WITH about 70 per cent of its land mass mountainous, Taiwan is a trekking heaven. But the biggest challenge is to climb Yushan, the island's highest mountain, and second in East Asia, at 3,952 metres. Taiwan boasts 100 peaks of more than 3,000 metres; to climb all of them is to enter a very special club. It is best to tackle Yushan in autumn, when there is little rainfall and after the long months of summer, no snow. There is one hitch, however: bureaucracy. An entry permit is still needed for many areas of Taiwan's mountains, including Yushan and its national park, whether you are a foreigner or Taiwanese. To compound matters, foreigners intending to climb Yushan have to go with a guide, regardless of how much experience they have. So in a classic case of two's company, we became three; myself, my wife Candy and Mr Lin, the guide. The first leg of the journey took us by bus from Taipei to Alishan, southern Taiwan's mountain resort, one-time Japanese logging centre and now the island's premier tourist attraction. The draw card is the view of the sunrise over Yushan, across a great sea of cloud clinging to the walls of gaping valleys far below. At least, that is what the lucky visitor is supposed to see when the weather is right. As a major product of the area, tea figures prominently in a large number of the shops. Stacks of beautifully designed and colourful tins, and mountains of loose leaves, labelled with an array of names - Kuanyin, Tungting, High Mountain Winter to name just a few. We went for the latter, in the tenuous knowledge that the best teas come from high altitude plants plucked in winter; less bitterness, don't you know. The shopkeeper brewed us a few cups to try, and then, impressed by our apparent knowledge, led us intothe back of his store to share what he claimed was a very special brew. The tea was brewed in Kungfu style; using a tiny pot, made quite strong and drunk from minute cups the size of a thimble. It is a style unique to Taiwan and the mainland Chinese province of Fujian, and its title, Kungfu cha - nothing to do with violent martial arts - reflects a style requiring mastery of a technique; it is the nearest the Chinese have ever come to a tea ceremony. We decided not to watch Alishan's sunrise over Yushan, preferring instead to head on towards the Yushan trek to see another sunrise from Yushan's peak; certain to be more spectacular if it was visible at all. The jumping-off point was Tzuchung, a small logging village not so far from Alishan. Apart from a few houses, it was also home to one small guesthouse and the police check-post where Mr Lin would present our multitudinous forms for their appropriate chops. The guesthouse turned out to be the village's evening gathering point, a good many of the locals filling the place with beer and chatter. One bashful young man - Mountain River was his wonderful name - springing to life upon discovering our interest in tea, took us to his house to brew an endless stream of Kungfu cha. We headed out the next morning, before dawn. The first part of the trip was a ride in an ancient minibus a few miles to the roadhead, the point where the Yushan trail actually starts. A sea of cloud not only filled the deep valleys below, but blocked out the mountains and sky above too; it looked as if we could be in for a damp hike. At the road's end we were already at 2,700 metres, leaving us just 1,300 metres below the roof of Taiwan. We soon reached a sign announcing the 3,000-metre level; rest, take it easy, beware of mountain sickness, it said. ''Time for a drink,'' announced Mr Lin - Mr Forest - an appropriate name for a mountain guide, I thought; this country seems to be full of people doing things that fit their names. With his drink downed and finished within a few minutes, Mr Lin's now empty can went sailing over a nearby bush, down the steep slope below, part of his country's most precious national park. He must have spotted my look of astonishment, for he blithelyannounced ''It's biodegradable!'' Back on the path, things were easy enough; the trail for the most part sloped gently, and was wide and well maintained. With it cut into the side of the mountain, off the edge the land dropped away in a rather nauseatingly vertical manner, softened only by a mass of bamboo, pines and a few wild tea bushes. The scenery was dominated by rocky outcrops and cliffs, and across the far side of the valley a ribbon-like waterfall danced its way down the mountainside. Weather-gnarled pine trees stood out from the cliffs, silhouetted against the swirling mist and cloud; I had, for all intents and purposes, walked into a Song Dynasty landscape painting. Our party of three were the occasional dots of human life that look so pathetically insignificant in those larger-than-life 'shan-shui' views. The higher we rose, the steeper the landscape became, until in many places it had been impossible for the path builders to cut the trail into the hillside. Instead, it became a wooden plank walkway bolted on to the side of the rock face. While in itself quite safe, a glance over the edge revealed a near-vertical drop for several hundred metres, something I tried not to contemplate too closely as my rucksack bumped dangerously against overhanging rocks. Sometime in the middle of the afternoon we finally made it to that day's destination; Pai Yun Cottage, at 3,600 metres the last refuge before the summit. By then the mist below and cloud above had converged to make a soup with zero visibility, and beforelong rain was falling heavily. Things did not look good for our ascent the next morning. We were not alone at Pai Yun. There were six students from Taipei aiming, like us, to reach the summit to see the next morning's sunrise. In addition, a Chinese student, doing a PhD at some American university, was busy cutting up birds and rodents he had caught. ''We're trying to work out what animals are here, and what they eat, so a management plan for the Yushan National Park can be worked out,'' he said. There were indeed lots of birds. A good number of them seemed to be doing very well tucking into all thegarbage that surrounded Pai Yun. To make it to Yushan's summit in time to see sunrise required a 3 am start; time to munch a breakfast and then take two hours to make the last 400-metre climb. Above the hut the path twisted through the shrinking remains of the forest, until it finally broke through the tree-line on to a steep slope of rock and scrub, bathed in the brilliant light of a full moon. Below us, the mountain landscape lay in black silhouettes, while the mist-filled valleys glowed a luminous white, reflecting the moon's beauty. The final hundred-metre climb zigzagged frighteningly across a rock face, cables anchored into the rock to give something to hold on to, and then abruptly crossed a lip just a few metres short of the very peak. And there below us was a sea of cloud and the peaks of Taiwan's mountain range jutting through. Sunrise on the roof of the Far East was well worth the effort, but as the euphoria wore off we became aware of how bitterly cold it was. This was a mountain peak in the truest sense; wide enough to accommodate only maybe 20 people, plunging away on three sides in vertical rock walls for hundreds of metres, and whipped by a fearsome wind that made walking on the exposed western side almost impossible. The very highest point was reserved for a bust; that of Yu You Ren, a scholar who was not only a prominent politician under Chiang Kai-shek, but who was also famous for his love of mountaineering. Coming down to Pai Yun was easier than expected, and from there it was a fast and easy downhill jaunt under sunny skies. Close to lunchtime, we arrived at the bottom of the trail, and the doors of the waiting minibus, just as the sky released a deluge that completely wiped out the rest of the day.