As anyone who's studied Taipei County on a map knows, the Pingxi coal mining area (now a popular tourist spot with a small-gauge railroad) and the gorgeous Pacific views of Jiufen may seem worlds apart, but are actually surprisingly close. This is not a huge revelation, as they're both quickly and easily accessible from Ruifang, a small town in northern Taipei County. The only thing separating them is a mountain ridge. Specifically, this mountain ridge:
...which is accessible from the first stop on the Pingxi Rail Line - Houdong. Houdong also has a quaintly dilapidated atmosphere, friendly locals and a very small (VERY SMALL) town square with local eats. This is more or less the town square:
Feeling undercaffeinated, we headed towards a sign saying "Houdong Coffee" which was conveniently in the same direction as our destination, Xiaotzukeng Old Trail. We got there to find the place empty, but some guy came out of his house next door saying "you want coffee?" and proceeded to run up the road to a woman tending sweet potatoes to tell her that she had customers. While we waited some other locals sauntered by, and asked the wife of the guy who ran off what we were doing there. "Oh they want some coffee," she said, looking up from her own sweet potatoes. "Coffee? Is Old Chen's coffee machine fixed?" "Seems so."
The owner came back, took off her gloves, and led us inside. "Actually, I think the coffee machine is still broken," she said. "Cocoa?" It was caffeinated, so sure. It tasted pretty good iced. We sat in the "coffee shop" (a living room with an extra table and a broken coffee machine in the corner) and chatted with the family. Old Chen's son came in and chatted with us in English, giving us free hand-roasted coffee to apologize for not having a working machine. "We just have this machine so whenever some people come by who want coffee, we make them some. It's not a real coffeeshop," he said. (We figured).
"Where are you going," Chen Taitai asked us.
"Xiaotzukeng Old Trail to Jiufen."
"Jiufen? That's way too far! You can't do that!"
"Really, how far is it? We thought it was just 2-3 hours."
"Exactly! It's about 3 hours to Jiufen. That's too far!"
Some other guy wandered in. "You got coffee?" he asked Chen Taitai.
"Nope, machine's broken."
"Oh. Where are those foreigners going?"
"They're nuts. They're going to Jiufen. Walking."
"What? That's too far! That's like 2 hours! You can't do that!"
But, indeed, we did do that. Xiaotzukeng Trail starts at the far edge of town to the left of the train station, just past the elementary school, and is fairly well-marked as trails go. I wrote about it here when it appeared as a feature in the China Post. It's a reasonably well-maintained (well...) old trail that leads from Houdong to the abandoned (and really cool) mountain village of Xiaozukeng before climbing over a ridge and down to Jiufen.
Ignore what the article says about a gentle climb - it's fairly gentle and on a surfaced road for the first 20 minutes or so, but quickly turns into a stair-climbing extravaganza and then pitches quickly up the mountain - fortunately there are a few good break spots along the way.
Even on a sunny Sunday, we only ran into a few small pairs and groups of hikers, and one solo climber in a massive mosquito hat.
The animal life on the way up is fantastic, at least for all things bug:
...yes, that spider is every bit as ginormous as you think it is. Roughly my handspan. I feel bad for the little red guy.
We also saw black and white speckled lizards with bright blue tails (stunning), a horde of grasshoppers and lots of butterflies, which I couldn't seem to photograph fast enough to get a good shot. The Pingxi area is known for butterflies so this was not a surprise.
Partway up the trail you run into a beautifully ruined old village, which feels like something out of Middle Earth (Brendan's words):
I usually don't take photos of idols, but I am consistently reassured by Taiwanese that it's actually OK - because I'm not so sure that's true. But this time I felt I may as well give it a shot.
After the abandoned village and the shrine, the trail stops being stairs and turns into a slippery, rock-strewn uphill heave-ho with lots of things in the way. As we climbed, some music all the way from Houdong town - someone playing a large bamboo flute - ricocheted off the walls of the mountain crag we were heading through and floated up to us until we crossed over to the other side of the ridge. If that had happened in China, it would have probably been due to the government placing speakers several yards from the trail and playing 'traditional music', but in Taiwan things like that are authentic - it made the whole experience that much more charming.
My friend and I were a bit behind Brendan as we clamored over the rocks and stumps. When I saw him go over a hill where the trail seemed to end, I knew that Jiufen was supposed to be on the other side but I was surprised by Brendan's whoop of excitement. Coming into view instantly, with no hint about what was ahead, just as you take your last step over the lip of the wooded ridge, was this:
"We won this mountain!" he said as I made my way over, shouting down to our friend not to take a break, just rest when she got there. I hummed the song that plays when Super Mario rescues the princess and the characters all start dancing.
The way it just appeared like that, with a full-in-the-face ocean breeze, was mind-blowing - 110% worth the scramble up from Houdong.
...a few things we saw on the way down to Jiufen - 1250 meters of downward pain on very uncomfortable stairs:
Then we took a well-deserved crash at a teashop in Jiufen, drinking cold things and eating sugary things, before buying a bunch of random stuff we wanted (brown sugar cake, aboriginal millet wine, you know...stuff).