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Taiwanese Treasures: Last Train Station to Nostalgia

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Welcome to The Grove

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Crane at log storage pool

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Checheng Wood Exhibition Center

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On the railroad tracks at Checheng Railway Station

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Old-style shop at Checheng Wood Exhibition Center

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Piano steps at The Grove

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Once a timber town and the last stop on the Jiji Railway Line, Central Taiwan’s little village of Checheng preserves its history on and off the tracks, earning it a special place in the hearts of locals and visitors alike. Hop on the narrow-gauge railway for an impromptu excursion back to simpler times.

Words & Photography: Abby Yao

On a quiet night in late March, I sat in my hotel room at Sun Moon Lake and found nothing interesting on the hotel’s TV channels. Leafing through the travel brochures I had picked up that day, I read a single paragraph on Checheng that captured my imagination. There were no photos, but the idea of a romantic train journey (however short) grabbed my attention. Immediately I decided to go there the following day.

CHOO CHOO! JIJI! CHECHENG!

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Damaged by the 921 earthquake in 2009, the Japanese-style Jiji station with its cypress walls and tiled roof has been restored with reminders of train journeys past such as the sculpture in the square.

     From Sun Moon Lake, I took the shuttle bus on the winding mountain path to the town of Jiji. For the first few minutes, there was nothing to see but the road and the trees until little villages came into view. Passing by Shuili town and its Snake Kiln, the shuttle dropped me off on a street lined with shops in Jiji. I immediately headed towards the charming train station and its wide square, bright but deserted under the midday sun.

     The Jiji Railway Line as we know it today was expanded in 1919 for the construction of the Sun Moon Lake Hydroelectric Project. Today, 62% of Taiwan’s hydroelectric power comes from Sun Moon Lake, Shuili River, and the five power plants built around them. As roads were built between towns, the need for the trains waned, but travellers still take them to relive the olden days.

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The steam locomotive on display outside Jiji Station no longer puffs white clouds of smoke.

     I was dismayed that the train to Checheng was a modern one and a colourful one at that, not the slow, chugging steam-powered one I had in mind. My fantasies completely evaporated when reality set in: instead of an old-school train ride, it was a high school field trip dominated by noisy teens who crowded the small open-air platform. But arriving in Checheng less than 20 minutes later, I felt as if I were in a dream or a movie set. I waited for all the passengers to disembark and crossed the tracks to a beautiful wooden train station surrounded by mountains and the Shuili River.

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This rail tunnel has been the gateway to Checheng for several decades.

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The 2009 earthquake also destroyed the concrete Checheng station, which has been rebuilt using the 1930s style.

SUGAR AND SWEETS

During the Japanese colonial period, Checheng grew with the rise of the sugar industry. A push trolley line ran between the sugar cane centre of Puli to Checheng, where the carts were parked, earning the town its original name, Chechang, literally “parking lot”.

    I wandered around the station and caught a glimpse of a bride in a wedding dress under an old banyan tree.

    “Xiao jie!”  The students who were with me on the train called out to me to take their photo with the stationary trains permanently parked at the end of the track. Somehow the world felt like a smaller place at that moment—just us, the trains and the surrounding mountains.

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The station is an outdoor museum of sorts, with some retired trains on display. The coal platform (partially hidden, left) for steam locomotives are still intact, as well as a signal tower from Zhunan township (right, behind trains).

EXPLORING THE PAST

I roamed The Grove next to the stations and found delightful shops and wood workshops. Catching sight of the log storage pool, I walked around its perimeter, now a pond ringed with flowers and trees.

     In the 1960’s, when logging operations were granted in the area, Checheng became a hub for timber storage, processing and transport. This was known as the town’s golden age and many of the existing structures from that era have been reconstructed. When the Taiwanese government decided to conserve the forests, these operations were shut down, and Checheng went on a decline until the last decade, when visitor numbers boomed with the restoration of buildings as tourist attractions.

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Logs were kept in the storage pool, as water made the log release their resins more quickly and preserved them longer. 

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The tea house stands at the edge of the log storage pool, next to the crane (partially hidden, left), which which was once used to lift logs out of the pool.

     I watched the ducks swim past in a line and waited for a group of aunties to finish taking photos on the boardwalk as I circled the pond. As it was well past lunch time, I opted for the set meal at Cedar Tea House next door, which came with the traditional wooden barrel lunchbox for me to keep as a souvenir. After a filling lunch of rice and Dongpo-style braised pork, it was time to explore the rest of the town. 

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Every corner offers pleasant discoveries and handpainted details. 

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This house may not be fancy, but its array of flowers is surprisingly breathtaking.

     I followed the trains painted on the walls to Checheng Old Street and felt as if I were trespassing on private property. It was so quiet, even when there were people going about their daily routines. Then all of a sudden, I heard a commotion from above. The teenagers whose picture I took earlier ran down the steps of the sloping narrow alley, greeting me as they passed. It was nice of them to wave hi. I followed them down the road and spotted some buildings crumbling in the distance, lonely reminders of Checheng’s ups and downs.

WOOD HERITAGE

The Checheng Wood Industry Exhibition Center dominates the town, keeping a record of its history and explaining how the timber industry works using some of the machinery on the very spot where the wood processing plant stood.

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The exhibition center serves as a museum, workshop and souvenir shop.  

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If you have time, make your own useful wood items and furniture.

     Either I was in such a good mood, intoxicated by the smell of wood, or the objects for sale in the store were too cute to ignore (possibly all of the above) that I ended up spending on wooden souvenirs. Passing by The Grove again, I could hear the sound of a hundred hammers pounding away on their next wood masterpieces. There is still life in this town after all.

     Soon I was back in the railway station to catch the next train out, glad that I decided to come for the day. I boarded the train for the first of three rides back to the metropolis of Taipei, seemingly a world away from Checheng, which won me over with its simple and unexpected pleasures.

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Checheng’s tranquil setting makes a fine backdrop for train journeys.

CHECHENG AT A GLANCE

DO Experience Factory DIY

SEE Checheng Winery

EXPLORE Mingtan Reservoir and Power Plant

BUY Wood Products 

GETTING THERE Checheng can be reached by bus from Sun Moon Lake and by rail from Taipei via Changhua.  

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RELIVE THE OLD TIMES IN TAIWAN’S HERITAGE TOWNS VIA TAIPEI!