Trials and travails of a Taiwanese-American kid in Taiwan

Friday, June 16, 2006


The view of Da-Ta Mountain (sacred ground to the Zou aboriginal group ) from Ren-Ho elementary school's balcony just before heavy rains poured into Taiwan from Thursday afternoon into Sunday. The rain caused landslides, blocking roads and destroying bridges island wide. The Ali-shan region was hit especially hard. Luckily, I managed to get a ride back to Taipei before the roads out of Feng-shan were sealed due to flooding!

Soil conversation, erosion and overdevelopment are major issues that I wish could be addressed by local and central authorities. Unfortunately, short-sightedness and earning the quick NT while not reinvesting back into mother nature has exacerbated the damage done to the region after Typhoon He-bo and the 9-21 earthquake.

Sunday, June 04, 2006

Looking for black gold: The Pingsi Line

I like trains. That may sound a little hypocritical coming from an aerospace engineer, but since I also happen to like ships and other means of transportation I think I'm being consistant. Though most might not have noticed, train travel in Taiwan has been on the decline ever since the 80s and 90s with the proliferation of private vehicles, freeways, and low cost air travel. Signs of the drop in long distance passenger traffic are everywhere... the TRA section of Taipei Main Station has gone from four functioning platforms to two, small stations have been closed, and till a few years ago, small rural branch lines were closed and left to slowly rust away.

The Pingsi Line (平溪線) in northeastern Taipei County is one such line that managed to avoided that fate. A narrow 15 km line of single track running along the amazingly pristine upstream segment of the Keelung River (long before it turns into the brownish funny smelling thing that Taipei-ites are farmiliar with), the line was initially built in 1912 to transport coal from the coal mines in the area. The coal ran out and the last of the mines closed in the late 80s and early 90s. For a while, it seemed the area would be doomed to total decline. When I first visited the area in 1994, I saw small tired looking towns and villages that looked to be on their last legs. Sometime around then, someone realized the tourism potential of a historic area easily accessible by bored Taipei-ites. And today, the area along the Pingsi Line is slowly reinventing itself. It may not be back at the level of its glory days or have the glamour of tourist traps like Alishan or Jioufen, but still makes a nice day trip out of Taipei for those wanting to see rural Taiwan (for now).

Interior of a Pingsi Line train at Rueifang

The Pingsi Line splits of from the main Northern Link Line near the town of Rueifang, about half an hour to 40 minutes away from Taipei by train. Coming into Rueifang Station from Taipei on one of the many commuter EMU trains that ply the rails, one of the first things you notice on the platform is one side entirely devoted to the Pingsi Line. A ticket window located right on the platform sells one day passes for the branch line allowing the bearer an unlimited number of train rides on the Pingsi Line for a single day, allowing you to transfer to the branch line without having to leave the platform. Clearly someone has been doing their homework on how not to annoy tourists.

Stopped at Shihfen Station

The Pingsi Line is served regularly by small two car diesel trains which generally run once every 40 minutes to 1 hour in either direction. Despite the fact that there's only a single line of track along most of the line, through careful timing they somehow manage to run two trains in opposite directions along the same line without any collissions (while I was there anyhow).

Pulling out of Rueifang, the grey apartment blocks of the town are soon replaced by lush green hills and craiggy cliffs. The rail line runs along a section literally cut into the side of steep slopes above the Keelung River, which is an amazing jade color (from naturally occuring algae). After a few minutes, the train pulls into Sandiaoling Station. A small station consisting of narrow platforms on either side of the rail line and a small station house... all perched on what seems to be the edge of the cliff. There is no automobile road in front of Sandiaoling Station (or so I'm told), the station can only be accessed on foot from a road on the other side of the Keelung River.

Sandiaoling Station

Just outside of Sandiaoling, the Pingsi Line splits off from the main line, following the river. Aside from the occassional house or small unmanned station (mostly consisting of a small platform and sign), there is little sign of perminant habitation along this section. The train passes through a tunnel and a few bridges, where the engineer (who you can actually watch and talk to), slows to a crawl and toots the train's whistle to warn people walking along the tracks (of which there are apparently quite a few... locals or tourists) to clear out.

One of the more famous sights is the Shihfen Waterfall, which is billed as Taiwan's Niagara Falls. It's not quite Niagara but it's nice to look at nonetheless. Unfortunetely the area aroud the waterfall was purchased by some enterprising businessman who proceeded to fence off the area so you couldn't see the falls from the train and charge tourists NT$180 a head for the privledge of entering the area to see it in person.

Uh... no thanks. If you are interested you can get off at Shihfen Station and walk to the enterance along the tracks. I prefer not to give my money to asshats like that but the walk from the station to the falls is quite scenic (and free!), and is worth doing.

The Keelung River.

Speaking of Shihfen, Shihfen Station is the big halfway point along the line. The town of Shihfen is huddled around the train tracks, coming into the station you find that the railway runs right through the middle of town right along what one might call "Main Street". Locals are accustomed to having a train running right through the middle of town. Aside for the waterfalls to which it lends its name, Shihfen is also rather famous for their 天燈 (lit: Sky Lanterns), lanterns which function like miniature hot air balloons. Around the Lantern Festival, locals and visitors will send the lanterns floating into the sky in hopes that they will bring peace and prosperity. Quite a few stores in town are dedicated to selling them.

The town of Shihfen

Remember kids, don't stand on the tracks!

Moving further up the line, the river gorge widens into a valley. After passing a few small stops and the town of Pingsi, the train finally rumbles into the last station of the line - Jingtong. An old Japanese-style wooden station house in a small town at the foot of what was once a coal mine. Several concrete structures once used to fill freight cars with coal tower over a few unused tracks.

Jingtong Station.
Under new management.

On a hill overlooking the town and the station are the remminents of an old coal mine. The largest of the old mine buildings has been converted into (yet another) cafe selling overpriced coffee. Moving further up, one finds the mineshaft itself. A grey concrete tunnel half buried in the hillside surrounded by the remminents of some old brick buildings, looking almost like a grave. The mineshaft itself still bears inscriptions made at the time of it's construction... an inscription carved above the tunnel reads: "石底大斜坑", while another on the side proudly identitifies the date of construction as "昭和十二年三月" (12th year of Showa, Third Month... or in other words, March 1938).

The old mine.

The Pingsi Line makes an excellent daytrip from Taipei, especially if you enjoy walking
around in the countryside and exploring some artifacts from some of Taiwan's older days. The area is slowly becoming more commericalized, but has yet to reach the level of some places like Alishan or Kenting.

And of course, on the way home you can stop by Keelung for some Goodies in Front of a Temple.