Monday, March 13, 2017

Chugging along the coast (Travel in Taiwan)

Taiwan is an island, but it’s easy to ignore the sea which surrounds it. Many visitors fly into Taiwan Taoyuan International Airport and head first for Taipei. After taking a look at Sun Moon Lake, Alishan and Tainan, they may not glimpse the ocean until they reach Kaohsiung's Former British Consular Residence. A good number make sure their itinerary includes Kenting National Park and/or Taiwan’s gorgeous east coast, but it takes a special effort to see any of the west coast.

It can be done, however. And thanks to Taiwan Railway Administration (TRA), there’s no need to rent a car. For over 100 years, the TRA has provided essential and inexpensive transportation throughout the island. The high-speed railway (HSR), launched in 2007, now handles a lot of north-south traffic, but tourists often use TRA services to get to places like Keelung and Hualien.  

Not all of the TRA expresses which zip north to south follow the same route. Just outside Zhunan in Miaoli County - an hour and a half down-island from Taipei - the main line bifurcates. One set of tracks takes a more direct southward route, through the booming metropolis of Taichung. Another less-traveled railroad follows Miaoli County’s coastline, and it’s to this area I was sent recently by Travel in Taiwan.

Whether you tour coastal Miaoli from north to south or the other way around may depend on what you have planned for the end of the day. Getting from Zhunan to Miaoli HSR Station (from where it’s 43 minutes to Taipei, and a mere 17 minutes to Taichung) is a cinch, thanks to regular TRA services to Fengfu (travel time: 10 minutes), the stop adjacent to the bullet-train station. But in this article we’re going south to north, because we like to begin with a full stomach. 

Yuanli (35 to 48 minutes from Zhunan, NT$61 to 85 one way) is an excellent place to enjoy the morning markets which are still a key feature in urban areas. Less than 100m from Yuanli’s railway station, a block bordered by Weigong Road, Tianxia Road and Datong Road is crammed full of vendors. Some sell vegetables, others sell fabrics. The range of hot and cold snacks is enticing. One especially popular option is the glutinous, pork-filled disks at Jinguang Meatballs (open daily 8 am to 9:30 pm).

In the days of yore, triangle-rush weaving underpinned Yuanli’s economy. The industry is celebrated at Triangle Rush Weaving Exhibition Hall, 5.5km southeast of the station. 

One stop and six minutes north of Yuanli lies Tongxiao. Stopping here is recommended, as both fresh-air freaks and history buffs can indulge their passions in Hutoushan Park. 

This isn’t the only place in Taiwan literally called “tiger’s head mountain.” There are others in Taoyuan, Nantou and Tainan - surprising when you consider that the sabre-toothed tigers which once roamed Taiwan were extinct long before humans settled the island. At Tongxiao’s Hutoushan, the reward/exertion ratio is very much in your favor. The top is just 700m from the railway station, and even if the weather isn’t absolutely clear, you’ll be able to see up and down the coast, and inland across foothills as far as the majestic peaks of Shei-Pa National Park.

First, you’ll see the remains of a Shinto shrine (pictured above) built in 1937 by the Japanese authorities then ruling Taiwan. After World War II it was preserved, but rededicated to heroes of the Nationalist Republic of China (ROC), the government which reclaimed Taiwan in 1945. Despite earthquake damage and modifications which reflect postwar political correctness (among them a Chinese Nationalist “white sun” emblem on the roof), it retains considerable elegance.

A little further up, what was once a military lookout post is now shaded by an immense concrete lotus. In Buddhism, the lotus flower is a symbol of purity, so this is perhaps an attempt to counter the site’s military atmosphere with peaceful sentiments.

At the very top of hill, there’s a monument which since 1945 has celebrated Taiwan’s return to the Chinese fold, but which was originally erected by the Japanese to mark a crucial moment in the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-05. 

Getting to the next railway station takes just five minutes, but as the gap between services on this stretch of railroad often exceeds an hour, do carry with you a list of train times. These can be found on TRA’s bilingual website...

To read the full article, go here and scroll forward to page 57 of the electronic version of Travel in Taiwan's March-April issue.