4 February 2020.
Set in the foothills of the Alishan Mountains, Shizhao and Fenchihu are two tiny mountain villages that may not find themselves onto many Taiwan itineraries, but not only do they make an excellent alternative base for exploring the extraordinarily popular Alishan Forest Recreation Area, they’re well worth a visit in their own right.
Surrounded by sprawling jade tea fields, a network of mossy hiking trails, spectacular mountain vistas and the most beautiful bamboo forests I’ve ever seen, this tranquil alpine area begs to be explored, whether you’re after an adventure or a leisurely mountain escape.
This is a place to breathe in the crisp mountain air, lose hours pottering amongst tea trees and peaceful forests and catch a fading sunset across the endless peaks of the Yushan range, all without the crowds that are found elsewhere in Alishan.
Although many travellers will make a beeline straight to Alishan, if you’ve got the time I’d recommend carving out a day or two to explore the lush countryside that surrounds it as well. At just an hour away from the forest recreation area, both Shizhao and Fenchihu (sometimes spelled Shizhuo and Fenqihu) also make a suitable (and far more affordable) base from which to visit Alishan for those who may have missed out on one of the limited hotels in the Alishan Village.
Planning your visit? Here are the best things to do around Shizhao and Fenchihu.
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Follow The Trail Of Tea In Shizhao
Carved into the hillside that climbs steeply behind Shizhao you’ll find a network of five short trails that weave through tea fields, bamboo forests and cherry trees, providing a closer look at the local tea culture for which Alishan is famous and rewarding you with stunning views across the surrounding countryside.
Named as the Mist, Tea, Cloud, Sunset and Sakura Trails, these paths are perfect for wandering slowly and are made to be enjoyed at a leisurely pace. The longest is the Tea Trail at just 1.8 km, while the rest are less than 1km making it easy to cover them all in an afternoon.
Now, it’s perhaps important to add that, for the most part, the tea plantations you’ll find in Alishan are not the endless undulating variety that sweep across entire hillsides like you may have seen in Malaysia, Sri Lanka or India. Here, there are numerous smaller family-run plantations that hug the roadside, interspersed with houses and steep terrace walls. That’s not to say they’re not pretty, but it does give a more garden feel rather than that of an open tea wilderness.
There’s not a great deal of information about these walks online, but once you arrive you’ll find each trail has an information board with a map at the start and endpoint. If you plan to do them all, I’d recommend starting with the Cloud Trail which is the furthest uphill and working your way down. The ‘Trail of Tea’ is clearly marked on Google Maps here, while the remaining four trails are indicated nearby with the green hiker icon.
While I’m more of an earl grey with milk kind of girl, you simply can’t come to Alishan and not taste its most sought after product, Oolong tea.
When I arrived at my homestay in Shizhao, the host immediately pulled up their tea set and sat me down for a free tasting. Cup after cup of pale steaming liquid was replenished and pushed towards me as we sat nursing our glasses and chatting away in broken English.
The high elevation and cool, cloudy environment creates the perfect conditions for cultivating tea, allowing the trees to grow slowly and develop a slightly sweet, floral aroma when brewed. Traditionally, Alishan Oolong is also steeped multiple times following a precise protocol based on temperature and time to ensure you end up with the best possible flavour in every cup.
For a more in-depth experience, you’ll find numerous tea farms in Shizhao that offer tours of the plantations, tastings and homely accommodation. One of the best times to visit is also during the harvest period which occurs just twice in Alishan, often in October and June, when workers take to the fields to collect the leaves.
As I sat on the bus bound for Shizhao, the roadside scenery falling away into steep green terraces and growing increasingly beautiful with every corner, a group of locals in head to toe hiking gear clambered off the bus excitedly at what appeared to be the middle of nowhere.
I later discovered this was the entrance to the Eryanping Trail, a boardwalk that climbs steeply through lush vegetation to a pavilion that offers up sublime vistas across the mountains.
The hike is around 30 minutes uphill and the view is best enjoyed at sunrise or sunset, though you’ll need to cross your fingers for clear weather as it’s notoriously foggy. It’s also possible to view Alishan’s magical sea of clouds from here if conditions are perfect.
The trail is located 10km from Shizhao along the main road in the direction of Chiayi, so you’ll need to arrive by car or bus. See the timetable below.
Shifting between a narrow switchback road strewn with fallen leaves and a mossy trail encased in a lush bamboo grove, the Dinghu Trail leads you to the peak of Dadongshan which, on a clear day, gazes across a wide valley towards a stark rocky massif.
From here, the trail continues on the other side as the Dadongshan Trail but unless you have a car to collect you from here, I’d recommend returning the way you came from the summit.
As with all of Alishan, afternoon fog is a frequent occurrence here and temperatures can drop dramatically so getting an early start to enjoy to views is a good idea, as is a weatherproof jacket.
The 5km hike is relatively steep for much of the way but can be completed in around 2.5 hours return.
The trailhead lies 6km from Shizhao (here on Google Maps) so you’ll need to take a taxi, arrange a car with your guesthouse or you could try to hitchhike. The hosts at my homestay drove me for $150 (€4.50) and kindly offered to pick me up again, but I decided to return to town on foot instead which I’d happily recommend.
From the end of the trail, it’s just a 3km or 1 hour walk downhill along a narrow mountain road that receives very little traffic and intersects with the network of Tea Trails. If you leave early enough, it’s possible to pair both the Dinghu Trail with any (or all) of the five paths and finish at the spectacular Dingshizhao Lookout for sunset.
After a full day of wandering this beautiful pocket of the Alishan Mountains, I found myself on the wooden deck of the Dingshizhao Lookout staring out across the sea of domed mountains that pierce the horizon.
As I waited, photographers appeared with tripods, couples set up picnics and families sheltered in their cars to ward off the cold. But as the shadows grew long and the burning red ball sank towards the horizon, we stood together and watched the spectacle in awed silence.
Located just 1km behind Shizhao, the lookout is among the best (and easiest) places to catch the sunset and enjoy those final moments of daylight.
The Fenrui Historic Trail has been in use for centuries and once existed as the sole passageway between the remote mountain villages of Fenchihu and Rueili. When the Alishan Forest Railway extended as far as Fenchihu, it became even more significant as a way for farmers on the far side of the mountains to transfer their goods for sale, sometimes sending them as far away as Chiayi.
Today, roads connect both villages with the wider region and the historic trail is used very little, except, of course, by eager hikers.
Beginning in Fenchihu, from a parking lot on the main road’s hairpin bend, the Fenrui Historic Trail weaves through dense bamboo forest for much of the way and, like many hikes in Taiwan, there’s no middle ground – it’s steep up and even steeper down.
The most beautiful stretch is the aptly named Forest Of Forgetting Sorrow where a sea of tightly-packed bamboo trunks soar overhead, creaking and rustling in a melancholy whisper that cuts through the silence. Located towards the end of the hike just 1km from Rueili, many local hiking groups walk just this short section to visit the wonderfully serene bamboo grove and then return to Rueili rather than doing the entire hike.
The Fenrui Historic Trail is 7km one way and is fairly brutal when done as a return hike as the way back to Fenchihu can feel like a seemingly endless uphill climb. But with no regular transport available in Rueili, this is often the only option. The way there can be completed in around 2.5 hours but may take a little longer on the way back.
If I were to do the hike again, I’d definitely recommend getting a taxi or lift to Rueili and hiking just one way towards Fenchihu. Though this is the more challenging direction, you’ll find many for transport options from here heading to Shizhao or Chiayi if you’re not staying in Fenchihu.
My host offered to drive me to and from the Dinghu Trail and Rueili for just $300 (€9) which is very reasonable given the distance and which I wish I had taken them up on, so I’d suggest discussing it with your guesthouse to see what they will offer. I also met a couple on the hike who were walking from Fenchihu to Rueili and planning to hitchhike back, but I saw very few cars pass on the far end of the hike so wouldn’t necessarily recommend this option.
Be sure to bring plenty of water and snacks as it’s a tiring hike, especially if you’re going both ways, and there’s very little available in Rueili.
TOP TIP | Stay away from the Cake Thief Trail! As I neared Fenchihu on my return journey, this trail was clearly signposted and appeared on my map to be a clever shortcut back to the village. Exhausted as I was, I decided to take it feeling rather smug at having found this great alternative route.
Well, the joke was on me, as after about 20 minutes of clambering down incredibly steep stairs, I reached an enormous pile of harvested bamboo lying across the trail. At first I attempted to crawl over it but after realising that one misplaced step could destabilise the entire pile, I was forced to turn back and climb right back up all those bloody stairs and return the way I had come.
In time, this trail may reopen, but for now I would avoid it.
Also note that Fenrui is an amalgam of both village names and you may see it referred to in full as the Fenchihu-Rueili Historic Trail.
There are a few villages in Taiwan famous for their lunchboxes and Fenchihu is one of them.
Before the Alishan Highway opened in 1982, the railway was the only way to reach these high mountain villages and traditionally vendors would line the platforms as the train approached, selling hot meals and snacks to the thousands of passengers which in time developed into the production of lunchboxes.
When the highway opened, visitors using the railway declined drastically putting fierce pressure on those who had built their businesses off the thriving tourist trade. Today, as the final stop for the Alishan Forest Railway (though many speculate that the tracks are soon to be restored) you can still enjoy a lunchbox in this quaint village using fresh local ingredients and traditional family recipes.
I happened to visit Fenchihu on marathon day when the city was full of people enjoying the festivities. This also meant that by the time I had returned from hiking the Fenrui Trail in time for a late lunch, many places had already sold out or were beginning to close up shop. There are a handful of very famous (and also crowded) lunchbox restaurants, but after crossing the train tracks and turning right into the small village, I ended up at a small, unassuming place right on the corner which was still pumping out orders and I didn’t disappoint (find it here on Google Maps). Choose between a chicken, pork or vegetable box for just $100 (€3).
Next, head into the narrow arteries of Fenchihu Old Street to sample some sweet treats and local delicacies, like Ai Yu.
Along the Fenrui Trail, there are a handful of signs discussing the properties and prevalence of the curious drink, but it wasn’t until I returned to town that I realised just how prevalent it is.
Derived from a jelly from the fruit of the climbing fig, it’s essentially a concoction of the Ai Yu, chia, sugar syrup and lemon juice. It’s rumoured to be refreshing and thirst-quenching and you’ll find it for sale at many stalls around town.
Alishan is easily the most famous place in Taiwan to view the cherry blossoms, but that doesn’t mean you need to visit the Alishan Forest Recreation Area.
Behind Shizhao, among its network of short walks is the Sakura Trail, a boardwalk lined with cherry trees that transforms the area into a dreamy flower hung walkway come spring. It’s a short trail, just 900m, beginning near the Shizhao Information Centre and makes a beautiful place to admire the delicate pastel blooms before making your way into the tea plantations.
Cherry blossom season begins around mid-March but when I visited in November, there were still a few blooms hanging on along the roadside.
Online listings for both villages are rather limited, particularly in Fenchihu, and can book out very quickly during peak season, but you’ll find a handful of additional homestays marked on Google Maps that will require you to contact the property directly to make a booking.
Keep in mind that this area is very hilly and, particularly in Shizhao, the majority of homestays are located more than 1km from the bus station up an incredibly steep hill so might be a challenge to reach if you’re travelling with heavy luggage and can’t arrange a transfer. Some accommodations do provide a pick-up service from the bus stop or from Fenchihu, but not all.
I spent 2 nights in Shizhao and after visiting both villages, this was definitely my preference for the beautiful views and easy access to the tea plantations, but if you’re arriving by train, Fenchihu would perhaps be more convenient. If you’re strictly using this area as a base to explore the Alishan Forest Recreation Area, I’d recommend Shizhao as you’ll have access to more frequent buses.
Zhengji Tea House B&B | I stayed at this simple but wonderfully cosy homestay near the centre of Shizhao and close to the Tea Trails. The hosts spoke limited English but were very friendly, plied me with numerous cups of tea as a welcome drink and offered to drive me to the hiking trails for a small fee. Despite the name, breakfast isn’t provided, but with prices starting from $1,400 (€42), it’s a decent budget option for this area and one of few homestays located on the main road rather than up the steep hill. Reservations are via phone so I’d recommend asking a local to call on your behalf to make the reservation once you’re in Taiwan.
Siangting B&B | Coupling warm hospitality with stunning mountain views, Siangting is a great option in Shizhao. It’s a little out of the way, set high on the hill with the family’s tea plantation at its doorstep, but the owner frequently offers to shuttle guests to and from town. Rooms are simple but comfortable and breakfast is included.
Xiao Ruishi Chachang B&B | Set amidst a sea of tea fields, this simple homestay offers bright, homely rooms, many with gorgeous views across the mountains, perfect for catching sunrise and sunset. Also located high on the hill.
Zhongshan Hostel | Set a short way from the train station, this friendly homestay is Fenchihu’s best-rated option. The host is renowned for her helpfulness, a delicious breakfast is included and rooms are reasonably priced with everything from doubles through to family suites.
Fenchihu Hotel and Yeashow Villa are two other popular options in the heart of town which include breakfast and offer a range of private rooms. By the sounds of it though, both are in need of a bit of a spruce up, as is the case with most hotels in the Alishan.
Both mountain villages can be reached by bus or train.
Shizhao is the easier one to get to as you can take any bus from Chiayi bound for Alishan, while just a few make detours to Fenchihu.
The bus is #7322 and as of November 2019, the schedule was: 5:55, 6:55, 7:55, 8:25, 8:55, 9:25, 9:55, 10:55 and 11:55 a.m., and 13:55 p.m. departing from the Chiayi HSR Daya Station and passing the Chiayi TRA Station 10 minutes later. You’ll be dropped in the heart of Shizhao near a major intersection of four main roads. The trip takes 1 to 2 hours and costs $158 (€4.70), payable in exact change or with an EasyCard.
From the services above, the departures at 9:25 and 11:55 a.m will also stop at Fenchihu. Additionally, bus #7302 will travel to Fenchihu at 6:55 a.m. and 2:55 p.m. originating from the HSR Station and passing the TRA station 10 minutes later. Another bus #7329 also goes directly from the HSR Station to Fenchihu at 11 a.m.
For the return journey, buses depart Alishan for Chiayi at 10:10 a.m. and 1:30, 2:40 and 4:40 p.m. (to HSR Station); 9:10, 11:40 a.m. and 12:40, 1:40, 2:10, 2:40, 3:10, 3:40, 4:10 and 5:10 p.m. (to TRA Station). The departures at 9:10, 10:10 a.m. and 2:10 p.m. go via Fenchihu.
To travel between Fenchihu and Shizhao, you can take any bus travelling to either Chiayi or Alishan that is making the Fenchihu detour as it’s the same road in and out. At the time of my visit, buses left Fenchihu at 9 and 10 a.m., 3:10 and 5 p.m. for Chiayi TRA Station; 11:10 a.m. for Chiayi HSR Station; and 11:30 a.m., 12:50 and 2 p.m. for Alishan. You’ll see timetables clearly listed in English at the main bus stop.
The bus journey through the mountains is very windy and there were definitely people on my bus who got motion sick, so if that’s you, be sure to take precautions for the trip.
For Fenchihu, you can also take the Alishan Forest Railway which departs every morning from Chiayi at 9 a.m. returning from Fenchihu at 2 p.m. with additional services on weekends and holidays.
Tickets are released 14 days in advance and can sell out quickly so be sure to make a reservation in advance. New in 2020, there’s also finally an English booking platform which you can find here. For Fenchihu, select the Chiayi to Shizilu route. If you’re arriving by train but are staying in Shizhao, you can either take the bus or arrange a transfer with your homestay.
If you’re short on time, it’s also possible to visit this area as part of a day tour from Chiayi. Many tours to Alishan focus on this lower tea growing region rather than the Alishan Forest Recreation Area and allow you to experience both the stunning views and small village towns.
This highly-rated full-day Discover Alishan Mountain tour includes a stop at Fenchihu for their famous lunchboxes and a stroll through the village’s historic street before reaching Alishan to explore the ancient forests and take a brief trip on the forest train. Check rates and availability here.