Ali Shan is a famous tea producing region of Taiwan. It is also one of Taiwan’s major tourist destinations, and many visitors take the Alishan narrow gauge railway to visit this wonderful spot.
Alishan Mountain Railway is one of the world’s three top-ranked mountain railways. It passes through three climatic zones along its 71.34 kilometers of track. Starting at an altitude of 30 meters in Chia Yi City, the terminus on Mount Ali is 2,216 meters (7,270 feet) in altitude. Along the way, the railway passes through 50 tunnels and over 77 bridges.
Construction of the Alishan railway began in 1906 during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan (1895 – 1945). The Japanese wanted to harvest Alishan’s old-growth timber for use in their Shinto shrines. The gates to these shrines require massive pillars and beams, and the two largest of these gates in Japan are made from red cypress trees from Mount Ali.
The railway also made Alishan more accessible to the Taiwanese. Farmers moved in and small settlements were established along the rail line.
Ali Shan’s first tea plantations date from the 1920s. This makes Alishan a relatively young area for Taiwan tea, as the history of Taiwanese tea dates from the early 1800s.
The earliest of Alishan’s tea farms were located at the more accessible lower altitudes, but higher altitude plantations were established in the following decades. Most of the tea originally produced on Alishan was black tea for the export market.
As Taiwan’s economy strengthened in the 1970s and 80s, the cost of producing tea became too high to compete in the world market. During this time, tea production shifted to oolong tea, and today most of Taiwan’s tea is consumed locally.
Alishan proved to be an ideal place for oolong tea. Located close to the Tropic of Cancer, the high mountains of Alishan are frequently shrouded in thick clouds. This creates a cool, moist climate which reduces the levels of bitter chemical components (catechins) in tea leaves, while increasing levels of theanine and soluble nitrogen which make the tea taste sweet.
Alishan soil is also a contributing factor in the quality of the tea. This highly fertile region produces thick tea leaves which are high in pectin, giving Alishan tea a bright green color. Alishan tea is famous for its sweet taste and fragrance, and the flavorful leaves can be brewed many times without becoming bitter.
Train, Bus or Scooter?
Today, many roads criss-cross the hills and valleys of Alishan. Visitors can come by bus, car, motorcycle, or scooter. These modes of transport may give more sight-seeing options, but the Alishan Mountain Railway remains the quintessential way to get to the top.
According to Su Chao-hsu, the author of The Mt. Ali Railway, “The Alishan Mountain Railway is not just a means of transportation. The railway is a ‘living antique’ that has great historical value in and of itself. It provides us with an incomparable feast of nature and a rich historical and cultural journey.”
Our selection of Alishan tea includes: