06. Fire in the Sky

  1. 01. A Breath of Fresh Air
  2. 02. Traincatching
  3. 03. Dutch Retreat
  4. 04. The Deep South
  5. 05. Dust in Time
  6. 06. Fire in the Sky
  7. 07. Kaboom with a View
  8. 08. A Free Country
  9. 09. Recycled

If you consider me an incessantly cheerful gunzel, you may be shocked to read I had reached the end of my rope with Taiwan Railways. This was to be expected, I suppose, after a week riding their rumbling leviathans.

Today, the train arrived on time, the interior was spotless and comfortable, the passengers polite, the scenery splendid.  Nothing had changed, and perhaps that was the problem: the magic was gone. Today I saw only the disgusting black soot spewed from a roaring diesel engine, passing villages of villagers whose way of life was being trampled by “progress”. I called my lawyer to file for divorce.

Not really. The end of our rail travels was approaching, so I could look past this three-hour journey.  Furthermore, I was looking forward to four days in the Taiwan’s capital, Taipei, after a night in Ruifang, only an hour outside the big smoke.

img_4949Ruifang is a town which never realized its potential because the locals can’t decide how to pronounce the name. I heard “ROO-fang” “Ray-FUNG”, “REN-pong”, amongst many other pronunciations. Even the rail timetable and the station signs didn’t agree on the Roman alphabet interpretation of the name. I’d guess that over the decades, thousands of western train tourists trundled by, not without alarm, dismissing Ruenfeng as a different place to their intended destination Ruifang. It is not.

It may be just as well. Ruifang is one of those places travelers call “a good base”. That is a nice way of describing an unattractive place with accommodation near an attractive place lacking accommodation.  In Ruifang’s case, the more attractive place nearby that lacked accommodation was the Pingxi District, where we were headed.

The Pingxi tourist rail line runs through several ancient towns, most famously the home to the annual Sky Lantern Festival.  From here colorful paper lanterns are sent aloft in huge numbers, lifted by balls of flame within. I gravitate towards events that blend spirituality and aerodynamics with pyromania. We had come intending to do just that.

But first we needed to drop our bags at the cozy B&B we had booked in Ruifang. It was right across from the station, on a busy street crowded with shops in grimy buildings mostly about six stories tall.  We had no intention of staying in the appliance store, nor in any of its retail brethren, so when we found a residential entrance bearing the correct street number, we rang every buzzer on the board, one by one. No response.

Pushing the door hard, just shy of kicking it in, it popped opened. The drab foyer led to a stairway littered with cigarette butts. We ascended, stopping at every door to see if it bore the earmarks of tourist accommodation. Sure enough, a door on the second floor had a piece of paper taped to it reading “Good Sleep”, the name of the B&B. Frank pounded on the door with vigor. After several knocks, a woman answered, mop in hand in a defensive posture.

None of this was a surprise, really. Most visitors to the Pingxi District do it as a day trip from Taipei, where accommodation is plentiful. We were coming in from the other side of Ruifang, so instead we had sought just a night’s stay to give us time to see Pingxi and move on. There wasn’t much choice in accommodation.

The housekeeper babbled at length, the crux of her message being, I think, “Go away.” We ignored her, pushing past her gate mop. We rolled our bags into an open empty room, causing her voice to rise and her tone to harshen. We pressed on into the next open empty room, which seemed more agreeable to her. She led us back downstairs to the appliance store. A gruff woman took payment for the room, gave us the keys, and shooed us.  “Check-in time, three o’clock.” Fine, be that way. We had things to do, anyway.

After a quick lunch of pig snout and chicken pee soup, we deciphered the Pingxi tourist train schedule at Ruifang station.img_20161229_195259Despite having done some research, we were unclear whether lantern-launching was something that only occurred during the annual festival. Frank enquired about this of the gent at the ticket counter. He rolled his eyes and guffawed. “Sir, it is not just the festival. It is 24/7, 365 days a year.” That was good news for us – but I could not but read his response as “I wish it WAS only during the festival.”

Reaching the platform, I was astonished to find ten billion others had the same plans this Friday afternoon.  The train arrived, and the mob stampeded aboard. We joined them, obligingly moo-ing, cattle-like. The train was so crowded and overheated I could barely breath. As I started to lose consciousness, Frank declared we’d alight at the first town of interest, Shifen.

As we approached Shifen station, a polite young man gave me his seat, possibly because I sat on him. From there I mustered a window view under the flabby arm of a would-be sumo wrestler.img_4963Outside, hundreds of street vendors and tourists parted in the nick of time as our train ploughed right down the middle of the narrow “Old Street”. The vendors fled into their adjacent shops, the train brushing against the shop awnings, while packs of tourists jousted for selfies from impossible angles. It was nuts.img_4967

Arrival at the station offered no respite from the bedlam.  We extracted ourselves from the train onto a platform of irritable tourists awaiting a train back towards Taipei.img_4978Looking from whence we came, I saw all manner of humanity flushing back onto the tracks, commencing commerce anew – at least until the next train arrived.  Commerce, such as it was, largely consisted of launching human being-sized bags of hot air aloft. (Out of cultural respect, I will resist the temptation to refer to human being-sized bags of hot air as “Trumps”.)img_4971

img_4973Less front-of-mind amongst us tourists than sending lanterns aloft was that the Pingxi line was built by the Japanese so the coal extracted by their enslaved Taiwanese laborers from nearby mountains could be put to use in the war effort. The track was laid such that trains trundle through the middle of these ancient towns.  Once the line was an offense to human rights, not to mention world heritage, but now it is “quaint”. What we had here was a former concentration camp turned festival marketplace.

No matter. It was getting to be late afternoon, and judging from the station frenzy, we surmised the throngs of day-trippers were already headed home. We decided to walk to view Shifen Falls, about a mile away, and then return at dusk to launch a lantern or two. Other than the Old Street, the rest of Shifen was unremarkable: cold, drab buildings from a once-industrial age, many of them shrouded in damp, lush flora.

img_5002Shifen Falls was worth the walk – no Niagara, mind you, but quite beautiful and roaring.img_4985  Extensive boardwalks led down endless garden paths, the innumerable stairs presenting some distress with my bad leg. Climbing back up, we came across an elevator for the disabled. After some groveling, the park personnel allowed us to use it, unlocking it.  Strangely, it only went up one story, eliminating about twenty stairs from the hundreds we then had to climb anyway.img_4990img_5005

Back at the Old Street, things had quieted down considerably. Still, dozens of tourists were sending lanterns aloft every minute, littering the sky – and no doubt the adjacent mountains.img_5025The lanterns are made of laminated paper on a wire frame, probably with a considerable half-life. I had to wonder what provisions there were for clean-up. Imagine the environmental legacy if ten thousand people a day, every day, threw a “message-in-a-bottle” into the sea. And was it really a good idea to send a ball of fire into the sky? We watched several launched lanterns blow against the ancient wooden buildings lining the street. What about wild fires? I began to have second thoughts about participating in this enterprize.

Shifen station was still mobbed with folks waiting to go back towards Ruifang and Taipei. A train came, but we didn’t stand a chance of cramming onto it. Instead, we bordered the next outbound train, figuring we could board an inbound train – maybe even get a seat – at the last station on the line.

img_5048It was a good decision, as the outbound train we boarded was almost empty. So were the towns further up the line. I scanned the mountainside expecting to see thousands of remnants of fallen lanterns, but spied only a few.img_4981There must have been some clean-up effort after all – or perhaps it was simply the Taiwanese tendency to clean up after themselves.  Furthermore, the damp weather made it clear the chances of starting a wildfire were remote.

Pingxi had its own Old Street, sans mob, where we alighted. There we enjoyed a (very expensive) beer while awaiting sunset. Then we purchased a lantern – plain white. Each color represents one kind of wish or another –riches, fertility, power, health and so on. White meant “too cheap to pay extra for a colored lantern”.

We painted our custom wishes upon it with a thin brush: “Peace”, “Understanding”, “Wisdom”, “Fun”, “Friendship”, “Progress”, “Grace”, and most peculiarly, “Rats”, where an ink drip left little choice but to express regret. Miraculously, we did not get the black ink all over ourselves.img_5060img_5067img_5065Our lantern man lit the sizable ball of kerosene-soaked rags at its base – and off it went.img_5073

I continue to await grace.

Our train strategy worked a charm, as we got a seat on the inbound train. Passing through Shifen again, the mob packed on again, some complaining they had waited two hours to fit on a train. Soon we were back in Ruifang. The song of the garbage truck sang in the streets. It stuck in my head for the rest of the evening.

We were getting more experimental with our eating, so we couldn’t resist the wet market when we stumbled across it.img_20161229_200506 Better safe than sorry, I told myself, as I took a photo of the posted menu in case an epidemiologist should need it. I had the most expensive beef dish, which turned out to be cow lungs, I think.

Back at the Good Sleep B&B, we found the place deserted. We were pleased to find our bags in good order still on the floor of our room. I was less pleased to realize our room was windowless, and the bed but a mattress on the floor. The room had only one possible escape route, and the building had only one marked exit – and that was covered with cigarette butts. “What we have here…” I told Frank, “…is a fire trap.”

Needless to say, we did not roast to death in Great Good Sleep B&B Conflagration, an event yet to occur. Had we, you might have read about in the papers. It would have been awful. Instead, I woke up hourly, sniffing for smoke.

We left Ruifang in the morning, taking the 45 minute train ride into Taipei. There’s something to be said for seeing the Pingxi District as a day trip from Taipei.

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