Just 45 minutes from Taipei lies the storybook village of Shifen. If you visit during the Chinese New Year, be prepared for a visual bonanza. Hundreds of lanterns, each inscribed with a wish for the New Year, are released into the heavens, decorating the night sky like beautiful zari work.
Of course there is a story behind the tradition. Once upon a time, Han Chinese immigrants of Pingxi Valley hid in these mountains to escape bandits. Later, the village watchmen would send out “fire balloons,” a signal to those hiding that the place was safe again. The bandits are long gone, but the tradition has continued, both as a mark of peace and a purely sensory delight—in some ways, it’s Taiwan’s version of our Diwali.
The ritual is simple. Buy a lantern from one of the shops lining Shifen Old Street and jot down your wishes on all four sides. Made of oiled rice paper, the lanterns have a large candle at the bottom. I buy a blue one, which is meant to denote success. We take our lanterns out on the street and the shopkeeper lights the candle. As the lamp heats up, I gradually release it in the air. It takes a smooth flight and slowly vanishes from view. I am told it lingers as long as the flame flickers, then gently sways back to earth.
Shifen itself has a movie-like setting. Amble around the busy, ancient marketplace standing against lush green mountains. Hundreds of lanterns lined up on the sides with quirky messages and drawings add a colourful palette to the street which is bisected by a fully functional railway track. Couples, friends and families line up on the track to get clicked as they release their lanterns. A train pulls through every 15 minutes, scattering away the shoppers and shopkeepers in a jiffy. Fascinating scenes!
Text: Siddharth Birla
Team Travel Secrets was hosted on this trip by Taiwan Tourism.