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Narrow roads, twinkling red lights, old architecture and a quaint way of life makes Jiufen, in Taiwan, something out of a historical, mystical movie--quite literally.

The bus swayed and veered as the driver negotiated the steep, curving mountain roads, and every so often a dramatic view of the sea appeared outside my window. Over an hour after leaving Taipei, the driver finally indicated that it was my stop. I got off and looked around, glad for the cool mountain air after the heat of Taipei. There wasn't much around, just a few homes built into the mountainside as it sloped down to the sea below. Walking up the road, I found a bright 7-11 convenience store, undoubtedly the newest structure for miles. And right by it was the entrance to Jishan Street--the narrow, covered market street that marked the heart of the town. The red lanterns, though not yet lit, immediately reminded me of Hayao Miyazaki's Spirited Away. And although I didn't know it then, like little Chihiro in the movie, I was going to have myself a little magical adventure.

Nestled in the mountains at the northern edge of Taiwan, overlooking the East China Sea, is this little village called Jiufen. The Chinese characters for its name read 'nine' and 'separate' or 'portion', a reference to the time when only nine families lived here. Never on the map until the gold-mining era of the early 1900s, when it prospered under Japanese rule, the village all but disappeared again when the gold rush ended. It was brought back to life by a tourist boom following the success of the 1989 Hou Hsiao-hsien movie A City of Sadness, which was set in Jiufen. It was given another injection of life when Miyazaki used Shuchi Road as the model for the downtown of his fantasy town in the award-winning Spirited Away, and Jiufen carries on its surreal existence till today.

I stepped in to the covered alley and was immediately surrounded by little stores of every kind, selling snacks, drinks, trinkets, clothes, curios, medicines and a whole array of other stuff. There were several sweet shops, all selling boxes of taro balls, the local speciality. Some of the shops made the sweets and other confectionery in glass-windowed mini-bakeries, making the street smell appetisingly of sugar. Women called from the stores, encouraging you to sample their wares. I stopped to get myself some large diced mushrooms in a sauce that looked like soy, but with a tangy taste, and turned down an invitation to buy an acupressure massage stone.

Regardless of the tourist bustle, not everybody was part of this 'new' Jiufen. In one of the stores, an old lady sat ensconced in a sofa at the back, watching something on the television without a care for the potential customers streaming by her storefront. I was intrigued by what looked like spicy shredded chicken on large metal trays at the counter and, thinking it would go fine with some mango juice that I had picked up, I tried to get her attention. After a couple of waves, she noticed me, and came over with a big smile. I asked her if it was chicken, and she said that's exactly what it was--or that's how I interpreted her enthusiastic nod and "yah yah". It turned out to be fried dough! Well, it could have been worse.

Walking further up the gently sloping street, I was soon upon Shuchi Road, which was the second of the two famous streets in Jiufen. This street was more of a long, narrow set of steps, and looking at the red of the dangling lanterns against the dark brown of the old wooden buildings, it is easy to understand why this has inspired artists and filmmakers. I made my way down the steps, weaving between the tourists trying to capture the essence of this enchanting scene on their cameras. It was time for another quintessential Jiufen experience: the teashop.

I was attracted by the dim yellow lights and rickety wooden porch of Beiqing Chengshi, the 'City of Sadness' teashop. The porch was more of a large balcony on stilts, and while the inside of the store was full of curious odds and ends and brimming with character, the warm evening made me take a seat outside. The waitress was a matronly woman who didn't speak English, but spoke Japanese. The menu too had only Chinese and Japanese, much like several other stores here. It was another indication that Jiufen, and possibly Taiwan as a whole, was yet to be really discovered by western tourists. I chose a table overlooking the steps of Shuchi Road, and went over the choice of teas.

The complete experience, of course, is to make your own tea. You choose a tea, and pay for a packet of leaves, and then the waitress shows you what to do. I selected a tea from the Ali-shan mountain in central Taiwan, and the waitress bustled off, leaving me to gaze at the giant mural of a scene from the famous movie on the wall across. Soon, dainty china crockery and a large black kettle--on its own portable fire-pot--appeared on the table. Two china cups were placed in front of me--one shallow and wide-mouthed like a bowl, and the other tall and narrow. The waitress explained that the former was the drinking cup, while the latter was only for smelling the tea!

I watched her put the tea leaves into a small red pot, and then place the pot in a large bowl. Then she poured the hot water over the leaves, put the lid on the pot, and then poured more water over the pot as well. After letting the leaves seep for a while, I was to pour the tea through a strainer into a big ceramic jar, and from that jar into the two cups in front of me. I smelled the tea as she indicated--it smelt much like the various green and yellow Japanese teas. Next, I was to drink it. It was unthinkable to put milk or even sugar in tea like this, and accordingly none was offered. The slightly bitter, clear yellow steaming broth felt just right at sundown after a long day.

The waitress told me that the leaves in the pot was enough for at least two more potfuls of tea, and that the flavour changed every time fresh water was added--it became less bitter, I noticed, or maybe it was my mouth getting used to taste. I was left alone to sip on my tea as dusk fell, and those beautiful red lanterns were slowly lit. I looked down onto Shuchi Road as the footfalls slowly receded as the day-trippers started making their ways back home. After my third pot, I stepped back onto the street, and went down a little further to look up at a most enchanting sight. Jiufen was its most magical when it was lit up like it was that evening. The only lights in the buildings were quaint yellow lamps, and the streets were lit only by the round red lanterns, and in the distance were the dark mountains. It really did seem like a land ready for magic.

I started up the steps and made my way between the old wooden buildings, having the steps almost all to myself. The rushing crowd of the day was gone. I was soon back on Jishan Street, and although it wasn't much past seven, nearly all the stores had their shutters down. There were some food stores still open, but the streets were almost deserted. I made my way back to the entrance of the covered arcade, looking back over my shoulder at the red-lanterned wonderland that I was leaving behind. And as soon as I stepped out on the main road, apart from the incongruous 7-11, my surroundings were completely dark.

For a couple of hours after the sun sets, Jiufen is at its most regal. And then it goes back to being a lonely ghost town, to be awoken again the next day. But in those few hours of grandeur, it shines and enchants like only a magical world can. As I waited for my bus back to Taipei, I couldn't help but feel like Chihiro in the Miyazaki movie. She too had escaped to a fantasy world that looked so much like the one I was in, and yet, as soon as she stepped out, that world disappeared like it never had been there at all. And as more lights were switched off around Jiufen, I saw it slowly disappear in front of me.


Getting there

Delhi-Hong Kong-Taipei on Cathay Pacific. Fare: Rs. 45,000 approx. From Taipei take the train to the Ruifang station, from where Jiufen is about 20 minutes by road.

When to go

It's best to go between October and December. Avoid June to September, the sweltering summer months.

Plus says


Shangri-La Far Eastern Plaza Hotel: In Eastern Taipei, this is a plush option.

Yomi Hotel: Conveniently located in the central Zhongshan area of Taipei.


The local speciality is yuyuan, which are balls made from taro (arbi). Also popular are fish balls and assorted cakes made from mountainous herbs. Drink tea! There are a few old-style teashops on both Jishan St and Shuchi Rd.


Browse through several souvenir shops on Jishan St. There is a unique chocolate shop, which has alphabet-shaped chocolate so you can spell out your message in chocolate!


Head to nearby Jinguashi, another former gold mine which also served as a notorious POW camp during WWII.


Hiking around jiufen

Those who feel there isn't enough to do in Jiufen can head to the nearby Mount Jilong peak for some light adventure. Trek up to the height of roughly 588m, to this peak that divides Jiufen and Jinguashi. Sweeping views of the city of Taipei and northeast coast seascape await you at the end. You can climb to the peak in about 40 minutes.

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Playing games

Wii Fit package at the Shangri-La Taipei at Rs. 13,000 per night (approx) gets you an X-box game console, breakfast, wine, internet and more.

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Publication:India Today Travel Plus
Date:Sep 1, 2009
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