Photo By: Elin Chow
Located in Pingxi District 平溪区 of New Taipei City 新台北市, there is a small town famous for its sky lanterns. Once a thriving coal mining district during the Japanese Occupation, the Shifen Old Street 十分老街 is now one of the most popular tourist attraction in New Taipei City.
Upon arrival, you will immediately noticed the railway track that was built alongside the street. Completed in 1921, the 12.9 km long single-track Pingxi Line 平溪线 was originally built for transporting coal and runs through Ruifang 瑞芳 and Pingxi District in New Taipei City.
Releasing the sky lantern 放天灯 is on the list of must-do items when you visit the Shifen Old Street. Pingxi is the only place in Taiwan where sky lanterns are allowed to be released due to its sparse population and high altitude.
To promote tourism in New Taipei City, the Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival 平溪天灯节 was held annually. The annual Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival has always been the main highlight of Lunar New Year's activities in New Taipei City. Hundred thousands of people flock to the area for the Festival every year.
In the past, the festival is always held on the 15th day of the Lunar New Year to celebrate the first full moon. However, two more sky lantern release events have since be added due to its increased popularity.
During the festival, thousands of sky lanterns with prayers will be released into the air. It is an enchanting sight to see the night sky illuminated with countless floating lanterns.
Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival is elected as the world's second largest festival at night by Discovery Channel. CNN Travel has named the festival as one of the 52 things to do in 2013 and fodor's Travel Guides named it one of the 14 festival a person must see in their lifetime.
Shifen Old Street run along both side of the railway track, cutting in between two rows of shops. Both sides of the railway is lined with sky lanterns or souvenirs shops, grocery stores and eateries. Almost all the shops sell either sky lanterns or lantern related souvenirs such as key chains and decorations.
Visitors can purchase miniature sky lanterns, postcards and other interesting souvenirs to bring home for friends and family. These little gifts are just perfect if you are buying for a large group of friends.
Shifen Old Street is usually overrun by day trippers from Taipei who wish to escape the hustle and bustle of city life. Visitors walk freely on the railway track, releasing brightly colored lanterns into the sky.
It eventually evolved into a local tradition in Pingxi area in New Taipei City where lanterns are released into the air, carrying their wishes into the heavens where they will be heard. Today, people release the lanterns into the sky to pray for a lucky year.
The sky lanterns are traditionally made from cotton paper on a bamboo frame. There is an opening at the bottom of the lantern where a small fire is suspended on a base framework containing an ignition source. All the material used to construct the lantern were decomposable that can be burnt completely before falling to the ground.
However, the making of such traditional lanterns require specific techniques. With sky lanterns getting increasingly popular, it is hard for local manufactures to produce enough to meet the growing demand.
In order to speed up the manufacturing process, local lantern manufacturers have replaced the bamboo with magnetic wire and cotton paper with painted colored paper. To make the lanterns more visually appealing, manufacturers have also made them much bigger than before. However, the bigger size have made the lanterns harder to burn completely, which resulted in serious environmental problems.
Walking down the street, you will find lanterns in varying colors, shapes and sizes. The lantern usually have four sides, and each with different colors. Each colors is supposed to represent a specific auspicious meaning.
Red for good fortune
Pink for romance
Peach-Red for decisions and opportunities
Orange for money
Yellow for success
White for health
Green for growth
Blue for hope
Purple for idealism
The lantern generally range from TWD 100 to TWD 200 depending on the number of colors chosen. Apparently, the more wishes you have, the more you will pay for the lantern. You can also choose a lantern with just one basic color if you do not have the extra budget.
After you made payment, the vendor will unfold the lantern and clip it to a steel frame for you. You will be asked to write down your corresponding wishes on the lantern with the calligraphy brushes and ink provided.
Using the calligraphy brushes dipped in black ink, we scribbled our wishes down on the paper lantern.This was the first time we were using calligraphy brushes to write. I hope you do not mind our terrible handwriting.
For those who have no idea what to write, there is a little board on the side of the steel rack with lots of Chinese phrases for blessing and good luck which you can refer to.
The railway track is still in use, and every once in a while, a train will passes through. You will be asked to get off the tracks when the train pass through. In the next instant, you will see everyone scurrying off the track.
It was fascinating to see trains running through the old street, right before our eyes
After the train disappeared out of the sight, the entire street burst into life once again.
Once we are done with the writing, the vendor unfurled the flattened lantern and asked us to hold it up for photo taking. Simply pass your camera to the vendor and they will help you to take pictures with all the four sides of your lantern.
After we were done with the photos, the vendor lighted up the lantern and asked us to hold it above our head. Just like a hot air balloon, the flame heats up the air inside the lantern, causing it to gradually rise into the sky.
The moment we released our grip, the illuminated lantern gradually rose from our outstretched hand into the air.
People believed that the sky lanterns will help to pass your wishes to the gods above. It is said that the higher the lantern floats, the more likely the wishes will come true.
Unfortunately, releasing of sky lantern has caused pollution to the environment. A sky lantern is only airborne as long as the flame stay alight and will sink back to the ground once the flame goes out. However, it may also land when it is still alight, making it a fire hazard. The flame source generally do not burn completely and may land in forests and buildings, causing pollution and even fires.
The newly designed lanterns may be visually appealing, but they create too much garbage that are hard to clean up. Even though the lanterns are marketed as biodegradable or environment friendly, most of them often land as dangerous litter.
However, this unique age old practice has become a source of income. Suppressing or banning this practice is definitely not easy. Thus, it is necessary regulate the activity.
Shifen Old Street is not only a great place to experience the local Taiwanese culture and way of life, but also a fantastic place for photography.
Thus, I would strongly recommend anyone to visit Shifen Old Street if you are in the area.
Shifen Waterfall 十分瀑布
Besides the sky lanterns, Shifen is also well-known for its waterfall. Located 20 minutes walk away from Shifen Old Street along a paved path, you will find the famous scenic Shifen Waterfall.
Shifen Waterfall is the largest cascading waterfall in Taiwan. Entry to this waterfall used to be chargeable, but now it is free. The waterfall is open daily from 9.00 am to 4.30 pm.
From the entrance, you have walk approximately 15 minutes to reach the waterfall. You cannot drive to the waterfall. There are signboards along the trail, so you absolutely do not have to worry about getting lost.
Further in, we came upon a long, wooden boardwalk surrounded lush rain forest. The boardwalk was a little slippery on wet weather, so be careful.
The walk to the waterfall is not tough, but there are lots of steps, so make sure you wear comfortable wearing shoes. Unfortunately, the attraction is not really wheelchair or stroller accessible. It may be impossible for people with mobility problems to get to the waterfall.
The boardwalk eventually leads to another set of stone stairs that descended down to the waterfall. Be careful on the stairs too. The stone steps are steep and can be very slippery when they are wet.
All of a sudden, we heard it from a distance - the roar of the majestic waterfall. Soon, the horseshoe shaped waterfall finally came into view.
The long descend of stone stairs led us to the lower viewing platform. Measuring a total of 20 metres (66 ft) in height and 40 metres (130 ft) in width, the Shifen Waterfall is known to be the widest waterfall in Taiwan. The waterfall has been nicknamed the Little Niagara of Taiwan due to its horseshoe shape and powerful flow.
Although we were surrounded by lush green forests, the only sound we heard was the deafening roar of the water. As the water plunges down into the deep pool beneath, it create a mist and if you are lucky, you will get to see rainbow. Unfortunately, the weather was very bad on the day we visited. It was raining heavily with very strong wind. We were drenched by the rain and waterfall spray, but it was well worth it.
We spent about 20 minutes taking photo and admiring the beauty of the majestic waterfall. I love the sounds of falling waters and smell of fresh mountain air. It gave me a sense of peacefulness. I would recommend anyone to drop by if you have some time to spare.
If you are interested to know more about our trip, you may want to check out our 11D10N round island tour itinerary for the list of attractions that we had visited during our 11 days in Taiwan. Be sure to follow me on Facebook or Twitter for the latest updates on my 11 days adventures in Taiwan! You might also want to check My Wanderlust page for some of my other travel adventures.