A DAY TRIP FROM TAIPEI
Backs to the door frame, feet pressed together on the available floor space, it was clear this journey would be standing room only.
It was Chinese New Year and the train was packed, full of people on a day trip from Taipei. As we moved off from the station, people with seat tickets squeezed down the line, evicting the current occupants and claiming their pre-booked pews. Those without seats, laden with bags, babies and presents, were left to find what space they could. For us, the journey wasn’t to be too long – just under fifty minutes to our first stop of the day: Ruifang Station.
We only had three days in Taiwan, so we’d been looking for a day trip from Taipei that covered some of the best places to see near the city.
Jiufen, Shifen and Pingxi were all coming up on the radar so we decided to put together a plan that would cover all three. And as we always like to move forward, we figured travelling out and back in a loop would be perfect. So that’s what we did.
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If the packed train hadn’t been enough of a hint, the queue for the bus to Jiufen left us in no doubt. The first bus was full, and the bus we did get on was of course standing room only. I narrowly avoided planting my elbow in one gentleman’s head, while trying to avert a collision between my swinging water bottle and another unsuspecting head. Thankfully the journey was short – we were off the bus in Jiufen just 20 minutes later.
It had been warm and clear in Ruifang. In Jiufen a thick fog lay heavily on the hillside. An ornate temple loomed not many metres from the bus stop, but we couldn’t see much. Only the outline, with scaled serpents swooping down and rising from the mist. A little bit up from the bus stop, as the hill curved around in a tight hairpin, the mass of humanity bottlenecked in front of a narrow opening told us we’d reached Jiufen Old Street.
Temple in the mist. Welcome to Jiufen!
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How Jiufen Became Jiufen
Jiufen is an old gold mining town in the mountains northeast of Taipei. The town’s gold rush reached its peak during Japanese colonisation, then declined after World War Two. The gold mine eventually shut down in 1971 and Jiufen went rapidly downhill from there. It was however saved from terminal decline by the power of film.
First, in 1989 A City of Sadness became a huge hit. It was set in Jiufen and told the story of a family caught up in the February 28 Incident, in which thousands of people were massacred. The film’s popularity and nostalgic depiction of Jiufen resulted in a tourism boom.
The town’s popularity grew further in 2001 with the release of anime classic Spirited Away. The streets in the movie closely resembled those in Jiufen, and Miyazaki is said to have taken inspiration from the town’s narrow lanes, steep steps and tightly packed houses.
Jiufen Old Street
Jiufen Old Street is the town’s main artery; it winds its way through the heart of the old town. On the day we visited, this artery was full, packed with tourists moving forward at a snail’s pace, one foot shuffling in front of the other. The streets were lined with food stalls, cafes and restaurants. There were all kinds of shops, selling souvenirs, tea, clothes and leather goods. Business was booming.
Old fashioned matchboxes in a souvenir shop
By all accounts it’s busy whenever you go, but the influx for the holiday made it a special occasion. Aside from the challenge of wielding cameras and video cameras while trying to buy and eat food, and of finding a way in and out of the slow moving crowd, the place had a unique atmosphere, and the New Year’s day crowds only added to the experience.
A Packed Jiufen Old Street
The air was alive with the soft hum of voices, punctuated with cries from food stall owners selling everything from fried squid and deep fried shrimp balls to barbecued mushrooms and stinky tofu. The smells wafted through the damp mountain air, sometimes enticing, other times overpowering; the stinky tofu was an assault on the senses – it had all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Passing the leather shops, the smell emanating from the shiny new bags, wallets and belts was heavenly. There was little natural light in the narrow street. The buildings rose sharply on either side, and most of what you could see of the sky was through glass or clear plastic panels, old, dirty and grimy, compounding the old world atmosphere. The bright lights from the shop fronts lit the dim scene and from above, the ubiquitous red lanterns cast their soft glow.
Wandering through Jiufen Old Street was a treat for all the senses, and we could have lingered much longer if we’d had the time.
Red lanterns strung up all along the streets of Jiufen
Undoubtedly one of the highlights, if not the highlight of Jiufen, is the food.
Starting only a few minutes into the Old Street, we got tucked into a couple of deep fried shrimp balls. These fantastic balls of fried deliciousness were packed full of juicy shrimps, cabbage and grated carrot, only a little spicy, moistened by a light sauce, and accompanied by a small serving of pickled vegetables. They were light, crispy and not at all greasy – the grand total for two was a very affordable 70 TWD.
Deep fried shrimp balls – one of the tastiest things we ate in Taiwan!
We didn’t make it far till our next bite. Directly opposite the shrimp ball stall to be exact. Here, a couple of ladies were serving up slabs of deep fried tofu soaked in a sauce that smelled and looked a bit like curry. The taste however, was rather different: sweet, a little sour, and quite delicious. Two pieces set us back 100 TWD.
Deep frying tofu
The tofu had dealt with our hunger, and we managed to make our way a fair bit further till the next food stop. This time, it was something sweet. Attracted by this particular shop’s display of deliciousness, we plumped for a black date and walnut pastry. This was another winner. One piece was enough to share, and cheap at 55 TWD. We both agreed it reminded us of fig rolls.
We made it a good distance before eating again, but this time it was another double header.
First up was some deep fried squid, cut up into bite size chunks and lightly dusted with spice. With this in hand and only one or two bites down, Kim made a beeline for the King Oyster Mushroom stall. Faced with a choice of barbecued or deep fried, we opted for barbecued. Succulent, juicy and covered in a deliciously sweet barbecue sauce, they were the perfect accompaniment to the squid. Both were priced at 100 TWD.
There was so much more to be had, from tempting little dumplings to steamed buns in wicker baskets, but that was the lot for us. We were satisfiedly satiated – for the time being at least.
Steamed Buns – tempting but we were stuffed!
Heading Down Shuqi Road
Just before the end of the street we reached a crossroads. Here Jiufen Old Street is bisected by Shuqi Road. Twenty metres ahead the street curves round to the left, emerging from the close confines of the overhanging buildings. Ahead is a spectacular view out over the hillside and down towards the coast. We don’t speak from experience but we’ve seen the pictures; on that day there was only thick, grey fog. Still, there was no shortage of people jostling for selfies in front of the famous view they couldn’t see. Turning left up the hill at the crossroads takes you a short distance past more shops, restaurants and food stalls. Turning right takes you down the steep stone steps of Shuqi Road. It’s this street that most brings Spirited Away to mind.
The stairs descend sharply past more shops, restaurants and tea houses. Everywhere the red lanterns hang, and well tended dogs lie curled at the side, the picture of relaxation and contentment. About half way down you reach the famous A Mei Teahouse. Rising three stories, clad in muted forest green wooden boards and with large traditional style windows, it’s an impressive sight. An array of red lanterns line each floor above the windows. There’s a lane to the left of the teahouse where you can get a clear view of the building; an ideal spot for a photo.
The most famous spot in Jiufen – shame about the fog
Our view of this fabulous structure was obscured by the everpresent mist, but it made for quite an atmospheric, moody and almost ethereal scene.
A little further down the steps, the street opens out into a kind of courtyard, home to the renovated Shenping Theatre. Across the courtyard, Shuqi Road descends once more. The main road runs past the bottom of the steps and the bus stop is just across the other side. The bus to Ruifang runs regularly so you don’t have long to wait.
ON TO SHIFEN
After ten minutes on the bus – seated this time – and a quick coffee break at the charming LAOO Cafe in Ruifang, we were on the train to Shifen.
Coffee for the road
Pressed up against the window opposite the toilet, we were standing of course. The upside was we got a pretty good view as the train trundled slowly down the tracks: the steep hillsides were thick with greenery, overflowing with lush vegetation; narrow valleys revealed plunging waterfalls; and the Keelung River ran below the tracks, tumbling over sandy coloured rocks.
Arriving at Shifen, we stepped out onto the platform, an island between the two tracks. The afternoon sun broke through the clouds, and the sky was full of lanterns, rising, receding and becoming small specks, till they drifted beyond sight. Following a few others – no one seemed to mind – we hopped off the platform and headed up the track to Shifen Old Street.
Standing on the platform taking in the scene at Shifen Old Street
Shifen, a small town in Pingxi District, used to be an important coal mining area; the railway line from Ruifang was built to get the coal out. These days it’s firmly cemented as a tourist destination, made famous by the Sky Lantern Festival.
The official festival is held on the 15th Day of the Lunar New Year, but you can release lanterns into the sky all year round. In fact, the sparsely populated Pingxi District is the only place in Taiwan where sky lanterns are allowed.
The Old Street
The railway line runs right through the middle of Shifen Old Street. It’s as much part of the street as the paved walkways either side, barely a few steps from the track. The buildings rise high, facing across the narrow gap, creating an enclosed and intimate feel. Sky lantern shops line the street, along with arts, crafts, food and souvenir shops too. The colourful lanterns hang on railings; they come in a wide variety of colours, each representing a different auspicious meaning. People inscribe their wishes with calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink, and when they’re ready, lanterns in hand, they move out onto the tracks.
Writing messages for the New Year on sky lanterns
Releasing The Lanterns
On New Year’s Day, the rail tracks more resembled a bustling marketplace than a railway line. Long lines of people displayed their hand painted messages, posed for photos, and once the fire was lit, released their lanterns into the air. Every time the whistle blew, people scampered from the tracks, watched the train speed by, and then got back to business. The festive atmosphere was a genuine pleasure to be part of, one of those times when the crowds helped to really make the occasion.
A family releasing their hand-written sky lantern
Kim managed to secure us a little more food before we got on the train to Pingxi. This time it was some Takoyaki. Filled with diced octopus, tempura scraps, pickled ginger and green onion, and cooked in a specially moulded cast iron pan, these battered balls of deliciousness were just the ticket.
Shifen Waterfall is about a kilometre northeast of the train station and it takes about twenty minutes to walk there. Set in the narrow valley on the Keelung River, amidst the lush, green covered mountains, this broad cascade waterfall is really picturesque. We only had an hour in Shifen and never made the trip up, but we saw it from the train on the way in. If you have the time, it definitely looks worth the short walk from town.
DOWN THE LINE TO PINGXI
Standing just inside the door, this last journey was a mere ten minutes long. Stepping out at Pingxi, we were greeted with a familiar scene. As the train pulled away, the crowds lining the track piled back on, lanterns in hand, and the day’s festivities continued.
Pingxi feels even more intimate than Shifen. Disembarking at the station, a long line of lantern shops run along the left; to the right, thick vegetation crowds the track.
Before long the path curves left, sloping downhill and taking you further into town. On the corner – between the path and the train track – sits the perfect little coffee shop. Three or four wooden steps lead you up to a covered area with a handful of tables. It’s a great place to sit and watch the trains go by, and see people send their lanterns skyward.
As Day Turns to Night
There had been a fun-filled festive atmosphere all afternoon in Shifen and Pingxi, but when twilight arrived and the lanterns burned bright, you could feel just a little bit of magic in the air. Housing their glowing orange flames, the rising lanterns pierced the growing darkness of the night sky, drifting here and there. Fire-lit faces shone expectantly as people held tight their lanterns, waiting, until the moment arrived and their New Year wishes were carried up and out into the world.
BACK TO TAIPEI
Following the winding path, we made our way down through Pingxi, past shopkeepers closing up for the day and still busy food stalls. Knowing the journey back to Taipei would take an hour, we stopped for one more quick bite. This time it was a ‘steamed bun pork sandwich’, as we called it: an open steamed bun filled with marinated pieces of pork, sprinkled with sugar and topped with coriander – the flavours were divine, and it only cost us a measly 55 TWD!
Hunger kept at bay once more, we walked the short distance down to the main road, waited for the bus, and watched as lanterns and fireworks filled the sky.
HOW TO PLAN YOUR DAY TRIP FROM TAIPEI
So you’ve decided to make the trip? Now for the nitty gritty.
Train Taipei to Ruifang
First step is to get to Taipei Main Station and take the train to Ruifang. Tickets can be bought from the automated machines with options in English. It cost us 59 TWD for a one-way ticket. The trains run hourly, and when we went, our departure time was 10:11 am. The journey takes around 45-50 minutes.
*To make the most of your day, try to leave around 9:00 instead or even earlier. We arrived in Taipei late the night before so that was early enough for us, but we definitely could have used an extra hour or two.*
When you arrive in Ruifang, check the times for the train to Shifen so you know what time to be back. From what we could tell the trains were running every hour, but you don’t want to arrive just after the train’s left. There was a board with the times on the wall at the station. No machines here – buy your tickets at the counter.
Bus Ruifang to Jiufen
Head out the train station, cross to the other side of the main road and walk to your left. After about 300 metres you’ll see the big Police Station on your right. The bus stop is just past it. Take Keelung Bus No.1062 – it’s a big blue bus. It runs regularly so you shouldn’t have long to wait. We tapped on and off with the Easycard we’d bought at Taipei Main Station the day before. The bus costs 16 TWD and takes 10-20 minutes depending on traffic.
When it’s time to head back down from Jiufen, just find your closest bus stop on the main road. As mentioned, if you come down the steps on Shuqi Road, you’ll come out right before a bus stop. We waited less than a minute before a bus arrived, and this time, we even got a seat!
Train Ruifang to Shifen
The train left from the furthest away platform, cost 19 TWD, and took just over 30 minutes. We took the 3pm train.
Train Shifen to Pingxi
The final train journey of the trip took just over 10 minutes at a cost of 15 TWD. The train is the same one coming from Ruifang, running hourly.
Bus Pingxi to Taipei
Walk down through Pingxi, turn left at the crossroads after the small bridge, continuing over the river to the main road and turn right. You’ll see the bus stop just ahead. Bus No. 795 heads to Taipei. The buses seem to run hourly, however the timetable was a little confusing so we’re not sure of the exact times but we got on around 7:05 pm. The bus takes about 1 hour to get to Muzha, just past Taipei Zoo. From here you can take the brown MRT line to get back into the heart of the city.
*Be aware – we were under the impression that the bus terminated at Muzha. It does not. We ended up going quite a few stops past it before we realised our mistake, got off, and crossed the street to get the next bus heading back. Fortunately, a kind local who spoke perfect English saw our evident confusion and suggested an alternate route. He even called the bus company to check when the bus would arrive at our stop. Just one example of how helpful and friendly people were in Taiwan!*
GOT MORE TIME?
This day trip from Taipei is easy to do and covers a lot in a short space of time. The transportation is really simple to use and the trip can be done by yourself without difficulty – missed bus stops aside!
But if you have extra time, then you might want to spend more than one day in this area. We certainly felt that we could have spent longer in Jiufen, Shifen and Pingxi. There’s lots to see and do and plenty of accommodation options, particularly in Jiufen. If you stay here, you’ll have the chance to see the streets and buildings all lit up at night, and enjoy the calm and peaceful streets before the crowds arrive in the morning. The mountainous countryside around Shifen and Pingxi looked magnificent, and there are some great hiking trails to explore.
This easy day trip from Taipei gave us a glimpse of verdant countryside and charming towns, not to mention the opportunity to enjoy Taiwanese food at its best throughout the day. The scenery we encountered had us longing for more, and less than twelve hours in the country we knew Taiwan was a place we wanted to return to. If you, too, only have a short time to explore Taiwan, this makes for a great day trip from Taipei. And if you have longer, well, lucky you! You can really explore this gorgeous region of greenery, waterfalls and sky lanterns.
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