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Monday, November 2, 2009

Do you mine?

Back from an overnight visit to a part of Taiwan's Japanese-era past, and time to write about it. We spent this weekend in Chinkuashih (Kinkaseki) 金瓜石 and Chiufen 九份, located in the northeastern part of Taiwan, not far from the capital, T'aipei 台北. Both towns are closely-connected to Taiwan's mining era (gold in the case of Chiufen, copper and silver for Chinkuashih), and were home to tens of thousands of people during the boom years. Eventually, however, the cost of extracting the precious metals became too prohibitive, and the area was forgotten until being rediscovered by tourists, starting in the 1990's. Now, Chiufen has become too popular. Chinkuashih is the better of the two at retaining something of its original atmosphere, but it also draws a lot of visitors (there was a constant stream of buses running along the narrow mountainside roads while we were there). Nonetheless, both are worth a visit, especially Chinkuashih for its excellent Gold Ecological Park 黃金博物園區.


TAIPEI 101 could be seen from the car as we drove through Taipei on the way to Chinkuashih. We arrived there in the early afternoon, and searched for our B&B, Lucky House . We eventually found it, but only after driving down some very tight-fitting lanes. After checking in, we walked over to the Gold Ecological Park. It was a somewhat long, tiring walk for Pamela and Amber (one doesn't like exercise, and the other is still a few months shy of four years old), going up steep staircases and walking along narrow, busy streets, but the scenery was refreshing. Should you decide to visit Chinkuashih and/or Chiufen, I strongly recommend using public transportation instead of マイカー, as the bus system for getting there and around is excellent.

On the way to the park, we passed this building with a replica Zero fighter 零戦 on it!

The Gold Ecological Park is well laid-out, and has a lot to see. We only had a couple of hours of daylight left by the time we arrived, but still managed to visit the Crown Prince Chalet, the Gold Temple, the Penshan Fifth Tunnel Experience Area and the Gold Museum. The Crown Prince Chalet was built in 1922 for Hirohito's 昭和天皇 visit in 1923 (at a time when he was still Crown Prince 皇太子). Hirohito made it to Taiwan but not to Chinkuashih, but the house is still a good example of distinctive Japanese architecture (albeit in a Taiwanese setting):

The misnamed "Gold Temple" is the former Ōgon-jinja 黄金神社 (places of Shintō 神道 worship are always called "shrines", and not "temples", the latter being associated with Buddhism 仏教). Only a few ruins remain of Ōgon Shrine, but they are incredibly atmospheric, and the walk up the steep hillside is rewarded with great views of Chinkuashih in the valley below:

The Penshan Fifth Tunnel Experience Area is a tour of a 180-meter (600 feet) section of an old mine, and includes several wax dummies illustrating what working conditions were like for the miners. Hardhats were required:

The Gold Museum gives a good overview of Chinkuashih's mining history, and also includes accounts of what it was like for the Allied prisoners at the Kinkaseki POW camp (more on that later). The most popular attraction at the museum was definitely the 220-kilogram (485 pounds) gold bar, the world's largest, worth roughly NT244 million ($7.5 million or ¥670 million at current prices), according to an electronic counter in front of the bar's case. I didn't get a photo, unfortunately, but I was able to reach inside the case and touch it. Following dinner at a Japanese restaurant (how apropos!), we walked back in the dark to our 民宿 and retired for the night.

The following morning turned out to be rainy and misty. It always seems to rain whenever we visit the northern part of Taiwan, and this trip was no exception. Nonetheless, we were still able to get out and enjoy the sights. After breakfast and checkout, we drove past the Gold Ecological Park to Ch'uanchi Temple. Aside from a 35-meter (115 feet) high statue of Guan Di 关帝 (which looked eerie in the fog), the temple was your run-of-the-mill Taoist house of worship, but below it was a nice little park built on the ruins of the aforementioned POW camp. During the Second World War, the Japanese operated fifteen such camps around Taiwan for Allied prisoners-of-war. Working conditions were appalling, brutality at the hands of the Japanese and Taiwanese guards was a fact of daily life and roughly 10% of the POW's didn't survive the ordeal. Kinkaseki was the biggest of these camps, and the only one that I'm aware of where the unhappy past is acknowledged - there is a memorial in the park with the following inscription:

"In memory of the more than 1000 gallant men of the British Commonwealth and Allied forces, who suffered brutal and savage treatment here and in the nearby copper mine, and other places in Taiwan, as prisoners of war of the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. Their souls remain here forever. 'None of us should forget.' "

None of us shouldn't:

From there, we drove over to the other side of the hills to Chiufen. Here is the classic Taiwanese tourist trap - an old street chock full of small restaurants, snack stands and souvenir shops catering to the hordes of day trippers arriving from Taipei and beyond (including Japan, from snippets of conversation I overhead while there, not to mention the proliferation of Japanese signs). There's more to Chiufen, of course, than just eating, but for the couple of hours we were there today, we didn't venture beyond Chinshan Street. This was actually my second visit to Chiufen (and Chinkuashih). The first time was in 2001, during the Lunar New Year 春節 holidays. Back then, Pamela and I arrived there in the morning, and walked along some of the picturesque streets, then left before things became too crowded. We then went to Chinkuashih, where at that time there were only a handful of tourists (this was before the Gold Ecological Park had been established). Chiufen has atmosphere, but like many places in Taiwan, it's probably best visited during weekdays. If you have to visit on a weekend, I suggest staying a night - that way you can enjoy the narrow streets and lanes after most of the hordes have stuffed themselves and gone home, and enjoy some of the other sights, like walking up to the top of Mount Chilung, the following morning before the town is transformed into a human zoo. Maybe one of these days I might actually follow my own advice, too!:

Even in blustery conditions, the views from Chiufen were excellent!

We left Chiufen just after lunchtime (the precious parking space we had managed to procure in a local's garage was only paid up for two hours), and drove down to the coast so that Amber could have a look at the ocean. Mission accomplished, we made the drive back home to Fengyuan 豐原, thankfully arriving ahead of the usual late Sunday afternoon freeway traffic jams. Time to start considering the next overnight excursion. I already have a few ideas...




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