Taiwan’s New Year: Welcomed Like Royalty

The lantern festival in Miaoli, Taiwan. Photos by Mariel Kennison.

The lantern festival in Miaoli, Taiwan. photos by Mariel Kennison.

Taiwan’s New Year: Welcomed Like Royalty

By Mariel Kennison

As much as I was excited for my trip to Taiwan, I was also pretty nervous. Not only was it my first time traveling to Asia, but I did not speak one word of Mandarin or any form of Chinese, for that matter. I had never been to a country where I couldn’t at least get by in the native language, making this trip in February 2011 my most gutsy and potentially, my biggest disaster.

All of my fears and doubts immediately dissolved when I set foot on the island, however. In no time at all I felt like I had lived there for years and was being treated like a true local. The people were so friendly and genuinely happy it was a complete shock, especially for an American like myself.

Now, I love America, but in very few large cities could you visit and be treated like
royalty when you are so clearly a foreigner. Even the most elderly Taiwanese citizens were turned into giddy children when they saw us disembark our tour bus and whip out our cameras.

Their economy is flourishing but they do not receive many Western tourists; they were overjoyed to be witness to such an event. It was a truly amazing feeling to be welcomed this way into a country so far from home and though we were all exhausted most of the time, it was hard not to emulate the infectious happiness of everyone around us.

Despite there being 23 million people packed into an island country roughly the size of the state of Massachusetts, there seemed not to be a rude bone in anyone’s body. The fact that most everyone practices either Buddhism, Confucianism, or Taoism shows in the way they live their lives every day; no one shoved or pushed me out of the way, not even along the crowded streets of the incredibly popular night markets.
Year of the Rabbit lantern.

Year of the Rabbit lantern at the New Year Lantern Festival.

Even though not many people could speak English and I had only learned how to say hello and thank you from my tour guide, they were all willing to help me in any way they knew how. Their devotion to kindness, generosity, and spirituality was inspiring and remarkable, especially considering the brutal history the country endured for centuries. After being ruled by China and Japan for so long, I would not have blamed the Taiwanese for being resentful or angry people, but their innocent, fun-loving spirit has yet to be restrained.

Colors of Taiwan

Their vigor for life is only reinforced by the fact that the entire country is a kaleidoscope of colors, especially during the New Year festivities in February. At the National Lantern Festival in Miaoli, bright red or orange lanterns were strung up along every street, performers wore fantastic neon outfits, and the sky was shimmering with fireworks.

Each year the Lantern Festival moves to a new city, and Miaoli was not to be outdone this year. The city went all out for the country’s biggest holiday, bringing in thousands of vendors, floats, and paper lanterns shaped like rabbits to celebrate, you guessed it, the Year of the Rabbit.
Sun Moon Lake.

Sun Moon Lake.

Also being commemorated was the 100th anniversary of Taiwan’s existence as a republic. The celebrations this year had an even greater meaning considering Taiwan is the first democratic republic in Asia and has been free from imperial rule for one hundred years.

After a countdown by thousands of excited visitors, a 20.5 meter (67 ft) tall rabbit lantern lit up and began to rotate as a laser show lit up the night sky. Once the lantern had made one full rotation, a neon map of Taiwan was illuminated and the audience came even more alive, cheering and clapping with patriotic pride.

We traveled south from Miaoli to the middle of the island to a beautiful region known as Sun Moon Lake. Near the lake is the Formosan Aboriginal Culture Village where aboriginal Taiwanese people reenact the cultural lifestyle and dances of their ancestors. Even though the aboriginal population is one of the smallest remaining on the island, their culture is still flourishing through representation.

From the village, we hopped on what reminded me of an enclosed ski lift suspended high, really high, on cables over the mountains. During the ascent, we saw nothing but trees, but after cresting the peak, we glided down along the rain forest with incredible views of Sun Moon Lake all around. What an amazing ride!
Snails for sale! Markets offer all sorts of interesting snacks.

Snails for sale! Markets offer all sorts of interesting snacks.

Steaming Food Stalls

There are countless temples in Taiwan stuffed into every available space and usually laden with offerings of food to certain gods and goddesses. Nearby are often jam-packed marketplaces with steaming food stalls brimming with some peculiar but tasty looking items like sea snails, fried calamari, and hot peanuts in their shells. As you walk by, vendors shout out what they’re selling, though not often in English!

Squid on a stick and candied strawberries seemed to be popular, not to mention a very stinky tofu snack (and that’s not just my American palate talking, it is truly called stinky tofu,) but I opted to try fried white fish and something else on a stick that appeared to be a waffle. To my dismay we did not have time to wait in the mile-long line for some fried chicken that made my mouth water just looking at it, but maybe next time!

I love to eat, so I had a grand old time here, especially at the night markets. You could avoid restaurants altogether with the amount and variety of food in those markets, but you’d be missing out– the restaurants are great too. The people in Taiwan are pretty passionate about their food, but not as much as they are about their tea.

That’s oolong tea, to be exact. I never knew that oolong, green, and black teas all come from the same leaves; the only difference is in how long they are allowed to oxidize. Taiwan is the prime place to grow these leaves too because of the misty mountains and lack of pollution. I drank more tea than I ever had in my life!
Squid on a stick, a popular market treat.

Squid on a stick, a popular market treat.

Traveling to the very south of the island, we stopped in Kaohsiung city just as the sun came out from behind the usual morning fog. After lunch at a little tea house centered around a small koi pond—water makes for very good feng shui—we walked along the boardwalk downtown where there were two great temples; one with a giant open-mouthed dragon and, to its right, an open-mouthed tiger.

Unless you want a lifetime of bad luck, do not walk through the tiger first! For good fortune you should enter through the dragon and walk out of the tiger’s mouth.That afternoon, we traveled just outside Kaohsiung to Dashu and visited an extraordinary monastery known as Fo Guang Shan. It is one of the biggest Buddhist monasteries in Taiwan and has nearly 200 branches worldwide.

It would take all day, maybe more, to see all this incredible place has to offer, and we were on a guided tour with one of its monks! Fo Guang Shan, also called Buddha Light, boasts a real tooth relic from Buddha himself and has millions of artifacts collected over the years to serve as a time capsule for current and future generations.

The high speed train system is very convenient and popular in Taiwan. Our tour guide was fond of telling us how convenient it is to buy tickets when you have a high speed pass; you can add money to it at any 7-11 store which are also conveniently located on every street corner. We took the train from the southern point of Kaohsiung to the very north, the capital city of Taipei, and it only took an hour and a half.

Taipei is the largest city in the country with a population well over 2 million and has a lot to offer. The Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial shows off photos of the former president and his wife meeting with other icons such as General Douglas MacArthur, houses the former president’s actual car, and has a lifelike wax statue of him writing at his desk.
Rocks at the Yehliu Geopark.

Rocks at the Yehliu Geopark.

The National Palace Museum is internationally renown and home to a permanent collection of some of the most important and ancient Chinese artifacts. In fact, it is also such a large collection that the pieces cannot even be displayed at the same time. It was an astounding experience to be able to view artifacts so old and so important in history that it was hard to believe it was real.

At the Silks Palace restaurant right next door, the chefs whipped us up a lunch that was also unlike anything I had ever seen; each course was modeled after an artifact from the museum! It was an interesting twist to see such rare works of art behind protective glass and then end up eating them in the same day.

Next we headed to the Martyrs’ Shrine to witness the changing of the guard. In an elaborate and awe-inspiring ceremony, guards march from the front gate to the memorial temple, never breaking stride and hardly even blinking. The shrine is dedicated to military veterans and is guarded by the young men who are serving their mandatory year and ten months of military service.

Odd Rock Formations

On my second to last day in Taiwan, our tour guide took us on a special trip to the Yehliu Geopark located on the coast. It was an overcast day, but the odd rock formations of the geological park were exhilarating nonetheless. As she told us, the island of Taiwan is one of the “newest” land formations in the world and because it “recently” came up from the sea only a couple million years ago, as opposed to the oldest which are billions of years old, making the rocks on the coast look like they’re from another planet with their bizarre layers of coloring and texture.

Not only do some of them shoot up out of the water like twisted sea serpents, but others resemble things like Nefertiti’s head and a woman’s high-heeled shoe, making the rocks cherished by the Taiwanese people.

All too soon it was my last day in Taiwan. I realized as ready as I was to go home after ten amazing, whirlwind days touring the country, I was genuinely going to miss this place and these people who had been nothing but generous and kind to me. I was more than happy I hadn’t let my initial fears stop me from coming.

I went to Taiwan expecting a trip like no other, and as corny as it sounds, that’s exactly what I got. Now I know why the Portuguese settlers called it Isla Formosa, the beautiful island.

The author wearing an aboriginal Taiwanese hat.

Mariel Kennison is a senior at the University of Massachusetts and an intern for GoNOMAD. She’s shown here wearing an aboriginal Taiwanese hat. She writes the daily Travel Reader blog.

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