Large Chinese lanterns, painted with wishes and good luck messages, rose into the sky after being launched from the narrow railway track that runs through the small town. This was Shifen, a small former coal mining town that is now a tourist magnet due, in no small part, to these lanterns. Another major attraction in the town is the Shifen Waterfall Park.
Shifen is located to the east of Taipei and can be reached in a number of ways. I chose to travel by train, leaving from Taipei Main Station. This means catching a train (regular train – not MRT subway) from Taipei to Ruifang and then switching to the Pingxi line to get to Shifen.
I got to the station about 9.30am and stood in line at the ticket counter. The departures board was easy to read and I could see that there was a Ruifang train departing at 9.54, so purchased return tickets. I then walked around the corner to counter #12 where I bought a one-day pass for the Pingxi line. It is best to buy the day-pass there rather than waiting to reach Ruifang, to avoid the queues at the smaller station.
With tickets in hand, I headed down the escalator to platform 4B and awaited the train to Ruifang.
The train I caught to Ruifang was a local train, stopping at most of the stations between Taipei and Ruifang. As a result, the journey lasted about one-hour.
Once at Ruifang, it became apparent how many tourists were headed in the same direction as me. There was a large group of people waiting for the Pingxi Line train – and many lining up to buy tickets for the Pingxi Line.
The Pingxi Line train was full to capacity, but only took about 20 minutes to reach Shifen (one of several stops along the line). The vast majority of passengers disembarked at Shifen, filling the narrow Old Street that runs along the train track.
Shifen Old Street has a number of street food outlets, as well as souvenir shops and, of course, vendors selling Chinese lanterns and helping customers to launch them once decorated.
Above video clip: Chinese lanterns take to the air
I didn’t participate in the launching of lanterns out of concern for the environment. Whilst the paper sides of the lanterns will likely decompose, the lanterns also have rigid hoops at the bottom and wire to give them shape. And what goes up must come down, as soon as the fuel burns out. A short distance out of town I saw several ‘dead’ lanterns hanging from trees.
Having come this far, I wanted to visit the two waterfalls that are within the Shifen Waterfall Park. Walking to both of the falls would take over an hour, so I jumped at the chance to rent a little electric scooter for TW$200 (US$6.27). No licence and no helmet required. Just sign a document that is written in Chinese (who knows what I signed) and off you go!
I whizzed along on my scooter to visit the largest of the falls, Shifen Waterfall. But there is a roadblock preventing vehicles getting too close to the entrance to the falls, meaning that there was still a 15-minute walk in each direction from the place where I parked the scooter. Shifen Waterfall is Taiwan’s broadest waterfall with a width of 40 metres and a total height of 20 metres, located on the upper reaches of the Keelung River. It’s no Niagara Falls, but it is certainly worth a visit.
Above and below: Video clips of Shifen Waterfall
Next, I rode my little scooter to the Yanjinadong Waterfall that is a couple of km away.
At least 90 minutes is needed in Shifen, to see the Old Street and also visit both waterfalls, if you use a rental scooter (longer if you walk). The trains come by roughly every hour, so I spent two hours in Shifen before continuing onwards to Pingxi.
Above video clip: A train passes through Shifen Old Street to arrive at Shifen Station
Three stations further along the Pingxi Line is the village of Pingxi. Like Shifen, there are vendors in Pingxi selling Chinese lanterns but it is a smaller operation. Pingxi’s Old Street drops down the hill, below the level of the train track. There are food outlets and souvenir shops.
When I arrived in Pingxi, I checked the schedule for the return train. One left about 25 minutes later and the next would be an hour and 25 minutes. There wasn’t too much to keep me in Pingxi for over an hour, so I decided to make it a short visit and get the first train heading back to Ruifang. But, before leaving, I decided to try one of the peanut ice-cream rolls.
The ice cream had a consistency more like sorbet and it was unusual to experience the taste of cilantro with ice cream, but it tasted pretty good.
I caught the train back to Ruifang, arriving close to 3.30pm. It had been my intention to head further east from Ruifang to visit the former gold-mining town of Jiufen. However, I was feeling tired by the time I got to Ruifang and knew that the return journey to Taipei would take about an hour. I decided to skip extending the trip to Jiufen and head directly back to Taipei on the next available train. The next train turned out to be an express train, only stopping at two stations prior to Taipei, so the return train ride only took about 40 minutes.
Another enjoyable day-trip.