If you live in the Western world, you have probably long forgotten about the feel of a train ride, the way the scenery blurs as it races by your pressed childhood face against the fingerprint-laden window. Cars and planes are our automatic response to the notion of transportation. Yet in Asia, train travel is still very popular.
In Taiwan, there is both the normal rail system and the high speed rail. With tickets being fairly cheap, train travel can transport you into a whole new dynamic of Taiwanese culture. About one to two hours is all you need to arrive in smaller towns, just on the other side of a relaxing iPod playlist.
As a teacher, I receive few free days off in the week. Train travel provides me with half day excursions around Isla Formosa (Taiwan). One of my favorite routes is to PIngxi, a town known for the paper lantern festival made famous around the world.
A train ticket to Ruifang station and a very quick (very quick!) purchase of tickets on the Pingxi line will get you to this oasis of traditional Taiwanese culture. The Pingxi line is great because your ticket lasts you all day, giving you freedom to hop around the small towns branching off from the tracks. Three in particular should not be missed.
The first is Jingtong, the town at the very end of the line. But where the tracks stop, adventure begins. Jingtong used to be a mining town and the mining culture still pervades the narrow alleys of this old town. With several attractions such as the mining museum and a lovers’ bridge, one could get lost in thoughts while wandering and photographing the timeless patterns of soot and hard work etched into the makeup of this now sleepy town.
The second is Pingxi, where the history of the lantern festival originates. Historically, the paper lanterns were used to pass military messages between towns and warn about potential attacks. Today, the lanterns symbolize all the hopes, dreams, and prayers that one colorful paper lantern can hold, rising towards the heavens. There are some who release paper lanterns on a daily basis on the tracks of this town, however most visitors prefer the town of Shifen. Pingxi makes a great stop for souvenirs such as miniature cloth lanterns and for a bite of local Taiwanese food.
Shifen is the busiest of the three stops, for good reason. In between the arrival of the trains, visitors swarm onto the tracks to release their paper lanterns. Now if you are like me, fire, paper, dripping ink, cameras, and incoming trains all sound like a bad combination. Luckily, many shops have sprung up around the tracks to help visitors select their paper lanterns and then provide paint tools for decorating. Once finished, the employees will help light the fire inside the lantern and take photographs for you, letting you showcase each side. By the time all the photos have been taken, the paper lantern will be filled with hot air and ready for releasing.
On my first trip to Shifen, I found the experience exciting but rather awkward. What could I possibly write or Picasso onto my paper lantern? The second time was extraordinarily different. Having more knowledge and connection with the Taiwanese culture, being surrounded by the intimate and the playful lantern prayers felt rather sacred. I was witnessing a fraction of another person’s soul float upward in a glowing daze of color, drifting effortlessly into the blue abyss.