Between the Mountains and Sea: Jiufen and Houtong

To get ready for going to Jiufen today, we watched half of Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s City of Sadness last night after prying open four beers on a door hinge and the plug of a hairdryer.  (FYI, convenience stores in Taipei don’t seem to sell bottle openers.)

The film takes place in Jiufen around the time of the Japanese surrender and the return of Taiwan to Chinese sovereignty, and it covers issues of Taiwanese independence both from mainland China and Japan from the perspective of the relatively apolitical Lin family.

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It was an experience to see the same streets and ocean views seemingly unchanged since the film.  Apparently Jiufen is an old mining town that saw a big revival after the popularity of City of Sadness.  I so wish I had a better understanding of Taiwanese history, but it really struck me standing on an outlook watching people smoke casually.    Part of the movie depicted the February 28 Incident where a dispute between a contraband cigarette vendor and the Tobacco Monopoly Bureau led to a lethal crackdown by the Nationalist government, the massacre of civilians, and the beginning of the White Terror period of violent martial law.  Standing in the same place as that kind of history with such a deep contrast between then and now is humbling and something that I don’t think I can put into words.

I remember going to Israel when I was little and my dad talking about how he felt the weight of history in Jerusalem, and the awe of walking on the same ground as so many sacred and political events.  Although it’s a vastly different environment and I don’t have the personal connection that my dad did to Israel, I imagine it’s a similar feeling–the feeling of being both very, very small and somehow bigger than an individual by grace of being a witness to such a vast expanse of human history.

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Of course, Jiufen is also really popular now for its role in inspiring the location of Spirited Away, which has its own dealings in spirituality and the weight of humanity.

While we were waiting for the bus to Jiufen my friend’s mom texted and advised us to be careful not to get spirited away.  Initially we laughed, but in fact something vaguely along those lines did happen.

The way it went down was…

img_4211We wandered away from Jiufen old street and in the direction of the coast, down winding, narrow roads through unassuming hostels and little shuttered apartments.  Just when we figured we should turn back to the main part of town, a dog went running past us.

We continued along for a bit, and the dog loped back towards us, sniffing around in the bushes until we reached it.  Then, it took off again until it reached the end of a trail leading uphill from Songde Park.

And there it waited.

We joked that maybe it wanted us to follow it, and when we reached the dog it started going up the hill, looking back at us.

So okay, why not follow the dog for a bit.  That would be funny, we thought, if the dog spirited us away.

img_4171But we kept climbing, and the dog kept waiting for us, and the trail got more and more remote.  The forest, saturated with deep greens and tangled thickly, gave way to mountain grass whipping in the wind, hissing in waves.  Jiufen got smaller, and the ocean got bigger.

img_4173Eventually we lost our dog friend, and we came across a sign.  One way pointed to the Diantai Electric Tower.  The other way pointed to Houtong, 2080 meters away.  2080 meters wasn’t so far, we thought.  And we’re near the top of the mountain so at least it won’t be uphill.  We turned a corner, out of the grasses and straight into more tropical growth, this time cascading down a ravine whose end was far, far below, at a river where we could hear trains periodically roll past.

img_4174So we climbed down, and down, and down, not knowing where or what Houtong was, too far to return to Jiufen and uninterested in retracing our steps when we could be sliding down the other side of the mountain.

About halfway down we reached a small temple in which there were notebooks sealed into a zippered plastic folder with notes from previous hikers.  One enthusiastic Irishman recommended following the signs to the Cukang Watchtower, about 100 meters out of the way.

When we reached it we followed the signs into a flatness of mud preceding a narrow path choked with ferns and thick roots.  Skirting along the edge of another ravine, we climbed a bit to a small outlook that gave out way over the river.  In the distance we could see the ocean, and we climbed down from the outlook to the edge of a cliff, perching on a rock and looking down.  We could see the trains from there, curving around a lower mountain and disappearing into tunnels, and the river, which flowed quickly over rocky outbreaks studding the surface.

img_4176The plants in this part of Taiwan are gorgeous and lush, growing bunched together, leaves and flowers and branches and trees of so many varieties all creating a fortress of greenery.

img_4179They’ve largely reclaimed the old houses in this part of the mountain, one of which I climbed into a bit to find pushed in windows and empty doorframes.

img_4180They pushed me down and off the wall I climbed to take this picture.

After climbing more, we finally reached the bottom, running off a slanted asphalt drive and coming to a stop where the road from Houtong continued to the ocean.  Since Houtong was the closest train station, we headed in that direction.

Along the way, we found that Houtong was also the site of Cat Village, which we had seen on Google Maps before leaving for Taiwan, and so we figured if we were already headed in that direction we might as well stop there too.

Besides, what better way to end a quest that started with a dog than in a cat village?

I suppose it’s easy enough to find reviews of the cat village.  We were quite impressed, and Rebecca petted many cats while I admired the symmetry some people seemed to find in the cats they chose to pet.  It’s funny how certain people and certain animals match each other so well.

In the end, it’s lucky that our dog friend spirited us away because getting to the other side of the mountain from Jiufen by bus is a giant pain and it is in fact slightly more convenient to just walk across the mountain yourself.  Getting the train back from Houtong is also really easy, and I fell into a strange and dream-filled sleep on the way back.

If you go to Jiufen, I can’t promise that you will also find a dog guide, but I suppose it’s an interesting place in spite of the wild tourism for it’s connection to history and for it’s really stunning views of the little rocky islands, corrugated coastline, and ocean.

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