Oct 4, 2011

Sunrise at Ali-Shan

Like a macabre, supernatural dream, I was surrounded by an undulating, surging mass of humanity. It was dark, cold, 3.30 am and difficult to wake up.

It had been a peaceful afternoon in the gardens of the Ali-Shan Guest House. But now, at this extremely early hour, large crowds were gathered; people, hundreds of them from the area hotels and guest houses. Early morning risers on their pilgrimage to the top of the mountain for a single purpose: Sunrise.

Like an ethereal, moving painting, flashlight beams and lanterns were the only glowing illumination to light our stumble up the steep incline to the old train station, about a quarter of a mile above. Then, the loudest shrill shriek, loud enough to wake the devil, echoed along the hillside. It was a little train calling the faithful as it chugged into the platform, blasting it’s whistle and loaded with visitors from another station further below.

We squeezed into the nearest carriage and like rush-hour in a big city subway, it left many waiting for the next train. Standing room only, but the ride was comfortable. It was an odd sensation being one of only a couple of westerners towering over every other Asian tourist on the train. Many smiled and nodded. Curiosity, I guess, as my normal 5 ft 11 ins gave me a birds-eye view of each excited, yet sleepy passenger.

The little locomotive wound its way up and around the steep mountain-side, over looking a sheer drop through the dark pine woods, tropical rain forests and bamboo trees, down to the many towns that housed this crowded civilization. Around and around we chugged, then up a steep incline and backward, up and forward again like a very slow roller coaster, climbing, climbing the well-traveled route to the top of Ali-Shan (Ali Mountain).

We had become part of the local adventure to go from the bustling metropolis of Taipei to race up Ali-Shan, head for a hotel booked weeks in advance, stay overnight and wait for the early hours. Then join the hordes, en-masse and climb aboard the  junket to the top of the mountain, to one of the most spectacular sites in the world: Sunrise over the highest peak in Taiwan, Yu-Shan (Jade Mountain).

The real journey began the day before, at the foot of Ali-Shan when we boarded a small antique narrow-gauge railway for the 45-mile trip straight up, across 114 bridges, through 49 tunnels, around paddy fields, tea plantations, bamboo forests, pine woods and massive rock outcrops. Stopping every now and again at small villages to pick up or drop off workmen who maintain the mountain park, the forests and the train track. In three full hours the little train wound up the slopes, through dense mountain passes and cloud patches to finally end at the entrance to the village of Ali-Shan.

Now, in this cool mountain morning air, a faint glimmer of light beckoned to the east and the morning star shone brighter. Night’s blanket was lifting over Asia as we reached the top and the end of track. The train doors opened slowly and the race was on for the summit.

Sitting atop Ali-Shan’s Celebration Peak is a tea room, where the lucky few who had the foresight to buy tickets warm themselves from the cool high altitude, sip tea and nibble on biscuits while seated at a table with a most spectacular view. They look toward the east, across a cloud-shrouded, mountain valley to the highest mountain range east of the Himalayas, with the peak of Jade Mountain towering over all, rising toward the heavens.

Others like us, stood outside savouring the fresh mountain air, shivering in the cold by the first light of dawn, waiting. Some with flasks of tea, some with small bottles of booze, others hugging each other for warmth. Hundreds of people mingling, yawning, rubbing their eyes as the tension mounted. All eyes searching the horizon, across the heaven like sea of clouds to find where the light glowed brightest, speculating where the sun would appear.

Anticipation, excitement, adventure, early morning beauty. The earth revolved another few degrees and then, a bolt from the blue, the first glimpse of the great ball of sun reared it’s head like a hungry dragon bursting fiery light toward us, beginning it’s celestial journey across the heavens to light the new day.

The crowd lifted their arms and let out a loud, joyful cheer, a ritual to the Sun God.  A spectacular moment of held breath, joy, squinting brightness and forgotten shivers that stopped time for about a minute.

Then it was over.

They saw what they had come to see. Now the rush was on once more. Down. Down the mountainside for breakfast and home before noon.

Over for them, but not for us. We headed for the vacated tea house and slowly awoke as the day sparkled before us.

“What is the good of your stars and trees, your sunrise and the wind, if they do not enter into our daily lives?”
- E. M. Forster

“We can only appreciate the miracle of a sunrise if we have waited in the darkness.”
- Author Unknown

On the internet, I found a video of a similar experience at: http://vimeo.com/14357383