North Taiwan is the most scenically varied part of the country. Wild terrain, fierce indigenous tribes and even wilder weather terrified early settlers, making it one of the last parts of the island to be colonized by the Chinese. In 1949 the region was swamped by a huge influx of refugees from China, and today its jam-packed cities contain more Mandarin-speaking “mainlanders” and their descendants than anywhere else in Taiwan, providing a high proportion of Kuomintang (KMT) support.
The region encompasses Hsinchu, Miaoli, Taoyuan, Taipei and Yilan counties, part of a densely populated urban corridor stretching from Keelung on the northeast coast to the fast-expanding cities of Taoyuan and Zhongli further west. Proximity to the capital makes the whole area highly accessible and much of it can be visited as a series of extended day-trips. Beyond this urban core lies a dramatic coastline, one of the north’s most appealing features: the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area and, further south, the Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area offer spectacular scenery and some decent beaches. Between the two areas, the port city of Keelung is set in a strategic harbour surrounded by ruined fortresses and is home to Taiwan’s best night market, as well as its biggest annual Ghost Festival. Inland, the Pingxi Branch Rail Line winds its way through a lush mountain valley, past scenic Shifen Falls and Pingxi itself, home of Taiwan’s most magical event, the release of hundreds of “heavenly lanterns” during the Lantern Festival. Nearby, the once booming mining towns of Jiufen and Jinguashihave been reinvented as tourist attractions, sporting atmospheric teahouses, snack stalls and museums.
Further south, Hsinchu and Miaoli counties form the Hakka heartland of Taiwan, with Beipu providing ample opportunity to experience Hakka food and culture, and Sanyi, renowned as the country’s foremost woodcarving centre. But beyond all of this, and never far from view, lies an untamed interior of giant peaks and isolated valleys, home to the awe-inspiring Shei-Pa National Park and Taian Hot Springs, a tranquil spa retreat surrounded by great hiking country and Atayal tribal villages. With more time and preferably your own transport, you can traverse the winding Northern Cross-Island Highway, connecting the historic streets of Daxi with Yilan on the east coast. Yilan county contains a handful of worthwhile stops, especially the plunging Wufengqi Waterfalls.
Top image: Pingxi railway Taiwan © weniliou/Shutterstock
Stretching southeast from Hsinchu, Hsinchu county is home to large numbers of Hakka people: though the ethnic group accounts for roughly fifteen percent of Taiwan’s population, eighty percent of Hsinchu claims Hakka ancestry. Beipu is the most famous Hakka town in north Taiwan, while the Yimin Temple near Xinpu is the centre of Hakka religious life on the island.
Lying around 20km southeast of Hsinchu, just north of the Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area, the small town of BEIPU (北埔; běipŭ) is the centre of Hakka culture in north Taiwan, the counterpart of Meinong in the south. Though it’s a bit touristy these days, the compact area of old buildings and teahouses around Citian Temple has plenty of rustic charm, and it makes an easy excursion from Hsinchu or even Taipei.
Beipu’s tiny bus station is on Zhongzheng Road (中正路; zhōngzhèng lù), a short walk from the old part of town. Walk a few metres to Nanxing Street (南星街; nánxīngjiē) and turn right, passing some good places to try léichá, and on to the next junction with “old street” (aka Beipu Street; 北埔街; běipŭjiē), thick with touristy shops and food stalls. The shop on the corner is Lung Yuan Pastry Store (隆源餅行; lóngyuán bǐngháng), established in 1871 and maker of tasty sweet potato and taro cakes. Turn left here and head towards Citian Temple (慈天宮; cítiān gōng) at the end of “old street”, established in 1830 and the town’s main centre of worship. The Main Hall is dedicated to Guanyin, flanked by tablets on the right representing the sānguān dàdì (Three Great Emperor-Officials) and on the left, the sānshān guówáng (Three Mountain Kings), all Hakka favourites.
Beipu’s oldest and most appealing buildings are crammed into a relatively small area around the temple, a mixture of traditional red- and mud-brick Chinese houses, well worth exploring. To the south, the Zhongshu Tang (忠恕堂; zhōngshùtáng) built in 1922, is a charming Qing dynasty house with an unusual Baroque facade. Many of these houses are linked to the wealthy Jiang family – patriarch Jiang Xiou-nuan built the grand A-Hsin Jiang Residence (姜阿新宅; jiāng āxīn zhái) in the 1940s just to the north of the temple on Miaoqian Street (廟前街; miàoqiánjiē) in a blend of Western and Japanese styles. Like most of the buildings here, it’s still privately owned and closed to the public. Beyond here, on the corner of Zhongzheng Road is the traditional building known as Jinguangfu (金廣福; jīnguǎngfú), the old meeting hall built in the 1830s, and opposite, Tianshui Tang (天水堂; tiānshuǐtáng), a huge Chinese mansion still occupied by the Jiang family. Zhongzheng Road becomes a narrow alley east of here, containing some of the town’s most atmospheric teahouses.
One of the most controversial of Taiwan’s traditional religious practices is the rearing of “God Pigs” (神豬; shénzhū) – unfortunate hogs that are fed to grotesque size, often so large they can no longer walk. The pigs are used as offerings to the gods – it’s a particularly Hakka custom, used mostly at the Yimin Festival when literally hundreds are sacrificed. Pigs are killed the day before, by knife, and the carcass stretched over a metal cage so that it looks disturbingly similar in size to a small bus. It doesn’t take much imagination to work out why animal rights activists get upset about this: cases of force-feeding, alleged ill-treatment and the relatively simplistic method of slaughter have led to increased calls for a ban over the years. Hakka groups say that it’s a traditional part of their culture and that the pigs are well cared for. While it’s true that the tradition of offering pigs goes back to the 1830s, the official “contest” to see who has the biggest and intensive, modern factory methods are relatively new; many pigs are actually bought by Hakka families at the end of the fattening process (which can take two years) when they already sport monstrous proportions.
Known as kèjiārén in Chinese (“guest families”, or hak-kâ ngin in the Hakka language), the Hakka (客家人) are an ethnic sub-group of the Han Chinese family, with their own language, customs and traditions. Originally from the northern Chinese provinces of Henan and Shanxi, Hakka people began coming to Taiwan in the seventeenth century and have since developed a particularly strong identity. At first, Hakka migrants settled in Taipei county and along the western plains, but by the nineteenth century they had moved to the areas in which they predominate today: the mountainous parts of Taoyuan, Hsinchu and Miaoli counties, and in the Kaohsiung-Pingdong area. Though few Hakka are farmers today, they’re still regarded as hard workers and have a reputation for producing some of the island’s top scholars and writers: famous Hakka people include ex-president Lee Teng-hui, Soong Mei-ling (Chiang Kai-shek’s wife) and film director Hou Hsiao-hsien. Mainland Chinese leaders Sun Yat-sen and Deng Xiaoping were also Hakka.
Hakka people subscribe to the same religious beliefs as other Chinese groups in Taiwan, but they also have their own special gods and festivals. The worship of the Yimin (義民; yìmín; mostly in north Taiwan) is unique to Taiwan, while the island also has around 145 temples dedicated to the Three Mountain Kings (三山國王; sānshān guówáng), protective spirits of the Hakka and a tradition that came from Guangdong.
The Council for Hakka Affairs was created by the government in 2001 to help preserve Hakka culture on the island, and to ensure its language survives: there are several dialects spoken in Taiwan, with sìxiàn being the most important, and the one you’ll hear on train announcements. Hakka TV (客家電視台; kèjiā diànshìtái), a 24-hour station, has been on air since 2003.
Beipu is the best place in Taiwan to sample léichá (擂茶), or “ground tea”, a popular Hakka drink with origins in ancient China. Its modern incarnation is one hundred percent contemporary Taiwan however; a green tea mixed with a paste of peanuts, sesame, pumpkin and sunflower seeds. It’s delicious and very filling (it’s sometimes called “cereal tea”), but the twist is that you get to prepare it yourself. DIY sessions are offered at most of the teashops in town, and in general you are expected to at least have a go, the staff sometimes reluctant to pitch in. After a few minutes you’ll understand why; the raw ingredients are placed into a ceramic bowl and must be pounded into an oily paste with a giant wooden pestle, a process which takes a strong arm, or preferably, several. The tea is usually served with Hakka-style muaji (máshŭ in Mandarin), sticky rice rolled in ground peanuts.
Just 86km and 34 minutes from Taipei by High Speed Rail, HSINCHU (新竹; xīnzhú) is one of the wealthiest cities in Taiwan, largely as a result of the huge revenues generated by the Science Park on its southeastern border. Yet tucked away in the centre are remnants of one of north Taiwan’s oldest cities, with plenty to offer casual visitors: temples and traditional food stalls reflect the city’s historic roots while the absorbing Glass Museum is testimony to its central role in Taiwan’s glass industry. It’s also the gateway to the heart of Taiwan’s Hakka country, centred on the town of Beipu.
The historic gold mining town of Jiufen, an easy day-trip from Taipei or Keelung, occupies a stunning hillside location with fine views of the northeast coast. It’s justifiably renowned for its tasty snack food and atmospheric teahouses, though despite the hype, the town itself is architecturally fairly typical and not especially attractive. From Jiufen, the road runs 2km over the Mount Keelung ridge to Jinguashi, fast becoming a major tourist destination in its own right and far more interesting. Most of the town’s mining-related attractions have been absorbed into the Gold Ecological Park, an ambitious project that combines restored Japanese buildings with old mining tunnels and ruined temples.
Gold was discovered in the Keelung River in 1889, and in 1896 the Japanese began intensive mining in the area, dividing the land split by Mount Keelung between two government-run companies named after the officers in command: the concession operated by Tanaka Group became Jinguashi, while Fujita Group developed Jiufen. The gold ore on the Jiufen side was less pure and in 1899 the Japanese began to lease the concession to local entrepreneur Yen Yun-nien who founded the Taiyang Mining Corp in 1920 and began sub-leasing smaller chunks of land to Chinese prospectors. As a consequence, Jiufen developed haphazardly as a series of independent claims, gaining a reputation as a get-rich-quick town, or Little Hong Kong, in the 1930s.
Taiyang ceased all operations in Jiufen in 1971, and though artists started to settle here in the early 1980s, the good times seemed to be over – Hou Hsiao-hsien’s 1989 movie City of Sadness, in large part shot in a then atmospheric Jiufen, changed all that. The film was the first to make reference (very indirectly) to the 2-28 Incident and won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival. Overnight the town became a must-see attraction, creating the tourist carnival that still exists today. One of its admirers is Hayao Miyazaki, who used Jiufen as inspiration for the village in his Japanese anime hit Spirited Away (2001).
In contrast, the Japanese maintained direct control over Jinguashi until 1945, the town developing in an orderly, pragmatic fashion. Its silver and especially copper deposits, discovered in 1905, became far more important than gold – by the 1930s the town was home to around 80,000 people with the hills honeycombed by a staggering 600km of tunnels. Mining finally ceased in 1987 when debts bankrupted the state-owned Taiwan Metal Mining Company – there’s still gold in the hills but it’s become too expensive to extract commercially.
Nestling in a small valley, just over the hill from Jiufen, JINGUASHI (金瓜石; jīnguāshí) has only a handful of inhabitants and plenty of atmospheric alleys and streets to explore. Much of the old village is preserved within the absorbing Gold Ecological Park, an industrial heritage area that covers the western half of the valley.
The narrow backstreets of JIUFEN (九份; jiŭfèn) are generally vehicle-free and, away from the busier areas, local life proceeds remarkably undisturbed. Most visitors get off the bus adjacent to the Keting Parking Area at the top end of town, proceeding downhill straight into Jishan Street (基山街; jīshān jiē) to gorge on its vast array of snacks. However, if you fancy some exercise before tucking in, it’s not far up the road to the trailhead for Mount Keelung (基隆山; jīlóngshān). On a fine day the short but steep hike to the summit (588m) offers a spectacular panorama of both Jiufen and Jinguashi (allow 30min for an easy hike up).
Back in town, if you keep walking along Jinshan Street you’ll eventually reach Jiufen’s most picturesque corner, Shuqi Road (豎崎路; shùqí lù), actually a series of stone steps slicing through the middle of town and lined with teahouses and old buildings. Walk downhill to the junction with Qingpian Road, turn left along the road and you’ll eventually come to a small square in front of the entrance to Wufankeng (五番坑; wŭfānkēng) or No. 5 Mine, an evocative relic of Jiufen’s mining days – it’s locked up but you can still peer through the bars. Retrace your steps to Shuqi Road and a short walk in the other direction along Qingpian you’ll see gaudy Chenghuang Temple (城隍廟; chénghuáng miào), housing Jiufen’s City God. Continuing downhill, back on Shuqi Road, you’ll end up at a junction on the main road, with the bus stop on the opposite side.
Thailand’s “death railway” is notorious in the English-speaking world (in part thanks to the film Bridge on the River Kwai), but few people are aware that the Japanese operated at least fifteen POW camps in Taiwan during World War II. More than 4300 men were incarcerated on the island, most of them British or Commonwealth troops captured in Hong Kong or Singapore, Dutch from Indonesia and Americans from the Philippines. Life was as brutal for the POWs here as anywhere else in Asia, with each camp revolving around a system of forced labour: in Camp No. 1, also known as Kinkaseki (金瓜石戰俘營; jīnguāshí zhànfúyíng), near Jinguashi, prisoners were forced to work in the Japanese copper mine in appalling conditions, while those at Taichu Camp (Camp No. 2), near Taichung, worked on a massive flood channel – many died from starvation, disease and ill-treatment. The camps were largely forgotten after the war, but thanks to a long campaign by former prisoners and expats living in Taiwan, a memorial was erected at the Kinkaseki site in 1997, and in 1999 the Taiwan POW Camps Memorial Society was formed to research all POW camps on the island (wwww.powtaiwan.org). Several plaques have since been erected all over Taiwan, and a short memorial service takes place at Kinkaseki every year around November 11.
The port city of KEELUNG (基隆; jīlóng), sandwiched between verdant mountains and northern Taiwan’s best natural harbour, is a strategic location that has been fought over by foreign powers since the seventeenth century. Though it’s a typically modern Taiwanese city, home to around 400,000 people, its setting is picturesque and there’s plenty to see: numerous fortresses, a legacy of the city’s violent past, the Fairy Cave, one of Taiwan’s most atmospheric shrines, an easy-to-navigate night market and the country’s largest and most illuminating Ghost Festival, held every August.
The Spanish first established an outpost on Heping Island near Keelung in 1626, when the area was inhabited by the Ketagalan, who called it “Kelang”. In 1642 the Dutch kicked out the Spaniards after a bloody siege, but they abandoned their last stronghold in Taiwan in 1668. Chinese immigrants began to arrive in large numbers in 1723 and the town became an important port in the nineteenth century, making it a regular target for foreign powers; during the 1841 Opium War a British squadron shelled the harbour, while in the Sino-French War the city was occupied by the French for eight months. The harbour was almost completely destroyed by Allied bombing at the end of World War II, and the postwar years saw a gradual rebuilding of its facilities – it’s now Taiwan’s second-biggest container port after Kaohsiung.
The Buddhist temples of the Lion’s Head Mountain Scenic Area (獅頭山國家風景區; shītóushān guójiā fēngjǐngqū) have been attracting pilgrims since the Qing dynasty. The area is shaped like a rectangle, with an area of 242 square kilometres divided between Miaoli and Hsinchu counties. Its most accessible hiking trails and temples are clustered around Lion’s Head Mountain (shītóushān) itself, in the northern half of the area, and along the Zhonggang River Valley just to the south. The region is also the home of the Saisiyat people. The other main section worth checking out is Emei Lake, dominated by the immense statue of Maitreya Buddha, one of Taiwan’s highlights.
Taiwan’s rugged coastline between Danshui and Keelung falls within the North Coast and Guanyinshan National Scenic Area (北海岸及觀音山國家風景區; běihǎiàn jí guānyīn guójiāfēngjǐngqū), easily accessible from Taipei and a popular destination for day-trips. The northeast corner has the best scenery, with highlights including the Dharma Drum Mountain monastery, Yeliu Geopark’s fascinating rock formations and the entrancing modern sculptures at the Juming Museum.
Just to the north of the fishing village of YELIU (野柳; yěliŭ) lies Yeliu Geopark (野柳地質公園; yĕliŭ dìzhì gōngyuán), home to a series of bizarre geological formations. The park lies on Yeliu Cape and commands stunning views across the bay to Jinshan and Yangmingshan beyond – hike to the end of the headland and you’ll usually have the place to yourself. Unique rock formations litter the cape, the result of years of weathering and seismic activity – the small visitor centre at the entrance shows twelve-minute English videos on the geology of the area. From here, well-marked trails lead along the 1.7km headland past all of the most famous formations: rocks that resemble tofu and ginger, the unique and mystifying candle rocks and the ubiquitous mushroom rocks, the most famous of which is the Queen’s Head (女王頭; nǚwángtóu) – the original has become so weathered there’s a fibre-glass replica.
The Northeast and Yilan Coast National Scenic Area (東北角暨宜蘭海岸國家風景區; dōngběijiǎo jì yílán hǎiàn guójiā fēngjǐngqū) incorporates some of Taiwan’s most spectacular coastal scenery, stretching 102.5km from Nanya, just east of Jiufen, to Suao. Accessible by bus or train, the area can be covered as a series of lengthy day-trips from Taipei or Keelung, though Fulong, with its attractive beach, is a gateway to the region (and home to the Scenic Area visitor centre) and a more convenient base for longer stays. Highlights include the network of hiking trails between Bitou Cape and Longdong and the surfing hotspot of Daxi. To the south, the towns of Jiaoxi and Luodong (just outside the Scenic Area proper) are worthy detours before heading on Hualien.
Some 20km south of Daxi, the inland resort town of JIAOXI (礁溪; jiāoxī) is best known for its hot springs and the spectacular waterfalls just outside the city. Buses drop you on Jiaoxi Road, a short walk from the train station on Wenquan Road. You can pick up taxis at the latter for the 5km ride to the Wufengqi Falls (五峰旗瀑布; wŭfēngqí pùbù), among the most impressive in Taiwan. If you have time, you can walk through town (via Deyang Road) and up Wufeng Road, but only the last section is pleasant and there’s always a lot of traffic.
The falls consist of three separate cascades, with the upper two thin threads of water plummeting dramatically over sheer, moss-smothered bluffs at least 30m high – the first falls are the highest and most spectacular. A paved pathway leads some 550m to the top, but it’s a steep climb. Just before the trailhead is a line of food stalls selling an assortment of snacks and drinks, usually including the area’s famed crop of kumquats (jīnzǎo). Make sure you take your taxi driver’s number if you want a ride back.
The Northern Cross-Island Highway (北部橫貫公路; běibù héngguàn guānglù; Provincial Highway 7) is one of three spectacular routes that cross the mountainous interior of Taiwan, connecting the western plains with the east coast. The northern route starts in Daxi, around 35km south of Taipei, and follows the Dahan River before crossing the lofty Xueshan range and joining the main Yilan to Lishan road at Qilan, 120km away in Yilan county.
The official starting point for the Northern Cross-Island Highway is the historic town of DAXI (大溪; dàxī), worth a pit-stop for its two old streets lined with ornate Chinese baroque architecture (this Daxi is not to be confused with the east-coast surfing centre). From the bus station, Zhongyang Road (中央路; zhōngyāng lù) is to the left of the main entrance, crammed with small stores and a daily wet market in the mornings. Walk north up here to the end and you should hit Heping Road (和平路; hépíng lù), Daxi’s gorgeous “old street”, crammed with craft stores, teashops and restaurants. The elaborate facades on display are some of the best preserved in Taiwan, most dating from the grand redevelopment of the town that began in 1912, the finely carved arches and beams etched with the names of the trading companies that once operated here. Many of the stores sell Daxi’s most celebrated snack, preserved tofu (dòugān), which is usually flavoured and much tastier than it sounds – Hwang Ryh Shiang (黃日香; huáng rì xiāng) at 56 Heping Rd is one of the oldest and most popular tofu sellers.
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.
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.
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.
Tucked away in the south of Miaoli County, SANYI (三義; sānyì) is Taiwan’s woodcarving centre, some fifty minutes from Hsinchu by train – trains from Taipei take two-and-a-half hours, making day-trips possible (Taichung is also just 30min away). Apart from the Sanyi Wood Sculpture Museum, the town’s main attractions are its numerous woodcarving (mùdiāo) shops, selling a vast range of work from religious icons to kitsch souvenirs squarely aimed at the tourist trade. Nearby Shengxing offers some beautiful hiking, historic Hakka teahouses and the photogenic ruin of Longteng Bridge. The village is halfway along a 16km loop of old rail line between Sanyi and Houli (后里; hòulǐ), abandoned in the 1990s.
The attractive Hakka village of Shengxing (勝興; shèngxīng) is particularly appealing in the spring when the area’s distinctive white tung flowers (tónghuā) are in bloom. Shengxing was once an important transport hub for the camphor oil industry, but a new tunnel meant main-line trains bypassed the village in the late 1990s. Today the tourist industry is booming, which means weekends and holidays turn the place into a bit of carnival, surrounded by car parks; it's best to visit on a weekday if possible.
An unapologetically rugged reserve of pristine mountain peaks and raging rivers, SHEI-PA NATIONAL PARK (雪霸國家公園; xuěbà guójiā gōngyuán) is one of Asia’s most untouched expanses of wilderness. Stretching across almost 770 square kilometres of the magnificent Xueshan range, Taiwan’s third-largest national park is studded with stunning peaks, 51 of them higher than 3000m – putting them on a par with most of the European Alps. The park’s highest peak is the range’s namesake: Xueshan (Snow Mountain), which at 3886m is the second-tallest mountain in northeast Asia. Despite its lofty height, it’s one of the island’s most accessible and rewarding climbs, with an extremely well-maintained trail that is typically open for most of the year. This path is also a grandiose gateway to the park’s other mountain highlights, such as the precipitous Holy Ridge that extends north from Xueshan to the 3492m Dabajianshan, whose distinctive pyramid shape has made it one of the country’s most celebrated peaks.
Seasonal conditions vary, but in general the best time for climbing in Shei-Pa is October to December and late February to April. The May rains and the frequent typhoons that hit the island from June to September can cause severe damage to the trails, making landslips a concern. Though winters are cold and the main peaks are usually covered with snow from late December to mid-February, for experienced climbers with proper gear and crampons this can be the most rewarding time to visit.