on a Hou Hsiao Hsien movie set
By the tracks of the Jiji Station, the oldest train station in Taiwan
OK, not quite. We did not even manage to go all the way south to Hou Hsiao Hsien's KaoShiung or even Tainan, but we did venture out from Taipei for 3 days to Taichung. But the real takeaway was actually this supposed feature of Hou Hsiao Hsien's films - trains!
Trains are about the best thing about traveling. Unlike cars and taxis, trains are a social mode of transport. Train stations allow for reunions and departures, points to assess and affirm relationships. I admit that all this fades away when you are tired or in a great hurry (or both). But seriously, cars (oh, 4-wheelers!) have only brought about pollution and wasteful consumption, traffic jams, asphalt, mindless obsession with speed and countless quarrels in the stressful, enclosed interiors of cars. Friends, take it slow. Take the train. Read a book. Hold your partner's hand. Be there with the people around you.
With Taiwan's highspeed rail system (aka bullet train, 高鉄) up and running, the journey from Taipei to Taichung costs no more than S$20 and takes slightly less than an hour. From Taichung, we managed to take 2 day-trips that provided an opportunity to take the train through some movie set-like old stations and little towns. Taiwan's railways are a legacy from its Japanese colonial period, and the Jiji line is one of the oldest tracks/routes that has been preserved. Here are two ways to experience Taiwan's ol skool rails and towns:
(1) Lu Gang & Changhua:
Lu Gang ("Deer Harbour") is one of the oldest ports in Taiwan, but it had silted up some time ago. It is now largely promoted as a town with one of the best-preserved old streets in Taiwan and some mean street food.
Glutinous Meat Balls Stall at Chang Hua. Good stuff.
On the way to Lu Gang, you will transit at Chang Hua. At Chang Hua, cross the street from the train station, take the street diagonally on the right into some narrow streets where you will find Chang Hua's famous "Meat Balls", a chunk of deliciously marinated minced pork in a thick glutinous skin. This palm-sized snack is steamed, then quickly dipped in a pot of hot oil. It is served in a bowl, covered generously with a flavoursome brown/garlic/chili sauce. When you've finished, bring your bowl to the woman who will dilute the leftover sauce with some meat broth for your post-meal soup!
posing in front of someone's house
The bus terminal is nearby and buses to Lugang depart every 15mins. The journey takes about 20mins. Let the bus driver or a fellow passenger know that you want to get to the "Old Street" (老街), and someone will alert you to drop off (it is the penultimate stop before the Lugang terminus). In fact, the proud local Lugang resident who tipped us to get off the bus spent the next 5mins giving us a guide on the town and the places to visit. If you're not lucky enough to meet a kind local, there's a map right outside the 7-11 where the bus stops. From there, it's a 1min walk to the start of the Old street. Some folks may find the street cheesy, but it is in fact very nicely preserved and worth your just stopping and examining the Qing era architecture of each house. Depending on how often you stop to take photographs (like J), you would get through this street in 5 or 30mins.
At the end of the old street is a whole street of hawkers. Try Lugang's sorethroat-causing tempura tiny prawns, babycrabs and some crayfish-like crustacean called "prawn monkey" ("蝦猴仔") covered with basil leaves, pepper and chilli powder.
10mins away on the other side of town is another backlane called "Nine Turns Lane". But if you have the time, Lugang's small enough for you to just wander around or to pop into its Folk Art museum.
9 turns lane
(2) The JiJi Railway Line:
You don't need to be a Hou Hsiao Hsien fan to enjoy a lazy day riding on an old train routes through sleepy towns, stopping by the pretty train stations built during Taiwan's Japanese colonial era. One of these routes run from the town of Er Shuei (二水) to Che Tou (車投), with Jiji (集集) in between. Most guidebooks will have more information on these towns and what you can do there. But the best thing is that there are often not many spectacular sights at all! Just rent a bike or take a walk down whichever little lane or trail you feel like, take in the country air and enjoy the aimlessness of being on vacation.
J and I stopped only at Er Shuei and JiJi Stations. At Jiji, we didn't have much time so we rented one of these motorised bicycles (~NT150 per hour. You can also rent mopeds and bicycles). It ended up being pretty good fun. Plus if you don't have that much time, it does help you to get to the one sight we recommend you visit - a Taoist temple whose ornate roof had collapsed whole and directly on its base during the 2005 earthquake. It's fairly surreal and eerie.
posing in the train
At the end of it all, catch the train back to Taichung and join other retuning day-trippers, students and working commuters. If you are tired, close your eyes and let the rhythmic train tracking lull you to sleep.
You need all the rest you can get because the night is still young in Taichung! Once back, head out to the Feng Jia Night Market for your supper! (check out this blogger's food adventure at Feng Jia) Unfortunately, Taichung is only about to start building its MRT system, and since Feng Jia is a little out of the way, you'll need to take once of those nasty four-wheeled things there (the cab fare is about NT300).
[Read about other day trips from Taipei here.]
Notes on Getting to these places from Taichung:
(1) Lugang - Take the train to Changhua from Taichung train station. Catch the bus to Lugang from the small bus terminal diagonally on the left once you exit the train station. The bus ticket is about NT44. The train ticket to Chang Hua costs no more.
(2) Jiji - Take the train to Er Shuei from Taichung train station. From Er Shuei, change to the Jiji line. Check the train schedule ahead for the return journey.