Day 222: Chiayi & Fenchihu, Taiwan. This morning we walked over to Chiayi station to catch the Alishan Forest Railway train to Fenchihu. This is the farthest the train runs these days, due to typhoon damage in 2009 and 2015. The full line is expected to be renovated in time for a possible World Heritage listing in 2023.
It was pretty exciting to board an old narrow gauge train, and even more exciting to clickety clack our way out through Chiayi and start the climb into the mountains.
The journey took just under two and a half hours, and we went through some of the most scenic terrain we’ve encountered so far. Huge mountains, tea plantations, palm trees and bamboo trees, plus dozens of tunnels and old wooden bridges. And some tiny, very cute little railway stations.
We arrived in Fenchihu around midday, grabbed a quick coffee then set off in search of our hotel. It turned out to be about 25 metres away, along a side alley and down a small flight of stairs. The very efficient receptionist grabbed a local map, sat us down and marked the local walking trails and other points of interest. Our room is big and airy, and the view from the tiny balcony is just wonderful.
Fenchihu is a really interesting town (though to be honest, it’s more of a large village). It’s centered around an old street called Old Street (lots of creative naming there), which has lots of different shops and stalls selling all sorts of sweet and savoury foods and treats. We tried a local sweet rice cake, then a bean flavoured jelly sweet. Much to the disappointment of the stall owners, who were hoping to offload large bags of the stuff onto us, we weren’t keen on either.
Despite the town’s popularity, it’s managed to retain a rustic feeling, with lots of old wooden buildings and some cool artwork dotted here and there.
We set off for a walk around the local walking trails, and they were spectacular. Lots of ascending and descending, but on decent wooden staircases and boardwalks, and through thick bamboo, cedar and mahogany forests. The cherry blossoms are just starting to bloom, which added pink splashes against the cloudy low sky.
It’s a lot chillier up here in the hills, and Jim’s slightly mad outfit of shorts and gloves attracted a few stares and lots of giggles.
It took a couple of hours to complete all the trails, then we headed back into town in search of some famous doughnuts.
There’s a blue wooden house just down the hill from the train station which was used as a scene set for the Taiwanese 2011 fantasy drama movie Starry Starry Night. The house is open for viewing and not surprisingly it’s also a popular place for selfies. There were oodles of people posing inside with the historic exhibits, and outside alongside the cherry blossoms.
And right next door to the house, tucked away around a corner, is an open air and rather chaotic looking bakery, that sells incredibly good doughnuts. We bought one to try it out and see what the fuss was about. It was a little more like a croissant than a traditional doughy doughnut, but still delicious and not too sweet.
We had a quick look around the train museum, which has lots of historic photographs, and a very cool model showing how the railway switchbacks we went through earlier today, all fit together.
The evening called for a chilled glass of wine, ideally relaxing on the deck of a bar overlooking the valley. Unfortunately, there aren’t any bars up here, so we got a couple of cold beers from 7-Eleven and sat on a wooden deck overlooking the village, as the clouds descended into the valley.
By 6.00pm most eateries and shops were closed. We popped into a restaurant that was still serving food (and wasn’t overly touristy) and ordered large bowls of noodle soup and some fried rice. The food was excellent, with tasty mangetout and pea sprouts being the local twist.
An older couple nearby seemed to find it amusing that two foreigners were eating with chopsticks and couldn’t stop looking and grinning (Lil quickly checked she had her chopsticks the right way up, after her last chopstick faux pas). The couple themselves were even more interesting – they brought their own silver bowls and cutlery into the restaurant for their dinner. No idea why.
Then we headed back to our hotel to chill out and watch TV. By now it was starting to get really cold (though Jim was still wearing shorts) – night time temperatures drop to about 8C.
Tomorrow we’re up early to catch a bus to Alishan, the original end of the railway and a higher point up the mountain, to walk some of the small trails there. And later the same day we’ll catch a bus all the way back to Chiayi, a two and a half hour trip down a crazy winding road, which should test out Jim’s travel sickness containment skills nicely.