Asian paradise Taiwan provides holiday like no other – with colourful markets, bustling capital and delicious food

Travel – news, features, tips The Sun    

IT IS 8.30am on a sunny Monday morning at bustling Chiayi railway station in central Taiwan.

A sleek, high-speed express glides majestically into platform two, while a packed commuter train crawls from platform three.

The Taipei 101 building towers over the city skyline
The sprawling Shilin night market is crammed with colourful stalls selling all sorts of stuff

But all eyes — including ours — are excitedly on platform one, where a small red diesel locomotive with a white V-shaped stripe on the front blares its horn twice before slowly shuddering to a halt.

The  waiting passengers dash  to grab the best window seats in the four immaculate coaches.

But because we’re in Taiwan, where everyone is always extremely polite, nobody pushes.

For this is the Alishan Forest Railway, a narrow-gauge line built more than 100 years ago by the island’s former Japanese overlords to transport huge cypress logs down from surrounding mountains.

It’s a miracle of early 20th century engineering that twists and turns, zig-zags and corkscrews before spiralling back on itself to slowly climb almost 2,500 metres (8,200ft) to the mystical, mist- covered summits.

You don’t have to be a train buff though to enjoy the spectacular journey as it crosses more than 70 wooden bridges and plunges through 50 tunnels to labour up the extremely steep gradients.

And but for the fact that Taiwan — or the Republic of China to use its official name — was voted out of the United Nations in favour of its bigger neighbour, the Socialist Republic of China, this railway would surely be a Unesco World Heritage Site.

Groups of excited schoolchildren and parties of hikers stop to wave as we chug slowly past. But like us, many of the passengers are not just coming along for the ride.

For Alishan is where, as every proud Taiwanese will tell you, the world’s best oolong tea is grown.

With its sweet, floral aroma, it’s reputed to reduce stress, soothe indigestion, strengthen the immune system — plus  work other magic.

The region, though, is even more famous for the stunning “sea of clouds” sunrise over the Jade Mountain, at 3,952metres (12,965ft), the highest peak in the country.


So every day, hundreds of locals and tourists take the train to spend the night in the cluster of no-frills-but-comfortable hotels like the Gau Shan Ching in Zhongzheng village, ready to rise at 4.30am to watch dawn break.

By the time we reach the wood-built Alishan station in the pitch darkness the following morning, it’s standing room only on the special Sunrise Train which is already packed with sleepy passengers.

But the lovely lady station master Wu Li-Hu ushers us to  VIP seats in the cab next to the train driver for the 20-minute jolting journey further up the twisting track to Zhushan.

From there it’s a 10-minute stroll to a viewing area, where a huge throng of people is milling about excitedly in the predawn chill. Colourful stalls do a roaring trade selling hot drinks, breakfasts and souvenirs, and as the first rays of  sun lighten the sky, a man with a megaphone urges the crowd to shout, “Ha-Ha-Ha”.

That, my companion Jui-Pin, one of Taiwan’s best-known artists, explains, is supposed to bring us luck all day — with the prospect of plenty of riches coming our way in the future. So I shout, “Ha-Ha-Ha” too (athough I’m still waiting for the money).

Finally, as the sun peeps over Jade Mountain, there is a roar of approval and applause as hundreds of cameras click and the clouds below us slowly turn a glorious shade of pink.

Later, we stroll through the mist along a forest trail between huge cypress trees — some more than 2,000 years old — past deliciously perfumed  magnolias, hydrangeas, lilies and rhododendrons to a  cafe called Tea Farm No35 for breakfast.


Colourful Mikado pheasants strut proudly around the luscious gardens outside as a delightful woman called Yoshie, wearing a crimson beret, animatedly demonstrates how to prepare — and drink — tea the Taiwanese way.

It’s a far cry from dunking two teabags in the pot at home.

After carefully selecting a handful of perfectly formed tea leaves, Yoshie pours boiling water on them then, within seconds, decants the brew first into a bowl and from there into our thimble-sized cups.

Finally, she encourages us to sniff the tea approvingly before we take our first sip.

“Tea in Taiwan,” Yoshie explains with a smile, “is like a beautiful lady.

“It doesn’t need a long time for make-up. No milk or sugar either, just the flavour of the tea.”

Suitably refreshed, we follow the Cherry Blossom trail through the forest, past sparkling waterfalls and the Two Sisters’ Ponds, where legend has it a couple of tragic young maidens jumped to their deaths.


Signs point the way to the Three Generations Tree, the Number 28 Giant Tree, the Elephant Trunk Tree and the Tree Spirit Monument, built to appease the spirits of the magnificent cypresses felled when Japanese ruled the island.

There’s even a Sacred Tree, or at least there was. Unfortunately, it fell down a few years ago and only a  stump remains.

It’s soon time to stroll back to Zhongzheng for the bus to Chiayi, before taking the high-speed train to Taiwan’s buzzing capital, Taipei.

While the Forest Railway train barely reached 25mph jerking its way up the mountains, this rockets along so smoothly at 186mph that you’re barely aware it is moving.

Taipei is a bit of a contradiction, with its traditional Buddhist and Taoist temples, full of colourful flowers and incense smoke, nestled between modern skyscrapers.

Towering over everything is Taipei 101, until a few years ago the world’s tallest building at  508 metres before Dubai built one even higher in 2009. Resembling a giant bamboo stick, it’s still an impressive sight, though, and boasts the world’s fastest lift —   which hits 40mph while whisking you up to the 89th floor observation deck in just 37 seconds.

There’s a terrific view from the top over the city — but best give it a miss if you’re scared of heights.

Back down on solid ground, one place that shouldn’t be missed is the massive National Palace Museum, housing a priceless treasure trove of Chinese history.

It boasts more than 700,000 items — some dating back to the 14th and 15th century BC — although only around one per cent of them are on display at any one time.


Most were plundered from the Forbidden City in Beijing as Chiang Kai-Shek’s forces fled from China in 1949 after being defeated by Mao Tse Tung in the country’s civil war.

Nearby is the sprawling Shilin night market, the biggest and oldest of its kind in the city, crammed with colourful stalls selling all sorts of stuff as well as some weird and wonderful food.

I’m about to order one delicious-looking kebab when somebody whispers that the small chunks of meat sizzling on a skewer are actually chickens’  bottoms. Yuk!

Many stalls serve stinky tofu, a favourite delicacy in Taiwan. It smells vile, but, if you can put up with the stench, actually tastes rather good.

Just around the corner is one of the world’s most bizarre eateries — the Modern Toilet Restaurant, where diners sit on loos while tucking into a special PooPoo meal of deep-fried chicken drumsticks.

For a few pence more, there’s PooPoo bread to mop up the brown sauce, washed  down with Taiwanese Urine Beer.

Sounds awful, but don’t be put off. The place is actually quite fun. And the prices are so cheap you don’t have to be flush to eat there.

“We’re the number one,” boasts boss Garry, adding, as I tuck into some PooPoo chocolate ice cream, “and the number two!”.


The frequent, scrupulously-clean and super-fast colour-coded Metro makes it very easy to get around Taipei. I take the Blue Line to the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, where two soldiers, impeccably dressed all in white, guard a 6.2metre high, 21-tonne bronze statue of the late Generalissimo.

For 50 minutes they stand absolutely rigid, not moving a muscle, until the crack of a rifle butt on the floor signals an elaborate,  not-to-be-missed almost-balletic changing of the guard ritual.

Downstairs are displayed Chiang’s two bulletproof Cadillac limousines, along with an exhibition about the life of this controversial figure who created the modern Taiwan, a country about the size of Switzerland but with three times the population.

I’m staying at the central five-star Howard Plaza Hotel, a towering building with its own outdoor pool, gym, aerobic centre and sauna, a cosy bar and several different themed restaurants.

It’s a super place that I can’t recommend highly enough, with one of the biggest, most delicious breakfast spreads I’ve ever seen.

You can even grab a plate of snails to go with your bacon, sausage and egg — although I plumped for baked beans instead!


GETTING THERE: For more information about Taiwan – see  Eva Air fly from London, with connections from Ireland –  see

STAYING THERE: I stayed at the Howard Plaza Hotel in Taipei ( For details about the Alishan Forest Railway  see

Jui-Pin Chang savours the perfect brew at Tea Farm No 35
Mal tries the PooPoo chocolate ice cream
Taiwan is well connected with public transport



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