Our plan for today was to travel by train to the small countryside towns of Pingxi and Shifen. Getting there by public transport was quite easy, taking the MRT to Songshan Railway Station from where we caught a mainline train to Ruifang taking 46 minutes (its 34 minutes on the Express train but as the Regional service was due to depart when we arrived there was little point waiting for the faster service).
At Ruifang we connected to the Pingxi branch line and this journey took a further one hour.
Travelling by train in Taiwan is inexpensive, day tickets can be obtained for the rail line between Ruifang and Jintong costing NT$80 allowing unlimited stops but we just used our EasyCards which include a 10% discount for journeys under 70Km which worked out even cheaper. The Pingxi line is a 12.9 Km single track branch line running between Ruifang and Jintong and was constructed in 1921 during Japanese rule, originally to transport coal.
Pingxi is the penultimate stop on the line and we decided to visit there first and call at Shifen on our way back. The main street is built into a hill with the railway track going overhead through the town centre. Trains run at hourly intervals in each direction so it’s a good idea to check the timetable so as not to waste time when wishing to move on. Our planned stay in Pingxi of 75 minutes was just about right and gave us enough time to explore most of the small town as well as a quick stop in Family Mart for cups of coffee.
Paper lanterns can be bought at almost every shop and small stall, coming in various sizes and colours. A medium lantern costs NT$200 which is then pegged onto a metal stand so that one can write special wishes on each side of the lantern. Included in the price, the stall holder then takes photos of the people holding their lantern before lighting it with its attached candle to inflate the rice paper lantern. The people then release their lantern into the sky and as it soars far away their wishes are said to come true!
We didn’t buy one ourselves but it was fun watching paper lanterns being prepared and then seeing them float up into the clouds. Strolling around, we saw lantern debris on trees, in the river and strewn across the valley so it is clearly not very good for the environment. Hopefully, the majority of it is picked up and removed.
Returning on the rail line, our next stop was at Shifen, the most popular stop on the Pingxi line. Coach loads of tourists were here plus groups of school children making the charming, narrow streets very congested but bustling with activity.
About a 25 minute walk from the centre of Shifen lies it’s famous waterfall. There are two signposted routes to take, we set off on one and returned via the alternative route. I would recommend walking both ways along the path to the right of the railway track as it is much quieter and has much better views, the other route is mostly along a busy road. Walking along the trail we had good views of the waterfall, known locally as the Niagara Falls of Taiwan. It is the broadest waterfall in Taiwan being 40 metres wide with a total fall of 20 metres and lies on the upper reaches of the Keelung river. Unfortunately I do not have a good photo of the waterfall as I had inadvertently changed the settings on my camera by accident. Hopefully, I will have an opportunity to return sometime in the future and include photos then.
We then made our way back to the centre of town where even more bus loads of tourists had descended. Feeling peckish, we bought some Tempura squid balls and nibbled on these whilst watching families write on their lanterns with thick, black marker pens. Dozens of paper lanterns were constantly being released into the sky and it seemed a popular activity. Apparently, sky lanterns were once used as a signalling system for those living and working on the railways but nowadays visitors to the town carry on this tradition by painting their wishes before releasing the lanterns on the train tracks.
Just before a train is due, warning whistles are blown and everyone and everything has to be moved off the track briefly while the train passes through.
We spent two and a quarter hours in Shifen before boarding our train back to Taipei via Ruifang once again and feeling tired we dozed a little with the motion of the train. On reaching Taipei Main Station we decided to take a look in this vast rail terminus. Taking the escalator to the upper floors we found some stylish small shops and food courts but down in the basement which is known as the Taipei City Mall it was very basic with market like stalls selling cheap clothes and trinkets and I wouldn’t really recommend it. The City Mall is actually just one long passageway linking the rail and bus stations.
Back in our hotel room for a little rest and a discussion of where to eat, we settled on a return visit to the Raohe Night Market for more of their beef pepper buns plus a few other tasty treats. We then made use of our Taipei City wi-fi in Songshan MRT station to check in for our flights and secure good seats for our journey home in two days time.