Shifen, the home of the annual Pinxi Lantern festival, is a quaint mountain village with a special connection with the railroad and Taiwan’s coal mining industry. To get there from Taipei, you can take the local train to Ruifang (in the direstion of Keelung), and then buy tickets and transfer to the 12km-long Pingxi Branch Line. An all-day return ticket only costs NT$52!
Originally built to transfer coal from the surrounding mines, the railway line winds its way through heavy bush, following the upper Keelung river as it turns into a gorge nearing its source. When we stepped off the train and wandered down Shifen Old Street, we were quite astounded, as it was the first place we had ever seen with shops straddling a railway line, not a road.
The train moves through relatively slowly, as they stop and take off at the nearby station, and the shop keepers are known to call out when the train is coming, but they didn’t while we were there so it’s best not to rely on that!
There are a variety of shops to buy traditional Taiwanese snacks from with most of the lantern shops being halfway down the strip. We chose to set a lantern off from Grandma’s Flying Lanterns, which is down the far end, because we had heard good reviews. The brightly-colored shop has a multitude of photos on the wall of entertainers and politicians, and “Grandma” and the others who helped us set up our lantern were very friendly.
There are two options for lanterns – single color ($100) or multicolor ($150). If you want to make a smorgasbord of wishes, you can choose a multicolored lantern but we just went for green, which represents health and growth (however each shop seems to have different representations for colors). We flew our lanterns during the day, but were recommended to come back another time in the evening as it is an even more spectacular sight.
As with many other activities in Taiwan, if you decide to make a trip to Shifen, it would probably be better not to go during the weekend or a public holiday. The train can get overly crowded and the peaceful nature of the village would disappear (although you would see more lanterns in the sky).
There is much more to the Pingxi Branch Rail Line than Shifen. The entire ride takes about 45 minutes, but and you could spend the whole day exploring the region around the four main stops, which includes other attractions such as waterfalls and a mining museum. Here is a good blog on this if you want to learn more.