September 22, 2008
Riding the Pingshi (Pingxi) Line
Riding the rails has always added an air of adventure and romance to the travel experience and rail travel is one of the more efficient and affordable ways to get around the island. Major lines run north to south along both the east and west coasts. However, largely ignored by expats and visitors are a few scattered branch lines a bit off the beaten path. These hidden travel gems often serve remote communities, often relics of abandoned local economies. Some, like the humble Pingshi line in northern Taiwan, are playing a small role in revitalizing the local tourist industry. These forgotten trains offer a unique opportunity for a weekend city escape.
We happened upon the Pingshi line in the most unexpected of places, the neighborhood video store. It played a staring role in one of a locally produced series of DVDs on Taiwan's three forgotten branch lines. This obviously warranted further investigation. Plans were laid for a day-trip and executed on a very early Saturday morning.
The Pingshi (Pingxi) Line
There are three branch train lines left in Taiwan; Neiwan (Hsinchu), Chichi (Nantou) and Pingshi.
Up until approximately 1987, mining was an important industry in Taiwan. Gold and coal were mined extensively through the hills and mountains of northern Taiwan.
Most of the development of the mining towns and the surrounding area took place during the Japanese occupation and hence many of the buildings have a distinctly Japanese feel.
There had been mining in the area prior to the Japanese occupation, but production was vastly stepped up following their arrival. During this period hundreds of thousands of people lived in and around the area. In Chingtung (at the end of the Pingshi line) alone there were a reported 100,000 people. Since the decline of the mining industry through the late 1980s however, most of the population have moved away and many of the buildings were abandoned and now lie in ruin.
Now admittedly it might not sound like much fun heading up to a deserted mining town, but it is not as bad as you might think. Tourism is being heavily pushed in the area as a means of revitalizing the region. Though still in the early stages of redevelopment, there are signs that this could be a popular destination. Plenty of well mapped mountain hikes, waterfalls and rivers are already in place, and there are plans afoot to open up a part of the mines to tourists.
The most popular time to visit is around Chinese New Year, particularly at Lantern Festival. At this time, Pingshi comes alive with thousands of paper lanterns carrying wishes into the night sky. If you come to Pingshi during this time, expect massive queues, but also expect to be rewarded with some of the area's unique sites and cultural offerings.
Best of all, Pingshi is served by the rail line, so you can avoid the horrendous traffic that is inevitable at other tourist spots like Wulai or the old gold mining town of Chioufen at peak times.
The Pingshi line actually goes one stop further to Chingtung. To get there you will need to change trains at Houtong or Reifang (some other stations like Badu are also possible). Reifang is preferred as there is some kind of town there whereas Houtong is really just a platform in the middle of nowhere. If you are coming from the east coast Reifang is before Taipei. The trip from Taipei to Reifang takes around 45 minutes.
Reifang is actually bigger than one would suspect, but there is really nothing special here. If you catch a really early train from Taipei then this is a good place to get breakfast or grab a cup of coffee. There is a 7-11 next to the train station for supplies.
From Reifang the trip to Chingtung takes around 40 minutes and this is the best part of the journey. The main line splits and the Pingshi line narrows and slowly makes its way up to Chingtung. Mountains surround the line as it winds past rivers, clatters over tiny bridges and rolls through tunnels to its final destination.
At places along the line the train rolls straight through the middle of a village. There are no fences, you just have to clear the tracks. Still it's been this way for years and the locals seem to have made an art of playing "How close can I put things to the track without them being hit?"
Chingtung itself is a sleepy little town that only really comes alive on weekends now that the mining has gone. New buildings are appearing near the train station, an old-style wooden building. To the left of and behind the station is a small coffee shop that is highly recommended. The sausages are pretty good, too.
On to healthier things, like the hiking. The mountains across from the station are covered in trails, but unfortunately, not clearly marked. There has been quite a lot of work put into paving the trails. Hand rails have been put in, but where they start and end seems a little hard to fathom.
The best directions I can give is to cross the tracks and look for the steps going up. When you get to the top you will see several deserted buildings and a partially covered tunnel. I should point out here that this would be hazardous at night or during heavy rains. With the tunnel to your left you will see a path going up to your right. Follow the path and you will come to public toilet and this is where the paved part of the paths begin. I can only assume that the path originates somewhere else and no one has bothered to extend it down to Chingtung.
For something a bit more sedate, visit one of the old Japanese style buildings. After you leave the station turn right and follow the path to the road. From there you will see a sign (with English) showing you what there is to see. Going straight down the road you will come to a single story building which was actually built by a Taiwanese "group" or association during the Japanese occupation. The wood was all imported from Japan and, at the time of construction some 70 years ago, would have cost a fortune.
At present we were told that these were the two best things to see by several locals, but if the promised investment in tourism continues, there will most likely be more.
The leaflet proudly boasts "The Nicaragua of Taiwan!" Odd as this may seem, we pay the NT$15 train fair from Chingtung to Shrfen anyway. Not seeing any obvious connection with Nicaragua, it dawns on me that they mean Niagara! It's the waterfall that makes this place famous.
The signposts are better here. Another big sign shows what's of interest in the area, but now I am keen to see this “Niagara”. Walk through the village along the track then bear right. Keep going for 20 to 30 minutes and you will come to a river. Cross the road bridge again bearing right and you will come to a visitor centre. From there you will see a suspended footbridge that leads to the waterfall. Should you get lost, waterfall is "poo boo" in Chinese. Easy to remember, fun to say, and it will get you there.
The falls themselves are worth a visit, although the path down to them will be closed if there has been an excessive amount of rain. There are some coffee shops nearby with good views of the falls so it's a good place for a rest.
On the way back to Reifang we managed to get prime seats in the front of the train so we could see where we were going. The driver sat next to us in his small booth but left the door open. We slowly wound our way down the track, the driver blasting the horn whenever he spotted anyone on the line. As they scampered out of the way I laughed, but the driver looked unimpressed.
"They are a pain," he said in Chinese.
"Have you ever hit anyone?" we asked half jokingly.
"Oh, yes, lots," he said. Then speaking in English with a grin he said, "They slip."
Although we can't confirm this, it is not hard to imagine. In places the track is very narrow as are the tunnels. At least one of these tunnels is quite long with a bend so you cannot see the other end. Whatever you do, don't slip!
Riding the Pingshi line is a good day trip from Taipei. It's cheap and easy, and can be done without needing to speak Chinese.
It might not be Nicaragua, but the train journey is well worth it. It's also nice to see the older side of Taiwan once in a while and as the tourism authority is working hard, it should continue to improve as a place to visit.
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