Fri, May 03, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Highways and Byways: Gricing in the northwest

Lumbering along on a train throughout rural Taiwan is a great way to pass the time — and there are some great destinations to visit too

By Steven Crook

A train about to leave Neiwan Railway Station in the hills of Hsinchu County.

Photo: Steven Crook

When it’s blazing hot and I’m lazy, I can happily spend the greater part of the day on public transportation. Sitting on the air-conditioned side of a window, the blue sky of summer looks even better.

I’ve always preferred trains to buses. On the former, I feel closer to the scenery I’m observing, whereas buses are often hemmed in by cars and motorcycles. I’ve never been a trainspotter, but I am a something of a gricer. According to one dictionary, those who grice, “collect objects or visit places connected with trains and railways.”

I feel a little regretful that I never got to ride on the Linkou Branch Line (林口線). Built to transport coal to a power station — which still operates, and has in fact recently been expanded — this 18.4-km-long railroad ran north from Taoyuan Taiwan Rail Administration Station to the coast. It handled freight traffic between 1968 and 2012. For the final seven years of that period, passenger trains used the line to carry students to school and commuters to their offices. There were never more than two passenger services in each direction per day, none on holidays and tickets were never required.

Taiwan’s northwest continues to be an especially good region for gricing, and not only because here the main north-south railroad splits into the Mountain Line (山線) and the Coastal Line (海線). The former serves Miaoli and Taichung. The latter crosses river estuaries and connects townships dominated by electricity-producing wind turbines.

If you’ve time for just one stop along the Coastal Line, make it either Baishatun (白沙屯) or Sinpu (新埔).

A large village rather than a proper town, Baishatun is a quaint mixture of blue-collar households and long-abandoned abodes. Many of the latter were built using traditional materials such as mud bricks and bamboo. However, the true significance of this place derives from its main place of worship, Gongtian Temple (拱天宮). The shrine isn’t especially large or richly decorated, but the annual pilgrimage it holds to honor the sea goddess Matsu (媽祖) has become one of Taiwan’s best-known religious festivals.

But for the tiles on its roof, the characterful station building at Sinpu is almost entirely wood, and has stood here since 1922. Travelers who want to stretch their legs can walk 400m south to Choumao Garden (秋茂園; open 8 am to 5 pm daily; admission free).

Established in the 1970s and named for founder Huang Chou-mao (黃秋茂), a Taiwanese businessman who’d made his fortune in Japan, this is a park with a theme, yet certainly not a conventional theme park. The statues and tableaux inside were inspired by Chinese history and legend. You’ll find Sun Yat-sen (孫逸仙) and Confucius. Ming Dynasty loyalist Cheng Cheng-kung (鄭成功, also known as Koxinga), the leader who threw the Dutch out of Taiwan in the 17th century, is also here — as are the principal characters of Journey to the West (西游記), a story I first encountered when the 1970s Japanese TV adaptation was dubbed into English and shown on British TV under the title Monkey.

Traveling recently on the Mountain Line, the gricer inside me ordered a stop at Miaoli so I could take a look at the Miaoli Railway Museum (苗栗鐵道文物展示館; open 8 am to 5 pm daily; admission free). Leaving Miaoli TRA Station by the west exit and walking south, I reached the open-air museum in less than five minutes.

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