Wednesday, October 21, 2015

Teapot and Banping Mountains (無耳茶壺山和半屏山)

Northeast coastline of Taiwan from Teapot Mountain
8 kilometer shuttle, 500 meters elevation gain
Difficulty: Moderate-strenuous and occasional lack of English signage
Access: Frequent public transit to Jiufen and Jinguashi from Taipei

Jiufen is a popular destination along the coast of northeast Taiwan that draws throngs of Japanese and mainland Chinese tourists; visit the vendors selling taro balls along the Jiufen Old Street at midday and you're guaranteed to be overwhelmed by the mass of humanity in such a small cramped space. But the freedom of the hills awaits for anyone who wants to escape the crowds: the thrilling ridgeline hike and scramble along the spine between Teapot and Banping Mountains starts just meters away from some of the most crowded tourist sites in the area. Atop these two peaks are views of rocky crags topping lush, green mountains that tumble down to the deep blue waters of the Pacific Ocean. Although neither the length nor the elevation gian of this hike are excessive, the hike is quite difficult for multiple reasons: the hike itself contains many roped scrambling sections that can be a bit difficult to navigate, it is difficult to find adequate maps of the area, signage often lacks English, and those who want to continue on to Jiufen from the summit of Banpingshan will have to walk along a section of a fairly well-trafficked mountain road. You'll want to bring a decent map as the road walking section of this hike is not intuitive or well-marked.

Jiufen and Jinguashi are two towns that once boomed from mining: there was once gold in the mountains behind the towns. The gold craze only lasted so long before the two towns, one built high on a hillside on Keelung Mountain and the other in a valley just above the sea, finally began to fade; but the picturesque towns caught the attention of filmmakers. Jiufen was either the setting or the inspiration for the Taiwanese movie City of Sadness and Miyazaki's Spirited Away, both of which brought Jiufen back into the public eye. In the last few decades, inns and teahouses have sprouted all over the town's narrow, steep streets and tourists from all over Asia have poured into the town, Jiufen being just an hour out of Taipei.

There are many ways of getting to the trailhead in Jinguashi 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 to one of the last stops, Cyuanji Temple in Jinguashi. Alternately, you can take a bus or train to the town of Ruifang and catch a bus towards Jinguashi 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.

I hiked this trail on a blue sky December day that still had its fair share of Taipei smog. After an hour on the bus from Taipei- partially spent on the freeway, but mostly spent navigating Taipei traffic and the windy mountain roads between Ruifang and Jiufen- I hopped off the bus at Cyuanji Temple, which is a stop down from the Jinguashi Geological Park. I checked out the temple briefly; the temple itself lacks the ornate detail that can be found in some more prominent temples, but the temple did have a remarkably large statue of Guangong, a historical figure from the Three Kingdoms era of Chinese history who is now revered as a god of war and wealth. I started the hike from a staircase just downhill on the road from the temple, which led uphill (to the right when coming away from the temple). This path yielded a nice view of the Guangong statue before quickly meeting a second road; I turned right onto the road and followed it briefly until I saw a staircase head off to the left of the road. At the start of the staircase, a sign indicated that Teapot Mountain was uphill; I followed the stairs up.

Statue of Guangong near Jinguashi
As you might have noticed, stairs form a pretty key part of this hike. The trail ascended the surrounding terrain in an extremely direct fashion that's quite common in Taiwan- stairs instead of graded switchbacks. After ascending an initial stretch of stairs, I came to a trail junction; here I turned right for more stairs towards the direction of Teapot Mountain. This junction was signed as well.

Staircase up Teapot Mountain
Stairs, stairs, more stairs. I appreciated that the ascent was rapid and not drawn out, but the steady uphill made the hike more tiring than you'd expect for a mountain of this size. The trail crossed another road on the way up the mountain before suddenly ending when it again met a road. At this junction, I turned left and followed the road (a fairly narrow road) for a few hundred meters; the relative flatness was a nice respite from more stair climbs.

The trail up Teapot Mountain continued near the end of the road: the road itself lead towards a small pavilion lookout, while the path branched off to the right, starting a climb through a valley of silvergrass. The silvergrass itself was quite a sight when backlit by the morning sun.

The remainder of the stair climb to the summit was fairly short in terms of distance, but quite a bit longer when considered in terms of actual time due to the aggressive uphill. Two pavilions along the way provided nice respites from the continuous up. The views expanded greatly as I climbed higher: soon I could see the great green mass of Keelung Mountain towering over Jiufen, with the blue waters of the Pacific behind me and the coastline stretching eastward to Bitou Cape, the northeasternmost point of Taiwan. There was also interesting murky-colored water where the stream in the Jinguashi valley flowed into the Pacific; I later learned that this coloration was due to water draining from the old gold mines.

Ascending Teapot Mountain
After passing the second pavilion along the trail, the well-maintained staircase up the mountain finally ended. The teapot- the rocky promontory that gave the mountain its name- rose up above right in front of me. I passed a warning sign cautioning about the upcoming rock scramble and noting that hikers have died on the teapot in the past. The last section before the rock scramble involved a fairly steep pitch with no stairs, but a decently sturdy rope that I used to pull myself to the entrance to the teapot.

The trail doesn't actually lead to the summit of Teapot Mountain- instead, it leads through the rocky teapot, with a scramble that allows you to go through a rocky cave and pop out on ledges just short of the summit itself. The scramble was a bit challenging as the boulders which I had to traverse were pretty large, but the entire section had ropes, making things a bit more manageable. Although the ropes continue leading up to the left after entering the cave, the actual path through the teapot heads to the right, soon emerging back in the daylight on ledges along the north face of the teapot. At that point, the summit isn't too far away, but I don't recommend trying to scramble up as this section is quite exposed.

Rock scramble through the teapot
As it wasn't possible to reach the true summit, views were limited to the north side of the mountain. I could see much of the same scene visible during the ascent: Keelung Mountain now appeared at almost eye-level and the towns of Jiufen and Jinguashi were now far below. I could also see further west now to more mountains in the interior of the island.

Keelung Mountain from Teapot
After scrambling through the remainder of the ledges on the teapot and descending a bit into a saddle, Banping Mountain, the second summit of the hike, came into view. Banping means "half flat" in Chinese and probably refers to the fact that the mountain has a serrated but fairly long level ridge that drops off steeply to either side; thus, it's half flat. Teapot Mountain is arguably not truly a separate peak from Banping, since it rises probably only about 100 feet higher than the saddle between the peaks. The trail between the peaks follows the top of the ridgeline, allowing for constant views of both Jiufen and the Pacific. Silvergrass as tall as a human lined the trail.

View of Banping Mountain from Teapot Mountain
Teapot Mountain viewed from the saddle between Teapot and Banping
The trail was steep at times as it approached the base of the cliffs that lined the summit of Banping Mountain: as the path followed the ridge directly, there were no switchbacks. This section of trail was quite a change from the wide rock staircase that led up to the base of the teapot: the trail was a narrow single-track that alternated between dirt, grass, and rocks and that was quite slippery at times. The most exciting part of the hike up Banping Mountain was saved for last: the trail led into a small gap between two sections of cliff and then proceeded to ascend up a narrow, rocky gully. The scramble was made easier by ropes and was not too difficult, but added some extra fun to the hike.

Final roped scramble up Banping Mountain
The trail emerged from the top of the scramble onto the summit ridge. The true summit was hard to distinguish; numerous bumps of similar height lined the ridge. The back side of the ridge leading between each of the summits was quite steep, so the trail continued to use ropes in spots; additionally, some sections of the trail were only a few inches wide and required a bit more scrambling.

I eventually settled on having lunch at one of the multiple summit humps, taking in the wide views of the Pacific and the mountains around Jiufen. Looking to the southwest, it was possible to see some of the northernmost peaks of the Snow Mountain Range; unfortunately, the air was generally quite smoggy and faraway views were unclear to say the least.

Summit view from Banping Mountain
After enjoying the copious sun at the summit, I continuned along the trail and made my way south along the summit ridge. Soon the trail began a steep descent, dropping quickly through the silvergrass and passing a large and notable rock outcrop to the left of the trail before reaching a saddle. Around this area, I passed a sign for hikers going the other direction that warned of the dangers of the scramble on both Banping and Teapot. From the saddle, a short uphill brought me to the end of the single track trail at the junction with a little-used road.

I turned right onto this road and began following it back towards the direction of Jiufen. This section of road walk was fairly flat and uneventful except for the views back to Teapot and Banping Mountains on the right.

Banping and Teapot Moutains
I left the road at the second signed intersection on the right side of the trail, which pointed down a fairly wide path (a road, really) towards Jinguashi Geological Park. Following this path, I descended down a set of wide switchbacks- probably 10 or so- before this path merged into another wide path at a signed junction. To the right, the trail continued leading towards Jinguashi Geological Park and Jinguashi itself; I took the trail to the left, which took just a minute to reach Route 102, a main arterial road. If you find yourself at a flattened concrete area with a geological exhibit in the center, you've probably found yourself on the right fork somehow; for those who wish to shorten this hike, it's also possible to follow the trail down the right back to Jinguashi, returning to close to the hike's start site.

There's no trail from the trail's intersection with Route 102 back to Jiufen, so I followed the road for the next 2 kilometers or so to the edge of town, passing by more views of Teapot, Banping, and Keelung Mountains. There's not too much of a shoulder on the road and it's a pretty windy mountainous road, so be careful if you choose to hike this option. After passing a cemetery to my right and then a temple, I came to Jiufen itself. The road switchbacks through Jiufen; to make my life easier, I got off the road and followed a set of stairs downhill into Jiufen's winding maze of pathways and stairways.

The town itself is fairly picturesque, set onto the side of a mountain with views of the harbour at Keelung in the distance. Many tourists come not for the views but for the town's Old Street; I soon found myself on the Old Street and wandered around it for a bit, stopping at different shops to try stinky tofu and Jiufen's famous taro dumplings. I couldn't stay for too long though; there were much too many tourists crowding the narrow alley and much of the place had the unpleasant feel of a tourist trap, with vendors hawking some surely overpriced goods to visitors from Japan and mainland China.

The touristy Old Street of Jiufen
I ended up hiking up Keelung Mountain to see the sunset before heading back to Taipei. Returning from Jiufen ended up being a much harder task than arriving here: at six or seven PM, all of the day-trippers from Taipei were ready to go back, creating an hour-long wait line for the return bus. I ended up taking a bus to the nearby town of Ruifang and catching an emptier bus from there back to Taipei.


  1. hi hi, Thanks for the very detailed post. I was searching for a way back to Jiufen. Do you have an estimation of hike duration (from Jinguashi museum to teapot to BanPing to Jiufen?)

    Thanks, Andy

  2. Hi Andy! Thanks for visiting the blog. The end of the hike is a road walk back to Jiufen along Route 102, about 2 km on the road. The hike as a whole 4:30 hours between leaving Jinguashi and getting back to Jiufen; I'd budget 3 1/2 to 6 hours, depending on how much you want to stop and enjoy the scenery. Be sure to take a good map or make sure that you have good enough mobile data that you can pull up a map, because the route can often be confusing after you pass the summit of Banping.

  3. Thanks Chuhern!
    Weather is bad these few days, mist, rain, wind and a cold 10 degree.Could only hike up behind Jinguashi up to Teapot's trailhead (then u-turn) . All scenic views were blocked by the fog :(

    Till next time :)