Getting festive: Dragon Boat Races

Another crowded bus trip, another day of festive exploring! This time we were squeezed into a bus on the way to Lukang for the Dragon Boat Festival. We were really excited, as we had to miss the event last year, and as the bus trundled the thankfully short distance from Changhua, we prepared for a day of sunny skies and rowing races.

The festival is an annual event that takes place on the fifth day of the fifth month in the Chinese calendar, and is most famous for the rowing races that are the holiday’s main focus. Watching the races is so popular, the holiday in Taiwan extends over multiple days, meaning a long weekend for exploring, watching races, and eating rice dumplings!

There are a few stories around the origins of the festival’s traditions, but the one we’ve heard the most here is the story of Qu Yuan. He was a famous poet who died in 278BC, according to legend by drowning himself. The story goes that he was exiled from his homeland, after couselling his lord not to make war with the neighbouring Kingdom of Qing. On hearing that his homeland had been invaded and taken by the Qing, he threw himself into the Milou River. The people nearby were so upset by this that they apparently raced out in boats to retrieve the body, throwing sticky rice balls into the river to keep the fish from eating the poet’s body. As a result, today teams of rowers compete with one another in races, and people all around Taiwan eat tasty zongzi, rice dumplings wrapped in leaves.

We arrived in Lukang and set off on foot to the river where the races were happening. After finding our way past Molu Lane again, we made it to the bridge over the river. The area has been purpose built for the event, with cement grandstands, curved viewing platforms, and a field for a small market. The afternoon was hot, and so we headed for the market to get some late lunch and something to drink. We got some fruit teas, but had no luck finding the Zongzi the festival is famous for! We settled for a variety of Taiwanese market usuals, and made for the stands.

The races were fun to watch. Each one is a head-to-head of two teams, racing to the finish, or sometimes to fling a floating flag into the air first. The boats, unsurprisingly, are made to look like dragons. They really looked quite cool, and as the sun set and they lit up in changing colours. The races were quite festive, especially as evening fell and the stands filled up. Winners were cheered as they rowed back to the start, and some of the races were very close. We watched for a few hours, drinking tea or beer to stave off the golden late afternoon heat. And as it started to get dark, we made our way back to the bus terminal and from there to Changhua.

The Dragon Boat Festival is one of the most popular in Taiwan, and seeing the races on such a beautiful afternoon and evening was really wonderful.

Special events: Lantern Festival 2017

We were very boring during the long time off for Chinese New Year, but to make up for it we made sure to see the 15 day celebrations off at their big final event, the Lantern Festival. It falls on the first full moon of the lunar new year, and this year the official celebration was set up in Yunlin and was the biggest one so far.

The Lantern Festival has a long history, and in Taiwan it’s still very possible to do the very traditional style, where red paper lanterns, often with wishes written on them, are released on masse into the night sky. The most popular spot to see this is in Pingxi. The official festival, however, is a more modern take more akin to an incredible light display, concert, and fair. A huge space around Yunlin’s High Speed Rail station was set aside to show off a fantastic display of lights and symbolic lanterns, tying the new LED-fuelled spectacle to the tradition of releasing sky lanterns.

Getting to the festival was a challenge. The traffic going into the festival was insane, with taxis, cars, and buses all flooding in from all directions. The shuttle buses did have some stretches of dedicated roads, and we regretted not trying to get on one at the local train station instead of going by taxi. To save time and money, we hopped out not far from the festival entrance and walked alongside the road. Many other festivalgoers had the same idea, and the excitement built as the bright lights grew distinct and morphed into signs for the festival. Every island down the middle of the road was decorated, with trees wrapped in LED lights pointing the way. Eventually we passed the full-to-bursting parking lots and under a red gateway of lights into the bustle of the festival.

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On every side there was something to see. At the entrance there was a stage celebrating Taiwan’s indigenous aboriginal cultures, including singing and dancing, and lanterns in the shape of people in the traditional dresses of each group. From there, we wandered amid ever more complex displays of light and art. We passed beneath a giant illuminated pirate ship, and saw moving animatronic dragons and vikings (definitely not loosely based on a popular Dreamworks movie), animals, and abstract shapes.

These lanterns were all made from a kind of polygonal framework supporting coloured fabric that would be placed over bright lights. Each then would glow from the inside, and the lantern-sculptures could be impressively complex, some even articulated to move. There were even whole temples to many different gods, as well as a number of impressive and fully-lit Buddhist temples and even a small Christian church complete with light-up saints. Alongside these displays were large stages where smaller performances were held. Each time we thought we were drawing near to the main event stage, it turned out to be yet another, bigger ‘small’ stage!

Naturally as it is the year of the rooster, the festival’s theme drew on roosters, other birds, and especially the mythical Fenghuang (or Chinese phoenix) as a motif that was visible all around. The centerpiece of the festival was an enormous phoenix, standing high above the main stage (something that helped us to finally find it!). Every 30 minutes, the performance onstage would subside so that the massive lantern blast a psychedelic light-show from within, set to dramatic music as the phoenix rotated and flashed a million different colours. It was amazing, and we were right below it when the display began! The other major attraction was an immense pavilion made entirely of paper lanterns stretching way into the air. These two displays really captured the blend of traditional and ultramodern that the Festival was trying to achieve.

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Of course, the festival also boasted a night market – this is Taiwan of course! The food section was really crowded, as we’d expected, but we still managed to get some fantastic Indian food from some exchange students making money selling delicious samoosas and Indian tea. Finding somewhere to sit was a challenge, as the press of people spilled out into the eating areas as well. We eventually found a street-side stone bench to sit on and quickly eat our food.

What we didn’t account for was the really long lines for getting back on the shuttle buses out from the festival. When we got to the bus area, the lines were already snaking back and forth and around and back again, with no real guidance as to which line was to get onto which bus going where. After trying to find the right queue and failing twice, we eventually squeezed our way to the front of the queues and then followed the right one back to its end, which happened to be at the centre of the world’s slowest whirlpool of people.

Needless to say, the wait that we would have had was going to make us miss the last train back to Changhua. Thank goodness for the HSR station being just a minute away from the buses. Not long after we got our tickets and were waiting for the next ultra-fast train to race us home, loads of other people had the same idea and the train filled up quickly as well! Nonetheless we were comfortable and back home in not too long at all!

The Festival was a wonderful event, and it was interesting to find out about the ways in which the city managed to Green up such an electicity-heavy event with school children riding bicycles to generate electricity in the days leading up to it as only one innovate example. We had a blast seeing all the amazing lanterns and displays, and we would really recommend trying to see the Festival next year!