“Well, some go this way, and some go that way. But as for me, myself, personally, I prefer the short-cut.”
― Cheshire Cat, Alice in Wonderland (movie, 1951)
I hadn’t planned on going through the cat village of Houtong, but I was pushed to it nonetheless. During the Spring Festival holiday, I wanted to go to Pingxi, a town farther outside Taipei that supposedly has some great hiking. When I got to Ruifang to buy a new train ticket to get to Pingxi, the crowd was ridiculous — apparently everyone returns to the area a little early during the holiday and takes a trip outside the city. I took a walk around Ruifang while deciding my options.
Ruifang is not an impressive town. There are some cool semi-dilapidated Japanese colonial-era buildings, but not much else. There’s also a lot of street food that’s difficult to get with huge crowds wandering the streets.
As I saw the line for the train and the bus to Pingxi, I made my choice to head to nearby Houtong instead. At least the lines for Pingxi and Houtong weren’t nearly as long as the one for the bus to Jiufen, which wrapped around the block and require police to direct traffic.Houtong is known for having a lot of stray cats that are cared for by the locals. Much like Jiufen, this town was once a mining community in the mountains outside Taipei. Unlike Jiufen, Houtong was a coal mining town instead of gold mining. It was originally known for the monkey cave, which apparently housed a lot of monkeys (no word on whether those monkeys were used for mining coal). The once-prosperous town began its decline in 1990, but was revived in 2008 when a cat lover organized the community to care for the strays in the area. Tourists followed the cats, and vendors outside the train station sell cat food to gullible tourists.
This should be a model for the decaying coal mining towns in the US — just dump some stray cats into the town and open some cafes and art galleries and wait for the tourists to roll in. Of course, you could probably do the same with some friendly dogs or even rabbits.
The ruins of the Ruey-San Coal Dressing Plant, which opened in 1920, still remain outside the train station. A shell of the plant and encroaching plants are all that can be seen today, but it provides an interesting photo opportunity at some angles.
The town is still in disrepair, but it’s obviously starting to redevelop with the help of art galleries and cafes that cater to the tourists. There’s even a restaurant called Miners & Hobbits, but they were closed for the holiday (would’ve been a great experience to go with my dinner at Dream of Hobbiton in Taipei). Next to the Monkey Cave is a souvenir shop that also sells medicinal liquor that reuses various liquor bottles (who wouldn’t want to drink liquor made from roots and herbs out of a Glenlivet bottle?).
With all the tourists in town, it appeared that many of the local cats were hiding. There were plenty of others wandering about for the crowds to pet and feed. There were even a few hanging out in the train station.
The only cat I sat with for any length of time was the one that jumped on the table at Empress Gallery Cafe as I drank a cat-themed beer from North Taiwan Brewery.
After that beer, I wandered the streets of Houtong and got back on the train bound for Taipei — it was much too crowded and I had to stand the entire hour and a half. For the first 45 minutes, I only contemplated how miserable the train journey was a dozen times each minute. It certainly wasn’t as comfortable as the bus from Jiufen.
Have you been to the cat village? Did they crown you the Cat King (or Queen)?