A Taiwan village where wishes light up the night sky
It’s one of Taiwan’s most breathtaking spectacles.
Every year, thousands of travelers flock to the village of Pingxi for its annual Lantern Festival, where they write their wishes on paper lanterns and release them into the sky in the hopes that their ancestors will answer their prayers.
“It’s a tradition you have to do it once in your life,” says local guide Wang Chaw-Jing.
According to legend, during the Three Kingdoms period, Chinese statesman Zhuge Liang, also known as Kongming, created lanterns to send military signals. Because their shape resembled his hat they were called “Kongming lanterns.”
The practice of lighting sky lanterns grew more widespread in the mid-19th century, when bandits often ravaged towns.
“These were once used as signals for villagers to let their families know they were safe and sound but now they carry people’s wishes and hopes for the new year into the night sky,” says Ally Su of the New Taipei City Government Tourism Planning Division.
“Over time, the Pingxi Lantern Festival has gained a reputation for being the brightest, happiest and most heartwarming event in Taiwan.”
And you won’t find it anywhere else.
Pingxi is the only place sky lanterns are allowed in Taiwan, as the mountains and water prevent them from flying too far away.
The Pingxi Lantern Festival takes place on the last day of the Lunar New Year. In 2019, it will fall on February 19. The festival has been around for over 100 years, and since 1999, the New Taipei City Government started hosting the festival.
But you can set off the lanterns any time of year.
PIngxi streets are filled with lantern shops, each one with different offerings. It’s a fun process, choosing a lantern and writing down wishes with a Chinese calligraphy pen. This writer chose to write down well wishes for her upcoming nuptials.
There are multiple lantern colors to choose from, with different hues meaning different things, from greater wealth and fame and fortune to marital happiness. There are also lanterns shaped like animals, including cats, monkeys and pandas.
“You can’t just let the lantern go, there’s a ritual to it and a meaning,” says Wang.
For safety reasons, a shop worker lights the lanterns. And to control the flights, Wang says they now use soybean oil versus kerosene, so the lantern is “more stable and doesn’t go as high.”
The lantern is also limited to 60 centimeters in circumference. Any bigger would need a permit, says Wang, a former chairman of the Pingxi Commercial Association and owner of Ming Tong, a local coffee and tourism shop.
To prevent the mountainside from being littered with lanterns, there’s a recycling program in place. Residents can exchange used lanterns at shops for items like toilet paper and detergent. Wang also organizes hikes for locals to retrieve the lanterns that land higher up on the mountain.
If it’s a rainy day, there are other options. For around $1, visitors can write a wish on a piece of bamboo, which is hung along a fence in the village. There’s also a digital lantern option, the most environmentally friendly choice.
For less than $5, all you need to do is write or draw out your wish on a postcard. Then, it’s blown up digitally on a LED lantern outside the local police station, measuring around nine meters tall and four meters wide, for all to see.
This digital lantern is made up of 200,000 LED lights.
But there’s more to Pingxi than sky high wishes.
About an hour away from Taipei, Pingxi means “peaceful creek” in Mandarin and the remote hillside village certainly emits that vibe. A former coal mining village, it transports you back to a period when life moved slower.
Many of the village neighbors know each other and hold impromptu potlucks, often cooking together. Some locals are like Wang, who spent the bulk of their careers in Taipei but moved back home for some peace and quiet.
This includes Martin Yen, whose family owned the Taiyang Company, which funded the construction of the Pingxi Line railway in 1919 to deliver coal. Pingxi was first a farming village until coal was discovered in 1907, which kicked off the “Black Gold Age” in Pingxi, which at its peak excavated more than 400,000 tons of coal each year.
“I came back home to rejuvenate my body, to breathe the clean air and heal,” says Yen, 54, who worked in China’s computer industry before returning to Pingxi to convert his old family home into a tea shop.
His cafe, Six Door Tea, is in the market area of Pingxi Old Street, steps away from snack stalls serving local dishes like curry pork pastries, grilled sausages, tofu pudding, fried chicken and flour tea — all for less than $1 a serving.
One of the longer lines is for Railway Sausage, where 63-year-old You Su Zheng has been working for the last 30 years, grilling as many as 1,000 handmade sausages — stuffed with parsley, garlic, cucumbers and garlic — each day.
The stone bridge in the middle of town is a popular tourist spot due to its appearance in 2011 Taiwanese teen movie “You Are the Apple of My Eye,” where two young lovebirds release their own lantern, wishing to be together.
Outside of Pingxi travelers will find two other Instagram-worthy sites.
Just a 10-minute drive away is the so-called “Little Niagara of Taiwan,” in Shifen. It’s much smaller than its namesake, but you can can walk closer to this waterfall, which measures 40 meters wide and 20 meters tall.
There’s also a short hike at Hsiaozi Mountain, which only takes a couple of hours.
And to remember your time at Pingxi, many of the shops sell miniature sky lanterns with blessings on them.
Getting there: Pingxi is a 45-minute drive from Taipei. To get there by train, hop onto the Pingxi line from Taipei’s Ruifang Station.