Today’s excursion brings us to the charming towns of Pingxi (平溪) and Shifen (十份). Located in Taiwan’s Northeast about an hour from Taipei, both are former Japanese era coal mining towns that today offer rich histories, quaint streets offering a good feel for old Taiwan, and of course, great street food.
We start our journey in Shifen, a pretty little town surrounded by mountains and bisected by train tracks. Like Pingxi, Shifen is known for lanterns, and souvenir shops selling lanterns of all varieties abound among buildings dating back to the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Shifen’s most famous attraction (outside of the town itself) is the Shifen Waterfall (十份大瀑布). It’s an easy and lovely hike from the town to the falls on a well-trodden path passing over an old bridge and past train tracks dating back to the days when trains were used to transport coal in the area. At approximately 40 meters wide and 20 meters high, the Shifen Waterfall is the largest in Taiwan and marks the upper reaches of the Keelung River. The water plunging down into the pool creates a lovely mist that often forms a beautiful rainbow, leading to the fall’s unofficial nickname, “The pond of rainbows”. Needless to say, the area abounds with scenery worth photographing.
From Shifen, we head by rail to the town of Pingxi. It’s a short, comfortable ride on a rail line that’s been running nearly nonstop since the days of Japanese occupation. Indeed, it’s among the oldest rail lines in East Asia, and what it lacks in modernity it more than makes up for in charm. We’re heading to Pingxi to engage in an activity that’s not merely synonymous with Pingxi, but also happens to be one of the more popular tourist activities in Northern Taiwan: The launching of sky lanterns. Every year, the Sky Lantern festival brings tens of thousands of visitors to the small town to create paper lanterns on which they’ll then write their deepest hopes and wishes before launching them skyward. Though the festival itself happens at the end of Lunar New Year, Shifen has become something of a year-round conduit for prayers between people and the heavens, and on any given day you’ll find locals and travelers alike launching wish-laden sky lanterns. (Read more : Jiufen and Jinguashi: Taiwan’s Golden Getaways)
The sky lanterns generally have four sides, each with its own color and each representing one of life’s more typically important aspects: Happiness, wealth, love and marriage. Some groups split a lantern, while some individuals maximize their chances by filling all four sides with wishes. Even if you speak no Chinese, local shopkeepers will do their best to help you assemble your lanterns and fill it with the appropriate wishes. (Written language isn’t an issue; celestial beings can decipher all scripts.) (Read more: The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival: Color, Culture and Controversy)
After launching our wishes, we continue exploring Pingxi. One of the more unusual features of the town is that it has an active train track running through the center of town. When the train passes through, visitors move to either side of the street next to the food and gift shops. It’s a good excuse to indulge in some of the local street food, which includes excellent locally made ice cream before making our way back to Taipei. (Read more : Exploring the History and Scenery of Three Attractive Tourist Towns in Northeast Taiwan)
Interested in making sky lanterns of your own while exploring some of northern Taiwan’s other breathtakingly magical areas? Check out our Jiufen and Pingxi day tour, which includes Pingxi and two other beautiful spots in northern Taiwan including Jiufen and the Yin-Yang Sea.