The continuing huge popularity of Jiufen (九份) as a tourist destination has long been a bit of a mystery to me: much of the quaint old character it probably once had seems to have seeped away over the last couple of decades, and certainly it’s even more developed and less ‘authentic’ than on my first visits here a decade or so ago. However the village sits at the end or beginning of several fine hikes, so I’ve passed through quite a bit. I’ve never enjoyed it nearly as much, though as on my last visit a couple of weeks ago, the day before Typhoon Fanapi rolled ashore, when the unstable weather kept the usual crowds away. A lot has been done to the town in the last few years; the horrible blot caused by a landslide in the center of town a few years back has been softened and healed, and more of the town’s structures have been tastefully gentrified. It’s a tourist-friendly idea of an old mining town, but on the blustery, typhoon day we visited, it looked better than I remember ever seeing it.
A quiet, atmospheric Jiufen was the icing on the cake in a short but remarkably successful gamble, chosing to walk on Taiwan’s notoriously rainy northeast coast as a major storm was approaching. The original idea for the day was to do a longer hike nearby, but as we got to the trailhead at Houtong (侯硐) train station, the skies, still fairly clear when we’d left Taipei, looked as if they’d break into a downpour within a couple of hours.
Under the brooding low cloud we decided to change our plans to a somewhat shorter walk, the steep but quick climb over the ridge along the Xiaotzukeng Old Trail (小粗坑古道). Leaving the station, we exited by the wrong way and found ourselves in a part of town I’d never been before: a long, narrow alley thronged with tourists taking photos of a large bunch of cats that seem to have taken over this part of Houtong. The cats, it turns out have become a major attraction over the last year or so. They certainly drew a surprising number of people this wild morning.
Soon putting ourselves back on the right track and crossing back over to the opposite side of the railway, we started our walk. Interesting to see Houtong has changed a great deal in the couple of years since I was last here. Following on the great success of the Gold Ecological Park at nearby Jinguashi, Houtong is now marketing itself as a ‘Coal Ecological Park’ (which officially opened in July this year); there’s a visitor center, several old buildings are open to view, and the whole area has been attractively spruced up with colorful maps and signs pointing the way to various attractions around the area.
Walking north along the road beside the Keelung River out of town, we passed the new elementary school, rebuilt in a safer spot a couple of hundred meters north of its original site, where the river is joined by a tributary stream descending from the hills. The buildings here were destroyed in a catastrophic mud slide that accompanied a typhoon six or seven years ago, killing a number of people here.
The trailhead is a bit further, and starts as a short, stiff uphill climb along a concrete road. Shortly, however, the road narrows to a path, crosses a stream several times and begins its climb up and over the ridge. Crossing the stream for the final time, the trail now starts climbing in earnest, up an endless flight of stone steps, finally entering the old village of Xiaotzukeng, which was once home to over two hundred residents, and even had its own elementary school! Nowadays there’s little more than the ruined shells of a few stone houses, half reclaimed by the jungle, although at least two residences have been rebuilt and appear to be still lived in!
Above the village, the path deteriorates into a deeply eroded and pretty steep dirt trail, with the occasional remains of stone steps. We took a short side path off on the right to the small but distinctive Silver Ribbon Waterfall (銀絲瀑布). Today the waterfall was completely dry, but the short detour through the jungle and down a couple of ropes, was fun.
It’s a steep (and, in mid-September, hot) climb up the main trail to the next landmark, a large shrine built during the Japanese occupation for worship of the Mountain (or Land) God. It’s a fine structure, although sadly the gold statue that once stood inside the shrine was stolen many years ago.
There’s no way to tell yet, but the long and steep climb is finally nearly over. A few minutes beyond the shrine, the trail reaches the ridge and splits into two parallel trails, which both follow the line of the ridge uphill for another ten minutes or so to the summit of Mt. Xiaotzukeng. Although only 486 meters tall, the view over Jiufen, Keelung Mountain, the Pacific and westwards past Keelung City, is magnificent. Today, a thick blanket of cloud loomed over everything and the approaching typhoon winds gusted in off the ocean. A dramatic and very atmospheric place to be.
From here it’s a short descent through the silver grass until the trail reaches the western fringe of Jiufen at little Songde Park, with its Japanese-style stone statues.
As we walked the familiar road through the village, I was struck to find the place was quieter than I’ve ever seen it. As the weather was still holding up well, and Jiufen is (justly) famous for its tea houses, before heading for a bus down the mountain and back to Taipei to ride out the storm, we chose a cafe with a great view over the village and ocean, took seats out on the balcony, and had a light lunch – one of the best ways I can imagine to end a walk in the hills.