Vendors sell their wares along Jiufen’s streets. // © 2011 Kabacchi
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Jiufen, Taiwan, may be a bit touristy today, but in the 1890s it was in the midst of a gold rush like the towns of America’s Old West. People came to Jiufen to seek fortunes and settle in this village perched in the mountains above the Pacific Ocean on the Northeast Coast. It wasn’t an easy life for villagers since the terrain is reminiscent of French hill towns with narrow streets that run straight up and down.
The Chinese originally discovered gold in Taiwan, but it was during the Japanese era that gold mining really took off. In fact, Jiufen was so rich in the 1930s that it was nicknamed Little Shanghai. After World War II ended and the Japanese left, Jiufen almost became a ghost town and remained so until 1989 when a film “A City of Sadness” featured this quaint village with its teahouses, Japanese-style homes and narrow streets. In the wake urban modernization, this little village and neighboring Jinguashi were glimpses into Taiwan’s past — and tourists just couldn’t get enough.
Today, clients can visit those two bustling villages and the nearby Gold Ecological Park. This verdant park gives an air-brushed view of what things were like during the occupation. But after visiting Taipei and Jiufen, this quiet park can serve as a zen garden with nature trails, some stretching straight up into the mountains, and attractions including the Crown Prince Chalet and the ruins of the Gold Temple.
Meanwhile, back at Jiufen, tourists get anything but a peaceful walk. They can taste exotic foods and local teas since vendors on both sides of the street offer complimentary samples. On hand are bites of fish balls, gooey candies, black eggs and black peanuts (my favorite), among many other treats. This is a rare opportunity to try local delicacies that can’t be found anywhere else.
In addition to culinary treats, Jiufen’s walkways feature vendors selling everything from Chinese kites and organic soaps to Asian clothing and toys. The lanes are covered and compact, making it easy to see and taste everything.
The place I enjoyed visiting the most was the Jiufen Teahouse, which is housed in a historic building that is more than a century old. It later became a Chinese medicine center and was transformed into a teahouse in 1991. It retains the original features of the house, such as the Japanese-style wooden window frames and wooden doors made from Chinese cypress. Inside, you can buy tea and tea accoutrements or sit on the balcony and drink local tea and enjoy the view. There is also an art gallery with sculptures and paintings by local artists. The teahouse is one of the more tranquil spots in Jiufen and an ideal respite from the noise and hullabaloo.
There are several good restaurants at the end of the main street that offer excellent Chinese food as well as ocean views when it isn’t foggy.
The road back to Taipei along the coast is quite scenic and reminiscent of California’s coastline. One stop that’s particular to Taiwan is the Golden Waterfall, with water colored by the copper and iron deposits it picks up as it passes through the old gold mines.
It’s possible to get to Jiufen by train or car. However, there are many city tours that offer a visit here. With all the narrow winding roads and lack of parking lots, a local tour from Taipei is the best bet.