Stairways to the Sky
Hiking Filial Son Mountain in New Taipei City’s Pingxi Area
Text: Richard Saunders
Photos: Xiao Y
The quaint old village of Pingxi, today officially the center of New Taipei City’s rural Pingxi District, is the penultimate station on the Pingxi Branch Railway Line, built early in the last century to transport coal mined in the surrounding hills. After coal mining in the Pingxi Valley ceased a few decades ago, the railway line escaped closure partly because it was a vital link with the outside world, but also because the area was becoming an increasingly popular tourist attraction.
These days tourists flock to the valley to see the impressive Shifen Waterfall (sometimes called “Taiwan’s Niagara Falls”), and to wander round the evocative old mining villages, notably Pingxi and Jingtong, which are rich in both local color and traditional snack foods or xiaochi. The Pingxi settlement lies spread out along the two sides of the infant Keelung River. Life in the narrow streets continues much as it did before the technological revolution of the 20th century transformed Taiwan’s economy.
Traveling the Pingxi line is great for relaxed sightseeing, but for hikers the line also provides easy access to some of north Taiwan’s finest hikes. Countless wonderful walks lie within easy reach of Taiwan’s capital, but if time or energy only allow you to do one, there’s perhaps no more exciting walk within day-trip distance of downtown Taipei than one which takes in the peaks of Mt. Xiaozi (Filial Son Mountain), Mt. Cimu (Loving Mother Mountain), and Mt. Putuo, collectively called the Pingxi Crags by many Taiwan expats. These three seemingly inaccessible spines of bare rock are scaled by using steep flights of visually arresting rock-cut steps. This is definitely not a place for acrophobes, but for a short, fun adrenaline rush it is unbeatable.
It’s also a relatively easy half-day hike, within the limits of anyone in reasonable shape, which allows time afterwards to explore a few of the other more relaxing attractions along the Pingxi line. But pick a suitable time to visit: during winter and early spring, prevailing monsoon winds from the northeast make for welcome cool temperatures, yet can bring rain as well, so be sure to check the weather forecast beforehand, as the trails can be slippery when wet.
Note as well that the Pingxi line has become an exceptionally popular weekend/holiday destination, and though, amazingly, the local trails generally remain remarkably quiet at these times, trains can be packed to the gills. It’s thus wise to either visit on a weekday if possible, or to take one of the less-crowded buses back to Taipei.
As soon as you step out of the train at Pingxi Railway Station the area’s stunning scenery immediately comes into view. The village lies in a valley hemmed in on both sides by steep, jungle-clad ridges and a series of weirdly shaped, eye-catching peaks. The most conspicuous, known as Shisunjian (“Stone Bamboo Shoot”), sticks out from the ridge northeast of the village like a gigantic tooth.
Less obvious at first are the Pingxi Crags, which rise out of a jungle-filled hollow across the river from the main part of Pingxi village. Walk down to the river, cross it, turn left onto the main road (County Hwy 106), and almost directly below the railway station is the trailhead for Mt. Xiaozi. You’ll find it below a road sign located beside a small waterfall and a colorful map board. Follow the stepped path upwards, and then proceed through the wooded valley beyond. Continue uphill along a lane after passing a small temple, and at the end a flight of stone steps leads up the wooded hillside to the base of the marvelous adult-adventure playground formed by the rocky heights of the Pingxi Crags. At the base of the three peaks is a junction of five trails, each heading up a different rock face.
The stone-cut steps on the left lead to the base of Mt. Xiaozi, which, despite being the lowest of the three crags, looks from the base to be quite impossible to climb. However, take the trail climbing round the foot of the pinnacle to the back, and its secret is revealed: a series of ladders and steps carved into the sandstone scales the summit of the needle safely, although it’s still quite an exciting climb, and definitely not for hikers with a fear of heights!
The second trail at the big junction below the peaks, straight in front, has never been finished, and ends stranded halfway up the thrillingly steep rock face. Take the third path at the junction, up into the trees ahead, to find hundreds of steep steps carved into the rock scaling the second of the peaks, Mt. Cimu, which is crisscrossed by no less than four exciting trails. At the top, enjoy the magnificent view over Mt. Xiaozi – a sharp, pointed needle from this angle – and, in the opposite direction, into a forest pierced by a series of ridges and sheer cliffs of white rock. Continue straight ahead down the other side, and at the bottom you’ll find another trail on the left that climbs back up Mt. Cimu, beneath a tall, deeply eroded cliff of white sandstone, and then regains the summit via a natural “ladder” formed by the roots of an old tree growing out of the rock face.
The highest of the three peaks, Mt. Putuo, is reached by a solitary, thrilling trail up a knife-edge spine. It’s rather airy up there, but sturdy metal posts and heavy-rope handrails on either side mean it’s quite safe. To get there, take the stone steps on the far right at the junction beneath the peaks, and look for a dirt trail on the right after climbing the steps for about five minutes. Once again, there’s a fabulous view from the summit.
Kudos to the people who risked their lives to cut the original steps up these three peaks, which must have entailed spending long hours in some extremely dangerous positions. We should also be thankful to the souls who set about improving the safety of the trail up the peaks around the turn of the new century. Presently solid rope hand rails and iron stakes line each of the trails of stone-cut step, so it’s a safe place to explore nowadays if care is taken, but bring a sense of adventure and a good head for heights!
After all that excitement, take a bit of time to wind down and enjoy the gentler pleasures of old Pingxi village. Above the police station, from Guanyin Temple, you have nice views over the village, as well as of Mt. Xiaozi and Mt. Putuo. On either side of the temple are a number of caves and tunnels. On the right, the Cave of the Eight Immortals is a cave temple carved out of the soft sandstone, while on the other side a series of interconnecting chambers were used as air-raid shelters during Allied bombings in World War II. Back in the village, don’t miss the old-style green postbox standing outside the post office, take a look in the traditional shops lining the narrow streets that run down to the river, and snack on treats both traditional and more modern, such as hot dogs, shaved ice, and stinky tofu.
Finally, especially during the Lantern Festival (in early March this year), no trip to Pingxi, and nearby Shifen, is complete without participating in the village’s most famous traditional activity – releasing sky lanterns. Ready-made lanterns are for sale in shops all around the village, and a few places will even teach you how to make your own!
Take a train from Taipei to Ruifang Railway Station, from which the Pingxi Branch Railway Line trains leave. Pingxi is the penultimate stop. The village can also be reached by catching a Taiwan Tourist Shuttle Bus plying the service’s Muzha-Pingxi Route (www.taiwantrip.com.tw/Besttour/Info/?id=45), just outside the MRT Muzha Station.
More information on hiking around the Pingxi Crags, plus seven other hikes along the Pingxi line, can be found in the book Taipei Escapes 1, available in Taipei bookstores such as Page One, Eslite, and Caves (NT$500).
English and Chinese
|Cave of the Eight Immortals||八仙洞|
|Pingxi Branch Railway Line||平溪支線|