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Up, Up And Away On A Magic Island

By  Peter Guttman

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Magic rises after the sun sets amidst a ruggedly mountainous isle. Wading out in the subtropical western precincts of the Pacific basin, Taiwan has readied itself for yet another incarnation of the Chinese New Year. Marked by many millenia since the reign of the legendary Yellow Emperor, each new round of their mythologically based calendar greets observing populations around the world, but explodes with special significance here in Taiwan, a yam-shaped island rooted in ancient tradition. Straddling the Southern Hemisphere's Tropic of Cancer and spliced by straits from the Asian mainland, this intoxicating enclave of dizzying celebrations and colorful observances has long beckoned to me with annual visions of their myriad Lantern Festivals. 

As a waxing moon premieres its full glow on the fifteenth day of the infant lunar year, this astonishing land of venerable rituals lifts its ceremonial curtain, unveiling a chaotic roster of festivities. One of the numerous legends explaining islanders' yearly obsession with atmospheric illumination spotlights a heavenly deity and his sixteen dragons that needed to be mollified by celestial displays. In the event's early days, the resulting lanterns sparked island matchmakers, who escorted throngs of young people onto the streets, seeking love and romance. Today, rustic villages and teeming cities alike erupt in lantern-filled celebrations that sparkle across alpine topography and float high above the second densest human populace on earth.

I headed toward Lugang, an 18th Century Taiwan Straits port town, whose turn it is, musical chairs style, to host Taiwan's main Lantern Festival extravaganza. On its outskirts, I embarked on a quiet stroll down Nine-Turns Lane, a gauntlet of Qing Dynasty architecture lining antique, zigzagging alleyways meant to thwart both the entry of marauding bandits and the damaging winds of September's monsoon season. Hidden calligraphy workshops and defensive gun towers punctuate incense-perfumed lanes echoing with the slapping tiles of elderly Mah Jong players huddled in dimly lit doorways. 

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As the streets broaden, main thoroughfares are coronated by sinuous strands of dragon-like luminaria undulating overhead in the urban breeze. Radiating toward the town's center, boulevard shoulders suddenly unveil dazzling, mythological lantern sculptures announcing creatures of cultural and astrological significance. In a central square, fans flutter and porcelain-cheeked dancers sway to the plucked hypnotic melodies of a four stringed pipa lute. Lights dim. Suddenly, a gargantuan dragon begins a grandiose spin, flashing kaleidoscopic colors and breathing metaphorical fire. A misty spray shoots from flaring nostrils as dueling laser beams high above cross swords toward a distant horizon.

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A night of recuperation from this hallucinatory evening was an obvious necessity and well delivered by some time spent in the island's interior at Sun Moon Lake, a serene temple-dotted turquoise loch cupped by sheltering pine-clad mountain silhouettes. Along its shores, evergreen-scented trails stitch pagodas and mountaintop shrines. Here, thatched roof villages host indigenous tribes that share folkloric traditions with visitors exploring the region's rural heritage.

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Yet it was an entirely different rural heritage that lured me to this part of the world in the first place. Ensconced within a deep valley, carved by rivers pounding through Taiwan's verdant northeastern district, the isolated coal mining village of Pingxi is the traditional cradle of the island's original lantern festival. I arrived at this rustic settlement, crossing a suspension bridge creaking with the foot traffic of eager hordes. Its swaying planks point visitors toward the jammed main street, crowded with excited anticipation and sliced by narrow gauge tracks that once ushered coal trains out of town.

As the occasional locomotive rumbles through, crowds part, revealing food stalls that burst with steaming containers of dim sum and vendors shaving stubborn blocks of nut-laden desserts. At the side of the tracks, delicate paper lanterns are scratched with graceful etchings of Chinese prayers and wistful yearnings, then released as thermal currents thrust these floating projectiles skyward from their trackside launching pads. An Asian form of smoke signal, these aerial dispatches were originally meant to telegraph distant neighbors with a reassurance of safety and well being during a more dangerous era of piracy.

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Later, as a pastel dusk falls over the hamlet, crowds swell in a nearby field and prepare for a massive liftoff of lanterns that fill the sky with a constellation of floating campfires. A thousand sizzling flames hoist solemn benedictions, wafting heavenward and peppering the atmosphere with bronze pinpoints that sweep a luminous awe-inspiring haze across the landscape. 

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The Zen-like simplicity and lyrical beauty of these sublime moments on the island seem somehow orchestrated by an ever-present dominance of Buddhist sensibilities amongst the local people and their hallowed monuments. Perhaps reigning supreme amongst these is the 55 acre Fo Guang Shan Buddhist Monastery. Piercing a bamboo forest outside Dashu, that impressive pilgrimage site spotlights the world's tallest seated Buddha, an astonishing golden apparition built to shelter the 2,600 year old tooth of this revered divine leader.

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While a hunger for spiritual renewal pervades the countless monasteries, temples and shrines of the Taiwanese countryside, it is deep within the traffic-choked tangle of urban congestion that perhaps the most visceral forms of hunger take hold. Beneath newly minted luxury hotels, the justly famed night markets of the cities' neon-lit lanes serve up a dizzying buffet of exotic street food to a bustling crowd of famished customers. Pig heads with frozen smiles crowd piles of raw oysters, awaiting their role as omelette ingredients. Stomachs growl during a fragrant walk through clouds of steam that brush an array of pork dumplings as overburdened carts display a zoological catalog of snapping crustaceans.  

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In the capital, Taipei flaunts its newly asserted claim on architectural superlatives. Dominating the neighborhood surroundings, an astounding skyscraper held sway over the world's tallest buildings for six years at the beginning of this new millenium. Audaciously located atop geologically volatile tectonic plates, Taipei 101 heaves skyward its 1,667-foot serrated silhouette. Meant to echo the traditional lines of a classical pagoda, this stylish edifice is a striking fusion of cutting edge know-how and elegant tradition. In fact, all throughout the island there seemed a confident mingling of technological savvy, and proud, spirited reverence toward ancient customs. That harmonious blend stirs me and makes Taiwan such a memorably potent stew of cultural magic. 

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China Airlines offers stellar service and a premium inflight experience with nearly two dozen North American gateways to Taipei, Taiwan. http://www.china-airlines.com/en/check/check_boeing747_first.htm

Taiwan Tourism is a helpful place to begin your research and preparations for a journey to this magic island.  http://go2taiwan.net/

Peter Guttman is a two-time winner of the Lowell Thomas Travel
Journalist of the Year, author of five travel books, and the creator of
the number one best selling travel app, Beautiful Planet HD.

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