Taipei, Summer 2013: Out-of-town Special (Jiufen, Shifen, Keelung)

I’m wrapping up this long-delayed series about last summer’s Taiwan trip with a post about the day excursion PL and I took to the north-east coast of the country. If you can manage it, it is well worth the hassle and time spent getting out to Jiufen, Shifen, and Keelung.

A temple in Jiufen, looking out into the East China Sea

A temple in Jiufen, looking out into the East China Sea

Jiufen (九份)

They say that a long time ago, Jiufen was a tiny village populated only by nine families. So whenever someone travelled to the coast to buy supplies, they would always buy “nine portions”, which is how the village eventually got its name. Fast-forward to the 1890s when gold was discovered in the area, and the area experienced a mining boom — this lasted until after WWII, when the town slowly began to decline. The mines were closed in the 1970s, and Jiufen was all but forgotten until it became the nostalgic backdrop in an award-winning film, A City of Sadness, almost twenty years later. After that, Jiufen developed into a popular tourist attraction and served as the inspiration to another film — the ghost town in Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away!

The red lanterns are the most obvious reference in the film (my students guessed it right away when I showed them this postcard!)

The red lanterns are the most obvious reference to the Ghibli film (my students guessed it right away when I showed them this postcard!)

We ended up never finding the iconic stairwell in the postcard, but we still had a very good time in Jiufen. Getting out to Jiufen involved a bit of work though…

I would recommend getting your tickets the day before, if possible

I would recommend getting your tickets the day before, if possible

From the main Taipei Station area, we crossed over to the TRA side (Taiwan Railway Association — not the regular MRT side), and bought our tickets to Ruifang Station (瑞芳). There is no train station at Jiufen, so we have to change to a bus after Ruifang for the rest of the journey.

Our train was packed -- it was either sit 40-ish mins. on the metal bar, or stand for the entire journey

Our train was packed — it was either sit 40-ish mins. on the metal bar, or stand for the entire journey

A word of advicemake sure you are getting on the right train on the right platform! The railway side of Taipei station is in an older building, and the platforms are much narrower than they should be, so it’s easy to get confused or pushed out of the way by people exiting the trains.

My notes for getting to Jiufen, as well as our one-way ticket

My notes for getting to Jiufen, as well as our one-way ticket

Like I wrote in my notes, after you arrive at Ruifang Station, just follow the signs to the exit and cross the street for the bus stop.

From the exit, you can see the big "HOYA" ad. At the bottom right of it is the bus stop for bus 1062!

From the exit, you can see the big “HOYA” ad with the lady wearing glasses. At the bottom left of it is the bus stop for bus 1062!

Many people go to Jiufen by bus too, so you might see a long line forming underneath that ad. However, there are other bus stops grouped in that area, so it’s always better to double-check you’re heading in the right direction. Once you get on the bus it’s a 15-minute ride to the entrance to Jiufen’s Old Street (the main tourist area). Most likely, everyone will get off at this stop, so just follow them. The best views while going up the steep hills to Jiufen are all on the left side.

A handy map near the entrance of Old Street. I highlighted the places of interest to us

A handy map near the entrance of Old Street

It was a nice morning, and we were interested in hiking up the nearby Keelung mountain first before tackling all the food in Old Street. Following the road further uphill, we soon came to the head of the trail.

The grey marker at the beginning of the trail

The grey marker at the beginning

It was not an easy hike for me; the steepness was more than I had imagined, and I was definitely wearing the wrong shoes for it.  There were stone steps in place, but they got rougher and more wobbly the higher we went, so I was constantly testing out  each step before putting my weight on it.

Left: the beginning of the trail. Right: the trail as it looked halfway up

Left: the beginning of the trail. Right: the trail as it looked halfway up

I think it was a bit of a surprise how long the trail was, and how much effort it took — we were both out of breath by the time we got to the top. The summer humidity made it tougher too, but the view from the top was incomparable.

Looking down over the many harbours that feed into the sea

Looking down over the many harbours that feed into the sea

Overall, the hike up took us about an hour, and going down took about 30 minutes. While we were at the top, storm clouds began to gather over Jiufen, and we hurried to make it back before it started raining.

The view of Jiufen from about halfway down the mountain. Not my best panorama, but I was quite tired by then...

The view of Jiufen from about halfway down the mountain. Storm clouds moving in from the right side…

The contrast as the clouds moved over us was stunning at times

The contrast as the clouds moved over us was dramatic at times

Constant companions on the mountain trail. I've never seen them with blue tails, but my students assured me they were normal

Constant companions on the mountain trail. I’ve never seen them with blue tails, but my students assured me they were normal

Yay, we made it back to the entrance! (Just look out for the 7-11 next to it)

Yay, we made it back to the entrance! (Just look out for the 7-11 next to it)

By the time we got back to the main area of Jiufen, it was already packed with tour groups and day-trippers like us. It made for a lively atmosphere, but it was not as easy to go into all the places that looked interesting… We ended up doing some of our souvenir shopping here though (it was too hard to resist)!

The narrow road wound between tightly-packed shops on both sides

The narrow road wound between tightly packed shops on both sides

Lots of cultural and traditional trinkets on display in the shops

Lots of cultural and traditional trinkets on display in the shops

More packed alleys

More packed alleys

There are certain snacks you should try while in wandering Jiufen Old Street; taro balls (芋圓), fish ball soup, sun cakes (太陽餅) and pineapple cakes (鳳梨酥), roasted mushrooms…

As for us, you can bet the first thing I ate after that hot and sweaty hike was ice-cream!

This was so, so good. Definitely must try this if you are in Jiufen!

This was so, so good. Definitely must try this if you are in Jiufen!

It’s really interesting — the shop will usually have a block of peanuts caramelized together, and there will be a person running a shaver over the surface of it. These peanut shavings are then layered on a crepe-like wrapper, with two scoops of ice-cream on top. The Taiwanese way is to eat it with coriander (I know it sounds weird, but it’s surprisingly good!) — however I saw some tourists ask for no coriander, so it’s possible to enjoy this without the herb if you hate it.

Shaving away

Shaving away

There are a lot of shops selling fish balls in Old Street, including one that has lots of pictures of celebrities. I read that the food there was not really worth the hype, so I chose another place to try out the famous fish balls.

I didn't get a picture of the store name, so just look out for a big counter like this

I didn’t get a picture of the store name, so just look out for a big counter like this

A packed restaurant is always a good sign, right? And this place was full — people had to share tables if they wanted to eat sitting down. There was only a Chinese menu, but everyone seemed to be ordering the same things, so we followed suit.

The stars of the show: fish ball soup!

The stars of the show: fish ball soup!

These glass noodles were also very, very good (a little spicy for us)

These glass noodles were also very, very good (a little spicy for us)

The fish balls at this store were delicious — both flavourful and bouncy. It’s no wonder that everyone was eating them! If you can, find this store and try the food here!

Snacking away as we wandered along the streets

Snacking away as we wandered along the streets

Another thing that got a lot of hype, but not necessarily delivered, were the taro balls. There are references to one or two famous shops if you search online, but we weren’t really tempted and we ended up passing them by. What we didn’t pass up was a big bowl of shaved ice.

Three or four different toppings, with condensed milk

Three different toppings, with condensed milk

It was quite by chance that I found this shop — I had seen a brief mention to a “two-storey shop that sold shaved ice with glutinous rice balls (粉圆)” online, but there were no directions so I left it up to fate. And I found it!

The bowl was really big and is meant to be shared between two people (at least). The tang yuen (rice balls) were good — I really liked the taro (purple) flavoured one. We also got adzuki (the safe choice) and some candied pineapple (a gamble) for our other toppings. Condensed milk is a must! Otherwise it’ll just taste like eating food drenched in cold water.

Look out for the red signs of this shop. It's bigger than it looks, and there's another floor for more seating and a better view

Look out for the red signs of this shop. It’s bigger than it looks, and there’s a second floor for more seating and a better view

It really did start to pour around 2 PM, so we took that as our signal to head to our next destination — Shifen. If you want to buy pineapple or sun cakes, it’s best to do that right before you leave; the best shop for them, Li Yi Pastry Shop (李儀餅店) is directly across from the 7-11 at the Old Street entrance, and it’s also just below the bus stop heading back to Ruifang/Taipei.

Shifen (十分)

Shifen used to be another one of those small forgotten towns, but recently it’s became famous for its sky lanterns.

Releasing lanterns on the train tracks

Releasing lanterns on the train tracks

The neighbouring town of Pingxi has a very popular lantern festival at the end of every Chinese New Year, and it’s the time when everyone traditionally releases a sky lantern into the night bearing wishes for the coming year (for reference, it’s like that lantern scene in Disney’s Tangled). But not everyone can make it to the small town during CNY, so the two towns of Shifen and Pingxi allow tourists a chance to release lanterns all year round.

The train station at Shifen

The train station at Shifen

To get to Shifen from Jiufen, we had to board the bus back to Ruifang and then take a train from there along the Pingxi Line (平溪線). It’s easy to spot those trains because they are super colourful! Shifen is actually several stops before Pingxi — if you are short on time, releasing lanterns in Shifen is just as fun.

Top: the colourful train; bottom: the spacious interior

Top: the colourful train. Bottom: the spacious interior

The towns are built incredibly close to the train tracks; and as the train only comes by once an hour, it’s quite safe to walk along the tracks after it passes by. That being said, getting in and out of Shifen is also rather difficult, so I highly recommend you figure out train times before you go.

Watching other people release their lanterns first

Watching other people release their lanterns first

Thankfully the rain had died down to a slight drizzle, so it was possible to fly a lantern when we got there in the late afternoon. As soon as you exit the station, you can see shops on both sides of the tracks offering lanterns, as well as a few snack and souvenir shops. They all list the same price, so just pick whichever shop is less busy at the time to avoid waiting.

Painting on wishes with an ink brush

Painting on wishes with an ink brush

The shop we ended up going to

The shop we ended up going to

It was difficult to write using an ink brush, but it was still quite fun. Also, different colours mean different things (for health, for success, for love, etc.). We were indecisive, so we chose a multi-coloured lantern.

We are actually standing opposite to the wishes we wrote...(oops)

We are actually standing opposite to the wishes we wrote…(oops)

It got dark rather quickly and we were rushing to catch the next train, so we didn’t get the chance to explore very much of Shifen. One day it would be nice to go back and release another lantern…

Keelung (基隆市)

Our last stop for the day was in Keelung, a harbour city and major port on the north-east side of Taiwan. While I’m sure the city has its own charms and hotspots, the only reason we were there was for the food at the Miaokou Night Market. The market is famous for being very foreigner-friendly (with multi-lingual signs), as well as having an abundance of fresh and cheap seafood dishes (due to its proximity to the harbour).

"Miao kou" means temple entrance in Chinese

“Miao kou” means temple entrance in Chinese

The main row of shops (I can read the signs!)

The main row of shops (yay, I can read the signs!)

Even though it was a weeknight, it was quite lively with crowds of people and tourists mingling together in the name of good food. Not every shop had chairs though, so be prepared to stand while eating at some of the more popular shops.

Seafood!!!

Seafood!!!

Huge squid sticks, ready to be barbequed

Huge squid sticks, ready to be barbequed

More food!!

More seafood!!

PL really wanted to try these -- Cheese-grilled Hokkaido scallops. Even though they were a little pricy, they were large-sized and delicious

PL really wanted to try these — Cheese-grilled Hokkaido scallops. Even though they were a little pricy, they were large-sized and delicious!

One of the things you must try in Taiwan: oyster omelette!

One of the things you must try in Taiwan: oyster omelette!

Not to my taste, but at least the oysters were good!

Not to my taste, but as expected the oysters were good!

The market branches off into some side streets, which are even more crowded

The market branches off into some side streets, which are even more crowded

These ladies were nice, and their food was good

These ladies were nice, and their food was very filling

Crab meat soup

Crab meat and seafood soup

Very yummy glutinous mixed rice

Very yummy glutinous mixed rice

There were also some of the same snack foods we saw in Taipei -- in this case, "one bite sausages"

There were also some of the same snack foods we saw in Taipei — in this case, “one bite sausages”

You could also buy seafood at one stall and ask another stall to cook it for you on the spot

You could also buy seafood at one stall and ask another stall to cook it for you on the spot

We were quite tired from the day’s activities (all that walking and travelling around), but the food here was so much better than in Shilin Night Market (the seafood was, at least). I would definitely make the trip out here again, especially since there is a relatively frequent train from Taipei to Keelung.

Night traffic near the harbour and train station

Night traffic near the harbour and train station

Our itinerary was quite ambitious, though it didn’t seem like it while I was planning things. Some people go to Shifen first before Jiufen, or they go to another tourist town (Jinguashi (金瓜石) or Tamsui (淡水)) and the geopark. A lot of people also hire private taxis for the day, and that saves a lot of travelling time (but it’s expensive unless you have a group).

Either way, there are a lot of resources online with advice about how to get from one location to another — the only thing I recommend is to make your last stop at Keelung. By the end of the day you’ll be like us (bone-tired), and it’s a real comfort to know that you only need to take one train, doze through ten stops, and wake up safely back in Taipei.

Until next time, Keelung!

Until next time, Keelung!

Useful links: 

The single most important link if you’re heading to Shifen:

Helpful blogs for Jiufen:

Helpful blogs for Shifen and Keelung:

That wraps up the series about Taiwan! I’m moving closer to the present day. Next is the Christmas trip to Korea~ (fingers crossed it’ll get done before spring is over, haha).

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