As the driver approached the tunnel leading into the town of Jiufen, it felt as if I had been transported into the world of Japanese anime movie Spirited Away, and was entering a whole new world just like the film's heroine Chihiro and her parents.
My travel companion and I were greeted by a picturesque sight of different houses dotting the hill, a sight vastly different from what lay before the tunnel.
Occupants of the houses greeted our driver as the van drove through the narrow roads. Only residents used this entrance. Tourists who usually arrive by the busload are not privy to such a lovely sight.
Located in the Ruifeng District of New Taipei City, Jiufen used to be a gold mining village that thrived in the early 1900s.
Its name, however, has no links to its mining history. Instead, it is a reference to the nine portions of food that the nine families in the town would request for during the Qing Dynasty.
A popular destination for tourists, the town retains an old-world charm that harks back to the past with its stone walls, narrow cobblestone streets and quaint teahouses.
The town was where Taiwanese movie A City Of Sadness was filmed, while the unique architecture was used as inspiration in Spirited Away, and is a draw for fans.
After reaching our lodging for the night, we explored the area, picking up some bites after the 2.5-hour journey from Taipei.
The main stretch of road with the most activity is filled with souvenirs and street food such as mian xian (rice vermicelli) and Taiwan xiang chang (Taiwan sausage). Popular with tourists, it is the most "dressed-up" street with red lanterns hanging from every shop.
For a quieter experience of the town, move up another flight of stairs from the main street. The noise dies down to a calm serenity, as most residents are busy at work, with only the occasional ringing of the school bell breaking the silence.
Venture farther upwards and westwards for a different view of the town from above, where you can spot houses of all colours.
As the town is perched on a hill, you can expect to encounter tall flights of stairs or steep slopes. We also uncovered dark pathways hidden in nooks and crannies leading to different parts of the town. These pathways must make for a great game of catch among the children.
Tribute is made to the town's mining history through plaques that can be found throughout the town detailing the historical significance behind prominent buildings and structures like the tunnels that were used to transport gold.
With fewer establishments open now that the busloads of tourists had left the town, we decided to make the bus trip to the nearest night market, Miao Kou in Keelung.
This is a stop that most tourists on a day trip to Jiufen make on their own before heading back to Taipei city.
A 30-minute bus ride found us in the heart of Keelung, where we were guided by a local to the thick of the night market action.
Although similar to other night markets, Miao Kou was slightly more organised. Goods were peddled in the front section of the market while food stalls were housed neatly in permanent storefronts.
The night market is located in front of the Dianji temple, hence its name, Miao Kou, which can be translated into "in front of the temple".
With signs in both English and Chinese, it was easy to figure out what each stall was selling. We downed bowls of pork-rib soup and Taiwanese tempura.
Live like a miner
The next day, we headed to the nearby Jinguashi Gold Ecological Park, a former gold-mining area. Here, we got a feel of what it was like when Japanese companies operated the gold mine.
We checked out the Japanese-style residence, where the living areas of four different families are conjoined into a long house. This is one of the few such structures left in Taiwan. The furniture from the era has also been retained, giving a true glimpse of life in the past.
Next, we headed to the mining tunnels for the Benshan No. 5 Experience Tour. We put on hard hats for protection and navigated the dimly lit tunnels, which were wet and musty.
This tour is definitely not for the claustrophobic. Further enhancing the experience were the descriptions along the pathway of the different types of work within the mines that the workers handled.
Not to be missed is the museum of gold, where there are exhibits of different objects made of this precious metal, showing the versatility and wide uses of gold around the world.
The star attraction would be the world's biggest gold ingot, weighing 220.30kg. After walking around, we tucked into a miner's meal of pork chop rice, complete with a miner's metal container.
Boarding the bus to head back into Taipei city, we were glad we visited this quaint village that has retained its 19th-century charms.
Singapore Airlines and Scoot fly directly to Taipei from Singapore.
- From Taipei, take a train to Ruifeng Station, where a 15-minute bus will take you to Jiufen. Most guesthouses provide complimentary pick-up from Ruifeng Station if you plan to spend a night in the town.
- The Taipei Main Station is huge, with many different lines running through it, so arrive 15 minutes earlier than the scheduled departure time to have sufficient time to locate the right platform.
Wear comfortable shoes when exploring the town. Bus-stops are far apart and taxis are hard to come by within the town.
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