The Romance of Taiwan’s Historic Coal Country on the Pingxi Railway

Pingxi Station - Pingxi Line train setting off from Pingxi station towards the next and terminal station, at Jingtong.

Take a ride on the Pingxi Railway Line, with stops at stations along the way, to learn what the scenic Keelung River Valley has to offer.

Photos by Chris Stowers

The boom days of King Coal and the gold rushes in northeastern Taiwan have drifted off into legend, but modern travelers on the Pingxi Railway Line can enjoy the beauty of the winding Keelung River valley, relive old times, and experience new attractions along its series of 10 stops. Although the area is most famous for the launching of fiery lanterns into the sky at in the town of Pingxi, many more sights and sounds await those who ride the rails through Taiwan’s rugged northeast. What’s more, an all-day pass to ride the line costs only NT$64.

A spur of the Taiwan Railway’s Eastern Main Line, the Pingxi Line was originally built during the Japanese colonial era to haul coal out of the Keelung Valley for users that included nearby power plants. By 1992, all of the coal operations had ceased, but the government preserved the rail line and began to develop the region’s tourist potential.

The Pingxi Line starts at the new National Museum of Marine Science and Technology (NMMST) in eastern Keelung City, and meanders along the Keelung River Valley in a primarily southerly direction until it ends at Jingtong Station, deep in the coal mining region. In between, each of the stops offers its own unique attractions.

Haikeguan (NMMST) Station

Located in Badouzi, an eastern district of Keelung City, the NMMST is a NT$6 billion complex that opened in 2014. The train station provides easy walking access to the museum.

The museum, one of the largest in Taiwan, was built within the structure of a former coal-fired power plant. Admission is NT$200 for adults. Among the multitude of display areas are the Marine Science Gallery and the Naval Architecture and Ocean Engineering Gallery. The large Deep Sea Theater utilizes the elevated space of the old power plant. The site also has an IMAX theater.

Nearby the museum, the Regional Exploration Center offers free admission and an interesting array of exhibits about the Badouzi area. As you exit the elevator to enter the main section of the center, the large floor area is covered with an amazingly detailed satellite picture of Badouzi and its surroundings. The friendly staff will help you get your bearings as you walk around the map and come to appreciate the beauty and diversity of this part of Taiwan.

The peninsula to the north of the museum is parkland with hiking paths and scenic views of the ocean and nearby mountains. The area was once a small island, but the Japanese filled in the gap to the mainland and built the power plant at the connecting point.

Ruifang Station

Ruifang is a little too large to be quaint, yet too small to host a modern hotel. Primarily a transportation hub, it’s a great starting point for trips to nearby scenic spots. For those taking the train to the Pingxi Line, Ruifang is the most likely place to transfer, as more trains stop there than at the other two stations – Houtong and Sandiaoling – that are on both the main rail line and the Pingxi Line.

Ruifang also offers more dining options near the station than do the other stops, so you might grab a bite to eat while in the city. Take the Main Hall exit out of the train station (not the Old Street exit), and you’ll see a large night market and lots of shops and restaurants.

 

Houtong Station - scenic view of the Keelung River
Houtong Station – scenic view of the Keelung River

Houtung Station

Houtong is a pleasant town with nice views of the Keelung River Valley. It is also home to the popular “Cat City.”

After getting off the train, the first thing you are likely to notice is the prevalence of cat-related displays and other items – as well as cats themselves. Just up the hill from the station is “Cat City,” an area dominated by freely ranging (but tame and cared-for) cats, and those who love to pet and photograph them. As you might guess, plenty of cat-themed restaurants and souvenirs are available.

Houtong offers much more than Cat City, however. The Vision Hall right behind the train station provides a historical perspective of the mining industry in the area, which was once a major coal production and processing center. The remnants of coal processing facilities can still be seen, as well as a bridge that was used to haul coal across the river. It now carries a steady stream of tourists instead.

About 700 meters northeast of the station (a right turn out of the station) and through a tunnel is the Houtong Visitor Center. In addition to free maps, the center provides displays on Houtong’s history, including a model of the town. The staff members are friendly and helpful, and if you can understand Mandarin they are willing to share stories of what life was like for the miners in years gone by.

Across the bridge from the visitor center is a variety of hiking options. Alternatively, simply retrace your steps to the train station and then continue along the road for about 50 meters to Neidanzi, which formerly was the bazaar area of Houtong. This location provides beautiful views of the river and valley, with the coal bridge and mountains providing a picturesque backdrop. Below, uplifted seams of rock jut up out of the rumbling river, a sign of the strong tectonic movements the area has undergone.

Sandiaoling Station - tranquil Pipadong Falls, at the end of the hiking trail.
Sandiaoling Station – tranquil Pipadong Falls, at the end of the hiking trail.

Sandiaoling Station

Sandiaoling is the last station before the main rail line splits and heads into the mountains toward Yilan, while the Pingxi Line continues along the Keelung Valley.

This spot is best known as the starting point for the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail. After leaving the station, proceed along the left side of the tracks until a pedestrian tunnel allows you to walk under the tracks of the main line. Continue on until the trail runs into the Keelung River. Don’t cross the bridge, but rather turn right at the beginning of the Waterfall Trail.

The first part of the trail has many steps, but isn’t particularly difficult. After about 45 minutes (2.5 km), you should reach the first waterfall, the broad Hegu Falls. The trail then becomes slightly more difficult. After about the four-kilometer mark, you’ll arrive at the Motian Falls. You can get quite close, and the water tumbles rather dramatically onto a jumble of black rocks below. The trail becomes even more challenging after this point, but those who continue on will arrive at the rather serene Pipa Dong Falls, which is the end of the trail.

Dahua Station

Dahua is primarily known for the potholes in this stretch of the Keelung River, which are more visible than those at other locations. The potholes are formed by the abrasive action of small pebbles swirling around in the riverbed, gradually increasing the size of the holes in the rocks.

Shifen Station

Shifen is perhaps the best stop on the Pingxi Line for picture-taking. Travelers are free to walk along the rail line, which runs right through the downtown. Shifen is the most active place for the purchasing, igniting, and launching of lanterns into the night sky. The lanterns, carrying written notes expressing the wishes of the launchers, are set aloft from the rail tracks, and everyone scampers away when a train makes its way through town. As helpful signs explain, different colors of lanterns represent different types of wishes, such as those involving romance, good health, and success on exams.

Shifen is abuzz with souvenir shops and a charming Old Town. Snacks are widely available. (Though they may look appealing, you may want to avoid the sausages-on-a-stick, which tend to be high in gristle.) The Jingan Suspension Bridge, a popular spot for photography, is right next to Shifen Station.

Wanggu and Lingjiao Stations

These are two small stations. The advantage of the small size is that you can walk around peacefully on your own, enjoying the towns and nearby scenery.

The Lingjiao, Pingxi, and Jingtong stations are all relatively close together and have convenient walkways near the rail lines, making it relatively easy to get from one station to another on foot.

Pingxi Station - Hundreds of paper lanterns being launched during the annual Sky Lantern Festival held in Pingxi around Chinese New Year.
Pingxi Station – Hundreds of paper lanterns being launched during the annual Sky Lantern Festival held in Pingxi around Chinese New Year.

Pingxi Station

Pingxi is undoubtedly the most famous stop on the Pingxi Line because of its annual lantern-launching activities during the Lantern Festival period after the Chinese New Year. Perhaps 1,000 or so lanterns are launched over a period of a couple of weeks. The launchings are conducted at night, making for a dramatic scene. But be forewarned that the popularity of the festival makes for very crowded viewing. During the rest of the year, one can purchase and launch lanterns on one’s own. It’s a memorable experience, whatever time of year you go.

Pingxi is an attractive town with numerous bridges. It’s also relatively hilly, and its streets are filled with small shops carrying a broad variety of merchandise.

Jingtong Station

Jingtong is the last station on the Pingxi Line. Along the rail line, lovers and others write wishes on bamboo sticks (“wish sticks”) and hang these on trees, fences, and anything else that might be available. These click softly as the breeze blows through the trees. The Jingtong train station dates back to the Japanese era, but is currently undergoing renovation.

To the right as you come out of the station is a street with many shops selling wish sticks, food, and other items. Near the end of this lane at No. 58 is a place serving tasty traditional miners’ lunchboxes. It’s a nice place to stop and reboot.

Jingtong Station - Bamboo sticks inscribed with people's good luck wishes festoon the sides of the railway track in Jingtong, the western-most terminal station of the Pingxi Line.
Jingtong Station – Bamboo sticks inscribed with people’s good luck wishes festoon the sides of the railway track in Jingtong, the western-most terminal station of the Pingxi Line.

Following this lane will bring you to Jingtong’s main intersection, which features an inspiring statue honoring the service of the region’s coal miners. A little beyond is a bridge that crosses the Keelung River. Looking southward from this bridge, you can see a “lovers’ bridge” below, covered with an array of wish sticks.

In the opposite direction from the bridge is a large circular LED screen outside the municipal building. At times – such as 4-7 p.m. on weekdays and by prior arrangement for tour groups –a well-produced movie is shown of the lantern-launching activities in the Keelung River Valley. Behind the LED screen area, you can enjoy nice views of the railway lines with swaying trees above.

Back near the train station check out the Jingtong Coal Mining Cultural House. It’s a relatively simple facility, but offers an interesting map of the area.

If you continue northward on the sidewalk along the tracks, you can enjoy a pleasant 1.8-kilometer walk to Pingxi Station from Jingtong, most of the way right next to the railway tracks. Aside from being very scenic, the walk provides a way to visit Pingxi without having to wait for the next train.

Thus, one suggestion is to take the Pingxi Line all the way from Ruifang or the NMMST to Jingtong, and then walk up to the Pingxi and Lingjiao stations. Or you can pick and choose which stations seem to be of the most interest. Whichever approach you take, it should prove to be a memorable trip filled with beautiful views, new experiences, and an introduction to the history of northeastern Taiwan.

Details on the Train Service

Service on the Pingxi Line tends to be about one train per hour in each direction. The line can be quite crowded on weekends and holidays. You can avoid some of the crush at crowded times by positioning yourself to board one of the cars at either end of the train.

Service to the NMMST ends near 6 p.m., as the museum closes at 5 on weekdays and 6 on weekends. The remainder of the line provides service until about 11 p.m., but the towns begin to shut down around nightfall.

Connecting to the Pingxi Line is relatively easy. From Taipei Station, take a train to Ruifang Station. When you get off at Ruifang, go to Platform 3 and exit the station. Immediately outside on the left is a small ticket booth that sells a Pingxi day pass. Alternatively, you can buy a ticket in the station’s Main Hall, which also has a good visitor center with free brochures about the Pingxi Line and other tourist sites.

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