Postcards From Wenshan District 文山區明信片

Last year, near the end of 2013, I had the good fortune to move to Wénshān District 文山區, the southernmost part of Taipei 台北. In late September I was nearing the end of my first round-the-island bicycle tour and put a call out on Facebook asking if anyone knew of a place I could stay for a month or so. That call was answered—and I ended up staying with a couple of cool European guys for six months before heading south to Tainan 台南 in April 2014.

Living somewhere really gives you a chance to experience what a place is like. I hadn’t known much of anything about Wénshān District 文山區 before moving to the area. I simply trusted in the universe that my needs would be provided for—and they were. Between the mountains and rivers I found much to appreciate about life in and around Jingmei and Muzha, the two former townships that merged to create Wénshān District 文山區 in the early 1990s.

My place was nestled between a bend in Jingmei River and a small mountain that I never learned the name of. The entire community was isolated from the rest of the city by this accident of geography, for there was never any reason to run a major road through such a modest residential neighbourhood.

Muzha Road, the major east-west thoroughfare in the region, ran from one bend in the river to the next, offering two exits to the city beyond. I enjoyed immediate access to the riverside bicycle path network at the top of the street—which meant I could ride to Dà'ān District 大安區 in about 20 minutes flat without contending with traffic until nearing Gongguan Station. If I wasn’t up for a ride Jingmei Station was about 15–20 minutes walking distance away, on the opposite side of Shih Hsin University 世新大學, and many major bus routes plied the main street in either direction, offering timely access to several stations on the Wenhu Line. This all made for a comfortable balance of accessibility and seclusion.

Jingmei is home to a famous night market area not far from the MRT station, something I cover in more detail in another post. Interestingly, Jingmei is home to several covered shopping streets with high, vaulted ceilings, much like the shōtengai of Japan 日本. This is not totally unheard of in Taiwan but it certainly isn’t very common. At any rate, virtually all my material needs were provided for by the many shops surrounding the station, a busy hub of activity in southern Taipei.

Head east from Jingmei Station and you’ll find several access points to the Xianjiyan Hiking Trail 仙跡岩親山步道. This trail runs along the mountain that divides Jingmei (to the north) and Muzha (to the south). It isn’t a challenging hike by any means—but the views of the city are totally worth it. I only hiked it a few times but regularly pushed myself to ride up the small streets that line the northern slope on my way back from expeditions deeper into the city.

Looking south from Xianjiyan one can see the mountains that form the southern perimeter of the Taipei Basin and the city it contains. Xīndiàn 新店 stretches out to the east and you might be able to see part of Māokōng 貓空 to the west if there is a break in the tree cover.

The views to the north side of Xianjiyan are spectacular. On a rare clear day you can see halfway across the city. The preceding photograph captures the vista stretching from Yǒnghé 永和, on the western bank of the Xindian River, to Toad Mountain 蟾蜍山 in the east. Most of Jǐngměi 景美, with Jinghua Park 景華公園 at its heart, can be seen in the center of the frame, with the distant high-rises of Dà'ān District 大安區 looming over the horizon. Taipei 101, an iconic landmark, is also visible from further along the hiking trail.

Wenshan isn’t all pretty, of course. Step away from the main roads, bikeways, and hiking trails and you’ll find cluttered laneways, verminous rundown marketplaces, abandoned buildings crumbling into ruin, and other elements of urban decay. Even the nicer parts are littered with the high-rise concrete-and-tile eyesores that define the Taiwanese urban landscape.

Wintertime weather doesn’t help the city’s appearance either—if it isn’t raining it is often overcast in Taipei, blanketing the urban landscape in a pallid hopelessness that erodes the spirit of its inhabitants. It is a good thing that I am mostly unaffected by such things—as long as I can ride a bicycle year-round without having to contend with snowbanks and black ice I don’t mind.

Living right next to the river was awesome—I could be out riding within minutes of leaving my front door, working off all those noodles and dumplings in a flash. I treated the riverside bikeways like my own personal teleportation system. I’d drop down to the river at one of several access points near my place, ride hard in some direction, and break the surface in some other part of town, sometimes incredibly far away. I regularly rode down to Bìtán 碧潭 and up to Shìlín District 士林區 anytime I had free time and motivation. The ease of accessing the riverside had a lot to do with spurning my interest in cycling adventures further afield.

Anyhow, my intention with this post was threefold: to show off some of the finer cityscapes I captured during my time in Wénshān District 文山區; to share something of my experience of living there; and to demonstrate that Taipei 台北 isn’t as ugly as its reputation might suggest. In Chinese culture have mountains, have river 有山有水 is the basis for good living—and Wenshan has plenty of both.

If you enjoyed this post be sure to check out the more informal companion piece, scenes from everyday life in Wenshan District.