Stumbling from Taipei to Shihtoushan

a brown sign in english and mandarin characters pointing towards Chuan Hua Hall, Lion's Head Mountain
Arriving. After a confusing and pleasant journey, I reach the parking lot and see this sign showing the way to Chuan Hua Tang, the hall where I will be staying and eating while I visit Lion’s Head Mountain

More so in places like Taiwan, and less so in places like wherever your job interview is, it can be very enjoyable to have no idea how long it will take to get yourself from Point A to Point B. There is definitely merit (and logic…and responsible thinking…) to looking it up on Google Maps, but then there’s a bit less mystery wrapped up in the whole “the journey is the destination” thing.

Google map of the journey from Taipei Train Station to Lion's Head Mountain in Taiwan
When I did finally look it up (for this post), Google Maps made me a lovely map. There’s no scale but the blue line as drawn is about 130km. The accurate destination is a bit to the NE of the destination pin.

Sometimes, circumstances get extra luxurious – you don’t even feel the need to set your alarm for the morning of your departure. You can wake up, pack up and show up. Based on the map, there’s no way you can’t cover that distance before dark, right?

Yeah, right, sometimes. I wasn’t burned this time, but this post is all about how I took seven hours to cover a distance of about 130 km and almost didn’t get there that day at all. It’s a longer post, but I guarantee it takes less than seven hours to read.

snacks for a train ride in Taiwan, dried mangos and popcorn
Protip for a day that involves multiple trips on the short train rides: Snacks. There are more 7-11s here than in Canada, but without a plan you might find yourself rushing to make a connection.

My journey from Taipei to Lion’s Head Mountain (Shihtoushan) was to me almost as interesting and exciting as the time I spent there. I had just arrived from Canada, and so it was my first time doing two things that would come to define my daily life in Taiwan: Train travel, and being stoked on strangers.


1) Take the train from Taipei to Hsinchu

2) Stash gear in the Hsinchu Station Baggage Room

3) Take the train from Hsinchu to Zhunan

4) Take a bus from Zhunan to some point along the road near Lion’s Head Mountain, which the bus driver will apparently know, if I play charades with them successfully

5) Hike up to a magical temple experience

a blue notebook that says Dream Big
I’m sans smart phone, I had the game plan and a few hilarious attempts at writing out key names in Mandarin characters in this notebook. More notably it’s also full of notes and well wishes from friends in Calgary.

Reality: It actually worked that way, kind of.

1) Taipei to Hsinchu: On The Delights Of The Auto Ticket Machine

I’m not being sarcastic – I think these things are great. No audio cues (which I wouldn’t understand anyway); the buttons are bilingual and the lights flash at you, in an intuitive way, at each step. After your first time, it’s a breeze. Impress your new travel buddies and pretend you haven’t done it before.

But let’s back up. I had help my first time. It took me approximately forty seven seconds of staring at one of the machines to be assisted by a man named Spring and his son. Well, his son did not assist me. He spent most of the time looking pretty disgruntled about the situation and not making eye contact with me. But his Dad was nice and we talked for a while on the platform while we waited for the train. I still haven’t decided how awkward I made the situation by bringing up the Cultural Revolution during our chat (Note: The Taiwanese I have met since are generally very keen to talk about the contemporary history of ROC and PRC).

Automatic train ticket machine at Taipei Train station with train destinations and buttons
Okay, here’s the auto vendor in all of its glory. Like a slot machine, you need coins. Unlike a slot machine, it gets you to where you need to go.

This leg of the journey passed by completely without incident or obstacle. The ‘local class’ trains for short distances look like a subway with baggage racks. The upcoming stop pans across a small light board. I had a seat for part of the 1.5 hour journey to Hsinchu, and the trip cost me about 60NT ($2.50 CAD). Best of all, the man sitting beside me eavesdropped on some nearby Taiwanese grandmas, and told me to follow them around Hsinchu to eat where they planning on going.

I can’t move on without mentioning my love affair with the nifty little tickets these auto vendors produce.

a small train ticket from Hsinchu to Zhunan
You can’t keep them, they get sucked up by the turnstiles when you exit the station.

2) The Hsinchu Baggage Room: On Losing (a bit of) Your Dignity In A Dark Room

Leaving behind stuff at train stations looks to be a big deal for people here in Taiwan. For 30NT per day you can simeultaneously have a less-sweaty back, and hit fewer unsuspecting train passengers in the face with the straps of your monstrous backpack. But that’s not all…for a limited time, you also get the opportunity to exercise your trust muscles, as your bag is placed into a big open room and you leave without really knowing if the door is ever closed or not. Or, for the skittish and/or non-over-packers, there’s many, many smaller lockers around.

I walked up to the Hsinchu Baggage Room, thinking “I should probably shuffle my stuff around before I go in there.” That didn’t happen, and consequently both the staff and I got more than we bargained for. For me, it was receiving the watchful gaze of a bag tetris cheer squad that formed around me. A woman who spoke a bit of English was even summoned from elsewhere to help translate and take part in the festivities. In return, they got to see in technicolor detail the contents of a flustered Canadian girl’s toiletries, clothes and undergarments spread out on the concrete floor. And, of course, I also provided them with a good mime show.

I talked a bit about packing mishaps in my earlier post: Not Enough Socks in Shihtoushan, Taiwan. A combination of some things I needed, and others I didn’t, all got jammed into my 30L “daypack” (it’s a lot of daypack. But I lug it around for side trips exactly like this). I’d highly recommend you do not lug up monstrous amounts of luggage to Shihtoushan.

sign for the baggage storage room at Hsinchu Train Station
Unsurprisingly this is where I slide in a photo of the Hsinchu Baggage Lair

3) Hsinchu to Zhunan: On Sticking To More Memorable Parts Of The Story

I expected to take a train from Hsinchu to Zhunan, and I took the train from Hsinchu to Zhunan. It didn’t take long, I didn’t get on the wrong train, and I had enough snacks.

4) The Bus From Zhunan to Nanzuhuang Visitor Centre: On Being Polite

“I’m going to Shihtoushan…..uh, Lion’s Head Mountain? Shih…tou…shan?” Generally, take it as a bad sign when you aren’t making much progress and have no way to explain your destination other than saying the same word repeatedly in different ways. It’s obnoxious. Just, please, don’t try saying it louder.

See, the problem is that Shihtoushan, Lion’s Head Mountain, is just that…it’s a mountain. It’s a big mountain with temples, halls, walking trails and roads built around both sides of it. There’s multiple entrances to the trails; you can enter from the mouth or the tail, so to speak. I still don’t know which is which. So in hindsight it was understandably confusing for me to say, without any furthur explanation or vocabulary, “hello (helpful Taiwanese person)…mountain! Please!”

trees clinging to a cliff at Lion's Head Mountain
I’m still not really sure where the top of Lion’s Head Mountain is…but it’s somewhere up there.

But, we made progress. I collected maps. I collected bus schedules. Things were highlighted for me. I said xiexie, a lot. I was sent to the tourist bus stop down the street. I had a new plan, I was going to catch the last bus of the day to the Nanzuhuang Visitor Centre, and from there I’d transfer to another bus to the Lion’s Head Mountain Visitor Centre. The bus schedule said that I’d be too late for the transfer, but I chose to ignore that. Zhunan to me boasted nothing more than a large statue of an irate purple man. I did not want to spend the night. More snacks were purchased.

a map and bus schedule for Lion's Head Mountain
Tourist map and bus schedule for visiting Lion’s Head Mountain. I love paper maps almost as much as I love paper books.

The flip side of being polite is that sometimes your bus leaves. The bus, my portal to success, was parked a distance up the street from the stop. I was early, and lurked slowly up to the window. Inside, the young driver was having a smoke and shooting off some texts. Not wanting to disturb her, I went back to patiently waiting at the stop, exactly as instructed. And, at the exact scheduled time, the bus drove away.

Statue of angry looking red man with black beard in Zhunan, Taiwan
Strange sights in Zhunan. This man is built on the top of Wǔgǔ xiāndì gōng, a temple

Here’s where things got awesome. For a few too many seconds I harboured the hope that the bus was just making a loop around back to the stop. The window to run after it soon passed.

Another bus driver, also on her break in a public bus, called me over from where I was standing on the road, feeling perplexed and also glad that along with the bus, the pushy guy who had previously offered to drive me was gone. Not only did she call my driver back, she also offered me her umbrella for the mountains. And then I was off to Nanzhuang, not the side of the road.

The empty interior of a Nanzhuang Tourist Bus in Taiwan with pink curtains and cartoon fish carpet
I think that the emptiness of the Nanzhuang Tourist Bus made it a bit easier for the driver to accommodate me. Perk #57 of mid-week, off-season travelling.

5) Nanzhuang to Chuanhua(tang) Hall: On Flexi-Pinyin

At the outset, Nanzhuang looked like a better place to spend the night, but I hadn’t given up yet on making it to my destination. No, the schedule wasn’t wrong, I had missed the transfer. People gathered around, chatting about my situation. A ranger dressed as an adult boyscout translated intermittently. No, I couldn’t walk from here. Yes, there’s a hotel in the town. Yes, we understand you want to go to the mountain, but it has a head and a tail, which part do you want to go to? Where will you sleep when you get there?

I knew where rooms on/in/around(?) Shihtoushan were to be had. Chuan Hua Hall.

Pinyin is the system that Taiwan uses to spell out Mandarin characters with the Roman alphabet. China uses it as well. In Taiwan, Pinyin is a life saver for the non-polyglots like me that visit, but I’d like to emphasize that Pinyin spellings can vary between websites, signposts, and maps.

I was fixated on the fact that there were places to sleep at Chuan Hua Hall, so much so that it took me a laughable amount of time to realize that one of the stops listed on my Visitor Information sheet, Chuan hua tang Temple, was in fact the same place. Pinyin in Taiwan, it’s like geology, there can be a range of interpretations. Be warned.

After the friendly powwow was assured I wasn’t sending myself off to winter camp in the mountain jungle, I was offered a ride by a family who have the same car as my parents – a CRV – except that it was completely done up in leopard-print seat covers.

Me in leopard print pants in British Columbia, Canada
Leopard doesn’t often steer me wrong. Note: This photo not representative of the mountains of northern Taiwan in winter.

6) The Non Hike: On Missing The Forest For The Trees

I left my friendly adoptive Taiwanese family in a parking lot at the base of the many steps that led up to ChuanHua Hall/Chuanhuatang Temple. They looked unsure about abandoning me by myself, but I gave them some over-enthusiastic fake lunges to quell their fears. And, with a sigh of relief and a bit of disbelief that I had actually made it here in a day, I trudged up steps and through eerie fake caves to find myself a room at the temple.

imitation logs and caves at Shihtoushan Lion's Head Mountain
Someone must have decided that the real caves just weren’t cutting it at Shihtoushan, so they also built fake ones that you can walk through and feel kind of creeped out but also kind of like you’re at Disneyland.

I had spent the whole day traveling “alone'” but it really was a joint effort between myself and, like, 17 people along the way. If anything it was me who put in the least useful efforts. Notably, the only time in the day that I was actually in solitude was the 10 minute walk up to ChuanHua Hall from the safari CRV.

Getting from Taipei to Shihtoushan in a day is very reasonable. Obviously, there are many measures I could have taken to tighten up the trip time. This was, as I refer to it, “The Leisure Edition.”

The four key learnings I took away from the experience were:

1) Visit as many Visitor Information Booths as you can (Friendly! Enthusiastic! Printed Maps!)

2) Bus transport to the Lion’s Head Mountain Area stops at around 3:30 in the afternoon (at least, in the winter)

3) Store what you don’t need at a train station

4) People are helpful, but make sure you have an adequate description of where you want to go (a map helps!)

Epilogue: Feeling like I had missed out on the whole ‘hike in’ element of the journey to Shihtoushan, I opted to walk out on the Shihshan Historic Trail when I left a few days later. It’s also worth a mention that upon reflection I am actually still unsure as to where the head, tail, or peak of Lion’s Head Mountain actually are, but I suspect I got pretty close.


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