We began our adventure along Pingxi Line (平溪線) at Ruifang station (瑞芳站), a 15-minute bus ride from Jiufen (or a 45-minute train ride away from Taipei Main Station). Seeing that the train was leaving in two minutes, and knowing that the next train would probably arrive only an hour later, we tapped our EasyCard, darted to the platform and sandwiched ourselves among fellow tourists in one of the train cabins. Between saving NT$44 and avoiding lost of precious time, we chose the latter and got our Pingxi Line One-Day Pass at the following stop.
Before the movie You Are the Apple of My Eye (那些年，我們一起追的女孩) brought attention to this part of Taipei, the Pingxi Line was a lot less frequented and perhaps more tranquil without the crowds of sightseers and the resulting cacophony. (Or so, I heard.) There’s something about railway trips—the time and space to observe, reflect and be inspired, and the nostalgia that comes with it—that sometimes makes me feel like the journey is equally, if not more, rewarding than the destination. But now that this place is no longer a secret, it was a challenge to indulge in my own thoughts amidst all the chatters and conversations going on. Nevertheless, all was well as I watched the scenery pass me by and let my mind unwind.
First stop, Jingtong (菁桐).
Once a coal mine, Jingtong—approximately an hour away from Ruifang—is now a small town known for its 许愿竹 (loosely translated: wishing bamboos). The train station is one of the four remaining wooden stations left in Taiwan and it is also one of the Top 100 Historic Century-old Buildings in Taiwan. I thought the railway station looks pretty much like many of the railway stations still found in rural Hokkaido, which is unsurprising, given that Taiwan was under the Japanese rule during the late 1800s and early 1900s.
“Do the colours (of the strings) have meaning to them?” I asked the lady boss who was eager to sell us her wishing bamboos.
“No. Only for sky lanterns do the colours have meaning,” she answered matter-of-factly.
J and I then took a seat inside after deciding on twine, and being the finicky people that we are, took a while to find a marker tip which hasn’t turned fuzzy from long-term use to write on our wishing bamboos.
Next stop, Pingxi (平溪).
You could say the cheerful sky lantern shop owner almost demanded J to pass her camera to her, but it was out of anxiety that we wouldn’t be able to release our sky lantern before the light drizzle turned heavy and that she wouldn’t be able to capture this special moment for us. I felt the sky lantern swell up as the air within expanded with the heat, and it was a strange feeling; a sense of fulfilment grew in me as I felt the sky lantern bloat up under my finger tips. This was it! This was something that I’ve been yearning to do, something I looked forward to most on this Pingxi Line trip. We released the sky lantern when we felt it tugging at our fingers with a burning desire to soar, then we watched it rise in glee and bid it farewell.
At last, a dream to wish for our wishes to come true came true.
Shifen (十分), our penultimate stop.
The allure is in the waterfall, which is a 20 to 30-minute walk away, but releasing sky lanterns is also a hit here.
“That looks like ours,” I heard someone say in Mandarin, as we—stranger-he and I—turned our heads from watching the many sky lanterns ascending and descending like jellyfishes in the sky, to observing a kid tearing fallen sky lanterns apart. He was paid, I heard, and it was quick money for a kid no more than ten years old.
I experienced a moment of schadenfreude take over me while watching the kid take the sky lanterns apart and afterwards, run in the opposite direction to return the loops to whoever he was working for. Our (J and I) sky lantern soared quickly in Pingxi and overtook a sky lantern released before ours was; we watched that with relish, taking it to mean that our dreams would definitely come true. Were we glad that we did not have to suffer the fate of watching our sky lantern fall and be taken apart—not knowing where it went means we can imagine what we wish of it.
Final stop, Jiufen (九份).
Jiufen is where we spent most time in, from eating street food to getting souvenirs at Jiufen Old Street, to viewing the red lanterns that line the steep flight of stairs at Shuqi Street (豎崎路) in the evening, and to staying in a minsu (民宿) overlooking the sea. We had some time before checkout and wandered to where our hearts took us.
I see my path, but I don’t know where it leads. Not knowing where I’m going is what inspires me to travel it. — Rosalia de Castro