Just south of Jiufen, the scenic PINGXI BRANCH RAIL LINE (平溪支線; píngxī zhīxiàn) makes another rewarding day-trip from Taipei, winding its way almost 13km up the Keelung River valley to the atmospheric village of Jingtong and passing through the old mining communities of Pingxi and Shifen. For much of the twentieth century this was the heart of Taiwan’s coal industry, and, though the mines have all now closed, you’ll find several reminders of its industrial past scattered around the valley. These days however, it’s the mountain scenery, hiking trails and waterfalls that attract most of the tourists. The valley is also the location for one of Taiwan’s most captivating lantern festivals.
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From Ruifang, the village of SHIFEN (十分; shífèn) is the fourth stop on the Pingxi Line, swamped at the weekends by tourists that come primarily to gawp at its celebrated waterfall. The falls are back towards Ruifang, on the eastern side of Shifen, Shifen Waterfall (十分瀑布; shífèn pùbù) is fifteen minutes from the visitor centre along a trail that starts at the back of the building and crosses the river twice before rejoining the rail tracks. En route you’ll pass Eyeglass Hole Waterfall (眼鏡洞瀑布; yǎnjìngdòng pùbù), named after the two hollows that have been eroded into the rock behind it. The main falls are 15m high and 30m wide, not quite Niagara, but impressive nonetheless, and wonderfully photogenic, especially in full flood.
PINGXI (平溪; píngxī) is the seventh stop on the Pingxi Branch Rail Line and one of the valley’s most atmospheric villages, though there’s not much to see unless you visit during the Lantern Festival (Jan or Feb) – the village (along with Shifen) is home to one of Taiwan’s most enchanting spectacles, the release of hundreds of “heavenly lanterns”, or tiāndēng. At other times you can buy and launch individual lanterns from shops that line the main road towards Jingtong – try no. 67 or 68.
Pingxi is also surrounded by tantalizing hiking trails. Walk through the village and across the river to the main road – turn left here and in a few metres you should pass a signposted trail on the right leading to Putuo Mountain (普陀山; pŭtuóshān; 450m) and Xiaozi Mountain (孝子山; xiàozǐshān; 360m), both just 1km away (allow 2hr round-trip). The summit of the latter is one of the most dramatic on the island; a steep tower of rock scaled by steel ladders – the views are impressive, but don’t try the climb on a wet day.