A Quick Trip to Jiufen and Keelung

Jinguashi from the Ogon Shrine in January
Jinguashi from the Ogon Shrine.

Last weekend I enjoyed a couple of days outside of Taipei in the northeastern part of Taiwan. I went there with friends, ostensibly to show them around Jīnguāshí 金瓜石 and Jiǔfèn 九份, a famous mining town and major tourist attraction in the mountains of Ruifang, and ended up staying in Keelung for the night on a whim. Having recently purchased a new phone I bombarded Instagram with numerous pictures and plenty of commentary as the trip progressed. This quick and dirty post is a collection of some of my better smartphone snapshots as well as an experiment in blogging with broader brushstrokes. Perhaps you will get a sense of how I travel: spontaneously, intuitively, and with a keen eye for details.

The partially restored Ogon Shrine in Jinguashi
The ruins of the Ogon Shrine in Jinguashi. You can see where the columns were reconstructed.
A strone lantern at the Ogon Shrine
A stone lantern at the Ogon Shrine on a grey but mostly rainless day in January.

Our first stop was the Ōgon Shrine 黄金神社 (also known as the Gold Temple) in Jinguashi, something I have blogged about previously. This is a former Shinto shrine that was destroyed and later restored. It offers a great view of the mostly abandoned town of Jinguashi and nearby Teapot Mountain 茶壺山, which I still haven’t climbed.

Down by the shores of the Yin Yang Sea
Down by the shores of the Yin Yang Sea.
Copper contamination at the Yin Yang Sea
Contaminated rocks and concrete pylons at the mouth of the polluted river entering the Yin Yang Sea.

After touring the Gold Museum we hopped on a bus heading down to the Yin Yang Sea 陰陽海, an environmental disaster zone that has been turned into something of a perverse tourist attraction. Apparently the discoloration from copper contamination predates the massive mining operation but there’s no question that the area has not been cleaned up since the mine was closed.

Jiufen Old Street crowds on a Saturday
Near the start of Jiufen’s bustling Old Street on a Saturday evening.

Next we hopped back on the bus and went to Jiufen, which was not the inspiration for Hayao Miyazaki’s Spirited Away despite what you may have heard. People said we were brave to visit on a Saturday evening—and I suppose we were. By now I am somewhat oblivious to crowds and sometimes forget that not everyone feels the same. The nice thing about Jiufen’s insanely crowded old street is that you can step out along any number of small alleys and find yourself in a completely deserted part of the town, lost in the tangled maze of stairways and lanes that runs along the mountainside above and below the main tourist beat.

Sculptor Wu’s weird mask shop in Jiufen
Wu’s weird mask studio.

One of the weirder things you’ll see in Jiufen is a creepy mask museum. I haven’t been inside but this time around at least I figured out what the place is called: Wu’s Clay Figures 泥人吳. Browse around and you’ll find photos of the artist making the same tortured faces you see in his work. Stay weird, Taiwan!

Shuqi Road, the famous stairway in Jiufen
The famous stairway in Jiufen.

Jiufen’s most famous and iconic sight is the long stairway descending from the Old Street to a plaza surrounded by many teahouses and the old Shēngpíng Theater 昇平戲院. This stairway is formally known as Shùqí Road 豎崎路, a fact I was only able to uncover after spending far too much time messing around on search engines. (Seriously, would it kill people to use tone marks and Chinese characters when writing in English? This goes for bloggers and official government web sites. Romanizations without tone are next to useless if you need to speak to a local about something!)

In a tunnel beneath a teahouse
My traveling companions for the day in a tunnel leading to a restaurant behind one of the famous teahouses of Jiufen.

Walking down that stairway took forever as it was—to put it bluntly—crowded as fuck. For whatever reason it was almost all Japanese tourists in Jiufen that day. About halfway down we opted to take a shortcut through the entrance to Yùzǐfānshǔ 芋仔蕃薯, another old teahouse and restaurant accessible through a small tunnel. From there we sauntered down to the main square, looked at each other, and decided to get the hell out of there. I won’t say I dislike Jiufen but sometimes I wonder what I’m doing there.

Down in the main square in Jiufen
Down in the main square in Jiufen right before we escaped the crowds of mostly Japanese tourists.

Leaving Jiufen in the evening is a difficult process, particularly on weekends. The line-up for public buses is insane (though you can walk up the hill to board first and you’ll always be guaranteed a seat) so I usually take a taxi to Keelung, wander around, and then bus back to Taipei. Most drivers have a flat fare of about 600 NT but you can haggle as low as 450 NT on a weekday. We ended up paying 500 NT for this particular trip—and arrived in Keelung in record time thanks to our young driver’s maniacal experiments with the laws of space and time.

The north end of Miaokou Night Market
The north end of Miaokou Night Market.

Debarking near the north entrance to Miaokou Night Market 廟口夜市 we joined the human river in search of tasty snacks and intriguing sights. I have now been to this night market about a dozen times and it has become one of my favourites now that I know what’s what. (Which reminds me: my original post about Miaokou is in dire need of an update. I’ve discovered so much more since those early visits.)

The famous lanterns of Miaokou Night Market
The famous lanterns of Miaokou Night Market.
In the mouth of the temple
In the mouth of the temple from whence the night market derives its name.

“Miaokou” literally means “mouth of the temple” as the most famous stretch sprawls out from the entrance to Diànjì Temple 奠济宫, itself a rather interesting place to explore. Lanterns are commonly used to indicate the entrance to temples in Taiwan which should explain the rather unusual sight of so many lining the many food stalls outside. Long-time visitors decry the orderliness of the night market but this is the only experience I know—and I quite like how it looks now, to be honest.

Inside Dianji Temple 奠济宫
Within the temple inside the night market.
Miaokou Night Market from the sky
Miaokou Night Market as you probably haven’t seen it before!

This photograph of Miaokou Night Market from above is out of order (as I shot this later in the evening) but I’m including it here for narrative flow. That photography project I mentioned earlier involves rooftopping around the downtown core of the city, one of the most vertical parts of urban Taiwan. Rooftopping is another form of urban exploration that involves gaining access to the (you guessed it) rooftops of buildings whether they are abandoned or not. Some people like to take crazy photos of their legs hanging off the sides or whatever but that’s not for me. I’m just there to shoot interesting skylines from unlikely vantage points.

The distinctive pedestrian overpasses of Keelung
The distinctive pedestrian overpass near the bus and train stations.

Later on I walked my friends over to the bus station to show them the way back to Taipei, having decided to grab a hotel and stay the night myself. Along the way we crossed what might be called Keelung First Channel Bridge 基一信橋 (well, the Chinese isn’t in doubt but I’m making up the English translation), a distinctive series of pedestrian overpasses near the foot of the harbour. This is not the most famous pedestrian bridge in town—but it shares many features with it and is located nearby.

An old fashioned at a bar named Alcohol
Enjoying an Old Fashioned at a whisky bar hidden in a laneway near the foot of the harbour in Keelung.

Afterwards I met a friend from Keelung for a walkabout and a drink at a new whiskey bar I noticed in the alleyway behind my hotel. Amusingly, the name of the bar is simply Alcohol 艾克猴, which is about as Taiwanese as it gets and greatly appeals to my sense of humour. I ordered an Old Fashioned and enjoyed the minimalistic ambiance of the place. I would absolutely go again.

Keelung’s Kanziding Fish Market 基隆崁仔頂漁市
A wonderful surprise: Keelung’s all-night fish market in full bloom.

Back on the streets we discovered Keelung’s Kànzǐdǐng Fish Market 崁仔頂漁市場 in full bloom. I already knew there was a big fish market in town from this strange article but hadn’t realized it was right downtown—or open all night! I haven’t done my research yet but apparently the market is about a century old and used to run along the banks of the Xùchuān River 旭川河 before it was covered up in the late 1950s. (Update: I have now published a full post about Kanziding Fish Market!)

Keelung fish market scene
Keelung fish market scene.

Decades later, in the 1970s, several buildings were constructed over the old river. Nowadays many of the vendors at the fish market are based out of spaces on the ground floors of the three buildings with an unseen river flowing through the darkness below. If you walk away from the harbour toward the mountains you’ll eventually encounter an open stretch of river as it sweeps beneath a highway offramp next to several of Keelung’s seedy red light districts. Actually, you might smell the river before you see it—the amount of rotting garbage it contains is truly incredible. All that junk collects in the forgotten spaces beneath the fish market and, as such, there are concerns about the potential for a massive explosion from the build-up of methane and other flammable gases. Gross, huh?

From the lobby of a building with a river beneath it
From the lobby of a building with a river flowing underneath it.

I also noticed something else on this trip that hadn’t occurred to me previously: the remains of a Japanese colonial era bridge can be found integrated into the city streets near the former mouth of the river! Walk from the night market to the bus station along the harbour and you’ll notice a small hill—this is Míngdé Bridge 明德橋, readily identified by the grungy old pylons jutting out of the sidewalk. I regret missing the opportunity to take a photo but the lighting was poor by the time I made my discovery. Perhaps it sounds strange but this sort of thing is why I love exploring Keelung, the darkest city in Taiwan! (By the way, guess what you’ll find across the street from the bridge? Keelung Ghost House 基隆鬼屋!)

An all-night arcade in Keelung
I went looking for a washroom at the fish market and was directed to this all-night arcade. This is where the fishmongers go?
Ahua Fried Noodles, Keelung
In search of late night food I chanced upon Ahua Fried Noodles, evidently a popular spot in Keelung.

After bidding adieu to my friend I wandered in search of one last late night snack. This brought me back around to the night market area where I saw a line-up outside of Āhuá Fried Noodles 阿華炒麵. I immediately got my place and waited about 15 minutes for what turned out to be a surprisingly delicious plate of curry noodles with some unidentifiable meat product, probably pork. I was amused to be seated at my own table with everyone else crushed into tiny spaces, rubbing elbows. I’m not sure if this was for my benefit or that of everyone else but I wouldn’t have any problem had they thrown me into the drunken rabble.

Afternoon ritual at Qing’an Temple 慶安宮
Afternoon ritual at Qing’an Temple. The air was hazy with incense.

The next day I woke up and wandered through the courtyard of Qìng’ān Temple 慶安宮 on my way to finding a breakfast shop that turned out to have plumbing from hell. As an aside, I think it’s amusing that the one photo that garnered the most interest out of all of these was this silly thing about plumbing. All the rest of this urban exploration and cool cultural stuff you don’t usually see in English? Whatever. 哈哈哈!

Haimen Fortress 海門天險
The gateway to Ershawan, one of many forts on the hills surrounding the harbour.

I met up with my Keelungite friend and we hopped in a taxi to check out Èrshāwān Battery 二沙灣砲臺, also known as Hǎimén Natural Barrier 海門天險, a name sure to cause no small amount of amusement for dirty-minded English speakers such as myself. Along the way we passed by the former site of United Bowling Alley 統一保齡球館, an abandoned building previously showcased on this very blog. Looks like the wrecking ball finally caught up with it—which means my photos are among the last of this newly vanished place. Neat, I guess. Maybe a little sad. Mostly it’s just how things go here in a country that is busily knocking down old buildings to make way for more modern developments.

Overgrown walls of the old military encampment
Overgrown walls in the old military encampment just below the batteries of Ershawan.

Wandering around Ershawan Battery was pretty cool but I don’t shoot as many photos in places that have been sanitized and manicured for public consumption. My back was also killing me from walking around with a big bag the previous day so it was slow going. Mostly I was keen to scope out a decent place to take a photo of the Port of Keelung, another place that I am quite interested in.

The eastern part of the port of Keelung
The eastern part of the port of Keelung from a lookout at Ershawan.

Back in the courtyard below the gateway to the fort we opted to follow a sign pointing the way to the 18 Arhats Cave 十八羅漢洞, whatever that might be. The trail was so poorly maintained that a small landslide has taken out an entire slice of it—but I rather enjoyed crossing the slippery debris field and making it to the other side. Soon thereafter we crept up an incline, rejoined the paved road system, and found a practice course for scooterists in search of a license. Beyond that was a crumbling entrance to what I figured was the cave temple we were looking for. Turns out I was right—but the temple itself is long-abandoned, the entrance sealed with bricks…

An abandoned and sealed temple in a cave
An abandoned and sealed temple in the hills above Keelung. You know how much I want to see what’s inside, don’t you?

Another abandoned temple in Keelung? Truly, the gods must be laughing at me. I’d love to find out what’s inside, of course, but could see no way of accessing it without a sledgehammer. From what I’ve been able to determine the temple was damaged by the passage of Typhoon Herb in 1996. I haven’t been able to turn up a single photo of what it once looked like. Curiosity will be the death of this night cat!

Derelict statues in the hills above Keelung
Derelict statues above the abandoned cave temple. There is a pond below that is completely unmaintained and overgrown. This was a cool consolation prize.

Further up the hill we found a consolation prize: an overgrown pond with some really awesome set of completely dilapidated buddhist statues, pictured above. Okay, that was worth the price of admission! I will probably do something with the photos from my main camera and post them on this blog some day. (Actually, the same goes for a lot of this material—consider the images in this post to be previews!)

Stone lion, mice, and duck
The Chinese lion guarding the gate to Shenji Temple is joined by a number of other less common characters.

Following the path that led from the tantalizing 18 Arhats Cave we found a shrine to the four-faced “buddha”, Phra Phrom (a deity previously profiled on this blog), and stopped for a quick drink at a mobile cafe blaring saccharine music in all directions (and yes, the coffee was just as sweet). Here we found the real reason we had seen so many parked cars just up the road: this was the entrance to Shèngjì Temple 聖濟宮, evidently a popular place for families to visit on a weekend, as you might guess from the peculiar choice of guardian animals.

Worship the monkey god
The monkey god inside Shengji Temple.

The main deity at Shengji Temple is none other than Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King of Journey To The West fame. I don’t know much about this (yet) so I won’t say much more except to point out that the offering plates on the altar were filled with fresh bananas. I really like it when the offerings match the god somehow, as with the tiger general of Qishan. Apparently it is customary for parents to bring their children to this particular temple—and indeed, we saw many families around, blowing bubbles and running around.

An overview of Ruchuan Village 入船里
An overview of Ruchuan Village before descending from Shengji Temple.

Shengji Temple overlooks Rùchuán Village 入船里, one of many hillside communities scattered around the harbour in Keelung. Many of these communities date back to the Japanese colonial era and, as such, have a similar layout to Jiufen without any of the crowds (or restaurants or other shops for that matter).

An abandoned home in Ruchuan Village
One of many abandoned homes in Ruchuan Village.
Hidden at the back of Ruchuan Village
The abandoned building hidden at the very back of the valley. This is about as far as we went.

Descending into the valley we found many abandoned buildings, some of them quite obscure as they were hidden at the very back of the narrow valley the village occupies. Turns out this place is called Ruchuan Village 入船里 and I ended up doing an entire post about it so click through for more about that.

An amazing bowl of soup at Jinlong Meat Thick Soup 金龍肉羹
An amazing bowl of meaty thick soup at a famous restaurant just outside Ruchuan Village.

Back down on flat ground I noticed Jīnlóng Ròugēng 金龍肉羹, an old-looking shop doing a brisk trade in some kind of meaty thick soup. Having honed my ability to find awesome Taiwanese food in Tainan I figured this was worth trying—and it was! The soup wasn’t actually that thick but it was very, very flavorful. The noodles were also interesting but I couldn’t tell you what they were—apparently the name they gave me is Taiwanese and I’m lousy at remembering these things after only one try.

Back to Miaokou Night Market
Back to the night market! Why not? That’s exactly what the guy driving a scooter through this crowd must have been thinking…
Insane crowds on a Sunday evening at Miaokou Night Market
Sunday is crazy at Miaokou Night Market.
Satanic fried chicken at Miaokou Night Market
Satanic fried chicken at Miaokou Night Market. Hell yeah!

Then it was back to the night market again for more snacks including a tasty bowl of something I can’t really describe at (takes a long breath) Bǎinián Wújiā Dǐngbiāncuò 百年吳家鼎邊銼. I won’t say more except: you should try!

Rice bank on the streets of Keelung
A rice bank on the streets of Keelung not far from the harbour.
The lobby of the Keelung Customs Office
The lobby of the Keelung Customs Office. I am reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut for some strange reason.

Stepping into the lobby of the Keelung Customs Office 財政部關務署基隆關 was intriguing for about a minute. After some sleuthing around I discovered that this is known as the Harbour Building 海港大樓 and it was, as I suspected, built by the Japanese way back in 1934. It has a certain creepy ambiance, does it not? I am reminded of Stanley Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut for some reason.

Renovations progress at the City God Temple 城隍廟
Renovations in progress at the City God Temple fronting onto the harbour. Paint-by-numbers for the door guardians!

Over by the foot of the harbour I noticed one more cool thing: the City God Temple 城隍廟 was undergoing renovations and the door guardians were in the process of being painted. I always assumed these doors were finished in a workshop somewhere and then delivered to a temple—but no, here they are being painted in place, almost like painting by numbers!

Cycling Life Cafe
The last stop: a Japanese-style cafe by the name of Cycling Life. It has nothing to do with bicycles and everything to do with the cycles of life.

The final stop: Cycling Life Cafe 丸角@自轉生活咖啡, another cool little spot to sip single origin coffee and get a bit of work done before heading for the bus station and the brief (45 minute) ride back to Taipei after saying goodbye to my Keelung friend. I’m not sure even I can believe this but it didn’t really start raining until I left! And that’s all for what was meant to be a brief (ha!) summary of an overnight trip to Jinguashi, Jiufen, and Keelung.

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