We Never Made it to Jiufen

Having overstayed its welcome here as in much of the rest of the northern hemisphere, Summer is finally over in Taiwan. The forecast is for heavy rain over most of Northern Taiwan through the weekend, which means movies and Netflix, and maybe a wet bicycle ride. So it’s a good thing I made the most out of last week’s four day weekend by spending much of it outdoors, bringing a friend from Singapore on a personalized tour of Taipei including a food tour of the Raohe Night Market, a tea hike through Maokong, and the all-night art, music and culture party that was the 2017 Nuit Blanche Taipei festival. (Read more: Seven Taiwan Night Markets Everyone Needs to Visit)

We were also supposed to go to Jiufen, only we never made it.

We tried, though. We had every reason to go. I’d not visited Jiufen for several years, and my partner Stephanie had never been. Tony, like most Singaporean men, had spent time in Taiwan as part of his military service. But most of his memories concerned practicing military maneuvers in terrain reasonably similar to the kind in which the Singaporean army would need to fight, and magical traditional hilltop villages hardly fit that bill. And of course, my friend Tobie, who in general is always keen for any sort of adventure within driving radius of the city.

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On the night before the trip, Stephanie and I watched Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away to get us in the mood to visit Jiufen. Some say that the magical town in the film is based on Jiuefen’s winding streets and traditional wooden Chinese houses. The director says his inspiration for the town in Spirited Away comes from a place in Japan he’d visited as a child. This hasn’t kept legions of Miyazaki fans from visiting the town as if it were the town in Spirited Away, and after watching the film (wonderful, by the way, though its depiction of a world with seriously lax child labor laws might not send the best message to today’s youth) we were even more eager to reach the town successfully, with success being measured in terms of actually reaching the place.

Which, again, we did not.

“A good traveler has no fixed plans, and is not intent on arriving.”

Lao Tzu

I’ve repeated Lao Tzu’s quote in my work, perhaps a bit too much, but if so it’s probably because as a traveler I’ve largely lived by it, at least as far as not arriving is concerned. In our case, we left Taipei in time to reach Jiufen, but got distracted along the way.

“What say before we head to Jiufen we check out Jinguashi first?” suggested Tobie. “It’s on the way to Jiufen, and there’s some cool stuff there.”

It was early yet, and so we all agreed. We drove up the winding hill to Jinguashi, hitting the first real traffic of the day as our van got stuck behind multiple cars, vans and buses, several of which bore signs reading Jiuefen, confirming my (in hindsight, false) belief that we would indeed make it to the destination we intended.

Tobie parked the van expertly as usual, but before exploring the beauty for which Jinguashi is known, he led us down a hill too far.

Before Jinguashi was known as a pretty little tourist town, it was a mining town. During the second world war, part of the valley beneath the mines was used to house over 1,100 Allied prisoners of war, forced to toil in brutal conditions in the mines and housed in a small small slice of hell called Kinkaseki.

That many of these prisoners had been captured by the Japanese after the fall of Singapore made the experience particularly poignant to Tony. The camp, of course, is now gone. In its place stands a few plaques, a memorial, a sculpture representing two of the men who lived and died in the camp, and a long stone wall into which the names of the men interned in the camp are etched. We spent perhaps thirty minutes in solemn wandering in the old camp, finding here and there actual relics from the place – one part of an old gate here, a trace outline of a place where once a prisoner’s hut stood there – scattered among memorials. Etched into the square stone pavement was a map of Taiwan itself, this one showing not the cities I love so well or the travel highlights offered by the island, but the other POW camps scattered around the island.

(As my words don’t do it justice, readers interested in learning about the Kinkaseki camp and others in Taiwan should visit the Never Forgotten website.)

Our trip to the fanciful dreamworld of Jiuefen having taken a rather somber turn, we left the camp and headed up the hill to the brighter lands of Jinguashi, stopping for a pleasant half an hour at one of the small restaurants in the bottom level of the Chuen Ji Hall, where we each had a small and simple meal of surprisingly good shrimp fried rice. As we were leaving, Tobie ran into an old friend of his who, like us, was showing the area to a group of his friends. So we stopped at the bottom of an old brick staircase to chew the fat for a bit before heading our separate ways, the other group to Teapot Mountain (it resembles a teapot, you see) and our small group on the windy road that would bring us to the Gold Museum.

But we were in no hurry to get to the museum either, getting distracted along the way by a number of coffee shops and an adorable beagle.

“What’s his name?” I asked the man walking a few steps behind the beagle.

“Ānuòdé,” He answered.

“Like Arnold Schwarzenegger?” I replied.

“That’s his full name.” The man told us.

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The Jianguashi Gold Museum sits above the valley, and the walk there is pretty enough to be an attraction in itself. As we walked along, we became aware of a strange, eerie sound that echoed through the valley.

“That sounds like a Theremin,” Tobie said.

“It’s playing The Moon Represents My Heart,” noted Tony.

The music grew louder as we approached the plaza in front of the museum, where a blind musician was playing that most famous of Teresa Teng standards, not on a Theremin but on a saw with a fiddle bow.

We stood transfixed by the musician for several minutes as he finished Moon and went into another Chinese pop standard. Stephanie and I explored the mining carts (still movable, though only for limited runs and photo-ops) while Tony and Tobie smoked a cigarette and enjoyed the view. Time passed more quickly than I thought. Before we knew it, it was 3:30.

“We should head down to Jiufen,” I said, and we headed back towards the parking lot.

But again, we were delayed.

On the way up, we’d seen a large statue of Guan Gong, a Chinese General who lived (and died) in the late Han Dynasty and was later deified by Taoists. As a god of war, he naturally made his way to Taiwan, and temples dedicated to him can be found around the island. The one in Jinguashi is particularly fetching, a multi-story affair from whose roof the General himself looks out over the valley. We decided it would be worthwhile to see the statue up closer. Like many temples in Taiwan, Jinguashi’s Cyuanji Temple has the strange, nigh-inexplicable property of being much larger on the inside than it appears from without.

Stephanie and I entered the temple, while Tobie and Tony (perhaps knowing the futility of a quick visit to a Taiwanese temple) stayed outside. We climbed up several flights of stairs, visiting shrines on each level with various statues representing historical figures, gods and demons (sometimes all three wrapped into one). Reaching the uppermost level, we stopped for several minutes to examine not the statue of Guan Gong himself, but a fantastically detailed piece etched into an entire stone wall beneath the statue.

The artwork had been completely invisible from the ground level, but up close the story it told was a sweeping and extensive retelling of one of the General’s famous battles. The piece featured dozens of men-at-arms engaged in combat in a field outside a walled town while concubines in palanquins fled the town itself, clearly about to be sacked. Overseeing the scene were two generals on horseback, one of whom I could only presume was Guan Gong. The detail was fantastic: Each soldier and concubine bore unique costumes and facial expressions, some of imminent victory, others of impending doom. The artist had etched the manes of the horses in ways depicting sweat, battle and movement.

We admired the wall for perhaps twenty minutes, and were eventually joined by a young couple from Hsinchu who attempted to explain the rather complicated political significance of the battle (which marked, as these things so often did, a decisive moment in the history of ancient China). By the time we got back to ground level, an hour had passed.

Reaching the car, we noticed that traffic along the coastal road had gotten heavier. And we’d not yet taken the time to properly admire the Golden Waterfall or the Yin-Yang sea into which it flows, experiences without no trip to Jinguashi would be complete.

“What say we save Jiufen for another weekend?” Tobie suggested.

“Another thing to look forward to on my next trip to Taiwan,” agreed Tony.

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And so we lingered, watching the golden waters of the aforementioned falls spilling into the sea until just a bit before sundown, looking forward to our return and regretting nothing about the day.

As we drove home I found myself again contemplating the words of Lao Tzu, but this time on a deeper level, looking at the circumstances that may have led to the proclamation in the first place. Undoubtedly Lao Tzu was, like us, fortunate enough to live in an extremely interesting part of the world. But perhaps, like me, the great sage was merely easily distracted. (Read more: Jiufen and Jinguashi: Taiwan’s Golden Getaways)

Unlike guests on Josh’s “personal” tours, guests on our MyTaiwanTour  Jiufen and Pingxi Day Tour  will definitely get to Jiufen and Pingxi! (Jinguashi too…seriously, they are pretty close together. Or ask Josh to take you…but we can’t promise you’ll get there if so.)