My hiking experience in Maokong was so fun that as soon as I got back to my hostel, I went looking for more hikes around Taipei. I browsed through my Lonely Planet and decided that I wanted to go looking for the Sandiaoling Falls.
After a brief search online, I learned that the easiest way to get to Sandiaoling was via the Pingxi railway line. Built in the early twentieth century by the Japanese, the 13-kilometre line was previously used for coal transportation. It is now a tourist attraction.
From Taipei, I went by train to Ruifang where I bought a day pass for the Pingxi line. It costs little and with it, you can make as many stops as you want on the line. Since I wanted to go to Sandiaoling, I decide to take the opportunity to explore the area!
First stop: Houtong
The first stop on the Pingxi line is Houtong (猴 硐). Houtong literally means monkey cave, but it’s not for its monkeys that Houtong is recognized, rather for its cats! Called Cat Village, Houtong is a paradise for those who like this little animal, because they are everywhere!
Houtong is a village that was rather prosperous when it lived from the coal industry. Nearly 6,000 people lived there, on the banks of the Keelung River. In the 90s, the coal industry began to decline, and many people left, sometimes leaving their pets behind. Houtong became a ghost town, haunted by several stray cats.
Then volunteers began to take care of the cats. The noise spread, and soon Houtong became the place to bring abandoned cats. From local curiosity, Houtong quickly became a tourist attraction. In addition to hosting more than 200 stray cats, the Cat Village also has several cafes, restaurants and theme shops.
The village is separated in two by the railway. On one side (the side of the river), you find the ruins of old machines used for the treatment of coal and several interpretation signs (with English translation) on the industrial history of Houtong. On the other side of the railroad, you can find the village itself, with its shops and cafes. A covered bridge connects the two parts. And everywhere, there are cats.
I really like cats. But after an hour walking around the village and petting those who let me do so, I had more than enough. I could have sit down in a cafe and pet other cats, but I had waterfalls to go to find.
Second stop: Sandiaoling
The train was packed with tourists, but I was the only person who got out at Sandiaoling (三貂 嶺). As I had made some research before getting there (to avoid not finding the trail as happened in Maokong), I knew in which direction to go. After passing through the tiny train station, I followed the railway towards the village, crossed it, then found myself facing the stairs that would lead me to the trail (there are signs and maps trails, so it’s not too complicated to find the way).
I do not really have the words to describe the feeling of exaltation that inhabited me at the thought of being completely alone on a path in the jungle. I felt like a little girl marveling at the sight of every butterfly, every bird, or every strange insect whose name I did not know.
The trail is not too difficult and after about 30 minutes of hiking, I arrived at the first fall, the Hegu Fall.
Only a platform makes it possible to observe the fall from afar, the path not going near it.
To reach the second fall, you have to walk for another 30 minutes. The path becomes a little more tortuous, passing over two rope bridges. I met half a dozen hikers, but otherwise, the trail was very quiet.
Before arriving at the second fall, I was a bit freaked out by a snake passing on the path close to me. It stopped for a few moments, and while I was wondering if I had to keep moving or turn back (and if I had a venomous snake in front of me), it finally quietly resumed its way.
So it is with a step a little less assured that I arrived at the second fall, Motian Fall. From a height of 30 metres, it is possible to see it from closer than Hegu Fall.
The trail continues to a third fall which is not very far, but the climb is a little more steep and difficult. I did not have good hiking shoes and the snake made me nervous, so I decided to go back to the train station.
I missed the train by 15 minutes and as it passes once an hour, I had to wait for a long time in the small waiting room with the stationmaster as my only companion.
Third stop: Shifen
I may have been the only tourist in Sandiaoling, but I had the impression that everyone was in Shifen (十分). Shifen is probably the most popular stop on the Pingxi line. As for Houtong and Sandiaoling, Shifen is also a village born of the coal industry but here, the railway occupies a central place. The market is built on both sides of the railroad, which people cross without hesitation. As soon as the train has passed, the railway becomes a small public square on which tourists cast Chinese lanterns to the sky.
I found Shifen very cute with its little streets, its little kiosks and especially its buildings very close to the railway. I did not like the fact that there were (too) many tourists. After the tranquility of Sandiaoling, Shifen was almost destabilizing.
There is also a waterfall in Shifen. Located at a twenty-minute walk from the station it is quite easy to get there (despite the taxi drivers trying to convince you that the walk is too long) through a path along the river. The waterfall of Shifen is the largest in Taiwan. There are several platforms to observe it, and many tourists there too.
Pingxi and beyond
I could have continued my journey on the Pingxi line, to the village of Pingxi itself, known as the perfect place to launch a Chinese lantern to the sky, or to Jintong, the last village on the line. But the train I missed in Sandiaoling put me late on the schedule I had planned, and since I had to go back to Ruifang and then to Taipei, I decided to end my journey in Shifen.
But three waterfalls, three villages and many cats, it seems to me like a very successful day!