Monday, February 13, 2006

In Pingsi

The Lantern Festival (元宵節), on the 15th of the first lunar month, when the moon is at its fullest for the first time in the new year, marks the end of the new year celebrations. Colourful lanterns are displayed in and around temples, and glutinous rice dumpling soups are eaten in the hope of good luck and prosperity. All over the island, people join in the festivities, which range from the utmost bizarre (and dangerous)-- like dancing in the middle the hundreds of thousands of shooting fireworks (蜂炮, literally "wasp explosives") in Yanshui (鹽水) to ward off the plague- to the heartwarming- such as releasing skylanterns bearing wishes and prayers.

I chose the latter. And there is no place more famous than the town of Pingsi (平溪, lit. "flat creek"), in the embrace of mountains and falling water, to experience that feeling.

The tradition of releasing skylanterns (天燈) began hundreds of years ago, when the early settlers in the northern parts of Taiwan were often raided by aboriginal. Skylanterns, shaped like a hot-air balloon made out of paper, with a small flame at the bottom opening, were released to siginal to the villagers that it was safe to return home. Since then, skylanterns have been associated with good fortune and hope. Gradually people started to send skylanterns into the skies, with messages and their ambitions and dreams written on them.

I had heard of the Pingsi festival many times, and even seen it once or twice on tourism promotion footages shown on TV abroad. Reading about it in the papers the night before somehow filled me with the urge to go see. And I was off.

So many people! And as is typical as Taiwnese festivities go, there is no celebration without hordes of vendors selling cheap (read tacky) toys, souvenirs (of which I too am guilty of buying), and the usual overpriced night market foods- like roasted sausage, meat ball soup, fried rice noodles, pig blood cake, oyster omlette etc. They said more than a quater of a million would crowd into the town. Extra buses and trains were mobilised to ship the massive volumes of tourists into the usually sleepy town. Indeed it was crowded on the way, and I've had to almost stand tip-toe for the ride on the railway. At first I thought I wouldn't be able to get into the train...but somehow the flow (or push is a better word) of the crowd eager to force themselves onto the train shuffled me into the door wihtout me knowing.

I walked around at first, as I arrived pretty early. The area in and around Pingsi is famous for its natural landscape carved by volcanoes and the knives of erosion of wind and water. I walked along the railway tracks, through dark tunnels and dense forests, on wobbly suspension bridges, and waved to the sardines in the packed carriages as it heaved up the mountain. It seemed like a perilous hike, but capturing beauty comes with a risk. Along the banks of the creeks I sat and watched the deep, still green water mirror the even greener surrounding canyon. You could look through the water and see the creek bed full of holes and craters. Legend has it some deity (or demon) faught in these ancient creeks, and as axes were thrown around, the pockets in the rocks and earth surface appeared.

As dusk crept up, and the sky started to dim, I found shelter on top of a hill. Nobody seemed to notice the little trail behind this small 'Land Lord' temple (土地公). Beneath my feet, thousdans of hustled and bustled like at a crowded station. They all made their way toward the main stage, from where skylanterns would be released in waves. My turn did not come until well over nine.

There was something about being alone ontop of a hill with so many people beneath your feet. I there and watched the people go by.A sense of superiority, perhaps, that I could see their quirky movements and hear their laughters and voices, but they could not see me. Small children sat on the shoulders of their mums and dads... lovers in one another's embrace walked slowly lost in their own worlds... groups of youngsters excitedly wrote on their newly bought lanterns and chatted joyously in anticipation to release their hopes and dreams into the heavens...there were many foreigners too, seemingly captured by the display of sights and sounds this little town on this special day had to offer .

As the sky darkened, more and more lights were visible in the skies. Look at them float! So many, rising, rising upwards with the heat of the flame at its base. So many, like glowing dandilions seeds growing upwards and 'candles in the wind', floating and rising, so bravely and freely, but to where noone knows.

Sometimes, the crowd cheered and appalauded as a skylantern is released successfully 'into the wild'. Other times, the crowd gasps and shies away in panic as the failed lantern tumbles down in flames like a struck bird. All the same, each lantern represents a wish...for prosperity, for love, for peace, for getting into a good school, for finding the right person, for happiness, for rising stock prices...And I saw it from my little hilltop.

Floating, floating, higher and higher they went into the wide open skies, released to be free flyers carrying wishes and prayers into the hevens. That moment when many lanterns are released in sync, is truly magical . They seem to resemble flying squadrons in formation...with a bit of imagination, and childish dreaming, you could just about make out love hearts, outlines of a person, or even symbols of victory, or even a smiley face. The skylanterns rose further and further, dancing, twirling and fluttering at the wind's command. What a show for the gawking audience below!

The night darkened quickly, and the hours I had to wait seemed to fly away with each passing lantern. When it was my turn, I wrote on the lantern:

和平 (peace)
自由 (freedom)
愛台灣 (love Taiwan)

And my lantern, like so many around me rose into the air. I watched the lanterns fly higher and higher into the heavens, to the point they seemed to be indistinguishable from the stars. So many, in shades of orange, red, purple and pink, like fluroscent jellyfish floating to the top of the water, only to at some point exhaust themselves and fall and die.

But it is the anticipation, the writing of the messages that perhaps never will be read but always remembered, and it is the moving sychrony of movements of so many strangers together in one place on this wide earth sharing moments of prayer and harmony that make everything worth the effort.

May peace prevail on earth,
May all beings be happily fulfilled.
May all wishes be answered.

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