Skip to main content

Pingxi and Shilin


Taiwan has three scenic branch lines, along with the Alishan scenic railway. These are railway lines deemed uneconomic for normal operation which now exist solely for tourist trains. Naturally, I was attracted!

The closest of these, and one of the more scenic, is the Pingxi line. It once served coal mines in the mountains around New Taipei City, but these are all long closed and it has now been converted for scenic operations.

To reach the Pingxi line we first had to catch a train to Ruifang on the Eastern line. The staff at Taipei's Main Station were very helpful, a roaming attendant assisting us with the ticket machine. We also purchased day passes to the Pingxi line from the prepaid ticket counter.

The orange train that pulled up on platform four looked old and a little decrepit on the outside. There was only one door per carriage and a huge crowd of passengers was trying to squeeze out of the narrow exit. At the same time passengers were attempting to board. It's every person for themselves in Taiwan, like on the mainland.


Fortunately, we had prebooked seats, though of course somebody was already sitting in ours. They moved without any trouble, but were left, like many others, standing in the aisles of the express.

We had each bought a small bottle of flavoured milk for our breakfast on the train: chocolate, apple and lemon flavours. Nice.

The first part of the ride, until after Zhongshan station, is underground, then you emerge into what look to be dormitory and industrial areas alongside some river and mountain scenery. The buildings are grimy, yet retain some design on their exteriors. Had we not been familiar with Japan the first impression would have been ugliness, but you learn to look beyond the concrete and tiled walls to see something more.

That's what Taiwan was to our eyes: A dirtier, rougher version of Japan with Chinese touches.



At Badu station we had to give up our seats for an elderly blind man, his wife and grandchild, and join the crowd in the aisle. The helpful attendant had said something about the seats only being booked so far, but the information was all in Chinese, despite the English on the machine, and we had no clue. Fortunately, the next
station was Ruifang.

There we joined the disembarking scrum and squeezed our way down the stairs, following the crowd. Most were probably destined for Juifen, another place I greatly wanted to visit, but it turned out we needed to return to our original platform and wait 45 minutes for a train on the Pingxi line.


When it arrived it was three carriages and everyone was spread out for at least five. The crush on the last carriage of the DMU, and presumably the others, rivaled anything in peak hour Shinjuku. There was literally no standing or seating space left (unless you were in India and we weren't). Worse still, Alex wanted to sleep and B had to put him on her shoulder while I held my heavy daypack in one painful hand. Somehow we managed to swap.



Though it may have been a scenic line I had almost no view of the exterior and certainly no room to take photos when I did. Eventually, at Shifen, many got out and there was some breathing room and a seat for B and Alex, but the train was still crowded. And this was supposed to be low season for tourism! Oh how I longed for the lonely rural lines of Japan.

We stayed until the train reached its terminus in Jingtong where we squeezed out as other travellers returning down the line attempted to squeeze in. There was a narrow "old street" running off from the original wooden Japanese style station. Unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to enter the old railway shop.





The toilet food of last night wanted to return to its source, but there were only open urinals for the men.

Hanging everywhere were lengths of bamboo on which love messages had been written.

We walked the short length of the old street and purchased lime and konnyaku jelly drink, what (we later discovered) might have been a pigs blood and rice concoction on a stick (discarded: not nice) and chicken, taro and carrot wrapped in a tofu sheet and deep fried. It's local to the town and tastes quite good. Alex demanded, and got, a fried pork sausage.


Then he joined many others and played on the disused railway tracks beneath the decaying concrete coal loaders. I would love to have spent more time exploring the town, but the trains only come roughly every 45 minutes, so we joined the crowd on the return trip.




We skipped the town of Pingxi, for which the line is named and famous for its paper lantern festival, and stayed until Shifen.

The platform at Shifen is far too narrow for the number of passengers, especially when one crowd is trying to get on as another is attempting to exit. It's elbows and bag blocking without any apology or excuse me.

The railway line runs straight through the main street of Shifen. It's another "old street" with stalls selling mostly fried food and trinkets. Once the train is gone the paper lantern vendors setup across the tracks. For a sum you can paint messages hoping for good luck (I saw requests for love, promotions, education and money) on the sides of these big paper balloons. A fire is then lit beneath and they soar off into the sky, destination unknown.



The shop and house facades in Shifen retain a grimy old art deco style clad in ceramic tile or concrete and overlook the river or the railway. A long suspension walking bridge shakily crosses the river, and we crossed and returned as Alex laughed away with the wobbles. Then, after one false start, we set off for the waterfall viewing area.








It was a long, long walk. After the town petered out there were farms and then moss, bamboo and fern clad rocks. We made it to the visitors information office just in time for me to use a squat toilet for the second time in my life. Lucky I had my own tissue paper stashed away, for there was none available inside.



Another suspension bridge leading to nowhere crosses the river. The waterfall viewing area was further down and we had to pay an entrance fee to gain access.



The falls are quite attractive and there are dining and play facilities on the site, which is designed with Chinese iconography.




I don't know why there's no station at the Shifen falls, because the railway line runs right beside the lookout area. On our return to Shifen we followed the tracks until the river, where we crossed over yet another suspension bridge and up past a restaurant. Then it was along a road - no footpath - trusting that this was the right route back.





We knew we were okay when we arrived at the level crossing, much to Alex's excitement. I had filmed a train going through on the way to the waterfall. Back in Shifen we watched a train passing through the centre, then quickly made our way to the platform.



Fortunately, the next train terminated at Shifen before returning, so we managed to snare a seat by pushing through the crowd.

At Ruifang we only had short wait before a local train bound for Taipei and beyond pulled up. No booked seating on this commuter style train, but B got a seat and I stood and snapped photos through the door windows, watching the red ball of the sun set behind the hills.



Back at Taipei's main station we decided to go to the famous Shilin night markets for a street food dinner. The MRT took us to Jiantan station and we joined the mass walking to the lights of the market.


The food stalls are crammed into a couple of narrow streets between clothing shops, with the actual night markets further up. The crowd was just as bad as on the trains, with almost no room to move. We bought a bun, but there was just no chance to look and think about the many interesting foods on offer, so we ate almost nothing.






With both Alex and B starving we eventually stopped in a regular restaurant opposite the food stalls. It sold pork stewed in an unappetising (for me) Chinese medicinal smelling broth, along with thin rice noodles or rice. Alex devoured the noodles, while B took to the pork ribs. I ate nothing, not feeling hungry. With all the walking and crowds my stomach was not feeling hungry.


Giving up on the market, we decided that we preferred the quieter street stalls around the Longshan temple, so headed back to the main station and our hotel. I was in chafed agony and could barely walk.

One the way to the hotel we stopped by a dumpling shop, where Alex gobbled up fried and steamed dumplings meant for me. He likes these more familiar foods.


It's a pity that the crowds spoiled what would otherwise have been very enjoyable experiences. Individually, the Taiwanese have been very friendly, it's just large masses of them that make life difficult. So far my top travel tip for Taiwan would be to come on a weekday!

Photos

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

A lazy day at the beach

It's 2am and somebody is still setting fireworks off on the beach in front of the hotel. I can't see the explosions as I have the window shuttered, but I can still hear them. I've wanted to have a lazy day and today was the closest I got. I woke up in the night from a very sad dream. Dreams follow crazy paths, but this one resolved itself as so. An entity had been causing disruption of computer systems around the world. It turned out that this entity had emerged from the computer networks and had been struggling to gain access to more computing power so that it could live. The entity had taken on the persona of a woman. The protagonist who had "defeated" the entity discovered that it was alive, spoke to it. Ultimately fell in love with her. But his prior actions would lead to its death. As a gift to her he downloaded his memories so that she could experience life even as she died. I know it sounds like a pulpy sf or technopunk plot, but dreams are about feeling

Insanity at 40,000 feet - Part 2

We could relax for a moment. The gate lounges at Kuala Lumpur's LCCT were crowded, but our gate was not yet open. Once it was we quickly made out way outside for the long walk to the aircraft. The terminal offered no air conditioned respite from the tropical weather outside and we were perspiring on both sides of the gate. It's a pity that taking photos on the tarmac is forbidden, because the tropical evening sun cast a beautiful orange-gold light. Our flight to Singapore was on an AirAsia A320, the workhorse of a low cost carrier. The legroom was shorter, but still adequate and the width felt greater than their longer cousin we had just flown. Alex sat at the window and was excited to see the world outside, chattering loudly. Captain Raj gave a detailed, but clear, explanation of the flight, listing runways and routes like an aircraft enthusiast. We launched into hazy grey skies that were soon dark for a very typical hour long flight to Singapore.

The sound of running water

We made it home from Osaka. There is a special feeling that comes when your arrive at your house after a holiday. It is utter relaxation. No longer do you need to worry about other language or customs. There is no need to look up directions, to plan out your day, to journey between sights. Then again, you now need to clean up your own mess, to make your own bed. Rather than eat out you need to cook your own dinner. The shower is weak and the toilet doesn't wash your bum. And you need to wake up early tomorrow morning in order to spend a day at work. You are back to your old routine. Looking back upon this holiday in Japan I've decided that the theme of running water has applied to each of the days. Sunday - Arrival in Osaka - washing ourselves Japanese style Monday - Matsuyama - water from the hot springs at Dogo Onsen Tuesday - Takamatsu - waterfall at Ritsuen-koen Wednesday - Tsumago - streams of water throughout the town Thursday - Takayama - the sounds of rushing water e