of the path (and the place that large yellow sign pointed to!) we were greeted by about a dozen cats and a woman that spoke no English. Hmm, I thought, what now? Turns out that she was not the Mr. Xu we needed and that we had reached a different minsu than the one we needed. We headed down the hill again, or more likely, rolled down it and started to walk around the village. Confusion had set in as we had no idea how to find our place and since everything was written in Chinese, no real idea of how to get there at all. So, as a last resort, out came the phrase book and in what must have been a hilarious Chinese accent we tried to ask a local where our minsu was. Spitting out some bettel (a red gummy paste that looks like blood!) he sent his dog home and started to walk at an Olympic pace towards the opposite direction we were walking. After a couple of minutes he pointed towards a house far away and nodded with his head. Apparently the look on my face and the oversized luggage on our backs did the trick, because suddenly another local who had just finished washing his truck pointed to the open space in the back and beckoned us to jump on it. Shrugging my shoulders I heaved the bags and myself to the back whilst Ronni went to the front. As he started driving and I held for dear life on the rail (Made in China!) and the wind swishing in my hair, I thought what would happen if the handrail collapsed while we were mid-turning... But I must say that I did enjoy the ride and was again amazed by the friendliness of the people in Taiwan. Bumping along the highway and then taking a quick left turn up the hill we finally reached the minsu after a couple of minutes. And what a sight we must have been! Me jumping off the back of a truck like a gringo in South America, heaving down two backpacks and Ronni emerging from the front seat as if she just had a lively conversation in Chinese - a sight to remember...:-)
And the view that awaited us? Amazing!
After a good night’s sleep we woke up to...silence. No cars, no cackling roosters, not even the sound of wind in the trees. Ah, how good it feels to sleep on a comfortable bed and enjoy the good things in life.
With a relaxing morning behind us we ventured out of the minsu to the village to see what else was hidden in this tiny place and try one of the paths that lead to a deck from where you could see the sunrise. Nestled in the mountains, with a breathtaking view of the surrounding ridges and valleys the deck served as the perfect getaway “bed” for us to stretch ourselves and bask in the warm sun. Warm rays of sunshine on my face, a cool breeze every now and again and some of the most amazing scenery of our trip so far made for an soothing “down-time” from the hassles of sightseeing :-)
It was at this moment that I realized that I should be weirded out by the fact that we were currently lying all by ourselves in the middle of nowhere in the mountains of central Taiwan, enjoying the glorious views and breathing some of the cleanest air in the country... but I wasn’t. Weird had become normal, the unusual had turned into reality and the travelling had changed us so far that no matter how different the culture, the countryside or the people were, we had learned to adapt, to immerse ourselves into our surroundings. I think that is one of the most unusual and amazing facts of our journey.
The afternoon clouds had started to roll in, hiding behind them the sun and bringing with them gusts of crispy mountain air. It was only a matter of minutes but the air had changed dramatically from warm to cold and with that change we huddled back to the minsu to spend the afternoon in the warmth of the house.
It was only the onset of another amazing sunset that drove me out into the cold to capture the sheer beauty of nature.
And as day turned into night there was only one thing that cracked us up and left us humming the tunes of unknown classical flutes – the repeating 5 songs that the owner played 24 hours a day in the common area
I think that I might have caught an exotic strain of an unknown bug that causes irregular behaviour and may very well lead to certain mutations like abnormal hair growth, erratic sleep intervals and insane characteristics like singing for no real reason. Otherwise I cannot explain why I would VOLUNTEER for yet another sunrise!? Yep, only a week had passed since the last time I had done this utterly inacceptable and foolish behaviour of waking up at ungodly hours and here I was, doing it again...! But this time Ronni volunteered with me and that made all the difference :-)
Luckily for us this time round we didn’t need to hike up any mountain as we had done that part by bus. All we needed to do was roll out of bed, put on something half-decent and walk around 12 steps away from the house...and from there we could get this!
The air was crisp and my body yearned for the warm interior of the bed, not understanding how Ronni could be so...awake?? Maybe she had adrenalin flowing in her veins, maybe she had just slept enough or maybe she had been cloned during the night, but she was definitely not feeling the cold that I felt attacking my every pore. And apparently electrify my hair as well :-)
The minutes passed and I foolishly decided to walk a little along the path on the side of a house in order to warm up. We hadn’t taken more than a few steps before I heard vicious barking and the running paws of something HUGE! Alright, alright, I might be exaggerating, but the German Sheppard that was galloping towards us, teeth bared, did resemble a nightmarish creature from Elm Street, at least to my tired mind...Needless to say that I tossed the idea of walking further along the path like Kim Kardashian her husband and quickly walked (ran) back to the house.
It was only when two of the other guests arrived that I dared to look towards the path to see if that monster was still there. When I saw no one was being eaten alive, nor heard any screams, I decided that it was probably safe and just caught the sun as it made its way over the mountain-top.
And for these serene moments I forgot about the dog (monster), forgot that it was barely seven in the morning, forgot that I needed to pee and that my tummy was rumbling like a bear in the woods and just watched in amazement as nothing more spectacular than a sunrise played itself out in front of me.
What else can a man want than to stand with his other half hand in hand and enjoy the beginning of a new day? I can tell you now...absolutely nothing!
We had decided that since we were up anyway that we would use the extra time we had and take the bus up the mountain to Alishan. Mostly it was in order to see the scenery and the ginormous ancient trees that filled the forest around it, but in some part it was also in order to get some fresh food and dinner for the next couple of days as Longtou is a bit, how should I put it, un-evolved in that matter :-)
If you are looking for a place that will give you time to ponder your thoughts while you enjoy the silence of ancient trees all by your lonesome then Alishan is probably not the place for you. Not because there aren’t any trees, believe me there are plenty, or because the landscape isn’t fascinating, it is!, but because in order to find a quiet place for more than five minutes you probably need a time machine and zap yourself about 2000 years into the past :-)
But we were able to put all of that aside and still enjoy the few minutes of serenity that opened themselves up every now and again. Mostly because we walked the opposite direction of the many guided tours that the other (mostly mainland China) tourists did. So it was in these kinds of moments that we succeeded to be alone for a while with...
The Elephant Tree
The Three Generation Tree
The Sacred Tree standing at 45 meters, a circumference of 12.3 meters and an age of 2300 years
(Oh, whilst I have grown quite ancient – and a beard, and some luscious hair I must add, I am still a couple of years younger than that...)
The Pond that shall remain unnamed
The Sister Ponds
And last but never the least, the Love-shaped tree
(this one’s for you babe!)
Snuggled in the forest we also saw temples, almost hidden away between the awesome assembly of trees that soared high into the heavens, creating a canopy above us that enable only small rays of sunlight to penetrate them.
It was these rays of light, these memories of the skies above us that made the whole landscape seem like something taken out of a fairy tale. Surrounded by these ancient wizards of nature, trees that had been here more than two thousand (!!) years ago, I realized just how small fraction of time we had in our lives and that we should enjoy every second of it, as one can never know how long it shall last.
What could possibly make this any better you might ask? Well, trains of course! Train tracks are for me like theme parks are for kids, I just love them!
Yes, Alishan is crowded in many places and yes, it is better to sleep somewhere else and just come here for the day and walk around in the park before returning to the tranquillity of one of the many villages on the mountains. But I wouldn’t have wanted to miss meeting these ancient creatures of times past for the world, and even here, amidst the towering trees, one can find solace and peace, even if just for a short while. And if that doesn’t work out for you, just try one of these BBQ’ed beef jerkys...
On our last day in the mountains we tried to find the mysterious Longshan trail which was advertised in almost every signpost in the village, but when we followed the path that was shown on the maps we ended up in the toilets. Yep, seems that the path itself had been swallowed up by the pile of human manure and was never to be seen again. I walked around the toilets, trying to find the mysterious rabbit hole that would lead us along the ridge towards the village of Xinding and that promised some jaw-dropping views as per photos on the internet. But it was to no avail, twice around the toilets and I still didn’t find the hidden entrance to the path, so we decided to call it quits and turn this ‘active’ day into a ‘sunbathing’ day.
So we sat on the deck we had visited on our first day, ate some lunch, cracked some peanuts and some jokes and generally philosophised about life in general and ours specifically. And since the view was still amazing, there was no harm in lying down a bit and close our eyes for a well deserved siesta time...