On Day 5 we ventured briefly into the mountains around Taipei via Gondola and for Day 6 we continued the mountain theme by taking a taxi from Taipei to the mountain town of Pingxi.
The mountain towns are quite the contrast when compared with the modernity of cities like Taipei. As my host explained, these towns still retain much of what old Taipei was like and many of the same sorts of buildings and even the way of life have persisted across generations.
The towns in the Pinxi District are famous for their sky lanterns and an annual festival in which thousands of sky lanterns are released at once into the night sky. We found various shops on the old street selling sky lantern souvenirs.
The old street is not long and easy to get to from Pingxi Station so it is a nice way to kill some time while awaiting your train.
We were sad that we couldn’t light a lantern of our own so we caught a train up the mountain to our next destination, Shifen.
The train runs right through the center of town, which is lined with all sorts of shops…
…and make-your-own-sky-lantern facilities. Yes!
We of course had to take advantage of this and make our own. Before releasing it to the sky, people write their wishes on the lantern, which is what you see in the photo above. Once done, the lantern is lit and released.
The main thing is to avoid the train when it comes through town, of course. 😉 Like Pingxi, this town is on the side of a mountain so walking behind the buildings in the photo above reveals that only the top floors were visible from the old street level and the buildings extended down the mountain.
That huge billboard is advertising candidates for the election scheduled for the end of the month. These types of signs are VERY common throughout Taiwan and show a picture of the candidate along with his number (according to this poster, we should vote for candidate #3). The photos often include the candidates holding out their fist like that (which means guts/power/determination/etc.) or other gestures like a thumbs up or clasped hands (“thank you for voting for me”). There are also lots of little trucks with speakers on them driving around cities and small towns urging people to vote for a particular candidate. Democracy in action!
After releasing our sky lantern, we boarded the train again and stopped off at Houtong, which has recently given itself a reputation as a cat town.
One can buy all manner of cat-themed items as well as treats and catnip for the cats in the town. One of the most interesting cat-themed things we encountered was the music playing in the shop in the above that was made entirely of cat meows. Yes, music made from cat sounds.
The town was filled with little houses for cats, each with its own curtain door and cushioned bed. It must be nice to be a cat in Houtong. Unfortunately, we saw more houses for cats than actual cats in town but there were still some friendly kitties who wanted a snack or a hit of catnip.
The town itself is picturesquely situated along river. The photo above was taken from atop this bridge.
The entire region was known for mining and this particular town had a big coal mining industry. This bridge was used to bring ore from the mine (to the left) to the processing plant and train (to the right). After ensuring the cats were well fed, it was time to press on. Even the rail station was filled with cat references.
I took the photo below as we were waiting for our train. It seems the locals really do care about the cats. 🙂
Our final stop for the day was Jiufen, a very popular tourist town that has come to represent Taiwan. We went on a weekday but it was still packed full of tourists. On the plus side, we knew that catching a cab back to the train station would not be a problem.
The mountainside on which the town is built is quite steep and there is a good view of the ocean. Here’s a closeup of the temple we walked by upon our arrival.
Unfortunately, about 5 minutes after this picture was taken, the sky opened up and the rain began to pour down. It didn’t stop for hours and hours so we had to duck for cover. We headed down one of the original streets in town pretending we were in a video game trying to jump from covered area to covered area with as little rain falling on us as possible.
This was one of the few photos I was able to get without tons of tourists or blurred by rain (sorry!). Despite our rigorous video game training when we were kids, we were unable to avoid getting a bit drenched making our way through town so we ducked into the Jiu Fen A Mei tea house to escape the rain and dry off a bit. We had hoped the rain would subside but it only came down harder the longer we waited. There was nothing else for it but to brave the elements and head out for dinner. We stopped by a small local establishment where we could have a nice view of Jiufen. The clouds and rain made visibility difficult but we did see a nice night view of the town.
You can see how steep the mountainside is:
We headed back through Jiufen to grab a taxi and I was finally able to get a decent shot of the tea house at which we had stopped earlier from below.
It is easy to see how this town could have been the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s film Spirited Away.
I’ll leave you with one final picture from our stop at Taipei Railway Station. There was an event going on for a Sesame Street Christmas thing, with Bert, Ernie, Cookie Monster, and Elmo appearing in person next to a gigantic Christmas tree.
With everything happening on the trip I had almost forgotten that it’s the holiday season. I’ll have to remember to do some Christmas shopping while I’m here.
See you tomorrow!