final taiwan day: jiufen & pingxi line

On my last morning in Taiwan (April 2018), I headed to Jiufen, which is a former mining town by the sea. It has become famous for allegedly inspiring the setting of the Ghibli film Spirited Away.

While the natural landscape surrounding the town was definitely pretty, I felt it had largely lost whatever had made it so appealing in the first place, as hordes of tourists crowded out the narrow streets now filled with souvenir shops (obviously I admit full responsibility for being such a tourist myself). It's small places like this that are most vulnerable to losing out when tourists come en masse - some tourism is good, but large-scale tourism can become overwhelming.

I thought Jiufen might be more pleasant to visit in night-time, when most of the bus tourists return and the dark streets are emptier and lit by red lanterns - I could imagine that in quieter moments, it still holds some of that atmosphere that is said to have inspired Miyazaki Hayao.

Actually, the Miyazaki connection is disputed - the man himself has said he didn’t at least consciously draw inspiration from Jiufen. Of course, it’s possible that he’d visited or seen images of this or similar towns, but at best, the setting of Spirited Away is an amalgamation of many different places instead of an intentional echo of Jiufen in particular.

On the other hand, there is a local movie filmed in Jiufen that did raise the profile of the town and attract more visitors - that is ‘A City of Sadness’ directed by Hou Hsiao-hsien in 1989. The film broke new ground in Taiwan by depicting the violent conflicts between native Taiwanese and the new KMT government. I definitely recommend it for people who want to know more about Taiwan’s history - or to appreciate Taiwanese cinema (there are so many great film-makers on this island!).

After walking through the crowded main street, I walked around some smaller alleyways. There were lots of art galleries and photography studios scattered around these side streets. I went into one photography studio and had a long conversation with the old man who owns it. He had been travelling in places including Japan for a long time, and had only recently returned to Jiufen. He seemed to have a positive outlook about the future of the town, which was nice to hear. I also went in one café with quite an eccentric owner and talked to him for a long while. It seems Jiufen does attract some idiosyncratic personalities. Originally, it is a mining town, and you can still see some tunnel openings on the hillsides.

I went back to the main street to have lunch in a place called Jinzhi. It does a meaty and a vegan version of its speciality in separate restaurants across the street from each other. The speciality in question is red vinasse or 'meatballs', and the vegan version was amazing. After eating, I took a bus to Ruifang, which is the starting point of the 'Pingxi line'.

Pingxi line is a single-branch railway line completed in 1921, during the period of Japanese rule, for transportation of natural resources. It's only 12.9 kilometres long, but it takes a fairly long time to get from the beginning of the line to the terminus, because the trains are slow.

Pingxi line has become an attraction in itself, because the train journey is quite atmospheric - it runs through a very beautiful natural landscape with forests and waterfalls - and many of the towns along the line are worth visiting.

You can buy a ticket that allows you to travel the length of Pingxi line and hop on and off as much as you like for a day, and it costs next to nothing. It's best to start exploring it in the morning, because the trains stop running at around 6pm. I only started in the afternoon, so I couldn't visit all the stops, but I still had a great time.

My first stop was Houtong. This village used to have one of Taiwan's most important coal mines, but has now been turned into a 'cat village'. The tiny main street of the village is filled with shops and cafés selling cute cat-themed things, and there are cat graffiti and artworks plastered all over the place. Naturally, there were also plenty of living & breathing cats milling about the village. I'm not a cat person, but I thought it's an adorable transformation for a mining village.

I got on the next train passing by Houtong, and remained on it for the next few stops. The train rolled through landscapes of incredible natural beauty, and I thought it would be great to go hiking around there if I had more time. I got off at Shifen, which is probably the busiest village on Pingxi line. The main street was filled with street-food stalls and people enjoying the early evening. There are two main attractions in Shifen: the Shifen waterfall and the sky lanterns, which are commonly sold and released to the sky here. Sky lanterns are used to wish for luck - people write their wishes inside these large paper lanterns and then fill them with 'ghost money', which is then set on fire, propelling the lantern high up in the sky.

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Although I understand why people like doing this - superstition can be fun, and the lanterns look pretty - I'm not really a fan of it. It just seems to be creating a lot of thrash and pollution in a place of natural beauty. I don't really know the facts, so I might be overestimating the impact of these paper lanterns, but it seemed to be happening on a massive scale, with people spilling all over the railroad tracks to work at their lantern send-offs before jumping out of way for passing trains. It could be that I'm just a grump, but I decided to give it a pass.

Instead, I started walking towards the Shifen waterfall, passing some pretty suspension bridges. Unfortunately, I got there too late - the waterfall is fenced off in a protected area, and the gates shut at 5pm. I could only get a glimpse of the top of the waterfall, but even based on just that, it did look impressive. I didn't really mind, because the area surrounding the waterfall was beautiful in itself.

After returning to the Shifen train station, dusk was starting to fall, and I decided to go visit one more station before heading back to Ruifang. I got off at Pingxi, which also has a main street filled with shops, but it's considerably less busy than Shifen.

I walked around and tried a local dessert called 花生捲冰淇淋 - ice cream, peanut shavings and coriander wrapped in a thin crepe, basically a peanut ice-cream burrito with coriander. It was definitely not health food but felt very refreshing after the long afternoon walking around. I just checked the name of the place where I had it, and it was a tiny street-stall called 平溪橋頭第一家花生捲冰淇淋 - I really recommend it if you want to try! It was very affordable (35 NTD) and delicious, and I could watch them preparing the wrap by hand.

花生捲冰淇淋

After having my dessert, I waited around for the train, enjoying the tranquility of the evening in Pingxi. The journey back to Taipei went quite smoothly. I only had to change trains at Ruifang to get back on the faster main line. After arriving in Taipei, I decided to go exploring the Wufenpu clothes wholesale district. Visiting these kinds of places only selling a specific type of item is always bewildering to me. I didn't buy anything, just walked around for a while feeling overwhelmed by the sheer size of it. From Wufenpu, I walked to the Raohe night market and spent a while walking through it, eating chou doufu, grilled mushrooms and fruit. I love the lively and warm atmosphere in Taiwanese night markets.

The next day, I returned to Tokyo feeling very happy I'd chosen to spend my holiday week in Taiwan. Despite its small size, it's such an interesting country in terms of both nature and culture. I didn't even see the regions considered the most beautiful by many, as I only stayed in the northern region surrounding Taipei. Even then, I was impressed by how easy it was to get out of the city and into these beautiful natural landscapes. Taipei itself was also a very likeable city with a laidback vibe. I would definitely love to go back sometime!