To celebrate Peter’s 27th birthday, which coincides with Taiwan’s Lantern Festival, we traveled to Pingxi District in hopes of watching the lantern parade. We heard from locals that Pingxi is a must as it is the only place to legally release sky lanterns. Despite the hype, the information on the Internet about the logistics was hard to come by. Without realizing it until we arrived, we were a day late. Though we missed the main event, this short trip left a lasting impression.
The trip from Linkou to Pingxi – using public transportation – totaled approximately three hours. According to Google Maps, it should have taken an hour and a half. We spent quite a bit of time lolling in Taipei Main Station uncertain where or how to buy a ticket to Pingxi. It was our first time navigating the maze that is TRA (Taiwan Railways Administration). After what felt like walking in circles for hours, we happened across the single TRA ticketing machine.
The train from Taipei to Pingxi felt anachronistic compared to the modern amenities in Taipei. For starters, the ticketing machine was essentially an old-fashioned “ Coca Cola Freestyle machine from 1940” that worked by inserting a handful of coins, pressing dingy yellow buttons, and watching a paper clip sized ticket print. With the one-use ticket in hand we boarded a rickety train that sped through open-aired stations, each decorated with local motifs (Unlike Taipei where each station is underground and uniform with current designs).
Shortly after sunset, we exited at Riufung station and waited for our final train. During our layover, an energizing and familiar wave hit me. The warmth of the day hung thickly around, which left a comforting sheen on our foreheads. While I couldn’t see beyond the dim station, I could hear the wind blowing through the leaves of the surrounding forest and frogs croaking in unison. I was transported back to summer nights in Georgia where the lull of insects chiming and the residing heat tuck you to sleep. I had to remind myself a few times that I’m not in Georgia. But it felt like home.
The next train we boarded carried few people, but those in attendance were diverse. Individuals spoke in unknown tongues but emoted the universal: laughter, snores, and lost-in-thought stares fixed outside the window. I knew we arrived when a small boy leapt up and ran into the train conductor’s box waving at the upcoming crowd. I looked to my left and was greeted by hundreds of smiling faces and waving hands.
Alighting the train, we immediately joined the welcoming crowd. Amid the mass, lantern vendors shouted deals and pushed large-print menus into focus. They scattered along either side of the tracks illuminated by the surrounding food stands, flash of cameras, and lamp posts.
Once the incoming train departed, people flooded the freshly unoccupied tracks. People walked, photographed themselves and scenery, and released hanzi adorned lanterns.
Within 10 minutes of arriving, Peter and I purchased a four-colored lantern and were ushered into a tight fluorescent room. Here, using calligraphy brushes we decorated our lantern with a combination of well wishes and nonsensical jokes related to health, friendship, love, and happiness. I even spilled black ink on Peter’s shirt, whoops!
With our four-foot lantern in hand, we stood on the tracks and posed for photographs. Much to my surprise, there was no single group release. Groups released their lanterns sporadically leaving a disconnected trail of lanterns in the sky. Watching our little light join the lingering trail was a tender moment.
Afterwards, Peter and I ambled along the main street, packed with vendors and visitors. We snacked on a corn onion pancake (rough translation) while we walked towards a waterfall – the rumored main event of the festival – located outside of city center. We walked under a full moon along a secluded road listening to the distant rambling of a river and unknown insects chirping. The moonlight, the gentle breeze, the calming river, and home-inducing scents was enrapturing. I jolted awake when we entered a pitch-black park. My paranoia of panthers and venomous snakes smashed any curiosity to join a party by a waterfall.
We entered the town for a second time by 7pm, but this time it was dead. The once packed strip was now empty and lights reflected off the steel shutters of closed shops. Given there was nothing to buy nor people to talk to, we decided to make our way back to Taipei. Easier said than done.
No employees manned the train booth. There were no visible bus stops. We waited by a Taxi Zone for 15 minutes but only a pack of 20-year olds in all black Adidas swag were leaning on a single taxi smoking cigarettes. At wit’s end, we asked the single taxi driver remaining – smoking by his 10-seat van – to take us back to Taipei. He agreed and asked us to wait 15 minutes. We waited 20. Seated inside the taxi I released the second sigh of relief which vanished as soon as he requested $1,400 NT ($40 USD). Me and Peter’s eyes met with a simultaneous droop; we had no other choice. An hour and $40 later, we were walking on Taipei sidewalks surrounded by six-story malls and greeted by the stream of cars propelling through traffic.
Looking at the photos, even today, Peter and I agree that it was worth the confusion, expensive taxi, and quick turn around. It was truly magical to watch lantern after lantern float towards the distant mountains.