Step out of the city and enter a world of lush rolling hills and serene forests shrouded in mist and clouds
Apart from delectable street food and boisterous night markets, Taiwan has a wilder side that not many travellers have experienced.
There are 286 summits that soar more than 3,000m above sea level on this island, making it a place of natural beauty for backcountry hiking and waterfall gazing.
My three travel companions and I, all in our 20s, set out to explore the central region of Taiwan over nine days.
We cover towns and counties such as Fenchihu, Alishan, Yilan, Cingjing, Shifen, Jiufen and the capital Taipei, alternating between public transport and a hired vehicle.
While each town beguiles, we are drawn to the great outdoors, where we walk on jungle trails and admire lakes, and also encounter sheep in Cingjing.
ALISHAN'S FOREST TRAILS
You would think the highlight of our Alishan visit would be the sunrise at the peak of this renowned mountain.
While the sun peeking out of the sea of clouds atop the mountain stirs the spirit, hiking along the forest trails in Alishan National Scenic Area is another lovely experience.
Taking a train from Alishan Station to Chusan Station, we arrive at the summit of Alishan village, where the sunrise viewing platform is.
Instead of taking the same train back to the base, we decide to hike.
Abandoned cobwebs connect leaf to leaf, trapping raindrops in the gossamer.
As the soft raindrops continue pattering down the hood of my coat, I look up in an attempt to trace their source. The cypress trees overhead seem to grow upwards forever. They have a way of trapping sound and wind.
With the forest so dense and the fog enveloping the forest trail, we do not hear anyone for miles, much less see any other humans. It is as if the entire forest belongs to us, beckoning us to roam deeper.
I step onto the soft ground, covered by years of accumulated moss, fallen leaves and brown twigs.
Along the way, I see tree stumps of all imaginable shapes. The chilly December air and the fragrance of the dewy grass make me think of utopia.
In the distance I notice a clearing. A still lake is in sight, the Sisters Pond. The lake perfectly mirrors the peaks and troughs of the surrounding fauna.
We enter the realm of the clouds after a two-hour-long public bus journey from Puli station in Puli Township.
As we proceed through the mist in Cingjing, the clouds routinely open up, allowing glimpses of the dizzying heights that our bus is climbing.
We alight and after a 500m uphill walk from the public bus route to the minsu - a homestay - we stand mesmerised at the edge of the property.
With majestic views of the surrounding Wan-ta Reservoir Valley, extending across to the central mountain range, we find a reason to wake up early the following day, in an attempt to catch the fabled "cloud sea" phenomenon - clouds hovering above the lake, forming a clouded mirage.
We see vast plains and layers of mountains. Cotton-candy clouds fill the sky. So this is pastoral Cingjing. It is as if I have stepped onto the set of The Sound Of Music, except that I am in Taiwan instead of Salzburg.
I look out into the distance, counting the cotton balls of sheep across the plains, with a few monochrome patches here and there and realise they are cows.
On this autumn day, rays of sunlight fight their way through the partially overcast skies. The light mist adds to the serenity as we hop along the stone pathways and traverse the suspension bridge leading to Shifen Waterfall.
The waterfall, surrounded by forest, is about 20 minutes from Shifen Old Streets.
The widest waterfall in Taiwan, the cascade is 20m high and 40m wide. It is affectionately known as "Little Niagara".
There are three observation decks where visitors can get a closer view or they can picnic in the forest while enjoying the sound and sight of the waterfall.
While most people would avoid visiting Taiwan at the end of the year for fear of constant rainfall, there is quiet beauty everywhere.
In townships, old street lamps make each raindrop luminous.
Nature is at its best, with misty morning hikes, crowd-free views of lakes and valleys, and fresh dew in overgrown forests.
Taiwan is dreamy in December.
• The writer is a freelance travel writer and blogger who shares tips about millennial adventure travel.
I fly with Scoot (www.flyscoot.com), a five-hour direct journey from Singapore to Taipei.
Other budget airlines that fly to Taipei includeTigerair, AirAsia and Jetstar.
Major airlines that fly direct include Singapore Airlines, Eva Air and China Airlines.
Getting around different parts of Taiwan is best done with a hired driver, especially when travelling between counties. Drivers booked through a hotel tend to be pricier than those sourced on your own.
I alternate between hired vehicle and public transport.
The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.
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