Pingxi Lantern Festival

Sunday, February 05, 2012

Lanterns let into the cloudy afternoon sky

Back in early December, I made a short list of things I wanted to do while I was in Taiwan and the second item on this list was to travel to go see the Lantern Festival in Taiwan. As soon as I heard that my school sponsors a trip to take students to the Lantern Festival, I knew I was going to sign up.

I'm not 100% clear as to why the Lantern Festival is celebrated, but here's the Wikipedia explanation if you're curious. I think today it's generally thought to have something to do with love. And I'm still a little confused as to whether the "main" event takes place in a different location every year (per Wikipedia's guidance) or not, but I do understand that there are a number of festivals across Taiwan every year. We were brought to the Pingxi one, which I think was the main event this year because the Taiwanese president was present.

It took about 2 hours to get to Pingxi from Taipei by charter bus, and then we roamed the town square for about an hour. It was horribly, horribly crowded (I suspect the Times Square area at New Year's isn't as bad as this was) and a bathroom was nearly impossible to find. After spending about 45 minutes walking to the nearest bathroom (which probably was a 10-minute walk away on a normal day), we had 15 minutes left to grab dinner AND walk back the length that took us 45 minutes to walk. We grabbed some fried chicken and seafood nuggets to nibble on.

When we finally got back to the meet-up place, we ... waited. And waited. And then waited some more behind a set of huge floodlights. I realized, finally, what was going on ... each night during the festival (which I think lasts for at least 2 or 3 days), they have rounds of lantern lighting, each round consisting of maybe 150 or 200 lanterns. And I'm not 100% sure about this, but I'm pretty sure much of it is sponsored by the government (which then allows Mandarin language schools to sign their students up for free, as they are all foreigners and can tell their friends about how lovely the event is ... "free" PR for Taiwan).

Finally, we were led around the back of the main stage (where performances were going on) onto a field marked with rows of orange-capped volunteers. My friends and I were paired up with a really sweet volunteer who was thankful we could speak a little Mandarin because she couldn't explain what markers were. After a few minutes of listening to a Taiwanese rock-folk band (not exactly romantic music for the occasion, methinks), giant orange paper lanterns were brought out to the field.

With the markers, each one of us wrote our wishes on one side of the 4-sided paper lantern. And then we waited some more while the emcees introduced the band, brought out the Taiwanese president, and the President and other local officials wrote their wishes on the larger lantern "for Taiwan." I was surprised at how little reverence there was for the President while he was speaking (I myself didn't focus too much on him while he spoke, but I didn't talk while he was speaking) ... I suspect it had all to do with the fact that the majority of the crowd consisted of foreigners. However, it was also a much more casual event ... I'm not sure how the crowd would've treated President Obama if he had made casual remarks at an American Lantern Festival.

Then a guy came by to ignite a little pad at the bottom of our lantern, which caused our lantern to inflate. We were told to step on the edges of the lantern, and then after a couple minutes, to lift our feet off the edges. All the lanterns in the field gently lifted up into the sky, and it was absolutely stunning. I almost teared up ... almost. But then we were rushed off the field to allow the next group to come in.

This is my personal video

I like this video's perspective better (starting at the 0:59 mark)

And that's when the absolutely agonizing waiting began. Once we left the field, we were herded like cattle for TWO hours, either walking two feet at once and then waiting for another 15-20 minutes or taking bitty steps like toddlers for 15-20 minutes at a time (a real workout, if you ever want to try it ... especially on a mountain). After two hours of this madness and 4-5 more rounds of lanterns being let into the sky, we finally made it back our buses at 9pm, only 30 minutes before we should've been back to campus. Needless to say, we didn't get back to Taipei until 10:30pm, an hour late.

It's an event I would never partake in again. In fact, I want to say that I won't ever participate in a national event like this again (whether it be in Taiwan or England or the U.S.), but it'd probably be a false statement. It was beautiful, but not worth all the waiting and horrible crowds.

The lanterns, collectively, looked like fireflies and then stars in the night sky

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