On the train from Taipei to Kaohsiung, Lester V. Ledesma goes on a spur-of-the-moment detour into the countryside and comes back convinced that sometimes an aimless wander makes for the best adventure
The railway symbol on the guidebook map catches my eye, its curved lines branching out from the main line and leading into what appears to be nowhere. I am on an express train from Taipei in the north to Kaohsiung down south. It is early autumn and the cool air is inspiring all kinds of wanderlust on my third trip to Taiwan. I have just spent three wonderful days revisiting the glitzy sights of the capital. From there, my plan is to finish my week-long holiday by checking out the island’s bustling second city.
This track leads straight into Nantou, a landlocked county in the center of Taiwan. Ordinarily, such a basic description of a place — “Surrounded by mountains, Nantou is abundant with picturesque sceneries” — wouldn’t tempt me off a pre-planned route, but this drawing of the spur line, called the Jiji Line, beckons me with the intriguing possibility of getting happily lost in the countryside.
The connection to the Jiji Line is right at the next station, in the town of Ershui, and as soon as my train halts, I grab my bag and make my way out onto the platform and into town.
It is oddly quiet. Perhaps it’s off-peak season, but I feel like the only tourist around. The woman at the visitors’ desk seems amused to see me, and her excitement as she draws me a rough two-day itinerary is palpable. “The Jiji Line goes to seven villages. Some of these villages date back to Japanese times,” she explains, referring to a period in the early to mid-1900s when the island was a colony of Japan. She goes on with the breathless and bright-eyed enthusiasm of a museum docent about to make a big reveal: “You can take the train all the way to the final stop at Checheng. There are many things to look at there!”
She also recommends that I spend the night at Jiji town, two stops away from Checheng, as it is the only place that offers some form of lodging. Creature comforts one might take for granted in sprawling cosmopolitan cities like Taipei suddenly feel very distant, a sure sign my detour is off to an exciting start.
I buy a ticket at the counter and wait for the next trip out. Before long I am sitting in a lumbering diesel train. In contrast to the superfast, extra-long modern trains operating on the main line, this Jiji Line train runs the length of just two carriages. It chugs along at a leisurely pace on a narrow track, but it’s comfortable and only half-filled — with mostly local tourists. I watch my cabin companions chatter animatedly in Mandarin, none of which I understand — another clue that although I have no idea what my destination is like, I am in for something interesting.
Soon after, the window scenes change from rusty rooftops to patches of farm and forest. Gorgeous mountain views follow next. This is in eye-popping contrast to the concrete-clad city I have recently left. Taiwan to me has been all about neon lights and skyscrapers, endless crowds and busy markets. Here, on the other hand, verdant hues flash across an unfettered horizon. The slopes of the Jiji highlands loom in the distance, partly obscured by mid-afternoon mist. This is the rural side of Taiwan that I have overlooked until now.
The end of the line
An hour later, we reach the final stop. What greets me in Checheng is quite unexpected. Fresh off the train, I immediately run into tourist kitsch — a guitar-playing, harmonica-tooting busker is hard at work serenading this new trainload of passengers. Outside the station, visitors wander the neighborhood with selfie sticks in hand. Food stores and souvenir shops line the streets alongside wooden structures from earlier years. Despite its rather touristy atmosphere, I suspect Checheng has some stories to tell.
Bordered by granite hills and a foaming river, this tiny community was once a logging center that processed wood harvested from the nearby mountains. Modern environmental concerns, however, ensured that the industry died out. At the village square — really just the intersection of the two main roads — the former woodcutting facility displays its antique equipment. Nearby, the area surrounding a pond that once stored freshly cut tree trunks now hosts tea shops and a scenic walkway. I walk over to the old street to look for local life, but instead find most of the original houses converted into eateries and boutiques.
“Very few people live here now,” comments one of the shop owners. “Most of us take the train down to Ershui at the end of the day.” This is a far cry from the ’80s when everyday life revolved around the logging trade. A massive 7.7-magnitude earthquake struck Taiwan in 1999 — the second-deadliest quake in the country’s recorded history — devastating Checheng and the other railway villages. Many of the original heritage structures were eventually rebuilt, but very few residents came back. “Checheng is a tourist town,” declares the vendor.
Indeed, Checheng has some worthy sights for a pleasant afternoon, all testament to a resilient town’s ability to rebuild itself after a catastrophe. It isn’t, however, the taste of rural Taiwan that I am hoping to get, and after a leisurely snack of beef noodles and bubble tea, I catch the train to Jiji town.
Into the countryside
It is after sunset when I reach the town. Luckily, I manage to quickly find a bed for the night. Right outside Jiji Station I bump into Mr Liao, who runs the nearby Yuan Bed and Breakfast. He doesn’t speak a word of English, although that doesn’t keep him from inviting me for a drink that evening. We make small talk with oolong tea and Google Translate.
“Good for you to come here. Most visitors return to the city in the evening,” he says (or rather, his Samsung does) after I tell him (OK, my iPhone tells him) how I ended up in Jiji.
Mr Liao is a native of Tainan, another city in the south, but moved here with his family a few years ago. He says the cool weather and the slower pace of life is what drew him to Jiji. His guesthouse business isn’t exactly booming, Mr Liao admits, and he hopes that more foreigners will discover his town. He also gives me a suggestion on what to do the next day. “Ride a bicycle. Enjoy the countryside. That’s what I do here every day!”
Heeding my host’s advice, I rent a bike early the next day and pedal off to explore the locale. At 7am the sun hangs low on the horizon, its rays painting everything in golden tones. The cool mountain breeze keeps me company as I glide down the main roads, past some particularly picturesque sights.
The train station itself is a charming structure of dark cedar wood, its minimalist design dating back to 1922. There is also the collapsed Wuchang Temple — a rather bizarre but stirring monument that houses the ruins of a temple that was toppled by the 1999 quake. A few kilometers away at Jilu Bridge, I watch morning fog caress the banks of the Zhuoshui River. From there I wander off to the suburbs where the urban environs give way to rice fields, betel nut plantations and Taoist shrines of different shapes and sizes. Later I watch farmers harvest and bundle fiddlehead ferns and place them into baskets. I follow them all the way to a local street market where I sample homemade beef rolls and soybean milk.
The locals I meet are shy, yet they eagerly show me bits and pieces of their town. A bin lang vendor offers me a bite of his product — bitter and pungent betel chew, a traditional stimulant — and then promptly laughs when it turns my mouth red. Another guy makes camera shooting hand gestures, and motions for me to ride towards the riverbank at the south end of town. Thankfully I get his directions right, because lying there is a bicycle trail that offers more stunning views of the surrounding landscape. The idea that there is much more of this to enjoy has me planning at least two return trips, with my own bicycle in tow.
The morning’s bike ride lasts all of three hours, and it is a refreshing and rare glimpse into Taiwan’s countryside; territory I never would have thought to venture into had there not been a curious little train line in my guidebook. I check out from my B&B and bid goodbye to my host. My time in Nantou is almost up, and I am ready to resume the southward journey to Kaohsiung. I feel a tinge of reluctance as I board the train that will take me back to the main line. The rest of my trip is yet to happen, but I already know this detour will be one of its highlights.
This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Smile magazine.