Over 70 percent of Taiwan is mountainous and it’s full of incredible hiking trails. As you guys know we are fans of the great outdoors and couldn’t wait to explore those natural wonders! Already back in Finland one special hike was in our minds; the trail that follows the abandoned Mianyue Railway Line, zigzagging in the mountains in southern Taiwan’s Chiayi county. It used to be a branch line of the Alishan Railway, and was originally built in 1915 by the Japanese Colonial Government for transporting logs. The length of the line was 9.2 km reaching an altitude 2000 m above and it was known for its spectacular mountainous views. After several typhoons and the 921 Earthquake in 1999 the line collapsed and was closed down. Over the time it became a hiking route with its numerous elevated bridges and nowadays more and more people are visiting the area.
There’s not much information online about the hike in English, but with the help of the google translate, our local friends and few blog posts, we managed to plan the 3 day trek starting on the railway trail in Alishan (阿里山鄉) and ending through mountainous paths to San-Ling-Xi Forest Park (杉林溪) in Nantou County. The Alishan portion of the trail was technically illegal, but during our stay in Taiwan it was reopened for visitors with a special permit. Unfortunately the process to get one wasn’t easy for foreigners – we had to fill applications online in Chinese and for this the translator didn’t help…in the end we entered the national park pretending to see other trails. Luckily not many questions were asked and we were free to go!
After hitchhiking from Kaohsiung to Alishan our initial plan was to set up the tent near the trailhead and rest the dizziness away caused by hitchhiking on the long curvy road. However, the fresh air and beautiful evening sun motivated us to start our journey and soon the idyllic woods surrounded us when we marched on the old railway tracks. It didn’t take a long time when the first passage, a tunnel with a collapsed bridge, was in front of us. Many people had warned us about the landfall and challenges to cross the bridge, but with its good maintenance work it went smoothly. Installed ropes and metal footholds gave a stable support and there was almost no chance of falling. Excited about the stunning views from the bridge we continued further knowing that there will be more various passages ahead of us.
It was fascinating to go through the tunnels, which some of them were very long. There, under the ground, the complete darkness and silence gave us a good sense of total isolation. Upon returning to light, the lush green forest seemed even more bright around. What made us really hold our breaths were the crossings of the railroad bridges! They were in various conditions, some of them newly fixed with added wooden perpendicular paths (it made them more comfortable to pass), and some were clearly untouched for years. We walked on narrow structures at most up to 20 m height and 20 m long, realising that the fall would be, of course, fatal. Under our legs the rotting wood and destroyed crossbeams with the height caused some sort of a vertigo. We heard our hearts beating, palms were sweating and there were moments that we weren’t sure we could trust our own usually a quite good balance. Anyway, in the end, the rush of adrenaline was greet, wide smiles brightened our faces – it was definitely worth it!
Shortly after the last bridge we arrived at the abandoned Stone Monkey train station and checked the old buildings and wooden platforms that were still standing strong. There were no other people so we had a luxury to enjoy the whole place by ourselves. We set up the tent close to the rails, made a campfire and enjoyed the silence that surrounded us. The full moon gave a light in the darkness creating bright spots on the ground through the thick pines. Although some locals had alerted us that the temperature might be cold in the night, for us it was still very warm. It made us sleep well (finally it wasn’t too hot for us!) and in the morning we had lots of energy to continue further.
During the next day we hiked through mountains admiring the diversity of nature. Next section of the railway was much older – all of the wood rotted away leaving just two thin bars of steel. This is the reason why it’s impossible to cross any further rail bridges, so the trail was heading off them, up on the mountain ridge, towards the mountain top. The dense forest was full of majestic trees, huge rocks spotted with moss and various flowers, which created a rich mix of perfume-like smells. For the whole day we saw only one older couple who were very impressed to see us hiking alone. Weirdly enough the deaths on this trail are not uncommon…We learned that most of the people in Taiwan prefer to hike in bigger, organised, groups with guides. There are also services providing food and tents at the very spot you want to camp in, so you don’t need to carry yourself heavy backpacks. It explained the tents that we saw earlier on the Mianyue Line – and also the tents on our next camping place!
The Shuiyang Forest Lake, where we slept the second night, was formed when the devastating earthquake in 1999 triggered a large landslide causing a natural dam. The forest was turned into the new lake and the sunken cedar trees are nowadays sticking out of the water. This phenomenon reminded us of the Kaindy Lake which we visited in Kazakhstan (formed also due to the earthquake). When in Kaindy the dead trees looked like ship masts in the crystal clear mountain water, here the foggy lake with its tall trees had more an eerie appearance especially in the evening. The mist changed its shapes fast around the trees and amazingly enough, we noticed that the dead trunks were giving a breeding ground for grasses, mosses and ferns. As we put our feet into the cold water, we could see dark shapes of birds flying without a noise over our heads. There was no way of going deeper towards the deep because the bottom was dangerously sucking down our legs ! Later in the night for a moment there was a complete silence, a very dreamy atmosphere. In the other tent one hiker was puking extremely maybe from the hard exercise. Except for that we were hearing only the relaxing sounds of the rain but suddenly, from nowhere, a choir of frogs started their nightly songs. It was an incredible and loud sound! Back in Finland we used to listen to the albums of Yannick Dauby, he made field recordings of the wild life from Taiwan, and now finally we could experience a live concert – the sounds of the thousands of frogs. We didn’t sleep much but enjoyed the music around us!
In the early morning, when the first sun rays hit the ground, it was time to start the last part of the trail. Now the weather was hot and it was a relief that the vast jungle around us offered lots of shadows. This time we climbed along steep rocks up and down using lines that were installed there. Once we looked behind us, the astonishing views of the never-ending green mountains fed our eyes! Again, we didn’t meet other hikers, only the medical workers (maybe going to take care of the poor puking lady) and rough-skinned frogs, who stood like statues on the rock. Their skin was very dry so we dropped the water from the bottle cheering them up, and soon they jumped away. After steep ascends and descends the hike followed the path through tall grasses that cut our skin making it itchy. Now we understood why locals oftentimes wore long sleeves even though the weather was tropical. Luckily, there was a stream on our way and we could put our hands to the cold water – it was a huge relief! After we finished the trail there was no time to rest because we had to head on the road to hitchhike to the city of Tainan. Thanks to many friendly local drivers we finally got there late in the evening, and fell weary straight on the hostel bed.
The combination of the routes that formed our hiking journey made the whole trip amazing and memorable. We will never forget the feeling on the wooden railroad bridges, the beauty of the decayed old forests or abandoned buildings that were already under the wild flora. For us there’s always something infinitely healing when we stay in the woods. After every hike, even though we might be very tired, we are inspired and refreshed with a new energy!