I'm getting tired of Taipei. Where can I go for a fun day-trip out of the city?
[Whips head up from desk, blinks a few times with the finesse of someone who has just learned what eyelids do, smears a dribble of drool—a drooble—off of bottom left corner of mouth.]
You've come to the right place! As you can see [blindly slaps palms around desk looking for glasses], I am a totally professional human who is equipped to help you!
[Finds glasses, smushes them onto face. Scoots closer to computer, which in turn gets me closer to you, Imaginary Person That I Made Up So I Can Pretend I'm Not Just Talking To Myself.]
Do you love cats? Spend a day in Houtong, a village full of cats! Do you love Spirited Away? Head to Jiufen, the mountain village that looks like it influenced the movie, so who cares if Miyazaki says it didn't! Do you love rock formations that vaguely resemble the eroding heads of 16th-century British monarchs? Yehliu's got your weirdly specific interest covered! (At least until the next big earthquake or typhoon.)
Eh, thanks for the suggestions, but I'm not really into any of those things.
- You made me sad.
Hey, I like stuff! I like...
Well, why didn't you say that first? Just head to Pingxi! It's got sky fires galore!
Pingxi, a rural district nestled among the mountains just an hour east of Taipei, attracts locals and tourists all year round who want to release flame-powered lanterns bearing their personalized wishes into the sky. Why Pingxi? According to the internet, Pingxi is uniquely situated to sort of safely handle floating fireballs enclosed in wire- or bamboo-framed paper cages due to its location in a rainy mountainous area with steady wind patterns. If you want to set off a sky lantern, Pingxi appears to be the only legal place in Taiwan you can do it.
That sounds great, but what I'd REALLY love is to maximize my exposure to floating fireballs and hoards of people. I've also got a thing for logistical nightmares. Is there a certain time of the year where these conditions are optimal?
Hell yes, a certainty as unwavering as this dog's rabid joy while playing fetch with a ball 15 times larger than his head. If you find everyday crowds too relaxing and navigable, then the annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival (平溪天燈節, píngxī tiāndēng jié) is for you—you and some tens of thousands of other people. The festival's claim to fame is its group lantern releases that illuminate the night sky with hundreds of glowing lanterns flying in unison, like that scene from Tangled except without the castle and the boats and the singing and the magic.
The festival usually takes place sometime between January and March on the day of the Lantern Festival (元宵節, yuánxiāo jié), the holiday that marks the end of the Chinese New Year (春節, chūnjié) season. However, in recent years (or beyond recent, but I only looked up the last few years) the festival had been held multiple times during the Chinese New Year season, perhaps to better manage crowds and take advantage of increasing tourism. This year's 2017 Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival has gone a different route. It was held only once during the Chinese New Year season on February 11, but there will be a second festival date later this year on October 4 to celebrate the Mid-Autumn Festival.
Thousands upon thousands of people streaming into a rural mountain district with fewer than 5,000 residents actually isn't as big of a logistical nightmare as one may expect. Either that or my friends and I got lucky. On March 5, 2015, I headed to the festival in the early afternoon, along with my husband Kåre and our friend Pamela. There we would meet up with our friends Charlotte and Stephanie, who had headed to Pingxi in the morning to squeeze in a pre-festival hike. (You can do it too! Check out the Sandiaoling Waterfall Trail.) The transportation authorities prepare for the festival crowds by restricting car and motorcycle access near Pingxi on the day of the festival, meaning the only way to get in is by bus, train, or a combination of the two. Kåre, Pamela, and I took one of the shuttle buses provided for the festival near the Taipei City Zoo metro stop. To our surprise, we waited a negligible amount of time and had no problem getting seats on the bus. After about an hour of rolling past the verdant mountains of eastern New Taipei City, the bus dropped us off near Nanshan Bridge in Shifen.
As far as I can tell, Shifen—one of twelve villages in the Pingxi district—is usually the site of the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. However, when the festival is scheduled to take place on more than one day, the location changes with each day. For example, in 2015 the festival also took place in Jingtong and the village of Pingxi, in addition to Shifen. This year the festival that occurred on February 11 took place in Shifen, while the next festival date on October 4 will be held in Jingtong, according to the festival's official website. I assume the organizers could expand the dates and locations in the future. If you plan on attending, make sure to pay attention to the dates and locations so you end up in the right place.
Preparations were well underway when we arrived at the Shifen tourist center in the mid-afternoon. Workers and organizers were lugging around tall stacks of lanterns and getting them ready for the evening's main event.
- Lanterns for sale.
- Lantern color guide and prices. Single color lanterns for NT$150 (about US$5), multi color lanterns for NT$200 (about US$6.50)
Red lanterns are the traditional and popular choice, but if red isn't your thing you can choose other colors ascribed to arbitrary categories of luck. According to the completely scientific chart above, green would actually be the best choice because it means "All wishes come true." Red merely means "health." That seems like a bit of a rip-off compared to getting all your wishes fulfilled.
- Releasing laterns on the train tracks.
- This lantern is ready to get the hell out of here I MEAN deliver dreams to the heavens.
- People painting messages onto their lanterns.
The train tracks that run through Shifen Old Street is where most of the individual lantern-releasing action happens. The tracks are flanked with lantern vendors and metal racks that hold up the lanterns so people can paint on their messages. Walking along the street is a good opportunity to spy on other people's most heartfelt wishes and dreams, the messages they deemed worthy of ascribing to this possibly once-in-a-lifetime experience.
- "Read More Book!" and a quote from Honey Boo Boo.
- [Insert cool giraffe] (I should note that it says "Stand Tall" in the top right. So it's not a random, awesome giraffe. It's an awesome giraffe with a message of encouragement.)
Remember kids: Anything you do in public can end up on the internet.
The train track is active, by the way. But no worries—visitors and locals are adept at evading dismemberment/death, stepping about a centimeter into the safe zone while keeping their phones and cameras raised. As soon as the train passes, the tracks return to their natural state of being filled with people, the way God intended.
Here's a video shot by Kåre to give you a better sense of train vs. humans.
We killed time around Shifen Old Street until the first group lantern release in Shifen Square. These releases take place in waves throughout the evening at scheduled times. For example, during this year's festival there were eight groups of lantern releases from around 6 p.m. until 8:30 p.m. for a total of 1200 lanterns. As for one how registers to be in one of these groups, I've read that you need to get to the designated lantern registration site early the morning of the festival and wait in what I'd assume is a long-ass line that you'll never get to the front of. (If you've participated in registering for the group lantern release, I'd be interested in hearing about it!) But there's no need to register if you just want to observe from beyond the sea of people like my friends and I did.
- Waiting with phones at the ready.
- The gigantor mother lantern gets inflated first.
- "FLY, MY BABIES. TASTE THE FREEDOM."
- IT ALL HAPPENS SO FAST.
- OK BYE!
- MORE BYE!
- [WAVES FURIOUSLY]
About 15 minutes later it was time for ROUND NUMBER 2.
- The gigantor lantern got even more gigantor. Makes me wonder how large the final gigantor lantern is.
- Goodbye, Round #2!
For a better sense of the lantern release, check out the video above from Kåre.
If you're wondering what ultimately happens to all these lanterns considering there's a little thing called "gravity", this recent article from Taipei Times gives some explanation. According to the article, the lanterns mostly burn up before they reach the ground or decompose if they fall into the hills. As for parts that don't decompose or burn up, the government puts recycling incentives in place to get people to help collect leftover wire frames and lantern paper waste after the festival. Leftover wire frames can be resold or recycled.
After we had taken too many photos of the lantern releases, we headed back to Shifen Old Street so we could release our own lantern.
We turned back to see the next batch of lanterns sparkling through the overcast sky, climbing towards the heavens to alter the destinies of those who released them.
...A sight that was soon followed by a lantern that would never climb higher than the overpass in its way. AND ITS OWNERS WERE THEN CURSED FOREVER.
Just kidding. Lanterns probably have as much ability to take mystical revenge as they do to bring luck. But you never know, which is why you should release your lantern by the train track where it's less likely to get caught under an overpass.
After we bought our lantern, it was time to transform it from "untarnished canvas" to "lantern anointed with the scrawlings of foreign tourists." The vendor set us up in a bare space that had yet to become a real boy. Not that I'm complaining—away from the crowds outside, we had a good amount of space and the privacy to paint whatever we wanted.
- Kåre and me, posing with our side of the lantern. I didn't know what to write about, so I filled up my space with smiling blobs.
- Charlotte posing with her side. We're still waiting for the lantern to deliver on that boyfriend. No pressure, lantern. NO PRESSURE.
- Stephanie graced her side with the power of Sailor Moon.
- Pamela, Stephanie, Kåre, Charlotte, and I posing with Pamela's side of the lantern.
And then it was time for the main event:
setting stuff on fire and making sky trash that turns into earth trash GIVING OUR HOPES AND DREAMS FLIGHT! The vendor helped us set the lantern's heart of joss paper on fire as we oriented ourselves around the lantern.
After about 20 seconds, the lantern disappeared from our view.
Thankfully the lantern vendors will help you take a video so you can relive the fleeting moment over and over again.
Here are some photos of other people's lanterns:
- NOW EVERYBODY KNOWS THAT KEVIN IS SMELLY. My work here is done.
- "Have a good life. / 天天開心 :)"
- "health / family / love / wealth"
- "A whole bunch of stuff written in Mandarin"
Food wasn't a major part of our visit to Shifen, but we did eat every now and then because our cells kept crying out for nourishment and we had to silence them before the screams tore our bodies apart. Over the course of the evening we picked up various snacky foods from the many food stalls around Shifen Old Street.
Kåre and I shared a cup of strawberries drizzled in condensed milk-based goo.
Then Kåre and Charlotte ate some lil' buckets of fries.
- Soft serve stall. You cannot escape me..
- Gotta get me some of dat ic6 cl6gw.
- Note to self: "Find out how much it costs to buy a soft serve-shaped space ship-y extrusion chamber."
- Mango-flavored soft serve-esqe substance!
And after the french fries course came the soft serve dessert course.
- 營養三明治, which translates roughly to "nutritious/nutrition sandwich."
- One sandwich for NT$40, or three for NT$100.
- This sign says the sandwiches are a family tradition from the Chitu district.
- SANDWICH ACHIEVED.
After the soft serve course came the Nutritious Sandwich course (營養三明治, yíngyǎng sānmíngzhì), or what I called in my mind, "OMG IT'S THE SANDWICH THAT NICK LOVES." Head to my friend Nick's blog, My Inner Fatty, for his impassioned exhaltation of the Nutritious Sandwich he ate from a stand on Keelung Temple Street. Ever since I read his post in 2010, I had wanted to eat that sandwich. I didn't eat the same exact one, but I liked the version I got. The combination of hard boiled tea egg, sliced ham, tomato wedge, and cucumber slices stuffed into a light, fried bun-thing whose bisected inner breadmeats are coated in some kind of mayonnaise spread is...pretty damn good. If you're into that. Which I now know I am.
At around 9 p.m. we headed back to Taipei on the local train from Shifen. As a continuation of our good transportation luck, the train, though packed, was not a clusterfuck. We were back in Taipei after about one and a half hours.
- Group shot around our lantern. Photograph from Kåre Sandvik.
If you get the chance to visit the festival, you should take it. In addition to getting the opportunity to see swarms of lanterns in the air, you'll also get to set off your own lantern and hop out of the way of an oncoming train, two things that you could probably do elsewhere but shouldn't. And where else can you breathe mountain air not only imbued with the positive energy of thousands of people expressing their hopes and dreams in unison but also haunted by the ghosts of burnt-up lanterns?
[Enthusiastically thrusts out a thumbs-up sign.] PINGXI'S GOT IT!
How To Get There
Check out these websites for info on how to get to Pingxi and Shifen and things to do there:
Here is the official website for the 2017 Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival:
The English section has some information about the festival's location and how to get there. If the website changes in future years and the link doesn't work, try googling "新北市平溪天燈節" to find the festival's latest website.
These blogs also has helpful information in English about attending the festival that may be applicable to future dates: