Sky Lanterns and the Historical Pingxi Railway, Taiwan
Journey: Pingxi Railway – Ruifang to Jingtong
Mode: Train Ride
One of the most relaxing and enjoyable day trips from Taipei is the historic Pingxi Tourist Railway.
Set amongst tranquil mountain countryside, the railway cuts its way through the mist of dense valley forest that hides plunging waterfalls and quaint villages.
A peaceful retreat from the hustle and bustle of Taipei, the name Pingxi actually translates to “peaceful river” because the Keelung River settles and becomes calm at Pingxi.
Most visitors come for a day to ride the train and see the colourful release of hundreds of sky lanterns at Shifen, the waterfall at Shifen and the towns of Pingxi and Jingtong. But if you want you can stay a few days as the area has many relaxing hiking trails and museums to visit.
Why is the railway here? –
The railway was built to accommodate the coal mining boom which occurred around the start of the 20th century. A once quiet part of the world was overrun with miners who flocked there to seek fame and fortune.
Taiwan was under Japanese rule around this time so you will notice influences of Japanese design and architecture.
Once the coal became exhausted in the 1970’s, the area returned to a sleepy backwater until it was revived as a tourist attraction for day trippers, film crews and train enthusiasts.
How do I get there? –
Most visitors will take a train from Taipei Main Station/Songshan and arrive at Ruifang Station which is the start of the line. The journey time varies depending on the service but is an average of about 45 minutes. You can also arrive by bus to Ruifang or even drive if you have rented a car.
Easy, Buy a One Day Pass at Ruifang, Taipei or Songshan station. Most people buy one for the day they are travelling but if you are not using it the same day, check the date on the ticket.
Once you have the ticket, you can use it all day for the Pingxi line which runs from Ruifang to Jintong.
Plan your day as trains don’t run that frequently and you need to decide how much time to spend at each stop! We found this quite a challenge as if you weren’t back to board the train, you need to wait another hour so plan carefully!
I’m at Ruifang, what to do now? –
Yes, we were very excited standing on the platform waiting for the train as well. The train they use is an older commuter style train that had 3 carriages and held about 80 people seated and many more standing.
Today, the train is about quarter full but expect it to be packed on weekends and holidays. Most people arrive early to make the most of their day. We even saw there were trains at 5.14am, 6.27am and 7.18am, but we opted for the 9.10am train.
Where does the Pingxi train go? –
The line has 8 stops (Houtong, Sandiaoling, Dahua, Shifen, Wanggu, Lingjiao, Pingxi and Jingtong.
Houtong is a favourite for feline fanatics as it is known as the “cat village” thanks to a local who started a program to find owners for abandoned cats around the village. The response was nationwide and put Houtong on the map as the Cat Village.
Today you can mingle with hundreds of local cool cats and of course tourists are catered for with cafes and souvenirs stores all done in a feline theme (say that a few times!).
Sandiaoling is the place to go for hikers and bikers. The trail is popular as a starting point and leads past many beautiful waterfalls. The trail leads to Dahua which is almost like a ghost town compared to the other stops. Nothing for tourists here but the nature lovers love the pristine scenery of the hiking trails.
Shifen and Sky Lanterns –
Shifen is where it’s at. And its all about the sky lantern. Thousands of people head directly here (and we did too!) to stand on the tracks and release a sky lantern. Patrons write a message for luck and prosperity and fix a wad of what they call “ghost money” inside. After igniting it is said the money will allow the lantern to float up into the sky where the wishes will hopefully be conveyed to the gods!
The big event of the year is the Pingxi Lantern Festival. It is held annually on the 15th day of the first lunar month after Chinese New Year. The dates are typically around mid-February. It runs for 14 days and the big night is the first night with wild celebrations and fireworks.
It is definitely a colourful affair with people all over the tracks letting lantern after lantern ascend into the heavens. The poor environment is the loser as lanterns are found littered all over the countryside and it would be quite a task to collect and dispose of them as they are up trees and quite remote to access.
Shifen’s other claim to fame is the scenic waterfall a few kilometres away. It is a fun walk where you need to traverse a suspension bridge before reaching the fall. The 40 metre fall itself is quite spectacular and the gardens around the tourist site have been manicured nicely as well.
Back in Shifen you can try lots of different street food and also pick up an obligatory lantern souvenir before boarding the train for your next stop.
Pingxi Town –
Wanggu and Lingjiao don’t raise much fanfare. Both have nice but smaller waterfalls and there are many scenic photo spots along the hiking trail.
And for us, the next stop was Pingxi. A quaint village with only a handful of souvenir shops, the atmosphere is a lot different to Shifen which was chaotic. Pingxi is quiet and peaceful. We go for a stroll around the town and buy a lantern from a sweet old lady whose store is slightly off the tourist trail so we wanted to send some business her way.
Jingtong is the end of the line! –
Jingtong is the last stop but for me it was my favourite stop. It feels like you’ve stepped back in time here and it really does feel like the end of the line in that respect. The Japanese colonial style of the wooden station building is a good example of this and beyond that the Jingtong old street has some great street food.
We took a pleasurable short hike through the dense foliage and crossed the Keelung River at the Lovers Bridge before circling around again.
It has been a great day and now we await for the train to arrive. Hundreds of bamboo sticks are scrawled with the hopes of lovers and hang from an ancient train engine as a distraction while we wait.
We can’t wait to return and cover anything we might have missed the first time and maybe to hike the whole trail. We headed to Juifen by bus for dinner but most people would just catch the return train to Taipei.
TIPS AND TRIP INFO
What is it? – A fun train ride back in time cutting through lush valleys and stopping at the quaintest colonial stations along the way.
Where is it? – The Pingxi region is about 30km east of Taipei, about 45 minutes by train.
When is it? – Every day but check timetable for confirmation.
Why do it? – Its interesting, its scenic, its cultural and its a great escape from the city. Must be on the itinerary!
How long do I need? – A full day for the day trip with an early start. Stay overnight and explore in more depth if you like.
How much is it? – You can use your EasyCard with money already loaded for the journey from Taipei to Ruifang (or buy a single ticket around 80NT) and then buy a one day pass for the Pingxi railway (around 80NT full and 40NT concession).
Tips and Fun facts for visiting the Pingxi Railway –
Tip – Plan where you want to stop beforehand and then check the timetable to work out your timings. Trains run in both directions roughly every hour. We recommend 2 to 3 hours in Shifen, 1 in Pingxi, 1 to 2 in Jingtong plus allow for other stops.
Tip – At Shifen, touts will try to hire bikes and taxis to get you to the waterfall. It is a good 20-30 minute walk from the station but touts will try to tell you it is a lot longer to get your business.
Tip – Avoid weekends and holidays as the place goes nuts! Plan well in advance if attending the Pingxi Lantern Festival in February. Tip – The Pingxi Lantern Festival is actually in Shifen and not Pingxi.
WHERE TO STAY IN PINGXI: We recommend these rooms with nice views of the green valley.
WHERE TO STAY IN TAIPEI: Close to the famous Shilin Market, Top rating.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Greg Kodric is an avid traveller who loves nothing better than a good wander around the streets and back streets of each new destination he visits.
“I enjoy sitting somewhere with a local brew and just watching the locals get on with their daily lives. It’s fascinating to explore the sights, sounds and smells of somewhere new.
As well as visiting the usual tourist attractions, I like to compare the differences between places, the brands and products on offer and of course the local cuisine. I hope you enjoy my articles!”
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