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Sunday, March 2, 2008

Taking the train to Byōritsu 苗栗へ電車に乗っている

One of the things I really enjoyed doing when I was living in Japan was riding the trains. Maybe it had to do with the fact that, growing up in California, I never had the chance to do so (Sacramento's サクラメント light rail ライトレール system went into operation after I had gone away to college at UC Davis カリフォルニア大学デービス校), but whatever the reason, I loved traveling around Japan by rail. Living in Taiwan, however, I don't get to take trains very often, as Fengyuan (Fongyuan) 豊原 is small enough to get around on scooter, and we have the family car for longer excursions. But Amber seems to like trains, and recently I've decided she should have more opportunities to get on board them. So on this fine Sunday, we parked the car close to Fengyuan Station 豊原駅, and caught the 12:46pm local 普通, bound for the city of Miaoli 苗栗, 35 minutes away.

 
Our train as it was pulling into the station.

There weren't many passengers on the ride north to Miaoli, and Amber had a lot of fun looking out of the window. She got really excited when the train pulled into San'i (Sanyi) 三義. The opposite platform was crowded with people, many of whom began waving and smiling at Amber when they saw her looking at them through the window of our car. Our daughter must have felt like a queen!

Once in Miaoli, we looked around for a place to eat, but it wasn't easy. Usually, Taiwanese cities have very active downtown areas, but Miaoli's was dead on this Sunday. Pamela remarked that her hometown of Hsiluo (Siluo) 西螺 might be smaller, but is a lot more にぎやか than Miaoli. Eventually, we found a small hole-in-the-wall eatery that was open, and had lunch. This establishment was decorated in Snoopy スヌーピ pictures, a theme that wouldn't raise an eyebrow in Japan, which is full of unique cafes and small restaurants, the decor of which reflect the interests and passions of the owner. In Taiwan, however, such places are uncommon, at least in smaller towns and cities like Miaoli. The food was pretty standard local fare, but good.

The street pictured on the right is a section Miaoli's Chung-cheng (Jhong-jheng) Road 中正路, near the train station, which should be the main drag in any Taiwanese city. Where's the traffic? Where are the people?

Following lunch, we walked over to the "Miao-lie Rolling Stock Exhibition" 鉄路博物館, a free, open-air train museum. Neither the Lonely Planet ロンリープラネット or Rough Guides books to Taiwan mention this place (let alone Miaoli), but I found out about it from my Japanese guidebook on Taiwan, 地球の歩き方台湾 ('05-'06 edition), which had this to say:

日本統治時代に使用されていた古い蒸気機関車や、最近まで使われていたディーゼル機関車にサトウキビや木村の運搬に活躍していた日本製の小型蒸気機関車など10台ほどが展示されている。

Which basically says that about 10 trains, including old steam locomotives from the Japanese colonial period, and more recent diesel trains that were used for such purposes as transporting sugar cane, are on display. I hadn't checked the guidebook closely, for it also said the museum was closed on weekends, but the gate wasn't locked, so the three of us went in for a look. Unless you're a trainspotter 鉄道ファン, or happen to live relatively close by (like we do), it's probably not worth the trip to Miaoli, but it's still an interesting museum nonetheless.


It was the middle of the afternoon by the time we returned to Miaoli Station, and we had a choice to make about the trip back to Fengyuan. I wanted to stick around for another hour in order to catch the 4:45pm local, but Pamela preferred we take the earlier 4:06 limited express ("Tzu-Ch'iang" or "Zih-Ciang" in Chinese, roughly equivalent to 特急 trains in Japan). I knew the express would be crowded, whereas we stood a good chance of sitting down on the local, but as Pamela pointed out, Fengyuan was the next stop after Miaoli on the Tzu-Chiang, so what was 28 minutes of relative discomfort? So we stood in line to buy tickets from the window, and herein lies one of two examples of how train service in Taiwan, though relatively efficient, lags behind that in Japan. Because most ticket vending machines don't accept notes (there were actually a couple of machines inside Miaoli Station that gave change for paper money, but hardly anyone was using them), it's often the case that you have to stand in a long line in order to buy tickets from a ticket window. You have to tell the worker your destination and how many tickets you need, hand over your money, then receive your tickets and change. It's much like the 緑の窓口 in Japan, except that you have to do it more often in Taiwan because there are more types of trains that require reserved seat tickets (though standing is allowed, of course).

The other complaint I have concerns time. Our train back to Fengyuan was 7 minutes late arriving in Miaoli, which is usual in Taiwan. I know that's no big deal compared to some parts of the world, but I got spoiled by Japanese trains, which are so punctual, you could almost set your watch to them. And as I feared, the Tzu-Chiang was standing-room only, but we were fortunate to stand right next to the door, which made it easy for Amber to sit down on the step, and to get off the train once we got to Fengyuan.

Some of the scenery along the route between Miaoli and Fengyuan.

Amber taking a breather on the floor, and the Tzu-Chiang getting ready to pull out of Fengyuan, on the way to its final destination 終点 in Kaohsiung (Gaosyong) 高雄.

Now to start planning where to go next...

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