Gateway to the Northern Alishan Region
TEXT / KIM WEINERS
PHOTOS / CHEN CHENG-KUO
The Alishan National Scenic Area, located in south Taiwan’s Chiayi County, is one of the best-known tourist destinations on the island. If you head to its northern section, chances are that you’ll pass through scenic Meishan Township.
Nestled among the foothills of the high mountains where northeastern Chiayi and southeastern Yunlin counties meet, Meishan is a quiet rural town. Originally a stopover point between larger towns in the area, in the past Meishan was well known for its rice-cake porridge (mi gao zhou; or simply mi), sold on the bank of a small river, which spawned the area’s name of Mizaikeng (lit. “rice porridge pit”). The sounds for “mei” and “mi” being similar, the name was changed to Meishan (lit. “plum mountain”) in the late 1940s. The town is the key urban center in what is now Meishan Township in Chiayi County.
As the gateway to the northern part of the Alishan National Scenic Area (www.ali-nsa.net), Meishan Township holds a great deal of cultural value in its tea and coffee shops, which dot the main road, Chiayi County Road 162, that curls up from the western flatlands into the mountains. When heading east out of Meishan town you soon enter a world of first gentle and then steep slopes covered with lush forest and betel-nut plantations.
Taiping 36 Bends
Taking the winding road uphill is an adventure in itself. There are a total of 36 hairpin turns, known as the Taiping 36 Bends, clearly marked on maroon-background signs. As the numbers rise, so does the grandness of the views. Lookout platforms at various points along the road allow visitors to stop and marvel at the land laid out below them. Reaching the final bend, you are presented with an incredible vista of rolling hills and the wide coastal plain beyond to the west. Your trip could stop here if you wanted – the view alone is worth it.
Taiping Suspension Bridge
After you have left the serpentines behind, you’ll soon come to the next attraction. The Taiping Suspension Bridge, perched precariously between two hills, has a length of 281 meters and sits at an altitude of about 1,000 meters above sea level, making it one of the longest and highest suspension bridges in Taiwan. Fastened to the hillsides by thick cables, the bridge is a marvelous feat of engineering with breathtaking views. The amazing combination landscape of Chiayi and Yunlin counties, with coastal plain, foothills, and high mountains, is on full display. On a clear day it’s even possible to see as far as the coastline and the Taiwan Strait beyond. Grating, which runs along about three-quarters of the bridge, allows you to see the ground sloping away directly beneath your feet.
Getting to the Taiping Suspension Bridge is very convenient. The Taiping Line Shuttle Bus runs regularly from the Meishan Bus Station in Meishan town to the bridge and back (but not on Wednesdays, when the bridge is closed for maintenance). The local authorities encourage visitors to use the shuttle bus to prevent traffic congestion on the road and around the bridge; to that end a 20% discount on your ticket to the bridge is given when taking the bus. General admission is NT$100 (NT$80 when taking the shuttle bus). Because of the popularity of the bridge and the high number of visitors, access to the bridge is limited, and you have to buy a ticket online at www.taipingbridge.tw.
After taking in the scenery from the bridge, it’s time for some refreshments! A five-minute walk further along the main road is the Air Library, a hotspot for hotpot, afternoon tea, and desserts. The eatery is furnished with second-hand material, and has a light, airy feel matching its moniker. The owners have used discarded furniture, boxes, and other odds and ends, refurbishing them into stands, tables, and more. The stories that these objects tell of days past inspired the restaurant’s name. Discarded fan cages, tofu boxes, and even radios from bygone times have found new life as decorations or plant holders. The Air Library also sells some of these items, meaning you can take a piece of the township home with you to enjoy.
As you sit down to eat, the breezy mountain air blows through the open-walled seating area. The fare is light, with many dishes – like the delectable sweet-potato balls – that are Taiwanese classics which have been given a unique taste twist. The Air Library is the perfect spot to take a break during your trip and soak in the refreshing atmosphere. Its hours of operation are in line with those of the Taiping Suspension Bridge; the Air Library is closed on Wednesdays.
Air Library (空氣圖書館)
Add: No. 2-12, Xiakengzai, Taiping Village, Meishan Township, Chiayi County
Tel: (05) 257-2366
Hours: 9am~6pm (closed on Wednesdays)
From the Air Library, take the side road that leads into the village of Taiping and the Taiping Old Street and you’ll soon reach Okasan Coffee. This quaint café serves beverages and unique dessert creations. The fluffy egg cakes, stuffed with sweet mochi, are a one-of-a-kind combination. Their shape is equally unusual, recalling both Chinese lanterns and a flower with similar contours (the flowering maple). The shop also serves tea eggs and winter melon tea with plum flavor. Enjoy your selected treats in the cozy interior or outside in the garden area right beside.
Okasan Coffee (黑咖賞)
Add: No. 39-7, Taiping, Taiping Village, Meishan Township, Chiayi County
If you’re enjoying the laid-back vibe that Taiping exudes, continue on to the Taiping Old Street, where you’ll find a collection of small shops and cafés selling local specialties and old Taiwanese cuisine favorites.
Meishan Catholic Church
After driving back down toward the plain, experiencing the 36 bends again, you’ll be back in the town of Meishan. If you have an interest in visiting local churches, make time for the Meishan Catholic Church. It is a rather simple affair, but worth checking out is the statue of a kneeling and praying Jesus outside the church and, inside, an interesting small statue of Mary and Jesus, Mary wearing what resembles the robe of a Chinese emperor.
Meishan Township eagerly welcomes visitors, and local government authorities have made it exceptionally easy to get there despite the rural location. From the Chiayi Railway Station, take buses no. 7304, 7315, or 7323 to Meishan town’s bus station where you can transfer to the Taiping Line Shuttle Bus.
If driving, take National Freeway 3 and exit at the Meishan Interchange. From there, follow the signs to Chiayi County Road 162A, which takes you up to the suspension bridge and Taiping village.