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Dulishan and its amazing spiral railway

Just like that newer arrival on the scene in Taiwan, the High Speed Railway, Alishan(阿里山) Mountain Railway is as much a tourist attraction as a practical method of transport. Connecting the city of Chiayi(嘉義)with Taiwan’s best-loved hill resort, a distance of 86 kilometers away, the railway is a true engineering marvel.

Climbing 2.2 vertical kilometers over a 3.5-hour journey, the 2-foot-6-inch narrow gauge railway must have given the engineers that designed and built it many headaches: the railway negotiates 47 tunnels and four switchbacks, and passes over 72 bridges on its eventful journey into the mountains. However, by far the hardest stretch of the journey, and one solved by a famously novel solution, lies about 25 kilometers into the trip, when after completing about a quarter of its vertical ascent, the route hits the famous Dulishan (which literally means ‘independent mountain’獨立山), where no easy way ahead could be found up the steep mountain wall that rises suddenly and dramatically out of the gentle foothills to the west.

Spend any time hiking in Taiwan, and it soon becomes apparent that not only is this island very mountainous, but that those mountains are also often extremely steep. Most railway lines here solve the problem by simply keeping to lower land (the ex-highest station on Taiwan’s mainline railway, in Miaoli, now closed, is a mere 402 meters above sea level) or by burrowing through higher ground in tunnels. Clearly neither option was possible with the Alishan railway.

The problem stalled construction on the railway until, it is said, a worker saw a line of snails and from the mollusks’ spiral shells, came up with a very bright idea. The conical hump of Dulishan, right on the route of the railway, stands almost independent from the main ridge next to it, but is joined to it by a narrow land bridge, which allowed engineers to build the now famous ‘spiral railway’ which encircles the mountain three times before, upon reaching the level of the land bridge, crossing it to reach the main ridge on the other side.

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Dulishan and its amazing spiral railway
The first part of the walk follows the tracks of the Alishan Mountain Railway. (By Richard Saunders, Special to The China Post)

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