Alishan National Scenic Area
If you want to see Taiwan's natural environment raw in tooth and nail, 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 the Alishan National Scenic Area.
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.
Sun Moon Lake National Scenic Area
Sun Moon Lake (Rìyuè Tán) is the largest body of freshwater in Taiwan and has one of the island’s loveliest natural landscapes. In his blue period, Picasso would have had no end of inspiration. At an altitude of 762m, the lake is backed by high-forested mountains and boasts good weather year-round.
While Chiayi (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.
Sun Moon Lake
Sun Moon Lake (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 (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 and a rare fan-shaped train garage that nestles a half-dozen old steam engines.
Although it begins just south of Taichung in the bland town of Caotun, Hwy 14 makes up for a poor start in no time. After Puli, the elevation rises and one turn after another brings stunning mountain views. Along the way you can break for sightseeing and some of the best hiking in Taiwan.
Jiji Small Rail Line
Branching off the west-coast trunk line in flat, rural Changhua, the train on this 29km narrow-gauge railway (集集小火車線, Jíjí Xiǎohuǒchē Xiàn) chugs past some lovely stretches of rural Taiwan before coming to a halt in Checheng, a vehicle yard and former logging village in the foothills of Nantou County.
Thirty minutes north of Sun Moon Lake, Puli (Pǔlǐ) is known in modern times as the epicentre of the 921 earthquake in 1999 and the 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.
Dasyueshan Forest Recreation Area
At the western edge of the Snow Mountain Range, the Big Snow Mountain Forest Recreation Area rises from 1000m to just under the gold standard of 3000m. The area was closed at the time of writing, due to the landslides caused by Typhoon Soulik in 2013. When it is open, expect some fantastic hiking opportunities and great wildlife viewing, in particular birdwatching.
Rueili (Ruìlǐ) was one of the first places established as a permanent settlement by 18th-century Fujian pioneers in the Alishan region. Today the small, quiet, tea-growing community is gradually rebuilding from the devastation of Typhoon Morakot in 2009, and has started attracting visitors back.