Exploring the Valley of the Glowing Sky
A Bus Trip from Muzha to Pingxi and Back
Text: Joe Henley
Photos: Fred Cheng
Most travelers visit the Pingxi area by taking the Pingxi Branch Line, but this is not the only means of transport. The Muzha-Pingxi Route of the Taiwan Tourist Shuttle network is a good alternative and also allows you to visit some interesting places, which are not on the railway line.
There's a place in Taiwan where the sky is often filled with glowing orbs floating up into the lower troposphere. It's a place where mountain-valley towns once hummed with industrial activity, and from which a healthy portion of the lifeblood of the country once flowed. The valley of Pingxi, in the eastern part of New Taipei City, was a thriving coal-mining district in the first half of the 20th century. Today it's a place where people write their hopes and dreams on the side of paper lanterns and watch them drift through the air toward the heavens.
Getting to Pingxi is fast and easy. There are two options for public transport from Taipei City. You can either board an eastbound train and transfer to the Pingxi Branch Line at any station from Badu to Sandiaoling, or you can take a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle bus following the Muzha-Pingxi Route. On my most recent visit, I opted for the latter.
The Taiwan Tourist Shuttle network now has lines running throughout Taiwan, taking tourists to points of interest all over the island. Tickets are generally inexpensive; on this day my travel companions and I bought one-way tickets for the run between Muzha in Taipei City and the village of Shifen, near the town of Pingxi, for NT$45. The first bus from Muzha rolls early each day, at 5 am, and the last bus back leaves Shifen Tourist Center (the terminus on the inbound run) at 8:35 pm. For more info about the tourist-shuttle service, visit www.taiwantrip.com.tw.
During the roughly one-hour journey on the tourist shuttle (bus no. 795), which departs from Taipei’s MRT Muzha Station, I watched through the window as we passed by small towns where young Taiwanese men and women once flocked for opportunity, now reinvented as centers where tourists both homegrown and international can go to get a feel for what life in Taiwan was like a hundred years ago.
Upon reaching Shifen, I soon saw tourists releasing brightly colored paper lanterns. During the annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival, which takes place around the end of the Chinese New Year period, thousands of people come to the Pingxi area to do the same, filling the sky with thousands of colorful dots of moving celestial light. I would soon have my own chance, but first I was on my way to the Taiwan Coal Mine Museum, which is a bit outside Shifen.
A small shuttle train from Shifen to the museum will be in operation this July, taking visitors to the facility and its on-site mine, which first churned to life in 1965 and was shut down in 1997. Note that if you prefer to walk instead, it takes just 20 minutes. Since the shuttle train was not running during the time of our visit, and we wanted to save time, we had called the museum in advance to take advantage of their pick-up service from Shifen.
On arrival at the museum we were greeted by David Gong, the grandson of the man who opened the mine over 40 years ago. He showed us around the facility, first taking us to the 1,200-meter-long, 500-meter-deep tunnel the mine's 500 or so workers used to enter – their sweltering world of darkness and honest toil. Gong has plans to allow tourists to ride a mini train inside, but for the moment the tunnel remains closed to the public save for the entranceway and a short span just inside. The museum's mini-train service currently takes tourists a short distance through a forest to a dumping station where the coal was once offloaded to be conveyed to a shipping yard lower in the valley.
After learning about coal mining at the museum, we headed back to Shifen, where a lesson in lantern-making awaited. This village has a history going back about 200 years, with the first settlers coming over from Fujian Province in mainland China. The practice of releasing lanterns is nearly as old as the village itself, originating as a safety signal during a time when the area was ravaged by roving gangs of Han Chinese bandits and subject to attack by indigenous warriors. Shops specializing in helping tourists to make their own lanterns line Shifen Old Street, and can be found throughout the Pingxi area.
A four-color lantern goes for NT$200, a single-color version for NT$150. Local shop owner Wang Rui-yu showed me the proper way to glue the four thin pieces of paper together, and how to affix the light wood-and-metal frame to the bottom. The frame also holds in place yellow pieces of joss paper, or ghost money, which have been soaked in oil. The oil serves as fuel, and when the paper is lit the heat causes the lantern to rise up and sail about for five to eight minutes to a height greater than that of Taipei 101, over 500 meters.
Painting some select words upon my lantern, I held it up and watched Wang light the joss paper. The lantern slowly lifted off the ground, and with a quick count of yi,er, san (1, 2, 3) I released it so it could join several others already on a skyward path.
If you visit Shifen, another place worth checking out is the multi-tiered Shifen Waterfall, a 20-minute walk from Shifen Old Street along a paved path. The falls, located on the upper reaches of the Keelung River, are 20 meters high and 40 across – the widest falls in all of Taiwan.
Now working our way back along the shuttle-bus route, our next stop was Pingxi Old Street in the village of Pingxi. The street sits on a hillside, below a railway bridge that the trains of the Pingxi Branch Line clatter by on, and has a reputation for two things – sausages and peanut ice cream. If you're wondering where to find either, just look for the lines. The ice cream is definitely unique, taro-flavored and covered in peanut powder and something you might not expect – coriander.
Not far from the street is Guanyin Temple, next to the Cave of the Eight Immortals. This cave, as dimly lit as the mine I had visited earlier, houses eight Buddhist idols, and is an interesting sight for those not afraid of the dark.
The scenic hills around Pingxi are also a great place to go for a hike. There are a number of trails, most popular the one to Mt. Xiaozi, one of several strangely shaped crags in the area.
West of Pingxi, Jingtong is in another former mining village, its highlight a charming wooden railway station dating back to the Japanese colonial period (1895~1945). Some of the former villas in the area that were once home to officials who presided over the Shi-Ti Slope Mine have been converted into quaint guesthouses, tea rooms, and coffee shops. The tea rooms and coffee shops are good places for weary travelers to take a break and enjoy the quiet majesty of the surrounding mountains for a while. Jingtong is also the terminal station for the Pingxi Branch Line.
From there, and now exiting the Pingxi valley, it's two stops on the tourist-shuttle route to Shuangxikou (lit. “Mouth of Two Rivers”), where two rivers indeed converge, and where a branch road heads off to the old town of Shiding. If you want to go there, you have to transfer to another bus (no. 666) at this location. The town is known for some interesting architecture, called diaojiaolou or “dangling foot buildings,” in which part of the building is suspended over a small river running lazily by below. There are also many restaurants where you can try the local specialties, notably tofu, which has been produced here for over a century.
The last stop on our trip before heading back to Muzha was Shenkeng which, even more than Shiding, is famed for its tofu-based delicacies. The Shenkeng area has long been known for pristine waters and the especially delicious tofu made with it. Shenkeng Old Street, lined with recently restored red-brick residential buildings, has numerous shops selling stinky tofu, tofu ice cream, and just about anything else you can imagine made from soybeans. One of the converted heritage residences, Dexing House, is now home to what may be the most stately ice-cream shop you’ll ever come across.
Then it was back to MRT Muzha Station, which is just one stop away from Taipei Zoo. While it may be too late to visit the zoo after spending most of the day exploring Pingxi, there is another way to end the day on a high note. Take the MRT to Taipei Zoo Station and from there take the Maokong Gondola to the Maokong tea plantations to enjoy a cup of fresh local tea and take in the sparkling lights of the city in the distance after sunset.
English and Chinese
|Cave of the Eight Immortals||八仙洞|
|Pingxi Branch Line||平溪支線|
|Pingxi Old Street||平溪老街|
|Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival||平溪天燈節|
|Shenkeng Old Street||深坑老街|
|Shifen Old Street||十分老街|
|Shifen Tourist Center||十分遊客中心|
|Shi-Ti Slope Mine||石底大斜坑煤礦場|
Taiwan Coal Mine Museum (新平溪煤礦博物園區)
Add: 5, Dingliaozi, Xinliao Village, Pingxi District, New Taipei City (新北市平溪區新寮里頂寮子5號)
Tel: (02) 2495-8252
Hours: 9 am ~ 5 pm (closed on Mondays)
Website: www.taiwancoal.com.tw (Chinese)