Places: Ershui & The Jiji Branch Line (二水 + 集集線)

It’s been a very, very, very, very (I could add a few more, but I’ll spare you) long time between posts.  In the time since, I’ve learnt a whole lot more Chinese (not enough to start blogging using it though), been back home to Australia briefly (which I might post about once I get a chance to go through the photos), finally made it down to Kenting (definitely posting), and got really involved with playing Touch Rugby here in Taipei.

Anyway, with all that said, today’s post is about a trip I made in the middle of the year.  I spent a couple of days in Taichung, and explored the area around Taichung-Changhua.  During this time, I spent a rain interrupted afternoon around Ershui, Shuili & Checheng – otherwise known as The Jiji Branch Line.

This is a really nice part of Changhua county, with farmlands giving way to mountains & woodlands as you make your way along the Jiji Branch Line.  While the branch line starts at Ershui & goes to Checheng, you can actually catch trains bound for Checheng from both Taichung & Changua.  There is a train approximately every 2 hours.  I didn’t go all the way in one go, instead catching a train from Taichung to Ershui (1 hour, NT$72).  At Ershui, I rented a bicycle (NT$100/day) from a small shop outside the station exit (on the right hand side).  There are a couple of routes available around Ershui, most of which go through farmlands & are very flat & easy to handle.  Unfortunately for me, my ride only last 1 hour before some heavy afternoon rain forced me to stop & then ride back to Ershui (in the breaks between the rain).

Heavy enough to make me head back.

Heavy enough to make me head back.

There’s also a very friendly Visitor Information spot next to Ershui station, where you can pick up information not just about the Jiji Branch Line, but also the region in general.  English is spoken, and you might also get tips on how to meet “nice Taiwanese girls” (go to Church in Taipei I was told – yep, that type of “nice Taiwanese girl”).  From Ershui I boarded the train & started along the Jiji Branch Line.  As my time was limited to one day, I decided to go all the way to Checheng (50 minutes, $NT78 – all day).  There are several stops along the Line, one of which is Jiji itself, which was damaged by a massive earthquake in 1999, and has some interesting sights to see, so I’m advised.

I didn’t end up taking the train all the way to Checheng.  Rather, I alighted one stop before, at a town called Shuili.  From there, you can bike or walk to Checheng, first alongside a river, then by the rail line itself.  For the walking/biking route, leave Shuili station, walk to the first intersection & turn left.  Keep going until you reach a T-intersection & from there follow the signs to Checheng 🙂

Left to Checheng.

Checheng itself is a very interesting place to look around.  It’s pretty dead during the week (when I was there), but I can imagine it would be teaming with people during the summer months.  There are plenty of places to buy food, snacks, souvenirs & learn a little more about Taiwan’s rail history.  Kids & photographers would love it!

Places: Changhua (彰化)

I made a half-day trip to Changhua last week, during my school holidays.  I was staying in Taichung for a few days, and was keen to see places outside of Taiwan’s 3rd largest city.

Changhua is located about 30 minutes by train from Taichung city.  The train ticket costs only NT$26 (one way), and trains are very frequent.  Once you’re in Taichung, either rent a bike, or make sure you have your walking boots on.  There isn’t a lot to do in the city, but there are a couple of interesting sights which you can see, and as with anywhere in Taiwan, plenty of places to eat – so Changhua is a city that can easily be seen in a few hours.

The tourist information desk, located inside the train station, can help you with a map, and directions on how to get to various sights.  One of the staff there spoke good English and, though they only had a Chinese map,  they were able to explain the different sights to me, and how to get there on foot.

The first place I visited was the Fan-Shaped Train Depot, just a 5 minute walk away from the station.  This is a fantastic place to spend some time walking around. It would be a fantastic place to take kids (especially if you have a young boy/s), and also for photographers.  When you get to the train yard, you will just need to sign-in (despite being told my Passport would be required, I simply signed my name, dated, and was let in).  The best part about the train yard is that you can walk on the tracks, right up to the trains!  The main draw of the depot is the rotating section of track in the middle, which rotates to allow trains in-and-out of the train garages.  Though most of the trains there are being serviced, and are modern, there are two older engines there which are very cool to look at.

Trains parked at the fan-shaped depot in Changhua

Trains parked at the fan-shaped depot in Changhua

Next, I made my way to the other main sight in Changhua City, the Bagushan Buddha.  From the train depot, it is about a half-hour walk.  Along the way, I made a quick trip around the city’s Confucius Temple, partly because it looked cool, and partly because it was just about to rain, and I wanted a place to take refuge in.  Once the rain stopped, I kept walking to the park in which the Buddha is located.  It is a little bit of a hike up to the Buddha, though it is marked fairly well – if you have a scooter, or take a taxi, then you can save yourself the effort and take the road up.  As I went on a weekday, and just after some heavy rain, there were very few people in the grounds around the Buddha.  From the top of the hill, on which the statue sits, there are very good views of Changhua City (which was much bigger than I expected), all the way out to the West coast & the sea.  The Buddha statue itself is very big, though not all that impressive.  The surrounding grounds offer a few places to wander around, before heading back down the hill.  If you’re looking for some food to eat, there is plenty in the streets at the entrance to Bagushan park.  I didn’t venture there, as it was late and I was keen to get back to Taichung for dinner.

The Bagushan Buddha at Changhua

The Bagushan Buddha at Changhua

Changhua can be done as a stop on the way to/from Lukang – which is famous for its temple & old streets.  If you plan to do both, then I would definitely leave much earlier in the morning than I did (I left Taichung at 12pm).  It is about 40 minutes, I’m told, from Changhua to Lukang.  Changhua City can also be used as a base to explore the surrounding countryside of Changhua County, if you would like to spend more than a day in the area.

Places: Beitou

Beitou is a popular stop for Taipeiers looking for a relaxing hot spring escape.  Only about 30 minutes north of the city, it is extremely easy to reach, and makes for a perfect day trip if you don’t have long in Taipei, and want to get your hot spring fix.

I explored Beitou as part of a free walking tour, organised by the team at Topology tours (website | Facebook).  I’ve been looking out for something like this in Taipei for a while now, and this one is the first of its kind that I’ve found.  While travelling around Europe last year I went on free walking tours of every city I visited.  They were a great way to orient oneself with the city, quickly see all the main sights, hear the stories behind them, and most importantly, meet a whole bunch of new people.  The team at Topology hold a free walking tour at different locations around Taipei every Saturday, so keep an eye on their Facebook page for upcoming events – who knows, we may just meet 🙂

The tour of Beitou started at 10:30 at Xinbeitou station.  The group was small, and to be honest, there was actually an equal number of Topology staff & visitors.  That said, the walking tour is actually a form of training for the Topology tour guides, and having so many of them there was good to get ideas & insights into other places around Taipei & Taiwan too.

We started from the station, walking up through the back streets of Beitou, stopping at different houses & streets, and being told of the history of the area, especially during the Japanese occupation of Taiwan, when Beitou’s hot springs were the last port of call for the Japanese Kamakazi (suicide mission) soldiers.  Seeing various old houses in the area, it was interesting to see them juxtaposed with newer buildings, which underline Beitou’s popularity as a retreat for wealthier Taipeiers.

The main hot spring area in Beitou has a mix of high end, expensive resorts, cheaper options, and even an outdoor public pool.  On the muggy day that we went, I wasn’t too keen to jump into a hot spring, though I can imagine they would be very nice on a windy, wet Taipei winters day.  There is an outdoor pool of hot sulphuric water, that you can smell as your enter town, and even a stream running beside the street of the same water.

After a ramen lunch at what seemed like a very popular Japanese place in town (sorry I didn’t take a business card) we made our way to last remaining free stops on the tour – the Beitou Hot Spring Museum, and the Beitou Public Library.  The Hot Spring Museum has a limited amount of English information, but there’s a nice park around it (and the public hot spring, mentioned above, is next door) so you can easily spend a few hours in/around it.

The day finished with a walk to a nearby market for some shaved ice & then saying our goodbyes at Beitou station.  It was a great day, everyone made a lot of new friends, and we all went home with very, very tired legs 😀

Places: Miaoli 苗栗

One thing I do find lacking about studying Chinese at NTU’s Chinese Language Department is that we seem to be very separate from the rest of National Taiwan University (NTU).  So when I found out about ISIS (International Student Information Service) I jumped at the chance to take part in some of the events they hold.  My first trip with ISIS was a one day trip to Miaoli County, and Hsinchu.

Our day started early, meeting at NTU Main Gate at 7:30am, on a very rainy, wet, Taipei day.  We took a chartered bus, and to be honest to get to most of the places I mention you will need your own transport (or hire something from Hsinchu city).  After a little sleep on the bus, we reached our first destination, where we would be doing some Taiwanese tea grinding & making Taiwanese style mochi.

I must say, grinding the tea was an amazing workout.  To grind the dried tea leaves into a find powder, then have to also crush in other nuts & herbs was a real effort.  That said, the tea that was produced was delicious!  To make the mochi, we had to pound a bowl of glutinous rice for about 10 minutes.  Again, absolutely exhausting, but really tasty mochi.  I suppose you do appreciate food a whole lot more when you understand the effort that goes in to making it.  The owner of the tea house didn’t speak very much English, so gave all instructions in Chinese.  Luckily for our group, we had the ISIS students to translate, but if you’re on your own, I’m sure you can still get by.  I don’t think bookings are required, but if you want to find more information, you can use the details below.

Ancient Latee Mill (擂茶坊)

苗栗縣南庄鄉東村17鄰109-6號
Tel: 037-821237
Website: http://hakkatea.many30.com/

The tea we ground, with some rice puffs.

The tea we ground, with some rice puffs.

After the effort of grinding tea, and the delight of devouring the results of our hard work, we then went on to Nanzhuang Old Street to have some lunch & sample some of the other local food.  Many of the food & drinks in the area feature the osmanthus flower as an ingredient, and as you walk down the old street in Nanzhuang you can sample food at every store!  There are also plenty of places where you can eat delicious local noodles.  There is a lot to sample, and eat in Nanzhuang, so it’s definitely worth making a stop there to fill your belly.

Local noodles at Nanzhuang.  Delicious!

Local noodles at Nanzhuang. Delicious!

With our bellies full, we went on to our final activity of the day – traditional Aboriginal fabric dying.  It was a little bit away from Nanzhuang township, up in the mountains.  It was amazing up there, with the heavy rain falling, the mist over the mountains, and waterfalls cascading down across the river valley.  We went to 石壁彩虹民宿 (Rainbow Guesthouse), which is one place you can stay in the area if you want to spend a weekend there.  The guesthouse is run by local Taiya Aboriginals, who showcase their tribes culture, and crafts for guests.  To the side of the guesthouse is a large hall, in which sessions on local crafts are held.  The patterns that are able to be achieved by dying the fabric are amazing, despite the methods being fairly simple.  By simply folding the cloth, and tying it with rubber bands, or holding it together with chopsticks, we were all able to create some amazing designs.  The fabric is dyed in a very foul smelling brew, so be sure to wrap it up in a plastic bag while taking it home.  Again, the instructions here were entirely in Chinese, so having a translator to help is very, very handy.  Details for the guesthouse below, they can be contacted about the fabric dying too.

石壁彩虹民宿

苗栗縣南莊鄉東河村石壁21號
Tel: 03 782 1777

The final stop of a long day was a the City God Temple in Hsinchu city.  The temple is really cool, and the night market surrounding it has plenty of food to fill your belly.  Our stop there was only brief, so I can’t say too much on it.  After having a light dinner, we boarded the bus again & made it back to Taipei by 9pm.  It was a long day, but a very interesting day – despite the rain.  To make the most of it, and to not rush your time too much, I would suggest staying at a local B&B , or in Hsinchu city, and working your way around the area from there.

Places: Yonghe

On a cold, rainy Taipei day, I decided I’d had enough of just sitting at home, writing postcards & watching AFL (Aussie Rules Football) on the TV.  So I picked up my Olympus Pen EE-3 and decided to head to Yonghe, just to have a look at a part of Taipei that I’d never been to.

Okay, so there’s nothing special about Yonghe actually.  I know a few people who live there, but that’s about the only connection I have with the place.  It’s very much a residential area, though there is a fairly big market at Yongan Market, as well as the 823 Memorial Park & Taiwan National Library (get off at Yongan Market MRT Station for all these).  Other than that, there’s plenty of small alleys to lose yourself in, you can always go to the riverside park, and as always there’s plenty too eat too!

My excursion took in the three places I mentioned above.  I started with a quick visit to the National Taiwan Library, and a stroll around 823 Memorial Park.  The park is actually quite nice, and I can imagine it would be a really great place to unwind on a sultry summer’s afternoon.  Even on the rainy, miserable Sunday that I went, there were still plenty of old folk gathered to do various activities, especially playing mahjong (and drinking too, go them!)  From there, I just made it my mission to get lost in the maze of alleys that surround the Yongan Market.  The market itself is quite large & you can find almost anything you would need there.  It’s well worth a stroll, especially if you’re looking to find something “different” to include in your next meal.  The alleys around Yonghe are peaceful, and it’s very easy to just keep wandering.  It’s a very different place to the hustle & bustle of Guting or Gongguan, which I am now used to in my day-to-day life.

Yonghe may not even feature on any tourist to-do list, but if you have a day or two free in Taipei, it’s somewhere that you could pay a morning visit to, just to see a slightly different aspect of Taipei city life.

Places: Yuli (Hualien County)

Yuli is the next town heading south down Highway 9 from Ruisui (see my post about Ruisui here).  To be completely honest, there’s not much to do in Yuli township itself, however Yuli makes a fantastic base to explore the East Rift Valley.  Again, your own transportation is vital for travelling through this area. Here’s a list of some of the places you can go that are quite close to Yuli township:

  • Sixty Stone Mountain
    (I plan to go later this year, so there’ll be a post then 🙂 )
  • Walami Trail
    (You have the option of doing the trail in one, or two – staying in a cabin overnight – days)
  • Antong Hot Springs

I only spent 2 days in Yuli, and unfortunately it rained in the afternoon on both days.  That said, on the one full day I had there, I again hired a bike, and spent another day riding through the great countryside & up into the Eastern Mountains.  Again I hired the bike from the Giant bike shop in town.  The prices were the same as in Ruisui.

There is a bike path from right next to Yuli station, towards the Antong old train station.  The path continued further, though I’m not sure how much further it went.  The path is very flat, smooth, and actually runs along the old railway line between Yuli & Antong.  At the old Antong station, I turned off the track, and headed up along County Rd 30.  You can take this route over the mountains, and go down to the East Coast, however, my plan was simply to see how far I could get before the weather closed in or it got too late.  The path over the mountains is a challenge for a casual cyclist, so pack plenty of refreshments, and take plenty of stops on the way up.  There’s also a 2.6km tunnel that you pass through at the top.  On the way back down the mountain to Yuli, a stop at Antong Hot Springs is a must, to relieve your tired bones (or in my case, to simply get out of the rain!)

Some fellow cyclists riding off towards the Eastern Mountains.

Some fellow cyclists riding off towards the Eastern Mountains.

Where to Stay

There’s only one place I could possibly recommend to stay in Yuli.  Wisdom Garden Homestay.  This family run homestay (you’ll find it in the Lonely Planet too) is just outside of Yuli township itself, but is a beautiful, peaceful place to relax & refresh after a day of exploring.  The Hsu family, who run the homestay, will treat you to some of the best Taiwanese hospitality you will experience, and will fill you with the most delicious breakfasts you will have in your time in Taiwan.  The homestay is family friendly, and your kids will love running around in the lovely front garden & playing with the family dog, while you put your feet up & enjoy the scenery with a cup of tea.  Of a morning you can also watch Mrs Hsu create some amazing Chinese paintings in the main area of the house.  It’s really interesting to see the way she wields the brush and creates an artwork from an empty canvas.

Prices vary depending on the time of year you visit, but you can contact the family, and find more information about Wisdom Garden at this link.

And for a tip for something to eat in Yuli Township, here’s a good post about Yuli Noodles (makes me want to go back just to eat this!).

There's no place I'd rather be - the tranquil front garden at Wisdom Garden Homestay

There’s no place I’d rather be – the tranquil front garden at Wisdom Garden Homestay

Places: Hualien City

Most people use Hualien city (in Eastern Taiwan), as a base for visiting Taroko National Park, Taiwan’s premier tourist sight.  But after you visit Taroko Gorge, and dodge tourist buses, there’s some good eating, and some okay sights to be had in Hualien city.

Shopping
Things in Hualien are cheaper than they are in Taipei, so if you have some room in your suitcase/backpack head down Zhongshan Rd towards Zhongzheng Rd (about 25 minutes walk from the station) and you’ll be in the main downtown/shopping district of Hualien city.  This makes for a good starting point to an evening.

Eating
Downtown – Gong Zheng Bao Zi (公正包子)
Keep going down Zhongshan Rd and you’ll see a big line.  Alternately, jump into a taxi &  just say you want to go to Gong Zheng Bao Zi, they’ll know the one 🙂  This place is famous for its Shui Jiao (水餃) and I have to admit they’re pretty damn good.  Get a table if you can (you don’t line up for that, but you might need to wait a little while still), or you can line up and get some to go.

Look for the sign!!

Look for the sign!!

Night Market – Tzi Qiang Night Market (自強夜市)
The main night market in Hualien city is actually a fair way out of the city centre (about 20 minutes walk from the station).  The night market is small, taking up only a block, so it does get very, very crowded (especially on holidays & weekends).  There are some very long lines for some stalls, but it’s worth the wait.  You can try the Hualien version of Coffin Bread (pictured below), get some really good seafood, some spicy BBQ corn, and then wash it all down with a fruit juice/smoothie.

Full of yummy goodness.

Full of yummy goodness.

Breakfast – King Tang Cafe
This place is on Zhongshan Rd, not too far from the station (about 10 minutes walking).  This place is a very nice place, with seats inside & outside (at the back) too.  Breakfast/brunch sets are available, along with a good selection of coffees & other snacks.  It makes for a good start to the day before heading out for the day.
Address: 431 Zhongshan Rd, Hualien City

Sights
To be honest, I didn’t really see much in Hualien City, I actually used it more as a base for exploring the countryside of Hualien County.  There are a few parks (Meilunshan Park looked very nice), there is also a nice little street through the centre of town along some old railway tracks.  Other than that, you can take a stroll along the seaside parks (starting from Nanbin Park in the south).

Places: Ruisui (Cycling)

Ruisui (also spelt Rueisuei), is a town in Hualien County, Eastern Taiwan.  It sits on Highway 9, and is a popular stop for cyclists who are making the trip from Hualien to Taitung.  However, if you don’t plan on making the whole trip from Hualien to Taitung, you can easily take the train to Ruisui, and rent a bicycle for a day.

There’s plenty of places around Ruisui that you can ride to – Ruisui Pastures, hot springs (at Ruisui, or even Antong if you’re up for a longer ride), or a ride to the Tropic of Capricorn marker.

For me, however, I decided to ride through the countryside, along County Road 193.  My intention was to ride to Fuyuan Butterfly Valley (entry NT$100) but I never ended up making it that far.  That said, I didn’t mind.  Riding out of Ruisui you have two options, taking the major Highway 9 (which has a dedicated bike/scooter lane, but does have a steady stream of traffic) or take one of the County Roads.  If you opt to take the County Roads, be sure to come well supplied, as there’s not many places where you can stop & pick up refreshments along the way.  The roads have very slight undulations, and aren’t a challenge for even a casual bicyclist.

Riding along the County Roads is an excellent way to see the true beauty of the Hualien countryside, and you’ll be sure to have folks along the way lean out of their cars, or houses & shout out “加油!” (jia you!  Come on!!).

If you do want to ride along Highway 9, a better option (which can take you to Fuyuan too!) is to take the Ruisui bike path.  The path starts close to the station, and for the most part runs parallel to Highway 9, and the train line.  It’s a very nice, flat path, and a good option if you just want a casual ride without straying too far into the unknown.

Extra Info:

  • Bike Rental: NT$350/day (Giant Bicycle shop – closes @ 5pm)
  • The Giant Bicycle shop doesn’t have a map.  You can pick one up from the Tourist Information next door.
  • Train from Hualien to Ruisui, frequent, travel time ~1hour 20minutes.