Thursday, June 25, 2015

New Year's Firecrackers in Neihu

Every year on the fifteenth and final day of the lunar new year a small temple in Neihu fills the winter night with massive columns of smoke and fire while packs of people crowd into the narrow lanes west of the BiHu park. It's loud, smoky, and a little bit dangerous in all the ways you'd expect a good Chinese New Year festival to be.

Plumes of smoke and fire make for good times


Many years ago when I'd first arrived in Taiwan I got brought to this this festival on a whim by a friend who thought it'd impress me. And impress it most certainly did.  For many people being in Taiwan during Chinese New Year is a little bit of a letdown compared to western expectations about the holiday. Neihu's take on the lantern festival is certainly a welcome nod to the noisy parade you were expecting to see.

Selfies at the tiny temple on Neihu Road which hosts the event.

For those only spending one new year in Taipei there is a choice to be made between this firecracker extravaganza in Neihu and the far more popular lantern festival in Pingxi. The lanterns are cool to do once, but getting into and out of the tiny villages can be a bit of a pain. The firecrackers can be accessed via Neihu MRT, and then just following your ears northward to the big show.

People from the temple bring out the land god to bless the neighborhood for the new year. Everywhere the land god goes it needs to be hot and loud to make sure he stays happy, safe, and comfortable. The answer to his specific needs is to constantly douse his palanquin in firecrackers and to keep moving him over flaming embers if he needs to travel long distances.

Anyone in the neighborhood seeking good luck for the year can get the palanquin to stop at their door. They prepare box loads of firecrackers ahead of time which are then torched in one go and make quite a good show. It's hot, loud, and messy with red firecracker papers flying everywhere. People will often jump over the small paper fires which get left behind as another measure of good luck, and visitors shouldn't be afraid to traipse into the steaming heaps and get their shoes a little dusty. You know, for luck!

Post-palanquin fires of good luck!

Stores set up early and get creative. This firecracker trellis says it all.

If you show up for the event you'll be following - or running from - the burning box and revel in the heat, sound, and smoke which come from the countless firecrackers. Then you do it again, and again, and again. It's advised you wear a hat and a surgical mask to avoid having red paper in your hair and to filter out some of the larger bits of debris from the air. The firecrackers tend to shoot out in all directions as they detonate, so don't get too close if you don't have a way to keep your eyes from getting hit. For what its worth the people working the palanquin themselves all turn away to keep their faces out of the line of fire.

Bit blurry, but, you get the point.

Everything gets covered in flaming red paper.

The best place to see the show if you don't want to smell like smoke and be pelted with explosives is on Neihu Road as the procession makes it way back to the temple. The street is wider and offers great long distance viewing, although it also draws far larger crowds.

The event is always on the fifteenth day of the lunar year, and it starts around 8pm. It's called 元宵節 in Chinese, but in English its just called the lantern festival. The alleys fill up as the night goes on so your chances of getting a front row spot go down as the night goes on. The festivities usually wrap up around 10pm and surprisingly the streets are clean nearly instantly after the procession passes.

People cleaning the streets moments after the palanquin passes by.

Keep your wits about you because you may accidentally be standing on a string of live firecrackers or be in the way of the procession which doesn't slow down its pace if you're not ready. Most importantly, have fun!

Tuesday, June 2, 2015

Shifen Waterfall

The Shifen waterfall is a once-private-now-publicly managed waterfall which sits just outside of the small railroad town of Shifen 十分. This is a must-see destination for people who are coming to the Pingxi 平溪 area on a day trip. The weekends get crowded and riding the tourist train can be a bit intense, and this write up focuses mostly on the waterfall which should be one of many stops on a full day trip along the old Pingxi rail line.

The main drag in Shifen was built with the railroad running right down the middle of it and you used to be free to walk the rail lines unless the train was coming. There are new crowd control barriers but there is only one track so rail service is slow so you shouldn't be afraid of a passing train. Don't be afraid to walk out and grab a few pictures in downtown, although being on the tracks is technically a punishable offence. Getting shots of yourself and a passing train mere feet behind you are also an obvious must. 

This street is a famous spot for launching lanterns into the night sky, which is a must do for tourists who find themselves here after dark. Beware the volume of sales people waving placards for lanterns, and know the smart shopper price is about 150NT. There are only limited food options here as nearly every store is just a lantern hut.

Downtown Shifen when it was deserted. Note the lack of barriers.

Packed full on a weekend night.

After you've taken your share of photos on the old mining railroad, start following the tracks northward towards the waterfall. There are sections where you quite obviously shouldn't be walking on the railroad, namely a bridge which spans the river. It's tempting every time I go there to do it, but it would be mighty awkward if the train came while you were on it. There is a well made pedestrian walkway which leads you right to the waterfall park entrance via a staircase.

It'd be cool to have your photo here, right?

The pathway follows along the railway quite closely most of the time, so you'll have a chance to really see the train up close if it passes you on your way by. The falls is located on your left as you get towards the end of the path, and there are now two entrances to the falls. One is at the end of hte suspension bridge, and the other is over a concrete walkway that winds its way to the observation deck. Everyone gets free entry. 

In times gone bye you had to pay to get in, but you also got a direct view of the falls which you can't enjoy anymore. The picture below was taken during a drought phase, so the trickle of water over the falls was a little disappointing given the expectations we had before going inside. The entire left side of this photo is now a four floor observation center.

Pretty, but you can't take this photo anymore.

From the observation deck. The closest you can get.

The basin, with the old viewing platform visible in the forest.

It used to be nice to spend some time hanging out in the park which is built just upstream of the river, and then enjoy some of the casual walking paths up to a large statue of one of the incarnations of the Buddha. The park is now cemented over to make a winding approach to the falls to accommodate the higher volume of foot traffic and the park is still partially under reconstruction. There is the usual host of night market fare, a snack bar, and some drink machines. In all, it's better to bring some snacks and drinks if you plan to sit and enjoy the river.

This pond and the river view are now a cement viewing platform.

The remains of the old park. Heavy construction off camera to the left.

The only feature of the old park that survived the transition.

Here's a story to highlight how things progressed with this waterfall. My first visit here we spent some time in the park during some down time on a day otherwise full of hiking. There were a lot of nasty bathrooms in the park, and all of them had toilet paper vending machines outside of them. I had forgotten the cardinal rule - always bring your own tissues - and was increasingly concerned because all of the vending machines were out of order or out of tissues. In a last ditch effort to avoid a thoroughly uncomfortable walk back to the train station I knocked on the door to what turned out to be the management office. After explaining the situation to the woman who let us in, a man's voice boomed in from somewhat out of sight telling us to make ourselves at home.

It turns out the man who owned the waterfalls was having a casual afternoon in the office and was interested in hanging out with his two unexpected foreign visitors. It was long enough ago that I can't remember his name. What I do remember is his English was very good and he was an excellent host. Because the waterfall was running at a trickle he took out all his old photos and showed us all of them, talked about the falls and how he came to be the owner and manager, as well as inviting us back to see it as his personal guests when it was the right season for great photos. 

At some point New Taipei City took the park back over, paved the natural parks, closed the best viewing platforms directly across from the falls, and built an ugly but much needed viewing platform near the falls itself. It killed the "keep it natural" mantra of the old owner, and I can't say all the improvements of late have been for the better.

Once you've seen the park and taken all the pictures you want, head back towards Shifen to grab a bus or the train to your next destination. There are tons of awesome hikes down here - which deserve a full write up of their own - and the small towns along the rail line are all super cute. The best way to see everything is a scooter or car, but the rail line is definitely the most popular way to get around.

Here is the practical advice for a stress free trip to and from Shifen. Take bus 795 from Muzha station on the brown line, now called line 1. I personally avoid taking the train to Ruifang and then switching to the tiny Pingxi train. That second train is small, it's always over crowded, and service is basically once an hour. Despite this warning, it IS a very good idea to get on the train at least once, because it's a big part of this area's history and identity. It's just smart to do it to get to the smaller towns which are in the middle of the run where you're let off in the literal middle of town.

Taking bus 795 home means you can get off at Shenkeng on your way back to Taipei and take in their old street which is packed with stinky tofu vendors. You could take bus 846 to Ruifang to grab another bus up to Jiufen if you're dead set on hitting up all the big tourist sights in these mountains. Keelung night market is a short ride away from there as well.