‘Are we there yet?’ I asked K for the fifth time, panting as I trudged up yet another stone-cut step. K and I were on a quest to hike the less beaten paths of Taiwan’s northeastern region and that day we found ourselves in the outskirts of the old mining town of Jinguashi.
During the gold rush in the early 1900s, the town had prospered under Japanese colonial rule, but now sees mostly a spillover of tourists from nearby Jiufen Old Street to its Gold Ecological Park, the town’s most famous attraction. From the visitor centre where the public bus deposited us, it was a 10-minute walk to the Gold Building, where the highlight was a chance to touch a huge 220 kg gold bar, one of the world’s largest and supposedly required at least 40 million metric tons of ore to produce. However, the real treasure for us laid beyond the park grounds. Based on my pre-trip research, a trail behind the museum leads to a certain teapot-shaped mountain that offers commanding views of the northern coast.
I was the first to spot the flight of stairs half-hidden behind the modern steel and glass building and that was where we began our ascent. Along the way, we passed a torii gate, tōrō (stone lantern pillars) and some ruins which I later discovered to be a derelict Shinto shrine – forgotten remnants of the Japanese Occupation. Lining both sides of the deserted trail was the native Miscanthus plant, coincidentally (or not) also known as Japanese Silver Grass.
After about 25 minutes of continuous stairwork, we had gained some height and I could see the valley spread out behind me. In the distance, I thought I could vaguely make out a teapot-looking shape perched atop the opposite mountain. A quick check on K’s Google Maps confirmed my suspicions. But maybe this trail leads there… It was with this thought that I shook off my nagging doubts and pressed on with optimism. After another 10 minutes of climbing with no end in sight, my burning thighs prompted me to ask K for the umpteenth time if we were anywhere close to our destination. Just then, a female hiker was headed towards us from the opposite direction, so I took the opportunity to confirm our orientation.
‘There’s nothing much to see up here. This is not the way to Teapot Mountain.’
Oh no. My heart sank upon hearing that. Left with little choice, we backtracked all the way to the Gold Building, where K clarified directions with the museum staff. The unmarked trailhead actually begins a short way past the Gold Building and across a wooden platform bridge, where we found the foot of (another) stone-cut stair path. Following the path to the end, we emerged onto a single-lane gravel road which led us to the base of Teapot Mountain. An alternative is to drive up to this start point from Chuen Ji Hall, but you will need to navigate several hairpin bends.
The ascent was relatively short but with no tree cover on a hot day, I was sweating profusely and slightly out of breath. Two-thirds of the way up, we sought temporary shelter at a Chinese-style pavilion where a group of lively elderly Taiwanese ladies in wide brim hats were enjoying delicious-looking packed lunches. From their conversation, I gathered that it was not their first time on this mountain. Standing at nearly 600m tall, its full name actually translates to Earless Teapot Mountain which I later found out is named after its craggy peak that resembles a teapot without a handle. It is possible to climb through the cave-like body of the teapot to the summit, but this final 100 m ascent was not an easy straightforward one. In fact, it was a test of strength and agility to haul myself over precariously stacked boulders and to squeeze through narrow crevices.
As we emerged from the teapot, we were careful to remain on all fours as any misstep could be fatal. Nonetheless, it was a fun experience and is now one of my favourite hikes in Taiwan. We were lucky to have clear skies that day, granting us spectacular views of Jinguashi, Jiufen, and the northeastern coastline. The other side of Teapot Mountain is actually connected to a long mountainous range. This was where we met a group of Taiwanese seasoned hikers in their fifties who proudly shared that they had been climbing upwards from the coast since daybreak. For the second time that day, I was amazed by the stamina and enthusiasm of the local elderly folk. It was hard to imagine my grandparents doing the same.
After listening to their adventurous tales, K was keen to continue on to the neighbouring peak of Banping Mountain, but I was hesitant as it was past midday, our water supply was running low and the trail ahead would leave us exposed to the elements. Our morning jaunt had already given me a tank top tan, which as I found out later with much regret, would not fade in time for my wedding in three months’ time (my gown was an off-shoulder piece). The final consensus was that Mt. Banping would have to wait.
Later that evening back at Jiufen, after the crowds have dispersed and the shops shuttered, the place turned into a ghost town. In the quiet darkness, giant red lanterns at the far end of town shone invitingly like a beacon. Soon, we found ourselves at a traditional three-storey teahouse, seated before a whistling metal object I only knew too well. This time though, I could really savour its contents in a cup.