Chinese New Year is a moon based holiday, so at the first new moon of the year people party. They're given time off and spend it surrounded by friends and extended family. This is the time of year with the highest rates of domestic violence.
Fifteen days later, at the full moon is the Lantern Festival. There is only one place in Taiwan to really know what the lantern festival is all about. It is Ping xi. Sure there is a town near Tainan that celebrates lantern festival by bus-ing in thousands of people and giving them fire crackers to throw at each other (fire retardant clothing is recommended), but while I have not experienced that, I don't think it could ever compare to the beauty and light of Ping xi.
The week before the lantern festival, Ashley and I began making plans. The area surrounding Ping xi has the highest concentration of waterfalls in Taiwan and the widest waterfall on the island. It is mountainous and from the summit of some mountains you can see the ocean. I told my students I wanted to go. They warned me. It will be very crowded. So we planned to leave early and buy an all day train pass so we could get on and off the train and do a little hiking around each stop. In the morning at the main train station in Taipei,we bought our tickets. We asked the man for an all day pass on the Ping xi line, "duo tien" (all day). He thought we said "jiuo dien"-(9:00). We boarded the 9:00 AM train.
According to the guide book, lanterns would be launched after sundown every 20 minutes. The train was packed tighter than a can of mackerel. We feared we wouldn't be able able to get back on the train if we got off and explored , so we decided just to ride it out all the way to Ping xi. We arrived a little after 10Am.
We walked around the town. Every where there were people selling lanterns. We ate some food. I ordered two cold dishes. One was shredded bamboo in a flavorless orange oil. The other was a cold meat dish. Thin slices of smoked meat with a raw texture, marinated in a light oil, some vinagre, garlic, chives and ginger. And a hot bowl of noodles with chunks of yam and bean sprouts with a brown sauce. The sauce had no salt, maybe it was some kind of nut based sauce but it was not sesame or peanut. I can't identify it yet. But tasty.
Refreshed, we looked around us. The town is a small mountain town. It was swarming with day- tripping youths, groups of bicycle enthusiasts, families. A man-made river cut through it. An old woman was fishing. From above her where I stood on the street, I watched the shallow dingy water as she whipped it with her rod. The river was filled with fish because I could see the silver flashes of their bodies as they leaned skyward then disappeared. Ping xi is a town of tiers and on this day it was capped by a grey sky. It is surrounded by green mountains. The streets are laid on steep hills. Some buildings are on higher hills then others. The train runs along the ridge of some of the hills in the middle of the town. There are shops and homes that flank the train tracks and a railroad bridge to span the gaps between the hills. There are shops and homes that flank all the narrow streets. Some wind under the train, some are above the river, some open onto it. Some homes cut into the hills, some sit at their feet. This used to be a coal mining town. It was in its prime 50, 70 years ago. Now there is nothing but cabbage and lanterns. There is no 7-11. There is no Family Mart, High Life or OK mart. There is nothing of the sort. There is no McDonalds. No Starbucks. For an entire day I forgot I was in Taiwan and thought I was in Taiwan. That is not a type-o.
We climbed up a mountain. We read in the guide book there was a trail that led to an abandoned mining site. We found a trail that was marked with some English labels which looked promising. One trail said it lead to "Disused Office" "Disused House" and "Disused Tunnel". We figured that had to be the mine. We got lost. We climbed ropes bolted into the sides of mountains and trekked up narrow stairs that were chiseled into the soft sandstone. Yes, when we reach the summit of one of the peaks I thought I was going to die. I don't have a head for heights and that's an understatement. But I was well rewarded when I dared myself to look out at the valley and the little town of Ping xi below. Even though it was still daylight people were launching lanterns.
The lanterns are made of waxy tissue paper. When filled with hot air they are about 5 feet tall and three feet in diameter. First you pick your color. Each color has a specific meaning. Orange is money. Yellow is to find a good mate. There were red lanterns, white, blue, purple and some were two colors and even three. Then with a big marker or a caligraphy brush you write on the lantern. You write your wishes for the new year and then say something nice to the gods. Of course some people deviate from tradition. I saw one that had a drawing of Snoopy and another that said, in English, "I'm going to killing you!". A wad of oil soaked ghost money is fastened to a ring at the bottom of the lantern. It takes at least two people to light a lantern because one has to hold up the paper while the other person lights the ghost money. Then wait. One minute, maybe two. The lantern puffs up and begins to rise and then you can let go. It floats like a bubble with a soul of fire. If done correctly, your lantern should fly up to the heavens where the gods can read your requests. If the gods reject you, your lantern will catch fire and fall to the ground.
I saw hundreds of hopes and dreams go up in flames. I saw hundreds more "disused lanterns" littering the streets, the river banks, the parks, the rooftops, looking like so many "disused condoms".
This is REALLY REALLY dangerous. INSANELY so. People shot their lanterns off from anywhere they pleased with out regard to power lines, population, buildings, trees, traffic.....
Some people stood on the railroad bridge (40 feet off the ground, not cement and steel bridge, just naked railroad ties and air) and launched their lanterns in the face of approaching trains. Many were caught in telephone wires. Some were pushed too aggressively by rogue gusts of wind and suddenly caught fire, falling into a crowd of thousands. And this is Taiwan, so everyone was packing fireworks. All kinds were popping incessantly.
Despite the trash and the danger and the crowds (which I tactfully managed to avoid by watching everything from a slightly precarious perch on the railroad tracks) this is a beautiful festival, breathtaking. After dark when the group launches began it was like watching one hundred giant fireflies float over the mountains. And because it was overcast, the lanterns replaced the stars.