Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Branching out by train (En Voyage)

Once you know a spine of lofty mountains runs almost the entire length of Taiwan, the island’s rail map makes complete sense. The busiest stretch of railroad runs from the northern port city of Keelung, through Taipei and then southward to the cities of Taichung, Tainan and Kaohsiung. Near Keelung, another line goes east en route for Hualien and Taitung. The rail system didn’t go all the way around the island until 1991, when the completion of 36 tunnels and 158 bridges in the space of 98km finally made it possible to ride a train from the southwest to the southeast.

Look more closely at a rail map of Taiwan, and you’ll notice that, while no railroads go across the middle of the island, a handful of branch lines do penetrate the interior. The best known of these is the narrow-gauge Alishan Forest Railway, which climbs from 30m above sea level in Chiayi City to an altitude of 2,216m. 

Taiwan’s other branch railways share the same gauge (1,067mm or 3 ft 6 in) and rolling stock as the main line. Instead of linking major urban areas, they provide access to more bucolic corners of Taiwan. Rather than carry commuters on weekdays, they shuttle sightseers from one quaint little town to another.

Business or family commitments keep many foreign visitors close to Taipei, so we’ll start in the north. From downtown Taipei, it’s possible to get to Ruifang – where the fun really starts – in around 45 minutes. There, travelers can buy a day-pass for the Pingxi Line and begin to explore.

This 12.9km-long spur was built so the area’s seams of coal could be more easily exploited. Mining dominated the local economy between 1918 and the 1980s. Since then, trains have transported tourists eager to view rugged landscapes, visit the impressive waterfall at Shifen, or launch sky lanterns at Pingxi (where I took the photo here). Painting your wishes on the side of a lantern (a wire frame covered with paper, and propelled upwards by the heat of the wick burning inside) then watching it float into the distance is very much the done thing.

If you’re the kind of person who’d rather not retrace his steps, take a bus from Shifen or Pingxi to Muzha near Taipei Zoo, then the metro back to your hotel. But if you still have a few hours of daylight, think about returning to Ruifang and jumping on a train to the end of the Shenao Line...

To read the complete article, get a copy of the August issue of En Voyage, EVA Air's inflight magazine.

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