One-Day North Island Tour
On Saturday, I rode out to explore a bit more of the north of Taiwan, particularly the Pingxi area and those towns built along the railway line to Keelung. As it turned out, the day didn’t quite pan out as I had planned, in both beautiful and agonising ways. This is going to be a very long photo post so more after the break …
First up, here’s the route I took below in a Google map. For reasons I’ll explain at the end of this post I managed about 75% of the way around the route before fate had other ideas. On a scooter, even with stopping for snacks and photos, you could do this whole route in a long day. On a more environmentally friendly bicycle I’d suggest stopping in Jiufen and taking an extra day to explore the North Coast before returning to the rat race of Taipei City.
Like many mountain roads in Taiwan, where possible the road usually winds its way through a valley and perpendicular to the riverbed. My plan was to follow the 106 to Pingxi and then stop at five stations before heading up to Jiufen - Jingtong, Pingxi, Lingjiao, Wanggu and Shihfen. The ride out of Academica Sinica provides an immediate challenge for the cyclist with steep gradients , both up and down, that will tire those with less stamina. The road is wide and well paved, though being a major access road in and out of Taipei it is also quite busy with traffic, another hazard for the self propelled. Once you are down in the valley though the going is far easier albeit more dense with traffic.
Taking a less busy bridge across the river I spotted a row of flower boxes and this specimen above. I like this shot because it contrasts the frail beauty of nature growing in spite of the development in the background. One thing I’ve noticed about Taiwan is that if you take the time to stop and look carefully you can find all kinds of amazing flora and fauna that provide a relief to the man-made, usually concrete, obscenities plastered over almost anywhere with relatively flat ground. If you get down to the riverbed you’ll find fish and birds in abundance. Stop and look carefully by the road and you’ll find insect and arachnid life galore. Taiwan is a country that provides amazing opportunities for the photographer with the super fine or wide angled lens - its just a case of getting out of the urban areas (although for those who specialise in urban scenery it also has a lot to offer).
This temple was obviously under construction. I’m sure someone in the Taiwan blogosphere can provide an answer to why and how there are so many temples in Taiwan and, more to the point, where the money for their construction comes from.
Flooding of riverside communities in Taiwan is a major hazard. Here a small community shores up the banks in preparation for next year’s Typhoon season. If the embankment seems excessive relative to the height of the river you have to remember that when the flood waters rush out of the mountains the water level will likely approach the height of that bridge, complete with huge boulders smashing their way through the water.
If you have time, the mountains in Taiwan are littered with small tunnels and by-roads winding their way through agricultural communities. I didn’t have time to stray too far off the main road which is a pity because places like this almost invited exploration.
First stop was Jingtong Station, at the end of the mountain line. A tourist mecca, it was heaving with families on day trips, tour coaches, big bikers and cyclists.
One of the main ‘themes’ of Jingtong Station was the romance of the railways, stemming from local lore which originated in the heady ancient days of the 1960s. I’ll let the local tourist board explain more.
And of course, the scene wouldn’t be complete without a Lover’s Bridge.
Back on the platform the train, which ran quite regularly, was waiting to pull out whilst families explored the area behind where this shot was taken. Memo to TRA: you’ve got a great historic railway line and you serve it with this modern diesel carriage (albeit with bright paintwork). May I suggest you replace that with a steam engine and watch the tourist income tripple?
Back on the main street, Jingtong was milking the retro kitsch for all its worth.
These girls are trying to get the machine, which you turn with a big wheel, to dispense a cheap commemorative coin.
Back on the main road you see the reason why any of these towns existed in the first place - people didn’t just build railroads for passengers. This was an important mining area.
Moving on down the road I found a statue yard. I love these places as I never know if these guys are waiting for delivery or preserved rejects.
Pingxi town itself is medium sized and more or less generally ugly. I decided to pass on visiting the station and move on to the next stop on the line, Lingjiao Station.
This a gorgeous little station town right out of a Ghibli Studio film. The line itself is right there cutting its way through the town and immediately accessible, From the new white bridge providing access to the town you can see old the infrastructure …
And there’s a viewing platform right next to the line.
You can almost touch the train as it rumbles by.
I would recommend this place over Jingtong as not only does it feature old streets …
But also nearby waterfalls and kms to explore on bicycle and foot (sorry no pics).
As always, there was petal pr0n crying out for a close up shot …
Next up, Wanggu Station was absolutely minimal but it did feature a nice riverside park area for the weary traveller to rest. Three random shots follow:
If you didn’t realise it before, here you can’t avoid the realisation that you are deep in the northern range of mountains (though I prefer the central / southern range).
Aside from the main road bridge into Shihfen there is also a suspension bridge.
Just next to the bridge a group of bike bikers berated me gently for doing what EVA likes to call ‘Selfish Parking’. As I moved my bike they clicked on to the fact that I can speak about 10 words total in the Minan Language (aka Hoklo / Taiwanese) and of course we were instantly firm friends. They were heading to Jiufen too and invited me along but I had just arrived and they were just leaving so I waved them off with a ‘Gai-yiu’ and thought that to be the last I would see of them.
Arriving at Shihfen Station I quickly ascertained that it was another tourist mecca and apparently a main stop for tourists getting on and off the train I decided not to loiter.
Again the track runs through town and access is easy (something that would no doubt give the old British Rail H&S staff a stroke)
At this point, most traffic follows the 106 north. This also marks the start of the Number 2 scenic road to Shuangxi, which was mercifully almost empty aside from local traffic, heroic bicyclists and the occasional clump of big bikers roaring past.
Once you pass through the long tunnel you wind your way down into another long flat valley. Along the way I spotted this windmill and associated contraption …
And this well preserved three-sided building …
At the entrance to Shuangxi, this tunnel gave me ‘Spirited Away’ flashbacks …
You may have noted that Shuangxi Station in not on the same line as the other five stations. This instead is the real deal, sitting on the Taipei to Hualien Yilan Line, and perhaps one of the stops the new Puyuma Trains will serve.
Interestingly, this station was geared around tourism as much as Jingtong or Shihfen but a different kind of tourist.
The infrastructure put in place was explicit …
… as the cute tourist information center made clear …
After refreshing myself at the big 7/11, I headed on out and on to the next stop - Mudan Station …
Colour makes a difference. Even concrete can be made to look more acceptable to the eye …
Mudan is another fairly sleepy riverside valley town on the Yilan Line. It features some great old back streets complete with non-plussed local residents probably wondering what the hell these people keep coming here for.
Owing to the confluence of massive injections of US Aid in the 1950s~70s and a development / concrete based booming economy in the 70s~80s Taiwan is littered with remnants of infrastructure that now seem quietly abandoned. Anyone know what this is / was for example?
After Mudan I took off up the into the mountains (see map for directions) and some blessed relief from the human imprint on the environment (save for the road I was riding on of course). Very quickly the views back over where I had come from became quite stunning. The gradient of the road though made me glad to be using motorised transport.
Up ahead the road was winding itself inexorably towards the ‘bald patch’ in this picture.
The beauty of Taiwan is that the mountains are so high that you actually pass through different temperature and climate zones, which provides for an amazing diversity of flora.
As I got up on the ridge, the light played through the clouds …
… with stunning effect …
That shot above was taken at a rest stop that provides a lookout with clear views of both sides of the ridge. A favourite stop for bicyclists and photographers …
… and as it turns out the Big Bike troupe I had previously met in Shihfen! They were delighted to see me and slightly bemused at me having riden the same 125cc Yamaha half way around the island (it has done 40,000km in the six years since I bought it). For shits and giggles we had some fun with cameras. Coiled and ready …
… lift off!
They invited me to a free lunch with them (it was about 2.30pm - I had set off at 10.45am) at a big temple in Jiufen but I was on a bit of a mission to get back home so I bade them farewell and sped off down towards the actual town that did in part inspire Spirited Away. On the way, the views of Jingguashr were no less impressive.
This picture below shows the main mountain next to Jiufen. All those reddish buildings on the side of the mountain? Tombs of the ancestors. Jiufen is just out of sight on the other side of the ridge to the left (out of the picture).
A final shot through the foilage at one of Jiufen’s lower elevated temples and bye bye as I headed down to the coast and on towards, theoretically, home.
I say theoretically because I got to Dingnei and my trusty steed just gave up the ghost and promptly died on me. The previous day the back tire had gone and needed replacing (NT$900) and I knew there was something slightly dodgy about the electrics / battery but this turned out to be much more serious.
Luckily there was a Yamaha repair shop, featuring an owner who chewed beetlenut, smoked like a chimney and spoke Minan simultaneously, nearby. I rolled it up to the shop and he and a helpful customer called Ah-wei opened her up and the battery was practically on fire. Then came another problem. I had left the house with about NT$600 and the battery was NT$1200 (a previous Yamaha shop 10 kms up the road told me batteries were NT$900 but beggars can’t be choosers). EVA wired some money over that bought the battery. Still dead. There followed about two hours of progressively more intrusive diagnostics and finally it was discovered that two vital organs of my baby were fried and needed replacing, at a cost of another NT$4300. Not having access to the cash, I had to leave my bike in Dingnei. Ah-wei’s brother gave me a lift on his bike to Badu Station from where I caught the train and MRT home. I will return to Dingnei tomorrow afternoon (Monday) to pay the repairs and ride back home.
Not an ideal way to end a round trip but I’m still glad I went. I’m just a very lucky bugger that my baby didn’t give out earlier.
Total Distance of Round-trip: 109km
Total expenditure on the trip: NT$133
Total expenditure on motorcycle repairs for this weekend: NT$6900