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A visit to the charming little towns of Shifen and Jiufen delights Loong Wai Ting

WITH my hands clasped and eyes cast downward, I say a silent prayer before a large paper lantern. A man is standing a couple of steps away, ready to light it up for me later.

On all the faces of the lantern, I’ve written wishes in large strokes, both in Mandarin and in English.

At the bottom of the flimsy lantern is a square candle that, when lit up, will send the hot air upward.

However, the damp weather on the Taiwanese mountainous region in Shifen Old Street in the Pingxi district in New Taipei City makes it hard for the man to light the candle.

The railway tracks in Shifen Old Street

After a few tries, with us blocking the impending wind with our bodies, we manage to light the candle’s wick.

Warm air begins to circulate inside the lantern that is as tall as a three-year-old. I watch as it turns bright red and slowly floats upwards, ready to deliver my messages to the heavens above.

A trip to Shifen, about an hour’s drive from Taipei City, is not complete if you’ve not experienced this unique activity.

While its origins can be traced back to a military commander named Zhuge Kongming who lived during the Three Kingdom period (220-280A.D.), the use of lanterns as a form of communication has been around for centuries.

Every lantern and their colour have various meanings. For example, a red lantern represents good fortune, while an orange one symbolises money. A white one is for good health.

In Pingxi, there is an annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival that takes place every last day of the Chinese New Year.

Starting from evening till late at night, the one-night only festival sees thousands of lit lanterns being released into the sky as a symbol of prosperity and harmony.

CHARMS OF PINGXI TOWN

Anyone who has been to Taiwan will not pass up the chance to visit the charming little town of Pingxi and its nearby attractions such as Shifen and Jiufen which are located about 20 minutes from each other through a winding mountain road.

Once a thriving coal mining district during the Japanese occupation of the island (when Taiwan was ceded to Japan by China’s Qing dynasty in 1895 under the Treaty of Shimonoseki), the area around Pingxi was fitted with train tracks to help with the transportation of coal.

Even now, trains run on these tracks, some of them passing through villages on the mountain before stopping in Shifen and the nearby town of Shifen and Jingan Suspension Bridge, another tourist hotspot.

The suspended bridge that takes the writer to the Jingan Waterfalls

Take a ride on one of the old trains and you’ll be treated to a panoramic view of the scenic town.

Near the Jingan Suspension Bridge, you’ll get to enjoy the waterfall, often referred to as Taiwan’s version of the Niagara Falls.

As the train heads south towards Sandiaoling Station, you’ll pass through all six tunnels — a unique feature of the Pingxi Line.

From Shifen Old Street, I walk along the train tracks until it becomes unpassable due to the thick foliage.

On both sides of the train tracks are old shops selling souvenirs and snacks that are synonymous with Taiwan such as pineapple cakes, stinky tofu and, of course, bubble milk tea.

Every five minutes, a passing train will sound its loud horn, warning the people to get off the tracks and the vendors to bring in their wares. I stand aside to let the steel train chug through, letting the cool wind whip my hair around.

From Shifen Old Street, I walk for about 20 minutes to the Shifen Waterfalls along the paved path. To reach the 40-metre-high waterfalls, I cross the wooded suspended bridge, which sway with my every step.

The Shifen Waterfalls

Even before reaching the waterfalls, I can hear the loud cascading sound of the water falling and crashing onto the pool below.

The entire park is very beautiful and I get to be close to nature as I skip along the stone steps that will take me up to the viewing platform beside the waterfall. The walk is fairly easy. It takes me less than five minutes to arrive on the platform.

The loud sound from the falling waters drown out the shouts of excitement from the tourists.

After taking a couple of shots of the waterfall, I move on to the next item on my itinerary: Taking the train up north to Ruifang and then a short bus ride up to Jiufen, a small town located in the mountain, where I will be staying overnight.

SPIRITS OF JIUFEN

The quiet streets of Jiufen, which overlooks the Pacific Ocean, is punctuated by the sound of little children riding their bikes along the tight alleyway that snakes between the houses.

Before the arrival of tourists, the town was relatively isolated. During the first years of Qing rule, the village housed nine families, where shipments from the nearby Keelung port would often be divided into nine portions. This eventually gave Jiufen its name. In Chinese, Jiu means nine while fen means portion. So Jiufen is known as the “nine portion” village.

The discovery of gold during the Japanese Occupation led the town to be developed and many buildings here remain unchanged to this day, reflecting both the Japanese culture and architecture.

Take a walk here and you’ll come across many remnants from the gold mining era.

The house, with its wood and stone structure that was used as a gold processing facility on the mountain still exists until today.

A large pipe-like structure that runs from the bottom of the house to the river below still carries sediments from the chemicals used to process the gold during its heyday.

Iron and copper sendiments in the water turns it yellow

As a result, the water that runs in the river has an unusual yellow hue from the copper and iron deposits it picks up as it passes through the old mines and into the sea.

After the Second World War ended and gold mining here fell into decline, a decision was made to close the mine in 1971.

Many tourists were subsequently drawn to Jiufen after popular Japanese animation producer Hayao Miyazaki modelled his animation Spirited Away after the village and its numerous small alleys and lanes.

Jiufen which inspires Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away

But before Miyazaki’s Spirited Away, acclaimed Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao hsien also set his controversial film, A City Of Sadness, in Jiufen, and the success of the film helped boost tourism.

Staying in a B&B in Jiufen allows me to explore the town at my own pace. The clear mountain air refreshes me when I awake and I am ready for my exploration.

Those who have been to Jiufen will know what a food haven it is. Skipping the multiple souvenir shops that are remodelled from old houses, I follow my nose to the various stalls along the main street that sell local delicacies.

My first stop: Zhang Ji Traditional Fishballs and braised meat rice. It is a simple looking dish but on a cold day, it is simply heavenly.

The sausage lady with her quirky pose

Next on my must-eat is the Wu Di Taiwanese Sausage stall. You will not miss the charming lady boss, in her colourful jacket, a large wig with a bright flower on it and large framed glasses.

The sausages are grilled on a pan and the charred skin crunches under every bite, exposing the juicy meat underneath.

Other must-try include Ah Lan Hakka Glutinous Rice Cake, A-Zhu Peanut Ice Cream Roll and Grandma Lai’s Taro Balls.

Pictures by Loong Wai Ting

A-Zhu Peanut IceCream Rollis deliciously refreshing

Inside the packed street in Jiufen

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