Shifen feels like stepping back in time.
World famous for an old train that passes down the middle of its main street and for its Sky Lantern Festival, visitors to Taiwan flock to Shifen in hope of decorating and releasing their own lantern into the sky for good luck.
When I saw photos of lanterns floating up to the sky, and the cascading force of Taiwan’s biggest waterfall, I knew I had to see both for myself.
You can get to Jiufen and Shifen by train, which requires making a few transfers, but I opted to take a Klook shuttle.
It wasn’t very expensive (under $20 USD), and meant I didn’t have to do any planning. The shuttle isn’t a guided tour- just a van that takes you from Taipei to Juifen, and then onward to Shifen before returning you to the city.
Once you arrive in each destination, you’re told a time to be back at the van and then given a few hours to explore. The best part of the shuttle in the rainy season means you don’t have to spend time wading through heavy downpours to find a train station or bus stop.
To say I was sold would be an understatement.
The other reason I opted to take the shuttle was I’d heard the return train ride to Ruifang from Shiufen could be packed with tales from people who said they weren’t able to board their trains, and found themselves stuck in Shifen with an expensive taxi as their only transport option.
I also know people who haven’t had any issue taking the train, but with the forecasted downpours, and knowing I needed to be back in Taipei that evening, I decided to spend a bit more than I would if I took public transit, and booked a shuttle.
Our first stop of the day was Jiufen, a misty mountain town with some seriously good eats.
After a few hours exploring Jiufen’s winding, cobbled alleyways, and sipping hot tea while watching rain hover sway over mountains, it was time to head to Shifen.
This part of Taiwan is definitely an area you could spend several days exploring if you have the time. Pingxi rail tickets allow you to stop at different towns and villages. The only thing to note: Trains don’t run regularly, so be sure to note departure times at the stations.
If you decide to go by train, I’d also recommend going on a weekday. I visited on a weekday, and can’t even fathom the kind of crowds towns in this region, like Jiufen and Shifen, must experience on a weekend.
Arriving in Shifen, our shuttle dropped us below the old town.
The town itself isn’t very big, and reminded me of Hanoi’s train street. Small, narrow shops crowded together on either side of train tracks.
It seems the train in Shifen runs much more often than the train street in Hanoi- it came through twice while I was in the town.
When the train approaches, its horn sounds and everyone jumps back from the tracks. Only then, does the train proceed to creak its way down the tracks
The main reason many people are drawn to Shifen though, is to release a lantern.
I loved watching families, friends and couples choose their paper lanterns, paint their good wishes onto the sides and them release them into the air.
The colour you choose is associated with particular things you want to wish for (love, health, wealth), which I found interesting.
The practice of releasing lanterns is an interesting one.
Legend has it, when Shifen was a gold mining town, it was a target for robbers. With men away at work, women and children would hide in the nearby mountain caves when the robbers came to attack.
Eventually, someone would check to see if it was safe to return to town. If it was, they lit a lantern and set it loose so others, still in the caves would see it.
Today, the practice of lighting lanterns for prosperity continues.
I chose not to participate because I’m not wild about the impact the hundreds of lanterns that must be released daily has on the environment. Burning aside, I was told the Taiwanese government pays locals to collect the lanterns, but I’m certain there’s no way of getting every one.
One other word of caution- be careful if you decide to set a lantern loose or even watch nearby. If the lanterns don’t have enough hot air in them when they try to set them loose to float, they fall back down. I witnessed a fair amount of flaming lanterns flipping over, coming dangerously close to falling directly on people and buildings.
There’s also great food to be found on Shifen’s old street. Having just come from Jiufen, I wasn’t particularly hungry but couldn’t deny how great the dumplings and peanut ice cream rolls looked.
I didn’t see any signs for toilets while in Shifen, but also didn’t go into any cafes or restaurants, which I’m sure have them.
After spending about an hour wandering old town and watching people set their lanterns free to the sky, it was time to head over to Shifen waterfall.
Close to town, the waterfall is a five minute drive or 20-30 minute walk.
The shuttle I took dropped us off near the entrance, then it was a 10 minute walk to the falls.
Shifen waterfall is often described as the most beautiful in all of Taiwan. 40 meters tall, and free to visit, to get to the falls, you walk through a gorge and along a river. The scenery sets the tone for being awestruck by the magnificence of the falls.
Nicknamed Little Niagra for its horseshoe shape, the falls are insanely beautiful.
We had an hour to wander the falls, but I wish we had more time.
There are a few well kept trails around the falls, making it easy to work in a bit of hiking, and see the falls from different angles.
If you’re hungry while visiting, there are your typical tourist-esque food vendors- I’d much rather eat in Jiufen or Shifen. And, there are toilet facilities along the trail to the falls (squat potties only). If you need a Western-style toilet, you’ll find one in the restaurant near the start of the path to the falls.
It’s hard to visit Shifen and not feel moved by the magic of it.
An ancient ritual of lantern releasing still in practice today, and gorgeous, thundering falls, reminding us of the beauty and power of nature?
A perfect escape from the busyness of Taipei to see another part of Taiwan, and understand a bit more about Taiwanese culture.
Have you ever dreamt of visiting Taiwan or been interested in planning a trip to this tiny, yet gorgeous island?