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While Chinese New Year tends to get all the attention, one of the more subtle and beguiling celebratory days in the Chinese calendar is the annual Sky Lantern Festival. In a blaze of luminous glory, 100,000 to 200,000 hot air balloons emblazon a full moonlit sky. Although the holiday is celebrated all across Asia, nowhere in the world is it more recognized than Pingxi, a remote mountain town an hour-long drive from Taipei.
Village watchmen used “fire balloons” as signals to inform the refugees that their houses were safe once again. When those hiding in the hills saw the celestial flares, they knew it was time to go home.
According to the elders of Pingxi, the Sky Lantern Festival originated in the Xing Dynasty, more than two thousand years ago. At that time, bands of outlaws frequently raided the lowland villages, forcing residents to seek refuge in the lush, verdant mountains. Village watchmen used “fire balloons” as signals to inform the refugees that their houses were safe once again. When those hiding in the hills saw the celestial flares, they knew it was time to go home.
Upon arriving in Pingxi, you can either walk along Old Street or head directly to the main stage. We’d recommend hitting the Old Street first to get a more intimate experience of the main commercial thoroughfare before the 80,000 festival attendees arrive.
The main activity is to buy a lantern, scribble your desires and ambitions on it, then send it into the heavens. The lanterns are made out of oiled rice paper, sheepskin, bamboo filaments, silk, or satin outfitted with a large candle at the bottom. As the lamps heat up, they take flight and linger in the air for as long as the flame still flickers. The base for individual launches is at the risky location of the railroad tracks on Old Street. Trains pull through every 15 minutes, forcing people to scatter to the sides.
After ambling a half-mile down Old Street, you’ll arrive at the main stage. In contrast to the down-home feel of the town’s principle road, you can tell that a major production has been bustling on this side of town: big screens, television cameras, celebrities and musicians are everywhere. The scene requires enormous crowd control, the ushering people in and out of prime viewing spots. Don’t be surprised if you get jostled or elbowed in the gut.
The collective launches start at 6:30pm and happen three times an hour until 9:30 pm. At the main stage, hundreds of dreams skyrocket upward all at once. It’s breathtaking to see the pitch-dark firmament, uncorrupted by light pollution, suddenly turn crimson against a backdrop of jagged peaks. Not only did lanterns act as signaling devices in ancient Pingxi, but they also commemorate the official end of Chinese New Year. Their release symbolizes the shedding of outdated ways and the embracing of an optimistic and fortuitous future. When the luminous sensations touch down, it’s with great hope that one’s lofty aspirations can be brought to fruition in the upcoming year.