Up to the Seven Stars and Down to the South

Image by J. From a taxi on the streets of Tainan.

This is our seventh trip to Taiwan since 2005.  And so we went up to the Seven Stars and broke away from Taipei to spend a couple of hot hot hot days in Tainan. [If you are keen on other itineraries from our past jaunts, just read them on http://ampulets.blogspot.sg/search/label/taiwan]

Taking a walk up to the Seven Stars  

Photo taken by our Mountain Friend, Grandma Positivity, at the peak of Mt Qixing

Perhaps it was the El Nino effect, but early May in Taipei felt almost like the height of summer with unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms. This was our excuse for missing the Caoling Historical Trail a second time. To make up for it, we decided to take a walk up Mount Qixing (七星, literally Seven Stars), the highest point of the Yang Ming Shan Nature Park.

Getting there/ Starting the Trail
Take the MRT to JianTan station. From the station, take the red bus 15. It brings you all the way to the YangMingShan visitor centre. The trail up starts from MiaoPu and it is right next to the visitor centre. The entrance is well marked.

The bus also takes you to some of the key sights at YangMingShan, such as the sulphurous 小油坑 and 冷水坑. You can also start the trail from 小油坑 (XiaoYouKeng), which is a slightly shorter ascent though you may have to deal with the smell of sulphur at the start.

The advantage of starting at MiaoPu is that the staff at the Visitor Centre are super friendly and reassuring. As soon as I approached the counter, the middle-aged woman in the park ranger uniform smiled and when I said my destination, she led me to a wall of maps. She walked me through the different options of the trail, her white 1 metre-long pointer stick went tip-tap-tip-tap. Once schooled, off you go!

Tips on enjoying the trail
#1: I'll start with the warning that the ascent is at least a 2 hour hike up a trail that is mostly stone stairs. If you are not fit, like me, you'll be huffing and puffing your way up. But hell, it's worth it!

#2: Pack water, a light snack, and a windbreaker and cap in case it rains. The sun is scorching and the trail is mostly exposed. We saw aunties and uncles in all manner of attire. They more than survived.

#3: However tired you are, don't forget to stop, turn around, and take a look at the scenery behind you. Sweet J often reminded me this.

#4: And don't forget to look at the lovely wild flowers all around. They grow by the sides of the trail and through the cracks and crevices of the path - which are mostly laid with large rocks from the area. J also saw several skinks along the way (I was too tired to notice), and there is a sign at the start of the trail that warned of the Asian cobra and hornets.

#5: Smile, be friendly and considerate. Most of your fellow hikers will be. Expect to receive at least a 你好 greeting! And don't be afraid to ask for directions or if you feel like chatting, most are willing to strike up a conversation.  In fact, this has been our most rewarding aspect of the hike - the 山友 (aka mountain friends) we made! [>> Read about our "Mountain Friends" in this post]

Getting down and back to the City
Once at the summit (at 1120m) you can opt to descend to 小油坑 (XiaoYouKeng), which should take approximately an hour or so. Alternatively, you can take the route we did, which is probably an hour and a half to the next peak (東峰 East Peak) and down to the 冷水坑 (LengShuiKeng).

Once down, you can explore the 冷水坑 (LengShuiKeng) or take a short walk to the 擎天崗(QingTianTang), a 45min loop around an expanse of volcanic grassland.

If not, Bus 15 leaves from the 冷水坑 (LengShuiKeng) bus stop, twice every hour. It brings you back to the Shilin and JianTan MRT stops.

Down south and to a different Taiwan
View from the train to Tainan

Tainan is only some 1hr45min by high speed rail from Taipei. The ticket is pretty costly at about 2300NTD. You can buy it from the station or from the ibon machines at the 7-11 stores.

We decided to go Tainan this trip because BB, a friend who makes frequent trips to Taiwan, recommended it. On various guides we've read, the analogy has been drawn to Taipei being like Tokyo and Tainan Kyoto, leaving KaoShiung to be Osaka. Well, you got to dial down Kyoto by many many notches...the same way Taipei is no where near Tokyo in sophistication, so it is that the comparison to Kyoto for Tainan is only to say that it is the historic capital of Taiwan. And there is still a more languid, kampong air to Tainan.

What does a typical 2 day itinerary to Tainan look like. Amps recommend not killing yourselves to cover too much, just these couple of spots for a start:

Day 1
Assuming you arrive in Tainan by 1pm or so:
- Explore the Central West/West district where there're streets of food. The old Western Market 西市場and the streets around it are nicely conserved, including some gentrification with cafes and young entrepreneurs setting up shop.
- Walk all the way to the 林百貨, supposedly the first department store in Taiwan. Set up by the Japanese, it's a beautifully conserved building.
- Have dinner at the street stalls of 寶安街 (fried prawn rice is crazy! ) The girl at our inn made this recommendation: any store with the name beginning with 阿(ah) is pretty good.
- Enjoy post dinner drinks at 海岸街

Image taken with the auto-timer at the old house inn we stayed in.

Day 2
- Start the day at about 10.30am at the old Anping Area. The old fort, Tree House and various sights should take about an hour and a half. The Tree House is very picturesque, but as historic sights go, these aren't much to shout about. Still, the history of the Fort and the ol'skool exhibits there do give you an quick overview of Taiwan's early colonial history.
- At Anping, find a decent place where you can try their prawn rolls and oyster/clam omelettes. That's lunch for sure. And fried rice. Tainan does a mean fried rice!
- If you are hot and sweaty by now (cos Tainan is as humid as Singapore), freshen up in the hotel.
- The 321 Art Settlement area is worth a wander. Not all the old army houses/factories (now turned into artist studios) are always open but it's quiet and there is a sense that you've stumbling through a time machine.

Image by J of a residential street in Tainan. Ladies playing an afternoon game of ChapJiKee.

What to look out for in Tainan besides food? Us amps recommend:
- Canvas bags (it's the hometown of 帆布/sail canvas).
- Banyan/Fig trees - beautiful majestic ones.
- Mosquitoes. As in "Look Out!" Tainan had a bout of dengue in Autumn'15 and I counted 15 bites on my legs in 2 days. Bring insect repellent.

We're not that sure if we'll be back in Tainan anytime soon. But it's still worth a visit if you haven't been. If you have more time, there's a salt processing factory/museum that seems quite fun. And a boat ride down around their river delta/swampland that promises bird sightings.


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