Tuesday, November 24, 2015

Pingxi, the town, in Pingxi.

Pingxi is an area this blog has discussed before with a overview of the Shifen waterfall. On a recent trip back there it was discovered the waterfall is no longer a pay-to-see attraction and now has new viewing platforms. You can see the whole article about that here. Pingxi is also a township located farther down the rail line, and river, from Keelung than Shifen, and is worth a stop on a day that includes Houtong, Shifen, Pingxi, and Jingtong. It's a one day trip through mining towns and market streets where you're surrounded by nature at every turn.

View from the 106.

The big reason to come out this far is it's incredibly picturesque. The little village is nestled in the mountains, sits above several tributaries as they form the Keelung river, and is surrounded by great hikes which lead to numerous waterfalls. Take the initiative to get away from the old street, since each town has one which is nearly identical, and enjoy the area around it. If you're not inclined to nature you should be able to enjoy Pingxi in the half hour or so it'll take the train to come back for the next leg of your trip.

Heading down from the train station.

Compared to my first visit seven years ago, things had (obviously) changed. There were a lot less closed stalls, less mom and pop shops and a lot more of that ubiquitous night market / old street feel. I really enjoyed the fact that these small little communities are getting some life again, but I felt frustrated at once again having to choose between the same four night market snacks, all with huge lines. There were also tourists and weekends everywhere, which was a huge change of pace from the deserted hamlet I remembered. After an exhaustive search for a meal, I discovered that the street just below the train tracks offered some good eating. Standard noodle and rice fare with double-sized portions compared to what you'd get back in Taipei.

At the temple above the village.

Weekenders beware: Pingxi's sky lantern business is booming at about the same clip as the one in Shifen. That means being approached twenty times a minute by card waving sales people if you linger around the train station. You should definitely do the lanterns in one of these towns, with real prices hovering around 150NT for smart shoppers. If you hate being bothered while you're out, visit on a weekday to get more of the old time feeling where you enjoy arriving at your destination. 

The train station, with visitors.

Lanterns take flight from near the train station.

Shifen is the more popular place for doing lanterns at Chinese New Year, but Pingxi isn't a bad second choice. If you're able to arrange transportation see both Pingxi and Shifen at sunset and at night as everyone's wishes take to the skies.

Here's an insiders tip for driving to the entire Pingxi area: Get gas before you come. There aren't any gas stations along the 106 or in any of the towns. Shiding, Ruifang, and Xizhi are the closest places to fuel up.

I found that part out the hard way. Before motorcycling up to Shifen to see the now-free falls I noticed my gas was a bit low. After asking at the noodle shop about nearby stations I got directed back to Jingtong where an auntie kept a stash of emergency fuel for those who needed to top up to get into Shiding. Her prices weren't bad, and if you're in a pinch, she's located inside the old street in a shop that sells candy. Don't get lazy and abuse this though, because she'll only help you if you're actually running too low on fuel.

To get here you can take the Pingxi line train from Ruifang and buses come here from Taipei's Muzha station or the train station in Keelung. You can drive from Taipei along the 106 which starts near the zoo, or you can use highway 5 then get off and follow signs for Pingxi. From Keelung you can pass through Ruifang or use the alternate route 2.

There are 7-11s and the usual convenience stores, but other services - including food - are limited. If you hike here be aware the trail may end at the railroad line in the middle of nowhere and your only way back is to return the way you came or follow the tracks. It's technically illegal to walk on the tracks and there are a lot of dark, narrow tunnels. If the train comes while you're inside you're likely going to be hit. Enjoy the amazing hiking Pingxi offers, but use common sense about getting home safely.

Saturday, November 21, 2015

QingTianGang 擎天崗 in Yangmingshan Park

Qingtiangang is one of the most popular mountain-top spots for recreation in Taipei City. Weekend revelers stream up the narrow roads connecting to this Japanese-made cow pasture to enjoy an afternoon of fresh air and sun. Large open grasslands and ruined colonial buildings set a tone of relaxation, engagement with nature, and a sense of history.


The meadow everyone visits, with cows. Note the couple on the left.

The meadows surrounding the parking lot area were actually populated with livestock by the Japanese during the colonial era. There was a need for pastureland near the mines which were springing up all across northern Taiwan, and what is now known as Qingtiangang was their answer. Today the pasture is only a fraction of its original size due to the regrowth of inedible plants and trees in the once completely deforested space. The span of the pasture once went from the foot of Qixingshan to Fengguikou, which backs up to the neighborhood of the national palace museum.

Inedible grasses are returning to the meadow lands.

Today you can still see ancestors of the original cattle grazing in the meadows. Their numbers have been greatly reduced, resulting in a slowly returning crop of elephant grass and shrubs in areas where they rarely graze. In fact, there are two different areas which feature cattle, divided by about a half an hour hike through the forest.

A cattle track leading between pastures separated by regrown trees.

Hiker beware: the cows in the far pastures are not as friendly towards humans as the ones near the parking lot. One afternoon some friends and I witnessed an attack by a bull on an unsuspecting hiker who had gotten too close to one of the younger calves. You'll know these cows because their coats are a bit lighter than their pacifist brothers.

The cows near the parking lot however, which tend to be blacker in color, are quite docile and don't seem to mind the constant flow of humans into and out of their environment. While park services regularly repairs the fences to keep humans and cattle separate, it's not uncommon to see people having a picnic while a cow grazes mere steps away.


Approaching the cows is not suggested - they are wild animals after all - but many people pose for selfies and group pics while the bovines graze indifferently. If you are going to go for an up close and personal look, be sure to take it slow and monitor the animal's response. This website does not condone touching or approaching the animals for safety reasons, however.

Don't get a foot full of cow poop.

Despite the obvious presence of cattle, like massive cow pies and muddy tracks along the trails, the real draw of Qingtiangang is the people who flock here in droves. Toting picnics, dogs, and little toddlers, you can spend hours up here people watching. Enjoy a walk through the pasture, taking time to enjoy all of the sights and sounds around you, as well as the mayhem of throngs of weekenders sharing the same space.

Picnic party.

Take some time out to visit the Japanese-era antiaircraft turrets, and make the short hike to the remaining gate from an old fort which had been set up on top of the mountain. There are signs in English and Mandarin to explain the strategic value of the area, although records suggest the anti-aircraft weapons were not so effective.

A turret from afar.

Cement remains of the turrets.

The best way to get here is by walking, or driving a car or scooter. For walking either come up from Fengguikou or get off the Yangmingshan bus at Lengshuikeng, and either follow the wooded trail (strongly recommended) or use the paved road with the cars. Traffic is surprisingly minimal even on busy weekends - see below - so you can walk the twisting road with relative safety. The hot spring at the fork in the road for Qingtiangang near Lengshuikeng is a great way to reward yourself for making the journey on foot.

If you plan to drive you'll need to wait in a massive line to pay a 50NT entry fee and then park. On a nice sunny weekend the line can take well over an hour, if not more, with cars lining up as far back as the Jingshan nature center 菁山自然中心. Scooters may also need to wait in a shorter scooter line, and pay 20NT to park. Free parking does exist for cars and scooters near Lengshuikeng, so walking can actually save you time and money.

Unless it is absolutely necessary you should avoid taking the bus here on the weekend. On the way in the bus could get stuck in traffic, so be prepared to hop off at Lengshuikeng if necessary. On the way out the lines are insanely long, so be prepared to wait. Weekends are notoriously busy all over the mountain, so much so the police restrict vehicle access during peak hours, yet bus service is maddeningly limited.

Back of the line for that little bus - about 75 people deep.

However you get here, bring yourself some snacks and a drink or two - or buy them at the shop nearby - and enjoy a day out with throngs of local families, some cows, and a bit of history.

Hikers can head back to Lengshuikeng and then on to Qixingshan or stay along the flatter lands south back to the main visitors center. Heading north will take you towards Datun Nature Center, Xiaoyoukeng or down towards SanZhi. Eastbound trails will end up at Fengguikou, about 8 kilometers away.

Hikes from the meadow entrance, Qingtiangang.

Thursday, November 5, 2015

Jamba Juice arrives in Taipei

So the Vieshow cinema near Taipei 101 now sports a new Jamba Juice on the first floor. The line can be pretty long even on weekdays, but it's to be expected. Taiwanese folks love to turn out in droves for the opening of new transplanted foods, and Jamba is no exception.

This is the line when the store just opened for the day.

For anyone craving their taste of the Jamba the product is pretty much indistinguishable from its American counterparts, but the size has been shrunk a bit. A 16 ounce cup will run you the size of the jumbo cup back home, at 150 ~ 170NT.

Don't let the lines keep you away, or wait till the buzz dies down and get yourself some if you need that Jamba fix.

Sunday, November 1, 2015

Yi Nong Farm near Luodong

A short drive from Luodong is the Yi Nong farm, or 宜農牧場, a family friendly place to let your kids get up close and personal with some very cuddly farm animals. There is also a cafe and a little store on the grounds, as well as tables to enjoy a little rest during your trip through Yilan. If you've never been to a milk farm or fed animals it's a great visit, and it's good people watching with all the kids being cute and crazy around the animals.

A taste of cold, hard steel.

The farm can get busy on the weekend and holidays, especially the Chinese New Year, so don't be surprised if there is a bit of a crowd. There is free parking on site for cars and scooters, and it's close enough you can use pedal power to arrive too. The animals have been conditioned by all the visitation so they are as safe and tame as nature allows, but they're not shy in asking for food.

Cute beggars.

Adult visitors should pay 30NT to visit the farm, and payment is taken using the honor system. Just throw your money into the milk pail at the entrance and head on in. It's not totally uncommon to see people just walk in without paying, but it's not a ton of cash to put up to enjoy their private farm.

Milk pot for your cash.

You can feed the goats with greens that you buy by the bushel for 10NT. The goats will happily snap the leafy ends out of your hands and there are enough mouths to feed that someone is always hungry. Don't be shy about getting close, but mind your fingers if you're holding something small. Worth the small fee to have the experience of hand feeding farm animals if you've never done it before.

Fun for the whole family!

Dinner time.

Baby goats and the baby pigs can be given milk for 30NT a bottle, complete with rubber nipple. Make sure you - or your child – has a good hold on the bottle before you get close to the pens. Despite being so small the animals suck pretty hard and they're not afraid to push each other out of the way to get some of that nice fresh milk. If you're not ready for it they could pull the bottle out of your hands, meaning broken glass all over the place.

There is a fish pond and a lot of waterfowl, and yup, you can pay to feed them too. There are a bunch of different species, but be careful of the geese which are beautiful but mean. If you don't feed them first they will bully the other birds and steal everything for themselves. Hissing, flapping, biting, and lots of drama until every last piece is gone. It might sound funny, but the last place you want to be is standing in the middle of a bird fight holding a hand full of food.

Angry, angry geese

This guy kept following us everywhere we went

As a farm which has a lot of lady goats making milk every day means lots of dairy products on hand. Ice cream and yogurt are the big ticket items for visitors who want a “farm fresh” product. Unlike a farm visit back home where you can get super cheap dairy items the stuff here is actually more expensive than what you can find in the supermarket.

In summary, the farm is a good visit, priced right for what it is, and it's not too far out of town. It's a great way to add something fun for your kids, a goofy stop on a day long date, or just to see some cute animals with friends. It's not big, it's not an open range farm, and the animals are kept in moderately crowded pens because it's a milk farm. You're paying to do a bit of the farmer's work for them, but you do get to have a cool experience you can't find a lot of other places in Taiwan.

Find the farm at No 17, Lane 239 Changchun Rd, Dongshan township, Yilan. In Chinese: 冬山鄉柯林村長春路239巷17號