Cold, gloomy February is one of those months (like May, which is often a washout, thanks to the plum rains) when living in Taipei suddenly doesn’t seem quite such a great idea. But, unlike May, this month features one of the great dates in the Chinese calendar: Lantern Festival. Falling on the fifteenth day of the lunar new year (which usually places it sometime in February; it falls on the 14th in 2014), Lantern Festival is a far more interesting event for many foreigners than Chinese New Year itself, where most of the celebrating goes on unseen within the family home. For many Taipei locals (and foreign visitors in the city too), Lantern Festival means joining the vast crowds thronging the streets around Taipei City Hall, goggling at the spectacle of countless large and very elaborate lanterns. For many it also – rather regrettably – means trekking out to the little town of Pingxi on the headwaters of the Keelung River and letting off one of the untold thousands of sky lanterns that are released throughout the year these days, only to litter the beautiful wooded mountains around the town (please don’t add to the problem!).
For a Lantern Festival you’ll never, ever, forget though, make the rather longer trek down to Tainan to join in the utter madness of the stunning Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival. This outrageous spectacle, surely one of the world’s most intense and unforgettable participation events, traces its roots back to a cholera outbreak in the town (which was then a major port) during the mid 1870s. Back in those days, disease was considered to be spread not by bacteria and viruses, but by evil spirits, and as the epidemic claimed ever more victims, the surviving citizens called on Kuan Kung, the god of war, to visit the town on the propitious Lantern Festival, and also let off fireworks, in an attempt to scare away the demons thought to be causing the catastrophe. The epidemic stalled, and the rest is history. Today the festival, held on the night of the Lantern Festival (and nowadays usually a second night the day after to cope with the sheer numbers of thrill seekers that flock here) is one of the world’s most extreme and intense festivals.
Whatever you do, don’t underestimate it – Yanshui is very intense. My photos here (taken on my third (!) Yanshui, in 2013) were taken at relatively safe moments when hundreds of fireworks weren’t flying directly at the camera, so really don’t give a proper indication of just full-on the experience is. Yanshui is certainly not of everyone, but if you’re game, it’s incredible fun, and an unforgettable experience.
On the big night, traffic is banned from the whole town center, and the streets leading in are lined with hawkers selling cheap crash helmets, face masks, rain ponchos and ear plugs: the minimum essential protective gear for anyone planning on facing the beehives themselves. These monstrous contraptions (and there are many, spread around the town, of varying sizes, which are let off at intervals throughout the evening) are wooden frames into which thousands of rockets are placed. When the time arrives, each beehive is wheeled out in front of the expectant crowds, a siren is (usually) sounded to warn anyone not protected from head to toe to get the heck out of there, and the fuse is lit.
The madness lasts only a minute or two, but it’s completely insane. The thousands of fireworks set off with each beehive aren’t pointed up into the sky, but shoot straight over and into the crowd. The really hard-core revellers, clad in scorch-blackened flame-retardant gear from head-to foot, stand in the front row to face the tumult full on. It’s much safer just a row or two back, where the press of bodies are effective protection from most of the countless missiles. Standing at the back, where the crowd thins out on the other hand is absolutely deadly: expect to be jumping in panic as countless rockets explode around your feet.
Less than two minutes later the onslaught is over, the smoke begins to clear, and everyone is still yelling in exhilaration, fright, or both. And then the crowd heaves on to the next beehive, to repeat the whole process again…and again….
The easiest way to reach Yanshui (鹽水) from Taipei is to take a train to Xinying (新營) station (about 4 hours), from where it’s a short taxi ride to Yanshui; alternatively there’s generally a shuttle bus service from right outside the station. Returning to Taipei, trains stop quite early, but coaches from Xinying are quite regular through the night, and very comfortable. Naturally however demand is great, so you may well have to wait an hour or two before a free seat is available. Yanshui celebrations last the whole day, although the madness that everyone comes here for begins after dark, around 7 pm or so and lasts to around midnight. Many people bring their own protective gear from home, but I usually just bring a cheap rain coat and trousers (obviously you DON’T wanna bring your expensive Goretex jacket, as your outer layer will likely be studded with scorch marks and tiny burn holes by the end of the night). The remainder of protective gear – crash helmet with visor, gloves, earplugs, small towels to plug up each and every hole (wide masking tape is useful as well to bind anywhere a stray firework could possibly fly) – is easily and fairly cheaply bought on the way into town: full head helmets with a visor are NT$300- 400. What to wear underneath is a bit of a dilemma; if you intend to face the fury full on, you’ll need some major padding to absorb the shock (those rockets leave a nasty bruise if they score a direct hit!), yet in the incredible crowds that form it gets pretty hot – Tainan in winter isn’t usually nearly as chilly as Taipei!
The trickiest part of the Yanshui experience can be catching the most beehive action – in my experience you can ignore the nicely designed pamphlets available which purport to show the route of the palanquins (which are at the heart of the celebration). It’s better to simply keep with the hard-core set kitted up head to foot in homemade flame-proof uniforms – these guys seem to have good instincts as to where the next big beehive will be let off (and some of these monsters are a lot bigger than others!). The other rule of thumb seems to be to go on the night of the Lantern Festival itself, not on the second night, which seems to be much less crazy – on my second Yanshui trip we went on that second day, and after the mind-blowing intensity of my first experience the year before, it was pretty tame.
One last observation: Yanshui can be truly dangerous if you don’t watch out: on my first trip, we saw a stray firework set fire to some unfortunate local’s roof (it was immediately put out by waiting fire engines). It’s also essential to keep a careful lookout all the time while in the town; last year, outside the cordoned-off area of the town where all the action is supposed to occur, just seconds after we boarded the shuttle bus at around midnight to return to Xinying, someone lit a nearby beehive (surely illegal) and countless rockets zoomed straight at the bus, smashing against the windows inches from our heads. If we’d had been a minute later arriving, we’d have been bombarded, and since we were in our ordinary clothes, it would have been a very nasty end to a crazy but amazing night. So for goodness sake go (there’s nothing like it), but be careful!!!