A few weeks ago we did a day hike and a bit of wandering in the Pingxi area (accessible by bus or a small tourist rail line that runs from Ruifang at one end to Jingtong at the other) - it's become increasingly popular in the years since we've been here, but we hadn't explored the area in quite some time (in part because it is so popular now - it's too crowded most weekends).
We've been to Jingtong (an overnight hiking trip taking in Stone Bamboo Mountain and Shulong Peak) as well as Sandiaoling (site of a fantastic waterfall hike) and Shifen for the waterfall and sky lantern festival, Houtong for the Xiaotzukeng hike, and stopped at Dahua as we completed the Sandiaoling hike, and to Pingxi itself for Dutiful Son Mountain, but have avoided the area since the tourists moved in in earnest.
In fact, the above is a pretty great list of solid Pingxi hikes - you'd be wise to save it for future reference.
Now I wish we'd spent more time here over the past few years. If you come early enough or choose a hot day when a lot of Taipei day-trippers stay home or go somewhere air-conditioned (I love how Costco is a "fun family day trip" here - and the kids love it!) it's really not that bad, and there's a lot to recommend the area.
Before we set off on the Dongshige Trail (topic of my next post) we spent a little time in Pingxi. After the hike we spent some time in Houtong, which is now famous for being the "cat" village, with hundreds, if not thousands, of cared-for tame-but-semi-stray cats that you can watch, pet, play with and, if the locals allow it, feed.
I thought I'd first post a few photos for your enjoyment before I wrote a second post on our hike.
First, Pingxi, famous for "sky lanterns" (which you've no doubt read about in your guidebook):
...this squid place looks pretty good.
...so does this Hakka tangyuan place.
I recommend the taro ice cream with cilantro and peanut nougat in a crepe wrap sold here. Especially after a hot and dehydrating hike.
There is also a guabao (meat in a steamed bun with peanut crumble, cilantro and more) stand with lean meat that was great (I love guabao but prefer lean meat) and an aboriginal-run mountain pig kebab stand that I recommend very highly. None of these are the "famous" places with long lines. Who cares - avoid the lines and eat at my recommended spots. You'll be happy you did.
We reached Houtong after the hike as the sun set:
This Japanese soda is popular here - you shove the glass marble sealing it into the bottle and drink. It's actually pretty good (I hadn't had it in years so I enjoyed a bottle here).
There weren't as many cats as we'd been led to believe. The soda stand owner said it was partly due to the heat and partly the weekend crowds. Once we'd all left and the weather cooled they'd come out again.
You can buy various cat souvenirs where most of the cats congregate. Proceeds of course profit the family, but also go to care for the cats (seeing as local families do the caregiving). It's worth it to buy something - money for cat food and care needs to come from somewhere.
And the ride out to Houtong - not as crowded as you might think!