A natural retreat in Taiwan
20 June 2014
Just minutes by train on the Pingxi Line from bustling Taipei lies a green sanctuary overflowing with flora and fauna called Shifen. Many may recognize Shifen as the town where hundreds of magnificent Chinese sky lanterns are set to the skies every night. As I found out, there is certainly much more to this beautiful place.
Shifen is known as the 'Home of Water'. The fact that it was drizzling on the day of our visit probably added to this namesake. Low-lying misty clouds congregated atop the rolling hills, lending the place a mystical, and almost dreamlike atmosphere. The quaint streets were void of vehicles, and the air was filled with nature's symphony of croaking bullfrogs and chirpy crickets emerging from their shelter to bask in the sun. We knew we were off to a good start. We were a week into our trip in Taiwan, and while the activity and buzz in the capital Taipei were second to none, my husband and I were in need of a much needed respite away from the city lights and busy crowds. Arriving in Shifen was a welcome relief.
We wasted no time in making our way to the Shifen Waterfall. It was about a 40-minute hike from the Shifen railway station. In the cool weather, this was hardly a chore. We passed by shops on Shifen Old Street that had stood the test of time. It was almost like a trip back down memory lane when the lifestyle was much simpler and more laid-back. What was interesting to see was that these shops were situated just right next to the railway track. Signs were put up to warn unsuspecting tourists not to wander on to them. It was surreal to see weathered trains chugging past while we are shopping, drowning out whatever ongoing conversation that we may have. Everyone simply pauses at what they are doing, just to gasp with mouths agape at the close proximity of the moving trains. An incredible experience indeed.
The walk to the Shifen waterfall was made even more delightful with the availability of yummy street snacks along the way. Every treat was a discovery for the curious mind as it was a delight for the palate. We tried an egg custard steamed in an emptied egg shell that was so luxuriously creamy, it was like eating a dream. Another snack that stood out for us were the plum-flavoured sweet potato strips. Evenly-thinned sticks of sweet potato were expertly cooked so it had a crisp exterior, yet retained a creamy interior inside. Dusted lightly with the aromatic plum powder, the earthy flavors of the sweet potatoes were greatly enhanced. Who knew such sweet and savory flavours could match so well together?
It wasn't just our tummies that were well-rewarded. I could tell that we were close to the waterfalls from the thunderous roar that grew louder with our every step. Crossing the free-hanging bridge, our horizon opened up to impressive views of the falls on the Keelung River. It was especially soothing to witness the cascading water go over its broad 40 metres edge. Some would be inclined to compare this curtain-type fall with the famed Niagara falls. However, I would say argue that the latter simply doesn't have pristine surroundings that can match up. The Shifen Waterfall and all of it's beauty are located right in the midst of lush vegetation and foliage. I never knew there existed so many shades of green! If one listens attentively enough, one can definitely feel the pulse of the forest. Needless to say, we lingered around long enough to take in all the sights and sounds.
At night, it is when Shifen comes to life. Thousands of sky lanterns adorned with well-wishes are lit up and they dance like jellyfish in the sky. This is yet another sight to behold. It is believed that wishes sent to the skies in this way will be granted. You could see people writing all sorts of wishes, ranging from the usual ones touching on relationships and careers, to some quirky ones like lottery numbers and even designer bags! There was so much hope, joy and optimism around. As for me? I simply put down a wish hoping to return to this beautiful place soon.
I recommend everyone to take time out to visit Shifen when in Taipei. It is all but a short train ride away. Despite the growing popularity of Shifen, it is very comforting to know that economic development has not allowed this scenic place to lose it's rustic, old-world charm. There was so much to see, and much more to experience. Right now, I can only hope that my wish comes true soon!