Journey to the East
Looking out onto the rain while taxiing into Chiang Kai Shek Airport in Taipei wasn’t enough to hinder my excitement of being in Taiwan for the first time. I was ready to spend seven days touring the best that Taiwan had to offer. My time there coincided with the famous Lantern Festival, held every year in celebration of the Chinese Lunar New Year.
Taiwan is situated off the southeastern coast of mainland Asia, across the Taiwan Straits from Mainland China, a solitary island on the western edge of the Pacific Ocean. To the north lies Japan and Okinawa, to the south is the Philippines.
Some of my time was spent touring parts of Taipei, but the majority was spent in Tainan, approximately 186 miles south of Taipei. While the highlight of the trip was the Lantern Festival, the beautiful Buddhist and Daoist temples, museums and botanical gardens also exposed the true riches of the country.
Thick clouds and rain prevented a trip to the top of Taipei 101, the jewel of the country’s capital and the largest building in the world at 1,671 feet high. However, poor weather didn’t prevent a tour of the other parts. Named after the number of floors, parts of the building are comparable to a glorified South Coast Plaza, with designer stores including Louis Vuitton, Coach, Prada and Fendi. The building also serves as a financial center with company offices within the structure.
My travel group and I were fortunate to escape the rain into Taiwan’s former capital, Tainan. Immersing ourselves in the local culture allowed us to truly experience Taiwanese traditions.
Walking the streets of Tainan and smelling local delicacies prepared by a plethora of street vendors that warmed the thick air, the food was certainly … different. Tainan local cuisine included coffin cakes (bread in the shape of a coffin which has been hollowed out and stuffed) steamed meat buns stuffed with shank of pig and mushroom with a dough wrapper made from wheat flower with yeast, sugar and milk.
A majority of Taiwanese cuisine was seafood-crab, oysters, fish and chicken prepared in a variety of different ways. However, the vegetarian entrees were in abundance, as well. Stinky tofu and boiled vegetables with soy meat were brought to the table as well. At times I was offered vegetarian seafood, shaped and colored to look like the real thing, except made out of a gelatin-based product.
Hot rice wine, tea and even Taiwanese Sake and beer added a unique taste to each meal.
Even though tasting local food was a treat in itself, perusing the streets of Yanshuei, the site of the Lantern Festival, made even the most touristy person feel like a local.
I was fortunate enough to be there at the right time: during the Lantern Festival-where most of the excitement was happening right before my eyes. The intricately-clothed actors celebrating the ancient saints, gods and warriors sporadically paraded the streets. turning heads in every direction.
Entering the Confucious temples, tall statues of gods were masked by clouds of incense burning in massive cauldron-like structures situated every five feet. Throughout the day, the temples were bustling with locals coming in and out of prayer sessions. The temples are outdoors, housed by beautiful pagoda-style rooftops. Near the altar, attendees make offerings of food and flowers to show respect for the deities.
The sound of the gongs mixed with hymnal chants from monks draped in long orange cloth drowned out the street noise. The most interesting to note was the fusion of religion and culture and the sense of pride from the locals that resulted from the combination of the two.
Each street performer was dressed in traditional garb with makeup, wigs and jewelery representing ancient Chiense tales. Language was no barrier here as the dramatized actions were enough to give even the non-Chinese speaking onlooker a taste of the country’s rich history. The pride that locals exert to celebrate their holidays was truly an amazing sight to see.
There are approximately eight Lantern Festivals scattered throughout nothern and southern regions of Taiwan. The one we attended was the Yanshuei Beehive Rockets.
Yanshuei’s association with the ‘beehive rockets’ dates back to the early days when the town was stricken with pestilence. In order to calm the people’s fear, the Yanshuei town council entreated Guang Gong, the God of War, to expel the evil spirits. For three days, fireworks were exploded and incense burned throughout the town to help the deity, ending on the night of the Lantern Festival.
As dusk approached, we found ourselves crowded into a large open space the size of a baseball field ready to relive history. Wearing motorcylce helmets, towels around our necks, thick cotton shirts, gloves, pants and sturdy shoes, the nervousness mounted as Chinese pop music and disco lights energized the crowd. Dressed in this getup felt like a day at a motorcross race, but as we watched the large bamboo structures of fireworks appear from behind a large curtain, we were ready to expect the unexpected. As the music began to blare, everyone started jumping up and down while the fireworks were lit. Suddenly, hundreds of fireworks the size of pencils shot into the cheering crowd. Fireworks were hitting our helmets, burning our clothes and landing half-lit near our feet. It was an adrenaline rush in istelf, not to mention for the others rushing to the ambulances scattered around the perimeter. Fortunately, we were able to avoid that.