Visiting the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival in Taiwan

As soon as Jacob and I fixed the date of our trip to Taiwan, we started researching the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival. Our time in Taiwan landed just after Chinese New Year, coinciding our trip exactly with the Lantern Festival, which takes place around the 15th day of the month following Chinese New Year.

At the time, we didn’t realize that there was a difference between the Lantern Festival and the Sky Lantern Festival.  Turns out there is a big one. The Lantern Festival takes place all over Taiwan (and mainland China, Hong Kong, Singapore, Indonesia, etc. – but for obvious reasons, I will focus just on Taiwan for the moment).

The lantern festival in Taipei consisted mainly of a festival area with a walking tour of massive ornate silk “lantern" sculptures. I say “lanterns”, because they do not look like what an American would define as a lantern – many of them are over 10 meters high and look more like an illuminated float from a parade. Nevertheless, they are stunning works of art.

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A Sky Lantern Festival it turns out; is closer to what I had visualized when I heard “lantern festival”: thousands of glowing paper lanterns released into the night in one breath-taking moment. Sounds magical, doesn’t it? The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is Taiwan’s most famous sky lantern festival, with hundreds-of-thousands of lanterns being released and tens-of-thousands of visitors. If Jacob and I were going to be in Taipei during that festival, there was no way we were going to miss it.

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As with much of our Taiwan research however, we were surprised by how little English information there was to be found. Jacob is a consummate researcher, and hardly ever visits a new place without digging up all the insider tips and local information available on the internet. Most of our favorite restaurants and destinations are a direct result of his research. For the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival however, we had very few clues.

Taiwan’s tourism website offered general information on the festival itself, but how to get there was another question: Pingxi is outside of central Taipei. Between TripAdvisor comments and the festival website, we managed to piece together the information we needed.

This next part is for those of you who may have stumbled on this blog trying to figure out how to get to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival yourself.

Take the Brown metro line to the Taipei Zoo stop. Taipei Zoo is the last stop on the brown line, and is also where you can catch the Maokong Gondola.

Taipei Zoo Stop

As soon as you exit the metro, you should see signs clearly marking the way to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival stop. Follow the signs (or the crowd of people), and get in line for the bus.

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There are two lines: one for a seat, and one for standing. The line for standing-only goes much faster. (We chose the standing option – it wasn’t bad at all.) You can either scan your metro card to pay, or give them cash as you get on the bus.

The bus ride to Pingxi takes about 45 minutes. The buses will drop you off in a parking lot at the base of the town.

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Prior to the festival we started to get a bit nervous. Between our friend’s words of caution and the stats we had read online, we were pretty sure this would be the largest crowd we had ever experienced: somewhere around 80,000 visitors were expected. We decided to arrive early to the festival grounds to grab a good viewpoint.

We got to Pingxi about 4 hours before the first scheduled lantern launch. The town is beautiful – built into a hillside above a river, in lush jungle-like countryside.

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A train track runs directly through the main part of town, with surprisingly little space between the track and the shops. The train only comes through the town a few times a day (and slowly at that), at which point everyone clears off the tracks and huddles under the shop awnings. When no trains are passing through, the tracks are packed with throngs of people, many of which are setting off sky lanterns of their own.

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Pingxi has become famous for her sky lanterns. Though the annual festival draws the most people, visitors trek to the town year-round to buy a lantern, paint their wishes and hopes on it, and set it off into the sky. Jacob and I walked around the town for a short while, watching people release their lanterns into the sky, before making our way over to the festival grounds.

I had expected the festival grounds to be a massive open field – something that could accommodate these projected 80,000 people. Signs and security guards pointed the way down a road away from the town.

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We entered through a festival gate and walked 15 minutes down the road, lined with food and lantern vendors, before the path angled up and dropped us in a parking lot. The parking lot held a stage on one end and a large corded off square of empty space in the middle. Hundreds of photographers were already set up around the square, their tripods forming a wall of spindly black legs and camera lenses.

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Honestly, we were surprised. The parking lot could hold maybe 2,000-3,000 people – certainly not 80,000. As it was, there weren’t even that many people there. Three hours before the festival was due to begin, the parking lot was only about 1/3 of the way full. We found a good spot and settled down to wait.

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As it started to get dark people began to crowd in around us, though it never became uncomfortably packed. The ceremonies began, with a woman hosting the festival and entertainers performing on the stage. There was a lot of talking as groups of 100-200 people were ushered into the square in front of the stage, readied with their lanterns, and then all instructed to light and release them at once.

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It was, truly, an awe-inspiring sight.

Was it what I had imagined? No. I had imagined thousands of lanterns going up in the sky in continuous waves, everyone allowed to participate as long as they had a lantern. Perhaps, in some places, that is the reality.

Here, the lanterns were released 100-200 at a time, accompanied by a television host interviewing people and giving little “Sponsored by” commercials. Then someone would sing, dance, or talk on stage for 20 minutes while the next wave of lanterns was being prepared.

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Was it worth it? Yes, because sky lanterns are gorgeous, and every release would take your breath away. Is it the be-all, end-all sky lantern experience? Probably not. (I haven’t been to Thailand yet.)

We stayed through 5 or 6 waves of lantern releases, before deciding that it would be wise to beat the crowds back to Taipei. We grabbed our stuff and pushed our way through the crowd to the edge of the parking lot, where the road sloped down and curved left back towards Pingxi.

At the edge of the parking lot, our jaws literally dropped. There was the other 77,000 people that couldn’t fit into the parking lot. It was a veritable sea of people; unlike anything I had ever seen before. And to get back to the bus, we had to somehow get past all of them.

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The police had roped off a narrow middle corridor through the sea of humanity, and we joined the steady stream of people who were pushing themselves against the tide. It was packed like nothing I had experienced before. We didn’t even need to walk – the sheer force of the people surrounding us pushed us forward, while you felt the pressure of some random person’s body on every side. I had been “packed like a sardine” before, but typically only when everyone was standing still: packed into a concert, or (worse), with your nose in someone’s armpit on the metro. Being packed that degree while moving, however, was another experience entirely.

Thankfully we had the advantage of height. Jacob and I are a head taller than the average Taiwanese, so we could at least see above the crowd. As we shuffled our way along with the tide, I felt a rustling by my waist and saw three tiny old women, hands clasped, heads bowed, muscling their way forward with practiced intensity.

It was a long 10 minutes of wondering how you would avoid getting trampled if someone started a stampede before the crowd broke and we were finally free. The lanterns may have been the breath-taking highlight of the evening, but it was the crowd that ensured we would never forget our time at the Pingxi Sky Lantern festival.

Back to you travelers who are reading this blog for more information on getting to the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival:

Leaving Pingxi is just as clearly marked and well organized as getting there. You will see the queue for the buses extending far along the road you walked up to get to the festival grounds.

Once again, there are two lines: one for seats, the other for standing. I would recommend buying some street food and then hopping in line – the standing one goes quite fast.

The buses will drop you back off at the Taipei Zoo stop so you can head on home by metro.

 

 

 

 

The Street Food of Taipei

It’s always a challenge to talk about a trip after the fact. Friends ask us how our time in Taiwan was, and we instantly respond, “It was great…”, and then stop. Anything you say next would be a ridiculous oversimplification of your experience, but what other choice do you have?

My answer: “The food was amazing.”

And really, truly, it is.

Taiwan is famous for her bustling night markets, which open daily around 5:00 PM and run into the early morning hours. Many of the markets have shops and stalls selling clothes, trinkets, and cheap house supplies; but the real draw of a night market is the food. It is not a place where you go to do your grocery shopping – you go to eat.

True to form, we had researched the markets extensively prior to our trip, and had begun compiling a list of things we wanted to try before we even arrived. One evening in Vienna, we ate dinner while watching a 30-minute Youtube video of a person silently walking through a night market, zooming in on the food being prepared at every stand. We were glued to the screen for all 30 minutes.

This type of research actually wound up being excellent night market preparation. The markets are a maze of activity with seemingly endless food options – it is simply impossible to try everything. Furthermore, some markets are famous for certain offerings that you will not find anywhere else. Knowing all of this in advance helped us to prioritize our eating (very important), know what to look for, and better still, know what it was that we were eating.  

Once in Taiwan, we didn’t waste any time. The evening of our first day we ventured out to the massive Shilin Night Market with two friends, Dave and Kyla. Our first purchase was the most notorious of Taiwanese street foods: stinky tofu.

Stinky tofu is a common, albeit extremely divisive, find in Taiwan. It is made of tofu that has been allowed to ferment in brine and seasonings until it takes on an extremely pungent, funky smell. I would liken the smell to strong blue cheese that has been rubbed into really dirty, over-used gym socks, then left in a closed bag for two weeks.

You can find stinky tofu served in various levels of stink, but the version most often found at the night markets is on the less extreme side: the tofu is deep fried, covered with a sweet chili sauce, and served with sweet and sour cabbage.

Jacob and I bought one serving ($1.50 USD), and jumped in. As with most stinky foods, the flavor was much milder than the smell. The fried texture and sweet chili sauce helped to make the tofu more palatable, but the funk really pushed through in the aftertaste, lingering in your mouth until you ate something else.

Most of the stalls in the night markets are permanent fixtures, with small storefronts or open kitchens for cooking their food. Scattered throughout the aisles however, you can see the flow of people break around little carts manned by vendors selling trinkets, cooked quail eggs, baked sweet potatoes, and more. The small carts, according to Dave, are typically illegal vendors, who do not have the permission needed to set up a permanent shop.  “Just wait until the police come,” Dave said.

Less than five minutes later were standing in a broad aisle, with three or so of these “illegal vendors” in sight. Suddenly the one closest to us perks up her head, looks around quickly, then snaps shut her cart and disappears down a side alley – all in 10 seconds. The other vendors had disappeared just as quickly. A minute later a police man walked slowly down the aisle. Thirty seconds after they had passed, the vendors were back in place. None of us could figure out how the vendors had been alerted that the police were coming – “maybe they have an app for that.” ;)

After finding a place to dispose of the remains of our stinky tofu (we couldn’t bring ourselves to finish it all), we rounded a corner to find a line of 15-20 people extending out from a tent where a flurry of activity was taking place. We were too far away to see what the tent was offering, but the line was enough to convince us. If this many people found this particular stand worth waiting for, in an apparent sea of options, who were we to say they were wrong? 

As we got closer to the tent we found out that we were queueing for steamed and pan-fried pork buns, sold for a shockingly cheap 37 cents USD a piece. We each bought a bun, hot off the griddle, and bit into a soft and lightly crisped dough, topped with sesame seeds, and filled with deeply flavored pork dripping in its own gravy. It was one of those moments where everything goes quiet as you are filled with reverence and awe – like looking at the Sistine Chapel. Just imagine how much more amazing the Sistine Chapel would be with pork buns.

This experience drove home a lesson that would be our mantra for the remainder of our time in Taiwan: if you see people queueing for food, get in line. 

The Taiwanese have absolutely no qualms about waiting in line if the reward is deemed worthwhile. It is, in fact, such a documented phenomenon, that some stalls will hire people to form a queue just to entice other shoppers. Certain foods, restaurants, and stalls are so incredibly popular (made so by the food bloggers that have the Taipei market cornered), that queuing for the food, then posting a selfie with your prize, has become a status symbol.

Our “get in line” philosophy worked every time, without fail.

Another time we decided to just “get in line”, we wound up with the most addictive scallion pancakes you could possibly hope for. Jacob and I were roaming the streets of a trendy art district in Taipei, when we came across a line of people stretching past several storefronts. A quick investigation found that the line terminated here:

Five minutes later we had our own pancake ($1.00 USD) in hand, hot off the grill. The dough was savory and salty; doughy, crunchy, and chewy all at the same time. It was one of those foods where the very act of sinking your teeth into it feels very satisfying.  

As food is available virtually everywhere in Taipei, most of our daily adventures included either stumbling across something amazing to eat, or tracking down one of the food items on our list.

One of the things that topped our list was Gua Bao, one of Jacob’s and my favorite foods. Gua Bao is essentially a steamed bun, split open, and stuffed with sweet braised pork belly, pickled vegetables, cilantro, and crushed peanuts. It is a gorgeous, perfectly balanced combination of everything you could want in one bite: sweet, smoky, sour, meaty, with a soft bun, tender pork, crunchy peanuts, and a fresh hit of cilantro.

Unfortunately, it is not an easy dish to find in Europe. Now that Jacob and I were in the land of Gua Bao however, nothing was going to stop us. Until – we couldn’t find it. We didn’t see it in the night markets, and all of our wanderings around random food stalls down back alleys wasn’t turning up any Gua Bao. Eventually we described the dish to our hosts, asking if they had seen it before. Thankfully, Wendy believed she knew of a stand in their neighborhood that made it. Our eyes widened at the news. Gua Bao was close - closer than we even expected. Twenty minutes later we were following Wendy down a labyrinth of streets, dodging scooters, with a single goal in mind.

And then – there she was. A young woman worked the stand singlehandedly, selecting perfectly fatted pieces of pork belly from their braising liquid and stuffing them into little handfuls of heaven. She must have seen the anticipation in my eyes, like a dog straining at a leash, because she held out the first Gua Bao and said, “Take a picture!”. Yes, ma’am.

A couple of days later we were back at the stand, and she recognized us. “One Gua Bao?” she asked. “Three please!”. ($1.39 USD each)

On one of our last evenings in Taiwan, a small group of us made our way to the well-known Rahoe Night Market. This particular night market offered another one-of-a-kind street food that was high on our list: black pepper buns. Judging from the layout of Shilin Market, the buns might be a challenge to find, but it would be worth the effort.

It turns out that we had found the buns almost before we entered the market. Forty people waited in a line stretched out past the market entrance, corded off into a snaking queuing order like airport security.

As opposed to the typical Taiwanese bun, which are made of a soft dough and steamed until fluffy, these buns are baked. We watched as a small crew of cooks worked furiously to stuff the dough with an unbelievable amount of black pepper pork and green onions, then close up the bun and stick it to the side of a large drum-like oven. Once the bun fell of the side of the oven, it was cooked and ready to go.

They were so hot when we got them that we all burnt our mouths on the buns. “Worth it”, we said, as we tried to keep eating and cool off our mouths at the same time. ($1.50 USD each)

We spent just under two weeks in Taiwan, so as you can imagine, I could keep going for a long time. Rather than telling you about each thing, here is a visual synopsis of our street food. (And that isn’t even including anything we ate in restaurants – I saved those amazing experiences for another blog post.)

Adventures in Taiwan: "Why Taiwan?"

For the past several months, every time Jacob and I told someone that we were going on vacation to Taiwan, the first question out of their mouths was, “why Taiwan?”.

It’s an unusual question, if you think about it. How often do you ask why someone is going on vacation to an exotic foreign country? It is the sort of question you typically ask only if you are not sure what the draw to that country is. Our friends and acquaintances were not alone in asking this. All of our research indicated that Taiwan is the undiscovered gem of Asia – a gorgeous, inexpensive, accessible, and friendly country, that, within Asia, is acknowledged as the food destination.  

Our immediate answer to the question was: “We have friends in Taipei. Also, the food.” And while this was 100% true (in fact, our times with our friends and making new friends proved to be the highlight of our stay), Taiwan has a lot to offer beyond that.

Here’s what you need to know about Taiwan. Taipei, the capital city of this small island nation, sits in the north of the island. The climate is tropical, so even in the middle of winter the weather remains pleasant (especially for the likes of Jacob and I, leaving the snow to arrive to 65 degrees Fahrenheit). Taiwan is the subject of a long history of dispute between the Chinese and the Japanese, while also absorbing strong cultural influences from the Dutch, the Spanish (as a result of maritime trading hubs throughout the island), and in more recent history, the United States. The result is a true “melting pot” of culture. The cuisine is one of the places where this “melting pot” is most visible, and a big reason why the food is so remarkable.

It also means that, for travelers like Jacob and I, who have very little experience in the Eastern Hemisphere, Taiwan provides less of a culture shock than other countries might. In fact, that was one of the first observations Jacob and I made when we landed in Taipei.

As tired as we were from 22+ hours of traveling, we knew exactly where we needed to go in the airport and what we needed to do. We bought a two-week SIM card with unlimited data for $15 USD before we even collected our baggage. Making the purchase at the kiosk was straightforward and uncomplicated. Purchasing our bus tickets to the city was equally simple, and the area to queue for the bus was well-marked. Before long, we had met with our friends and were taking the subway home, without once feeling like we had fallen out of our depth.

The next day the cultural differences started to become more apparent (or perhaps we were simply more observant), but Taiwan always struck a delightful balance of being totally new and “other”; stretching us past our previous experiences without ever becoming too much to handle.

We stayed with our friends (Dave and Wendy Hudson, long-time family friends and all-around wonderful people) in their home in the district of Tamsui.

Tamsui sits along the north coast of Taiwan, and the mouth of a river that runs south through the city. While Tamsui is somewhat outside of the city center (“city center” is not really a fair description though – Taipei is a bit like New York city, split into districts that each have their own hubs of actions), it provided a vibrant and action-packed home-base for our stay.  

Our first morning we ventured out into our neighborhood just to begin absorbing the sights and sounds. The streets are relatively narrow, flanked by four or five-story apartment buildings, with store fronts lining the streets. Scooters zip by haphazardly, making crossing the street a chaotic dance that requires a lot of feigned confidence but somehow always worked out. The smell of food is everywhere, wafting out of restaurants (that make up just about every third storefront) and food stalls that pop up like mushrooms on most streets.   

Wendy guided us to the start of the covered wet market (selling produce, fish, and meat, etc.) and set us loose to roam. The sensory immersion was incredible. We pushed through narrow aisles, avoiding people on scooters, ducking around shoppers and displays of fresh vegetables, trays of fish, hanging meat, stacks of prepared food, and fielding the constant call and chatter of the vendors hawking their goods.

We turned round a corner from the market and found ourselves in an unexpected pocket of quiet. We had entered a temple courtyard sitting in deep shadow, and the noise level dropped from near-chaos to near-silence. The suddenness of the change was staggering. We took a moment to breath in the silence, smell the burning incense, and plunged back into the market.

At the end of the covered market we popped out into a busy shopping street and smelled something really good. The smell of freshly baked sweet bread floated our way, and we saw a line of 7-8 people queued in front of a stall that was just pulling a massive tray of super fluffy cake or bread out of the oven. Naturally, we were curious and got in line. As we debated what it was and whether we should be purchasing it, the young woman in front of us turned around and gave us a thumbs up, and said “very good”. We smiled and thanked her, and every-so-often she would turn around again and repeat, “very, very good”.

She was right. We purchased a slab for ourselves (they only sold it in one size: huge), and sat down on the steps of 7-Eleven (which are everywhere in Taipei) to eat it. It was something between a cake and an egg bread, ridiculously fluffy, lightly sweet, custardy, and layered with melted cheese for a slightly salty bite. We ate about 1/8th of it between us, thinking that our first food purchase was boding well for the rest of our time in Taiwan.

Later on, Wendy found an article on the cake we had purchased (called Original Cake), which had apparently originated in the Tamsui district and had become a sensation. The article talks about how the company had just opened a new store in Malaysia, where people were queuing for hours at a time just to get a piece.

In the afternoon Jacob and I walked along the bustling waterfront with Bubble Tea in hand (Taiwan is the birth place of Bubble Tea! Did you know?), and met a very smiley old man walking a dog that had been styled to look like a goat. Because…why not?

And there my friends, I will pause this story with a “To be continued”. But please don’t worry - there is a lot more to come: more photos, more stories, and definitely more food.