Taking Taiwan's Slow Train
A SPECIAL RAILWAY TICKET ALLOWS YOU TO TAKE YOUR TIME WHILE EXPLORING THE INTRIGUING LOCAL CULTURE FOUND IN TOWNS AND CITIES ALONG THE WAY. By Mark Caltonhill
Indulging in Local Culture on an Around-the-Island Trip
I bought a packed lunch from a platform vendor containing both lean and fatty pork, a slice of sausage, marinated egg, cabbage, bamboo shoots, sun-dried radish, tempura, and rice
Even on this midweek morning, the small sleepy station thronged with what can only be described as religious pilgrims
It was a case of yuanfen (緣分), as the Taiwanese call it. "Happy synchronicity" or "fate" might be one translation. On one day a couple of months ago, Travel in Taiwan asked if I had any train-travel experiences to share with readers, I was asked to update my book about local religious practices, and the radio forecast unseasonably cold, wet weather in northern Taiwan for the following four days. I needed no further incentive. I called the Taipei Railway Station. "Yes, for NT$1,706 you can travel around the island in a clockwise or anticlockwise direction for 15 days, stopping off at up to seven different places." I called Travel in Taiwan. "Yes, I have some train-travel experience, but in four days' time I'll have much more." Early the next morning, I boarded a slow train heading down Taiwan's east coast. This section of track includes some of the island's most stunning scenery, so I didn't want to rush it. Actually, like the tastiest morsel of food, I'd rather have kept it till last, but I wanted to start on Taiwan's oldest stretch of railway and keep the newest till last. That connecting Taipei and the nearby port of Keelung was completed in 1891, whereas the High Speed Rail tracks running up the west coast from Kaohsiung to Taipei opened in 2007 (though riding this requires the purchase of a separate ticket). Taiwan's first "iron road" was part of first governor Liou Ming-chuan's modernization blueprint for the island. Before embarking, I visited a statue of Liou in Taipei's 2-28 Peace Park just to the south of the station. The park is a good spiritual departure point for a rail trip. In addition to Liou's statue, there are also two of Taiwan's oldest trains, "Soaring Cloud", which was imported from Germany and used between 1888 and 1924, and the even older "No. 9," which arrived with the Japanese in 1895. The park's National Taiwan Museum, www.ntm.gov.tw, was opened in 1908 to commemorate the inauguration of the North-South Railway from Taipei to Kaohsiung.
Many of my fellow travelers, changing at Rueifang (the only station/community in Taiwan named after a shop, a hardware store that served the local mining industry) for the branch line to inland Pingsi or the bus to Jioufen.
At the popular seaside resort of Fulong I bought a packed lunch from a platform vendor. These Fulong Lunchboxes are now so well known they have given rise to a chain of restaurants throughout northeast Taiwan. At just NT$50 and containing both lean and fatty pork, a slice of sausage, marinated egg, cabbage, bamboo shoots, sun-dried radish, tempura, and rice, it was both good value and tasty. The train's conductor waited until every passenger wanting lunch had bought one. My vendor said he'd sold lunchboxes for 40 or 50 years, since he was a child.
The sun came out and the sea appeared as we emerged from a tunnel into Yilan County and passed seaside Dasi, popular with surfers. I was happy to have left the four days of rain behind.
The train stopped in Toucheng
("Head" Town), so named as it was the first major Han Chinese conurbation in this relatively inaccessible part of the island. Although it holds a major annual religious event in which, among other things, young men compete to climb greased poles, I stayed on the train as the event occurs in the Ghost Month of summer. Toucheng is also a jumping-off point for Gueishan Island (Turtle Mountain Island).
I similarly stayed onboard at Jiaosi, famous for its hot springs, but got off in Yilan City to buy some a-hsiew (Taiwanese pronunciation; smoked duck), a foodstuff found only in this area.
Along much of the coast here the rail track clings precariously to the cliffs that plunge steeply into the sea. Fishing boats bobbing on the ocean, picturesque harbors, and occasional villages in mist-filled valleys (look out for Nan-ao for example) make the journey unforgettable.
Traveling around Taiwan offers such a range of opportunities to savor natural and manmade delights that I wanted to get off everywhere, but especially at stations with romantic names such as "Bamboo Field" (Jhutian), "Phoenix Mountain" (Fongshan), and "Come Back" (Gueilai).
Captions: Left: Buying a lunch box at Fulong Station Right: Historic locomotives are operated by the TRA on special occasions. Opposite, far left: Train running along the scenic east coast
Small station in Taichung County. Opposite: Having fun during a train ride.
ENGLISH & CHINESE
2-28 Peace Park 228和平公園
Beancurd Pudding 豆花
Burning of Wang Ye's Boat 燒王爺船
Cijin Island 旗津島
Custard Apples 釋迦
Gangshan Lamb 岡山羊肉
Green Island 綠島
Gueishan Island 龜山島
Nat. Museum of Prehistory 國立台灣史前文化博物館
Nat. Taiwan Museum 國立臺灣博物
館 Olen 黑輪
Orchid Island 蘭嶼
Oyster Omelet 蚵仔煎
Danzai Noodles 擔仔麵
Shrimp Rrolls 蝦卷
Smoked Duck 鴨賞
Wax Apples 蓮霧