Day Five in Taipei
- Jiufen (九份)
- Ruifang (瑞芳)
- Pingxi Railway Station (平溪火车站)
- Shopping at SOGO
We had the kind guidance from the staff of the cafe opposite our hotel last night, where we had dinner, to the directions to our destinations for today. There are two ways in which we can get to the places – by train or by bus. We chose the bus route which can be most conveniently taken at Zhongxiao Fuxin (忠孝復兴) MRT station.
The directions to take the bus is displayed rather inconspicuously at the station control, but they were clear. Upon reaching the ground level, we were fortunate to have a crowd waiting at the bus stop which made the search for the bus stop so much easier. And the bus just arrived as we reached the stop.
IMPORTANT: Top up more than NTD200 as the trip fare can be quite significant due to the distances to our destinations. Also, make sure to ask the driver whether to tap the card or not. Our previous trip from Fishermen’s Wharf (渔人码头) had us tapping when boarding the bus, where today’s trip required us to tap the cards before alighting and not during boarding.
I had planned to alight at Rueifang (瑞方) train station and take a train to Pingxi (平溪) before going to Jiufen (九分). However, because we did not recognise the station and there wasn’t any announcement by the bus driver, we missed the stop and instead headed straight to Jiufen (九分). (The bus 1062 that we took travels to both spots, passing Rueifang before reaching Jiufen.)
In hindsight, I think that was a good mistake because I did not know that Jiufen is actually located up in the hills. When we reached the tourist spot at noon time, it was already very cold, with the strong winds, moderate rain and the mountainous heights, my teeth were grating at the time I alighted from the bus.
You know you are reaching the famous tourist attraction as the bus makes its way up the mountain from the increasing numbers of tourist buses. When we alighted, we were surrounded with tourists, and the entire street was filled with them. It made walking labourious as we had to struggle with the umbrellas among the crowd. This was the main reason why we don’t fancy guided tours – it’s a squeeze everywhere you go.
One good thing about the crowd though was that it helped to buffer the strong winds we were experiencing. As we made our way through the street to reach the other end, the winds became even stronger. We decided to hop into one of the stalls selling steamboat to grab our lunch at the same time. The thought of hot soup warming our tummies in the biting cold was just so good…
The steamboat we had for lunch was similar to the steamboat we had at the cafe the night before. An identically shaped soup container was used here as well. The seemingly tiny size of the container belied the amount of food it could contain.
When we were all done, filled and warm, we continued to walk through the street to see the sights and sound. The crowd seemed to have lessened by then. My guess is that the large crowd that had gathered before had already left. This yet another aspect of guided tour to my disliking – it’s always touch-and-go at one place. I’d very much prefer to take my time to explore a location.
I soon grew tired of the place – more shops and shops. Nothing very interesting, expect for the scenery and the temperature (LOL). We decided to move on to the next spot – Ruifang (瑞芳) train station.
The train station is where you can take the olden, charcoal-powered, trains to other stations along the line for some photo taking and sky lanterns! One of our goals is to light up and release a sky lantern. This train station is the starting point.
IMPORTANT: Another important piece of traveler’s information; the train station here does not accept the EASY card the newer train stations do. You need to purchase a separate ticket to board the trains. There are two types of tickets – an universal one where you can alight and board at any stations for the whole day, or a one-way fixed destination one. Tourists should almost always opt for the universal one as you can jump onto the train to move to the next station at any time. (You’d want to as well, there isn’t a lot to do and view at one place, especially if it’s night time.)
As described in tourist articles everywhere, it seemed like Pingxi (平溪) was the place to go if sky lanterns is what you are after. That’s where we headed.
It took some time before we reached the spot. Like every other station along the railway, the place is a village and can provide nice, rustic scenery shots. The exterior of the shop that provides the sky lanterns was nondescript (believe me, the small lanterns outside the shop, you see them everywhere). But if you look inside, you can see the large lanterns and the people painting on them.
I cannot remember the exact price, but it seems to be NTD100 (~SGD4) for a lantern. My girlfriend and I bought one, and began writing stuff on it. You can take your time to write whatever you want. The conventional thing to do is to write some auspicious words. Or you can choose to draw on the lantern, if you like.
There are four sides on which you can exercise your creative muscles on. The lanterns are folded in such a way that you can draw/write on two sides at once. When you’re done, simply let the stall owner know, and you can proceed right outside the stall to light the lantern. The lanterns are lifted by heat from burning incense paper that are placed on the wire mesh at the bottom of the lantern.
When we were done with, for the lack of a better word, vandalising the lantern, we moved outside the shop to light the lantern. The stall owner takes over the lantern and attaches the incense paper to the wire mesh while holding it. He lighted the incense paper, then turned the lantern upright and opened it in one deft move. My girlfriend and I stood opposite each other on two sides of the lantern.
The stall owner then took the camera from me and began taking photos of us holding the lantern, turning to each side of the lantern for a total of four shots. At the last photo, we lifted the lantern over our heads, ready to let it go. As soon as we did, the owner took what seemed like stop motions of the lantern drifting upwards away from us.
I neglected to change my camera’s settings as it was getting dark by then and the photos he took were, unfortunately, blurred.
There were only two other groups of people painting their lanterns besides us. I guess it’s more fun and exciting when there are more people doing this. I’ve read that somewhere in January, at the fifteenth day of the first lunar month, there is the lantern festival (元宵) where you can experience the synchronised mass releasing of the sky lanterns. However, because the lunar calendar differs from the Gregorian calendar, the date is never fixed.
When we departed to the last station of the track, Jintong (菁桐) station, the sky was turning dark fast. From what I read, the station offers a very nice view of Taiwan’s railway culture. I gathered that must be during the day, as the night seemed to cast a veil over place. It is unfortunate that we had visited at the end of November where nights are longer than days. It was also not helping that as much as I wanted to discover the place, another person was, for whatever reason, actively discouraging me, as if I was doing anything bad wanting to discover the place.
We then went back to another train station along the middle of the track and take photos before releasing the lanterns. Of course he keeps a watch out for trains running along the track.
I’ve learnt that it is actually more beautiful if you were to do this when the sky has turned completely dark. And that it is more fun at this station (whose name I forgot) than the one at Pingxi. But it may be a different story during the festival.
A little while and we were on our way back to Ruifang. From there we took the same bus number back to Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT. Although we had been here before, we didn’t take really shopped around the area, and this night would be perfect to fill the itinerary. Before that though, we had to fill our stomach, and we settled on Sushi Express. To our surprise, the salmon sashimi tasted different from what we have in Singapore.
With full stomachs, we explored the shopping district. More shopping concluded the day.