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.

Daytrippers #1: Lukang

Yesterday we set off for a day trip to the nearby town of Lukang. It’s a lot smaller than Changhua city, but has much more in the way of history, culture and tourist attractions.

The day got off to a rocky start, as we missed the first bus and almost missed the second, while trying to work out which of the 10 or so bus stops near the train station it would be at. But once we had caught the bus, it was a case of just sitting back and watching the scenery go past. Well, by scenery, we mean rice fields and industrial port town architecture, but it was nice to see something different from Changhua for a change.

We meant to ride the bus to  its last stop: the Taiwan Glass Pavilion. But accidentally got off one stop too early, at the Ribbon King Culture Park. We had read about the place online, but hadn’t been overly enthralled by the idea of a ribbon museum and gallery. However, as we approached the gate, the friendliest security guard in history appeared and presented us with two complimentary packs of ribbon samples of various colours, and invited us to play Pokemon Go, as the museum is a Pokestop. We decided to be polite and stop in briefly, but we were really pleasantly surprised once we got in. As you enter the building there is a long wall of different coloured threads, like a loom. Each colour represents a character trait, like calmness, enthusiasm and pursuit of knowledge. The idea is to use one of the ribbons from your gift pack and weave it into one of colours, but we aren’t entirely sure if we were meant to choose a trait we wished for, or a trait we already have. Either way, it was a hit with us and the many families we saw coming in to have a look.

The museum itself is really just a long corridor, hung with ribbons and spools of silks and beaded fabrics. In other places the walls are decorated with artworks made entirely of lengths of ribbon, alongside windows looking into the ribbon factory, and info boards on the history of ribbons and the textile industry in Taiwan. Through windows set at shoulder height you can peek into a functioning ribbon factory and at some points we could see ribbons being made. At the end of the corridor was a beautiful gift shop, with ribbons, fabrics, beads, silk scarves, leather purses, jewellery and hair accessories, along with the usual tourist doodads like key rings,  postcards, bars of soap and little figurines. The next room is called the DIY Room, where visitors can learn to dye ribbons, make ribbon art and even have a go turning the crank on an old-fashioned ribbon weaving machine. As it was Saturday, the room was really busy, so we decided just to watch other people for a bit and then moved on.

Our second stop was the Glass Pavilion, which is really a temple worshipping Tian Hou Gong Mazu, a goddess who protected the first settlers in Lukang from the dangers of the seas as they fled mainland China. As a result, the whole temple has a water theme, with a beautiful pond in the centre, serving as a wishing well to receive blessings from Mazu. Little glass bowls act as targets for people to toss coins into, which is a lot harder than it sounds! The temple is almost entirely made of glass, except for the pillars supporting the roof. Appropriately, the temple is on the grounds of a glass factory, and next door to it is a huge glass gallery featuring glass art, displays of experimental glass for household and industrial use, and an incredible hall of mirrors, with various themed sections such as the ocean, the jungle, and the Golden Tunnel. The gallery itself is free, but the hall of mirrors requires special slippers and gloves to be worn, which only cost NT$100, and you can take the slippers home with you afterwards! Near the food court area, there are also two gift shops (an expensive one and a not-expensive one) and a stand where you can watch a professional artist making glass sculptures.

The gallery also had English information on almost all its cards, which made some of the pieces stand out a lot more. We got to walk down a glass and mirrors version of the next stop on our itinerary: Moru Lane. After looking at intricate glass spiderwebs and butterflies, and wandering the glass gallery mazes, we caught the bus back into Lukang central and set off on foot for a few of the historical attractions. First on the list was a narrow lane famous for its cheeky name. Down the historical main street of the town, and then a little further, we found the incredibly narrow Moru (“Breast-touch”) Lane. A functional alley that was built to provide a fire escape for long shops, it became famous for being so narrow (only 70 cm wide) that a man and a woman may find it difficult to shuffle past one another without… well, it’s in the name. That said, there are other explanations for the origin, some involving a playful challenge to courting couples, others more implausibly involving homonyms for a prayer for a son. The lane has also been given the less suggestive, or mischievously ironic, nickname “Gentleman’s Lane”.

Having tested our courting resolve shuffling down the lane, we retraced our steps along the old road. It is still paved in old cobblestones, and has inlaid information stones, one of which nearly caused us to be flattened by a scooterist! Along this old road you can see the famous Ai Gate, which is the only remaining gate of the original city’s defensive walls. Although, the plaque states that the gate was built to be wide to welcome traders and ox wagons, it’s surprisingly small, and it stands to show how different it was protecting a city so long ago. Down the many winding cobbled streets in its area you can stumble upon many old buildings and temples, but we were concerned about catching a bus, and managing dwindling cellphone batteries was becoming a drain on our enjoyment. We left historic Lukang buildings for a later visit and set off for the bus stop.

At the information centre we realised we had quite a wait for the next bus. In a tiny spot of shade we debated whether we should hustle to another bus stop, or hide from the heat and wait where we were. Rainbow coloured smoke and the boom of fireworks decided for us as a few minutes later we heard fanfare and music coming up the road towards us. We had, it turned out, prime position to watch a parade through the streets. The parade was a strange mix of tradition drums and two-person dragon costumes, floral floats, symbolic sedan chairs, and souped up cars with blaring sound systems and pleather-clad girls. The most notable figures were four enormous puppet-costumes with fearsome faces and regal clothing. And, just before our bus arrived, we were witness to a massive and quite deafening fireworks display. The smoke trails clouded the street like a scene from an apocalyptic film, an effect added to by the otherworldly blaring of large brass trumpets not unlike the South African vuvuzela.

We suspect that the parade was part of the ongoing celebration of Zhongyuan or Ghost Festival. For the lunar month, the spirits of the dead may walk the earth again, eating and experiencing things like Taiwanese opera as a reprieve from the underworld. These ‘goodbrothers’ are given food and drinks, warm water to wash themselves, and are generally appeased. We’re hoping to figure out if what we saw was part of it. We wondered whether the giant figures were meant to be related to the god Zhong Kui, a divine exorcist who is involved in sending the goodbrothers back before the gates of the underworld close again, or something else entirely. However, with no way to really ask anyone around us we must wait for the week to start again before we can find out what we really saw.

We had a wonderful time in the small town, and are definitely going to go back to see more of the sights we couldn’t squeeze into our first day. The day also showed that sometimes the best laid itinerary can be upset to make space for wonderful surprises!