A Day Away From Taipei: Houtong Cat Village, Shifen, and Pingxi
Taiwan has so many great reasons to visit, the food, the architecture, the scenery, but the best part of Taiwan is it is small enough that you can experience it all in only a few days. Taipei is the center of life in Taiwan, and there is plenty there to keep you busy. But, with easy access to the many other cities, and amount you can fit in a day there, you’d be crazy not to step out of the capital. Public transit is super accessible, and with, in my experience, the most English signage of anywhere in Asia, incredibly easy to navigate. The only issue is organizing your trip so you can hit as many places as possible, and make it back in time to hit the night markets or bars.
Here is one of two day trips I planned, and everything you need to know to make it happen.
Houtong Cat Village (猴硐貓村) – Morning
So we start our day heading to Houtong Cat Village (those allergic may skip this step). This village was originally a mining town (as most are in Taiwan), specifically coal mining. When coal mining began winding down, so did the bustling population. In 2008 a local cat lover began to care for the literal hundreds of abandoned cats in the abandoned village, and with the help of volunteers and a growing online presence (thanks #catsofinstagram) the public began flocking once again to the village, reviving the area into a tourist destination. Now you can stroll the adorable, brightly painted streets, and get it for the gram with many a kitty photo op. I would get here early as the streets quite quickly become clogged from all the tourists.
Shifen (十分) – Afternoon
Next we move onto Shifen, a two part adventure with something for everyone. Shifen is an old coal transport town, and mostly consists of a main market street surrounding the train tracks, and little alley ways running off from there. You can walk right out onto the tracks here, and light a lantern to make a wish. The market is full of food and souvenirs, and is worth the stop, but first we head to the waterfall. When you step off the train, head North East from the platform area on either side of the tracks. The right side will be more busy and pass by the Cheng-An Temple (成安宮), while the left side is more scenic. Note that the waterfall is located on the right side, and those who walk on the left side will have to cross the tracks again further down the path. Which ever side you take there, go the other way back. The waterfall is about a 30 minute walk, but the hike is quite easy and well worth it! The Shifen Waterfall (十分大瀑布) is famous for the rainbow it produces and is considered the most scenic area of Taiwan. Then hike your way back to the main street and get yourself a snack while you browse the wares. Keep an eye on the train, as they tend to get more sparse throughout the day. Here you can see many people on the tracks lighting off wish lanterns with wishes for good health, good luck, and good grades in many different languages. This is popular to do here, and less crowded than our next stop. But I would wait until I reached Pingxi for this particular activity.
Pingxi (平溪) - Evening
Pingxi is our final stop on this day trip. It is also (shock) an old mining town, and is notable for it’s unique architecture. Here is where I would end my day with dinner and a lantern. It is very cheap to get a lantern, usually paid by the number of sides, and can be shared by 4 people, either in your group or matched with other travelers lacking in companions. Or you can write on all 4 sides for yourself. Generally this will cost you only around $6. It is well worth it to wait for the evening to watch the lanterns, and in Pingxi you have a better chance of seeing many go off at once, and Pingxi at night is a whole different and Magical place. Especially in the winter (the best time to go to Taiwan because less tourists and less heat!) during the lantern festival. If you can manage to be here during Chinese New Year, do it! Live your tangled fantasy and witness HUNDREDS of lanterns floating away at once during the Sky Lantern Festival (平溪天燈節) Celebrating the first full moon of the new year. It is truly breathtaking. The 2020 festival will be held around the 8 February.
From here it’s up to you, go back to Taipei and enjoy the nightlife, head to Keelung for it’s famous night market or stay in nearby Jiufen (also magical at night!) and take part two of my day trips from Taipei which includes both of the above-mentioned towns. Personally I would stay overnight in Jiufen as it is much closer and the tea houses are quite a site at night. But if you go this route be warned, guest houses there are few, be prepared to book MONTHS in advance. Especially during peak season! Whatever you choose, here’s how to get there.
Houtong Cat Village
• From Taipei Main Station (台北車站) take a northbound Tze-Chiang (自強號) train EXCEPT Keelung-bound trains to Ruifang Station (瑞芳). Transfer to the Pingxi Line (平溪線) and purchase a one day ticket for the Pingxi Line. It should cost only around $1.50. Get off at Houtong Station and you are there. Use this same line to get to both Shifen and Pingxi.
• Should you miss the train at your transfer, at Ruifang station you can cross the street to the bus station and take bus 808 or F808 to Houtong. You can also take the 1062 bus from Zhongxiao Fuxing Station in Taipei to Riufang station and then onto Houtong if you choose, however this saves you no money and adds an hour to your travel time so I would not advise it.
• If you are coming from Houtong, simply take the Pingxi Line using the one day ticket you purchased in Ruifang. There is no bus from Houtong to Shine, so the train is your cheapest option, and not much slower than a taxi. Should you choose to take taxi it will run you $20-$30.
• If you are coming from Taipei, you can use the same train method as mentioned above, simply skip getting off at Houtong. A taxi is $30-$40 bucks to Taipei. You can find many taxi drivers hanging out around the train platform in Shifen or at Taipei Main Station in the cab terminal. If you are with a group this will be easy and cheap. If you are alone, many drivers will wait and group you up with other travelers, allowing you to split the bill. If you would like to take the bus, you can take the Brown Line MRT from Liuzhangli (六張犁站) to Muzha Station (木柵), then from there take the 795 bus. This will cost you about the same as the train ($2-$8) and runs in about the same amount of time. If you only want to see Shifen then this could work, but if you are going to either of the other two stops, then take the train.
• For the train, once again follow the instructions above. This is the cheapest and easiest (albeit slowest) method to get to all the locations. And the scenery on your way is amazing. This is my choice for getting to Jiufen should you decide to head there next. It will take you about an hour, but it is by far the cheapest option and after a day of walking, the train might be a welcome break.
• You can again get a taxi from here. To Taipei and Jiufen it will be around $30-$40, and a taxi to Shifen is around $10. A taxi from Pingxi to Keelung is only $20-25 and would be my recommendation to get there. I would also recommend this method for getting back to Taipei as it cuts travel time in half, but if you are looking to save money I would take the bus.
• The bus from Shifen Old Street to Pingxi takes about 20 minutes and costs around $1. Take bus 795. The bus from Pingxi to Taipei is a little shorter than the train, about an hour and a half. Here take the 1076 bus to Muzha Station. Next take the Brown Line MRT to Liuzhangli.
Houtong Cat Village: 猴硐貓村
Shifen Waterfall: 十分大瀑布)
Taipei Main Station: 台北車站
Ruifang Station: 瑞芳
Pingxi Line: 平溪線
Muzha Station: 木柵