Saturday, October 24, 2015

Keelung Mountain (基隆山)

Banping Shan, Jinguashi, and the Bitou Cape coast
2 kilometerss round trip, 270 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate; direct uphill on a stair climb
Access: Frequent public transit to Jiufen from Taipei

Keelung Mountain (Jilong Shan) is a massive green hill that towers over the former mining town of Jiufen in northeast Taiwan and over the waves of the great Pacific. It is recognizable from a distance from throughout the northeast coast as it stands alone, separated from the other coastal peaks. Unsurprisingly, the peak delivers a 360-degree panorama of the green coastline of northeast Taiwan, the tourist towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi, and the steep mountains at the northern terminus of the Snow Mountain Range. The peak is popular with the tourist hordes that crowd Jiufen, so expect plenty of company.

This is less a hike than it is a stair-climb, as stone stairs seem to be preferred over single-track switchbacks for ascending steep slopes in Taiwan. This has its advantages: the trail is extraodinarily straightforward, simply following the southwest ridge of the mountain to the summit. On the flip side, this isn't so much a traditional hike as it is a stairmaster workout. The summit is unfortunately crowned with some transmission towers, but this doesn't detract too much from the views. The hike can easily be combined with a hike up nearby Teapot Mountain at Jinguashi for a day of hiking along the northeast coast.

Jiufen is a former gold mining town in a spectacular setting on a saddle between Keelung Shan and the ridges of the Snow Mountain Range to the south; after mining ended, the town caught the attention of local filmmakers, who revitalized interest in the town with the Taiwanese movie City of Sadness. The town now attracts many foreign tourists, who visit its old temples, climb to Shinto shrines, eat taro dumplings in the small shops on the Jiufen Old Street, and dine in the retro teahouses.

There are many ways of getting to the Jiufen from Taipei; I recommend taking the direct bus from Taipei. To catch this bus, get off at the Zhongxiao Fuxing MRT station on the Bannan MRT line and wait for Keelung Bus 1062 heading to Jinguashi outside exit 1. The fare is around 100 NT (~US$3) as of late 2014; take the bus for over an hour until it reaches the center of Jiufen. Alternately, you can take a bus or train to the town of Ruifang and catch a bus towards Jiufen from the Ruifang train station; trains are a little more expensive. Coming back in the evening was a pain during my visit: few tourists take the early buses from Taipei to Jiufen, but everyone is trying to get on a bus from Jiufen back to Taipei at 5 or 6 PM; I ended up having to wait an hour to get on a bus to Ruifang and then took another bus from there back to Taipei.

The bus stop at Jiufen is on one of the many switchbacks that the road takes through the town. To get to the Keelung Mountain trailhead, follow the road uphill, making a switchback at a 7-11. The road is narrow with no shoulders, so be careful when heading up; after passing 7-11, go to the end of the next switchback, where a staircase breaks off to the left of the road. Head up the staircase to start the hike.

View of Keelung Shan from trailhead
The only somewhat flat section of the hike is at the very beginning, where there's a slight lull before the trail becomes just stairs. Not far from the trailhead, a viewing platform offers a view of Keelung Shan itself as well as Teapot and Banping Mountains and Jinguashi across a valley.

Teapot and Banping Mountains viewed from the start of the Keelung Shan hike
From here on, the trail is a relentless stair climb through a silvergrass slope. Even though it's under a kilometer long, plan on between half an hour and 50 minutes for getting up. The trail passes a junction for a more circuitous route to the summit; skip this and keep going up the stairs. At roughly the halfway and three-quarters marks of the climb, there are pavilions for tired hikers to rest.

Neverending stairs up Keelung Shan
The stairs end at the summit, which is topped with communications equipment, another pavilion, and a flat platform with views of the Pacific. The void of the vast Pacific lies to the northeast; to the east lies the rugged coast near Bitou Cape and to the west the convoluted coastline near Keelung, with the peninsula at Yehliu prominently protruding into the Pacific. The view south is of great green mountains rising above Jinguashi and Jiufen.

Jinguashi viewed from Keelung Shan
Keelung Shan shares its name with the nearby city of Keelung (Jilong), the major port of northern Taiwan. The city's name initially meant "chicken cage," but later underwent a homophonic change to gain a more pleasant meaning.

Having ascended Keelung Shan at the end of the day (having earlier hiked Teapot and Banping Mountains and consumed copious amounts of stinky tofu and sweet taro dumplings at the Jiufen Old Street), I stayed at the summit for the sunset, watching the December sun disappear beneath the haze to the west over the town of Ruifang.

Sunset from Keelung Shan
Descent was much quicker than coming up; imagine descending roughly the height of the Washington Monument by stairs. As I dropped downhill in the dusk, both the town of Jiufen and the Keelung coastline lit up, creating an especially beautiful sight.

Northeast coastline at dusk

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