One of the first images of Taiwan to strike a chord with me was that of glowing lanterns doting the night sky in the Pingxi Lantern Festival. The photos are otherworldly and everything you imagine Asia to be. When I came here, two years ago, that lantern festival was top of my list. Yet, I got busy and never went. It needled me whenever I saw those famous pictures, knowing that I may leave Taiwan and never see them. My friend, Amy, came to visit in late June and I was scouring the internet, looking for things to take her to, when I found photos of tourists releasing lanterns in Shifen, near Pingxi. I hadn’t realized I could partake in the magic of the lanterns, whether or not there was a festival on. Amy was game and so, we went to go fulfill my dream and introduce Amy to some Taiwanese culture.
The Pingxi line is an old railway line from the 1920s, so you definitely get a more rustic, romantic feel that you would on the high speed rail. To get to the Pingxi line, you need to take a train from Taipei Main Station to Ruifang and then transfer. It took us about an hour, but we bought our tickets from the machine, rather then a ticket seller, and I think we accidentally bought the slowest tickets possible. Once we transferred to the Pingxi line, we rode to Shifen. You can actually get a pass for all the stops on the Pingxi line, a “hop on, hop off” sort of deal for about 60 NTD. Worthwhile deal, if you have all day, or even if you don’t.
Getting off the train at Shifen is CROWDED. You have to cross the tracks to get to the main old street of Shifen and it’s not a large area, so it took us about five minutes to get over to the first food stall. Once people are off the train, they start to spread out and it becomes more relaxed. The old, main street sits on either side of the train tracks and it is extremely narrow and full of street food, cold drinks like coconut smoothies and watermelon juice, and many, many people selling lanterns. They all sell one lantern for about 150 NTD and the price goes up, depending on how many colors you want. Each color represents some sort of wish, like love, health, peace, etc. The vendors will have hangers to the side of the tracks, with calligraphy paint and brushes attached, so you may write a message to send to the sky on your lantern. Once finished, you go onto the tracks, they’ll light it up for you, and you release your handiwork, as they helpfully take pictures for you.
The most intriguing part is that the tracks are covered in people, but this is a working rail line. The vendors know the train schedule, so when a train is coming, they get everyone off in time. It’s awesome to see the train chug by and then everyone scurry back on the tracks to send off their lanterns. It may sound like chaos, what with trains and groups of tourists setting lanterns on fire, but it actually was quite relaxed. The vendors are professionals and have a good system. The only hiccup was when a lantern, because of the wind, was sent sailing over to the tent we were under and set fire to it! One of the girl vendors was on it and quickly put it out, but it was exciting to see.
I absolutely loved Shifen. It’s charming and, despite being well-known and busy, it’s surprisingly, calming. Getting to paint messages on a lantern and watch it fade into the sky was a unique experience. (Side note: I heard there are people who drive out in cars to go pick up the lanterns, so that is good news for Mother Earth, although I can’t see how it is possible for them to find all of them. ) We also walked down the main street to Shifen Waterfall (okay, we took a taxi because the heat was unbearable, but if it is not the middle of summer, a walk would be fine) and although, not the most stunning of waterfalls, it’s worth a look and is a good place to get a cup of coffee and take in the park area.
I may have missed the festival, but I think I got a good taste of it in Shifen. I can now look at those pictures of the glowing night sky and know that my lantern was once in that sky, too.