Under Japanese, and later KMT, economic planning, Kaohsiung became the centre of heavy industry, Taipei the centre of colonial administration, and Taichung? The centre of light industry. If your image of 'Made in Taiwan' still conjures up visions of cheap toys, shoes and electrical goods, then you’ve got old Taichung in mind.
While Chiayi (嘉義; Jiāyì) is not part of the Alishan National Scenic Area, almost every traveller will have to pass through here on the way there. The narrow-gauge train to Alishan leaves from Chiayi train station, as do buses and taxis. There are a few sights worth checking out in and around Chiayi, so plan to spend a day or so before moving on.
Ninety percent of Lukang (鹿港; Lùgǎng) is as nondescript as most small towns in Taiwan…but then there is that other 10%. Comprising some of the most gorgeous temples in the country, and featuring curiously curved streets, heritage buildings, and dusty old shops, it is this small part of Lukang – coverable on foot within one long day – that justifiably brings in the crowds.
Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake (日月潭; Rìyuè Tán) is on the itinerary of every Chinese group tour to Taiwan, so expect hordes of tourists year-round. But do not be deterred by the crowds – at an altitude of 762m, this largest body of fresh water in Taiwan is one of the island’s most lovely natural vistas.
Changhua City (彰化市; Zhānghuà), the capital and political heart of Changhua County, has usually been thought of as a gateway to the old town of Lukang, but there are some treats in the town itself, including stately old temples, a giant hilltop Buddha, an old sugar factory, and a rare fan-shaped train garage that nestles a half-dozen old steam engines.
Alishan National Scenic Area
If you want to see Taiwan's natural environment raw, visit a national park. If you want to see how humans have tried to make a go of settling on landslide-prone mountains and battered escarpments (as spectacular as they are to merely gaze upon), come to Alishan National Scenic Area.
Puli (埔里; Pǔlǐ) is known in modern times as the epicentre of the 921 earthquake in 1999 and the Taiwan home of Shaohsing wine. The area was once a centre for butterfly exports. It still flitters with winged life year-round and is the source of the mysterious butterfly dispersal over Tatajia every May and June.
Yushan National Park
Covering 3% of the landmass of Taiwan, Yushan National Park (玉山國家公園; Yùshān Guójiā Gōngyuán) is in an area that sits on the junction of the colliding Philippine and Eurasian plates. The landscape is strikingly rugged, marked by thick forests, deep valleys, high cliffs and rocky peaks.
Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
At the western edge of the Snow Mountain Range, Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area (大雪山國家森林遊樂區; Dàxuě Shān Guójiā Sēnlín Yóulè Qū; Big Snow Mountain) rises from 1000m to just under the gold standard of 3000m. It offers fantastic hiking opportunities and great wildlife viewing, in particular birdwatching.
Rueili (瑞里; Ruìlǐ) was one of the first places established as a permanent settlement by 18th-century Fujian pioneers in the Alishan region. Its scenic mountains, bamboo forests and historic walking trails are not only a pleasure to experience, but offer some of the best opportunities in Taiwan for watching fireflies.
Lying at the feet of Great Jiji Mountain, Jiji (集集; Jíjí), the fifth stop down the Jiji Small Rail Line, has a real country charm, with banana fields, betel-nut trees, grapevines and cosmos flowers lining the roads. The old cypress train station is a reproduction of the original Japanese-era station, which was levelled in the 921 earthquake.
At the end of the Jiji Small Rail Line, Checheng's (車埕; Chēchéng) fortunes were closely tied to the railway's functions as a supply stop for local hydroelectric development and logging. The town was abandoned after a logging ban came into effect in the '80s. It is now a tourist attraction capitalising on Chechang's unique history and the remnants of that history.
Hehuanshan Forest Recreation Area
At over 3000m, this recreation area sits mostly above the treeline, and the bright, grassy green hills of the Mt Hehuan Range roll on and on, often disappearing into a spectacular sea of clouds. Driving up from the western plains of Taiwan, the change in a few hours from urban sprawl to emerald hills is miraculous.