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As a red and cream-colored train chugs up the Alishan mountains of Taiwan, hikers and villagers stop and wave at the passengers on board.
It feels like an adventure, harking back to a time when train travel was new and exciting.
And in a way, it is.
The train has embarked on one of the newly introduced cruise-style tours on the century-old Alishan Forest Railway, a network of 71.4 kilometers (44.4 miles) of narrow-gauge rail lines in central Taiwan's Alishan mountain range.
Former Japanese logging railway
Completed in 1912 under the Japanese occupation, the Alishan Forest Railway was used to transport now-endangered Taiwan cypress trees from Alishan. After logging was banned, it lived on as the only passenger train to ride up the mountains.
Today, it remains one of the world's most historic and beautiful mountain railways.
Running between Chiayi city at an elevation of 30 meters (98.4 feet) to Chushan at 2,451 meters (8,041 feet) -- the highest train station in Taiwan -- the Alishan Forest Railway offers diverse natural scenery.
It's the highest narrow-gauge mountain railway in Asia -- higher than the famed Darjeeling Himalayan Railway, which ascends from 100 meters to 2,200 meters.
The railway was first built by the Japanese government to transport Taiwan cypress logs.
courtesy Liao Yuan-chiao
Best of all, many aspects of Alishan rail network remain as they were 100 years ago. The railroad ties are still made of solid wood and drivers have to get off the train and manually switch the track direction.
"It feels more human, unlike the cold and automated modern machines," says Liao Yuan-chiao, an Alishan train captain.
A rail enthusiast, Liao left his job as a lecturer six years ago to work as a train assistant at the Alishan Forest Railway.
Alishan Forest Railway train captain Liao Yuan-chao.
"I like railways because I love the low noise from a diesel train motor -- you can hear the changes in the sounds when the machine changes its speed. It sounds alive.
"Luckily, Alishan Forest Railway hasn't been replaced by electric trains," Liao adds. "It's totally my paradise."
Saving Alishan Forest Railway
Shizilu Station is one of the old train communities visited on the new cruise tour.
The "cruise tour" is one of several attempts to rejuvenate and preserve Alishan Forest Railway under newly-minted management -- the recently established Alishan Forest Railway and Cultural Heritage Office (AFRCH) of the Forestry Bureau.
The railway's popularity plunged after the faster and easier Alishan Highway was built in 1982.
Its services have been disrupted by natural disasters and derailments multiple times. After taking over, AFRCH closed the railway for three months for maintenance and check-ups before reopening in June 2018.
"Alishan Forest Railway is a priceless cultural heritage [for Taiwan]." says Tang Yu-chin, a spokesperson of AFRCH. "Therefore, preserving Alishan Forest Railway isn't just for tourism purposes but for promoting this culture."
Many local volunteers have grown up with the railway, like 87-year-old Hsu Chao-huo.
Themed tours are carried out regularly. The current series runs every Wednesday until mid-October.
Instead of just highlighting Alishan attractions, it focuses on the history and culture of the Alishan Forest Railway. Travelers spend time at various stops including the wooden Beimen and Jhuchi stations, which were rebuilt to match their original designs.
"I used this before when I was a lumberjack," says Hsu Chao-huo, an 87-year-old volunteer guide at the small museum at Shizilu Station, pointing at the rusty saw on the shelf.
"I've been living on Alishan all my life. The mountain is better for my health -- the land below is too hot."
The cruise concludes at Hinoki (Taiwan Cypress) Village near Beimen Station -- a cultural village consisting of 28 wooden Japanese-style houses there were occupied by Japanese officials half a century ago.
'I never thought it could disappear one day'
When not teaching tourism in a Tainan university, Wu Han-en is Fenqihu's stationmaster.
Working at the Chuchi Township Office, along the Alishan Forest Railway, Lai Guo-hua started taking aerial photographs of the area around four years ago.
"I grew up next to the railway," he says. "My grandfather and my father both worked for the Alishan Forest Railway.
"I thought it'd always be there -- until there were voices who wanted it demolished completely. Some thought we shouldn't bother maintaining it as we could just use the highway nowadays.
"Then I started photographing the Alishan Forest Railway so I could introduce it to those who didn't know the line. It's filled with memories of my growing-up -- and of all the residents along the tracks.
"Those voices are still there -- so we're trying our best to introduce the Alishan Forest Railway so more travelers will know about it, too," chimes in Wu Han-en, a part-time tourism lecturer in Tainan who also works as the stationmaster of Fenqihu (one of the railway's bigger stops).
This article first appeared on edition.cnn.com
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