If the heart of the city is in the centre, then the soul of the city lies just beyond the end of the subway line. For Taipei, the heart of the city might be Taipei 101, the defining building of the city’s skyline, or the Shilin Night Market, a touristy must-do for anyone who loves street food. But while these sights might characterize Taipei on a superficial level, they merely scratch the surface as far as true Taiwanese experiences go. For Taipei, the soul of the city rests in the outskirts, not the city proper.
Fortunately, the city’s peripheries are very easy to access. Taipei’s subway, the Mass Rapid Transit or MRT, is efficient, clean, and conveniently bilingual in Chinese and English. Depending on where you start, somewhere between NT$20 (US$0.66) and NT$65 (US$2.15) will get you to any station.
The modern infrastructure of downtown Taipei gives the illusion of a futuristic city, but disembark at the final stop of any MRT line and you may feel like you’ve stepped off a time machine into a previous decade. Because of their somewhat secluded locations, these places remain largely untouched by tourists or modern developments. Here you can find the true spirit of Taipei.
Via MRT Station: Xindian
About 15km south of Xindian Station, the last stop on the green line, you’ll find a foggy mountain village called Wulai. The village is home to the Atayal people, one of Taiwan’s indigenous tribes. Here you can experience some of their culture by trying the local food, which is sold by street vendors along the main path. Some of the most popular dishes are wild boar sausages, fried taro, and muah chee, which is mulled, gelatinous rice covered in honey.
Built between the Nanshi River and a hot springs site, Wulai is famed for its baths. What seem like once-luxurious hotels have since fallen into charming disrepair, only adding to the appeal of this sleepy town. There are still dozens of spas here where visitors can pay to use the pools. However, the locals can’t be bothered with pricey, artificial baths.
Instead, people here dig their own pools on the riverbank that become naturally filled with scalding hot spring water and are then cooled by the river water. To have an authentic Wulai experience, walk down to the riverbank and join them for a dip in their DIY hot tubs. Rest your feet in the river and a school of tiny fish will happily nibble the dead skin off your toes. You can even scrub your body with the black river mud for the full faux-spa effect. If you dress modestly and introduce yourself, the old men who maintain the pools will surely invite you to join.
Once your skin starts to prune, it’s probably time to move on. Head back to the village and climb one of the many narrow staircases that wind through the tightly packed homes built right into the mountainside. At the top, you’ll find a quaint train track that loops through the village. Follow the tracks for a while and eventually you’ll arrive back at the main part of town. If you’re keen for more exploring, check out the Wulai Waterfall, which is an easy 20-minute walk clearly marked from the main road. It’s not the most impressive waterfall in the world, but it is peaceful to sit on the benches nearby and enjoy the dull hum of crashing water. Before leaving, take a walk across the red suspension bridge and appreciate how beautifully the scarlet paint contrasts the green mountains in the background.
To get there, take the MRT to Xindian Station and look for bus 849 near the taxi line on the Formosa Freeway. The bus costs $NT15, and runs every 15 minutes. Wulai is the last stop and should take about 30 minutes to get there. You can catch the same bus back to Xindian Station.
Jiufen & Jinguashi
Via MRT Station: Zhongxiao Fuxing
Just an hour northeast of Taipei, there are two former gold mining villages left over from the Japanese occupation, Jiufen and Jinguashi. Nestled between the coastline and the mountains, both towns have the misty, ethereal atmospheres of a time long ago.
Jinguashi is located at the top of the mountain and should be visited first so you can work your way down the mountain to Jiufen later. A mix of gloomy ocean clouds that whirl in from the coast and the old Japanese prisoner-of-war camp located here give this town a quiet, sombre mood.
When you arrive, you’ll find yourself facing a humble temple. Follow the road further uphill and you’ll arrive at the base of Teapot Mountain, named for the appearance of its peak. The hike takes about two-and-a-half hours to complete, but if you don’t have the time, there are plenty of lookout spots nearby that have good views. Explore around the mountain base some more and you’ll find an abandoned track that used to bring barrels of resources from the shore to the mountainside. Sit in one of the empty window frames and enjoy the view and the cool breeze.
Walk, bus, or hitch-hike down to Jiufen once you get hungry, and prepare for something much more lively. The main road will be filled with visitors, street vendors, and the iconic red lanterns that inspired the setting of Spirited Away. Here you can try some of Taiwan’s signature dishes like fish ball soup, tea-soaked eggs, or rou yuan, which is red pork inside a gelatinous pouch that looks like a jellyfish. To satiate your sweet tooth, try some classic desserts like pineapple cake, ice cream and peanut burritos, and sweet potato tapioca.
Walk down the main road for a bite to eat, but otherwise avoid the crowds and venture off into the quieter parts of the village. Keep wandering up the mountain, and eventually you’ll stumble upon a black, wooden teahouse with bright red lanterns that actually looks like it was reincarnated from Miyazaki’s animation. Put a record on the record player and have a cup of tea by the enormous window overlooking the ocean — you’ll probably be the only one there.
Afterwards, keep walking up the mountain until you find a small alley unofficially marked by strands of film negatives hanging up to dry. Pay a visit to Paco Chiu’s studio, and thumb through the waist-deep stacks of his black and white photographs. He is a well-travelled wealth of knowledge and an incredible artist.
Staying for sunset is absolutely worth it. There are plenty of cafés with outdoor terraces that face west for a good view. But most importantly, wait for the lanterns to illuminate after sundown — you will not be disappointed.
To get there, take the MRT to Zhongxiao Fuxing station and use Exit 1. Take bus 1062 (Keelung) to Jinguashi. The bus costs $NT100 and takes about one hour. Take the last bus back to Taipei from Jiufen before 9.30pm.
PHOTOS BY EMILY ARNTSEN