When Portuguese sailors first caught sight of Taiwan in 1517 they named it Ilha Formosa -- the "Island Beautiful." Back in those times, Taiwan (Chinese for "Terraced Bay") was very much a backwater with only a few thousand human residents and the natural environment was pristine. Nowadays, Taiwan's population has reached nearly 23 million. Where those early Portuguese explorers found tidy farms and uninhabited wilderness, there are now large cities, freeways and factories. It's basically the same story all over the world -- much has changed in the past 500 years.

    One of the remarkable aspects of the world's explosive population growth is just how unevenly humans are distributed all over the planet. While large cities continue to stack people vertically in high-rise buildings that grow taller every year, there remain quiet backwaters where one can enjoy a peaceful natural environment that has changed little over the centuries. Taiwan offers a perfect example of this phenomenon, with approximately 90% of the population concentrated on only half the land area. The reason for this lopsided population distribution is the island's rugged mountains.

    After many years of fast-paced industrial growth, Taiwan began recognizing the importance of preserving the less-inhabited parts of the island as scenic areas, forest reserves, wildlife refuges and national parks. With this in mind, the Alishan National Scenic Area was declared in March of 2001 by the Ministry of Transport and Communications (MOTC). Even before it was endowed with this special status, this mountainous corner of Taiwan was long popular with both domestic and foreign tourists alike. Now, with official recognition, this magnificent scenic area can be better managed both to provide recreation for visitors as well as to protect its natural environment from haphazard development.

    Despite Taiwan's relatively small size, the Alishan region presents a breathtaking variety of landscapes, vegetation, climatic zones and ethnic culture. Almost all visitors to this scenic area begin the journey from Chiayi, a small but densely-populated city on Taiwan's western plains. Chiayi is a place of crowded streets, bustling markets, neon signs, temples but very little greenery. As one travels eastwards, the urban landscape suddenly gives way to green fields of corn, tobacco, rice paddies, bananas and other subtropical fruit plantations. The flat terrain turns into gentle foothills, then suddenly rises steeply when one reaches the western escarpment of the Central Mountain Range. Agriculture is difficult in this region of steep slopes, and the only crops seen here in abundance are bamboo trees. Much of the terrain is given over to dense forests cut only by nearly vertical gorges with whitewater streams at the bottom.

    Continuing eastwards, the land rises and climate cools, and one begins to encounter tea plantations. Moving further eastwards and upwards and the broad-leafed trees yield to cold-weather pines and cypress trees. Finally, at an elevation of about 3000 meters, the trees disappear altogether, giving way to an alpine environment dominated by small bushes, grass, lichens and an enormous boulders. This is the rooftop of Taiwan, a harsh environment with no permanent human residents. The bustling streets of Chiayi feel so far removed from this empty wilderness that visitors just can't believe they've journeyed less than 100 kilometers!

    The dramatic changes in the topography, climate and vegetation are the most apparent manifestations of the gain in altitude, but less obvious to newcomers are the subtle differences in the local culture between the flatland and highland peoples. The Alishan National Scenic Area is home to at least two indigenous aboriginal tribes whose language, culture and history differs vastly from the majority of Taiwan's residents. And needless to say, like rural people anywhere, the inhabitants of Taiwan's highlands lead a lifestyle that is slower-paced and healthier than that of their urban cousins.

    We invite you to take a look at the Alishan National Scenic Area, a region of stunning beauty, peacefulness and diversity. Try to allocate sufficient time to see it all -- like a fine wine, the experience should be savored, not rushed. As so many visitors have found, the deeper you look, the more there is to see in this remarkable region on the rooftop of Taiwan.