Droning over mountains, over clouds at Alishan (阿里山)

What an unusual and awesome Easter break! My usual travel mates, Harshad and Tracy went on their own separate travel without me. Tracy went on a 12-day European tour alone and Harshad flew to Japan for business. Since I had a couple of meetings lined up in Taiwan, I decided to plan a short trip to Alishan over the long Easter-Ching Ming weekend.

While doing my travel research on Alishan (阿里山), I was so intrigued by its scenic natural beauty. A day before my trip, I bought a semi-professional aerial camera (DJI Inspire 1) to capture Alishan’s beauty. (Just one week after I bought the DJI Inspire 1, DJI launched its new Phantom 3 at 1/3 the cost!) I admit it was a costly impulse purchase. Boy, I didn’t expect the quadcopter to be that heavy and bulky. I never like the idea to check in any photographic equipments but the quadcopter is too big to carry onboard with its original case. In the end, I was charged a couple of hundred extra for overweight luggage and I was also stopped by the Hong Kong custom officers for carrying so many odd-looking oversized batteries. Thankfully, I managed to clear custom without any problem. The quadcopter was well-protected in its case and arrived without any defect.

I took a 1.5-hour speed-train from Taipei to Chiayi (嘉義). Thanks to my friend Chen, he fetched me all the way to the mountain resort at Alishan National Scenic Area (阿里山國家風景區). It was an amazing 2-hour winding-mountainous drive. The resort is located high up in the mountain at 2,500m. Temperature fell drastically from 32°C to 14°C. At some point, we were driving through thick fog and light rain.

As it was still early, we made a short detour to the tallest mountain of Taiwan, the Yushan (玉山). There, Chen made a short stopover for me to fly the drone. While setting up the drone, a couple of mountain-campers walked over and gathered around me. They were avid photographers and were so curious about the device. They even posed with the drone. As it was my 2nd flight, I was nervous to crash the drone in front of them. That would be loss of face. Thankfully, inspire 1 lives up to its name and price tag. It is extremely easy to control, very powerful and sturdy. Despite the strong air current at the mountain top, taking off and landing was a breeze for me. I flew a few hundred meters over the valleys and levitate the device over the clouds. It was magnificent! I managed to capture one of the best sunsets ever!

Chen left after sunset and I checked in at Alishan House (阿里山賓館). It was an expensive hotel that was highly overrated and hyped (its buffet meals are really bad). Anyway, all I need was an accommodation for my next agenda – that was to shoot the famed Alishan sunrise at Jhushan (祝山). All tickets were sold out by the time I arrived at the hotel. The only way was to hike 4km up to the scenic point at wee hours before the sunrise.

It was my first wee-hour hike since army days. The hotel staff discouraged me to take the hike as he said I might be lost in the dark. With no orientation of the surrounding, I followed a couple of hikers at 3am up the mountain. It was an extremely tiring uphill hike as I had too many heavy gears on my back (drone, camera, drink). At mid-point, I was all alone in the dark and was thinking to give up. GPS was useless as I didn’t know how much further I need to walk. Still, I walked on.

Hiking alone in the dark was one valuable experience for me. I was too tired to think about any supernatural phenomena. I was more worried about being stranded and lost than anything else. While the hike was very chilly and foggy, all I wanted was to get out of the forest and find a safe spot to rest. It was this sense of urgency that propelled me forward.

Finally, I arrived at my destination way ahead of the other tourists (who arrived in buses and train). I found a nice spot for me to setup the drone and took off! For that few seconds, I became the key attention of that morning. Many photographers were snapping at me and the drone instead of the sunrise. I made small chat with at least 5 people. It was an awkward moment for me to attract all these attention. True enough, a policeman came shortly and disrupted my flight. He warned me not to fly over the military base (which I didn’t know earlier). I told him I was just shooting the sunrise and he monitored my flight from a distant. After I landed the drone, he approached me again. Surprisingly, he came to offer me some other good and “safer scenic spots” to fly my drone.

It was a fulfilling morning flight. The air was so fresh and good. It was only 6:15am. It seemed like a long long day of adventure. I hiked downhill back to Alishan National Scenic Area, took the famous (and once fatal) Alishan Forest Railway (阿里山森林鐵路) to Sacred Tree Station (神木) and visited a couple of scenic spots – Giant Trees Trail, Two Sisters Pond (姊妹潭), Shoujhen Temple (受鎮宮). I didn’t see any pretty 阿里山的姑娘 and I was a little late for cherry blossom. Fortunately, I was blessed with great sunny weather during my stay. The monsoon came right after I left the mountain resort.

I made my way back to Taipei and did a short trip up in the north at Jiufen and Shifen. I wanted to fly my drone there but it was pouring heavily. Back in the hotel, I downloaded all the footages and photos from the memory card. To see Alishan from so many different angles, heights and perspectives, it was truly stunning. It is after all, my best impulse purchase ever! Enjoy the video below (watch it in 1080p).

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