The Parade and Releasing of the Water Lanterns at Keelung

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The procession…

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…and the releasing of the water lanterns

The seventh lunar month has come around once again, the Gates of Hell have been reopened, and believers all over the Far East are burning small mountains of ‘ghost’ money, and making sacrificial offerings of fruit, cookies, beer and whatnot at local temples, where they light sticks of incense and pay their respects to those who’ve passed into the Beyond. Swimming, getting married, making important financial decisions and even hanging washing out at night are all big no-nos at this time of year, and it’s very inappropriate to even utter the word ‘ghost’ this month. The correct term to use at present is ‘good brother’ (好兄弟; hao shong-dee) if you must refer to them at all.

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Despite its place at the climax of Keelung’s Ghost Festival observances, the procession is more gay than ghostly, and huge fun

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Ghost Month (or the Ghost Festival) is observed annually throughout much of the Far East and southeast Asia, but in Taiwan, and particularly the port of Keelung on the northeast coast of the island (a short zip by train or bus from Taipei) observing it and paying the necessary respects is especially important. This is because in its earlier years Taiwan attracted many emigres, who came to work as farmers, fishermen, in the coal and gold mines, and engaged in various other often dangerous jobs. Many died from accidents, diseases such as malaria, or even foul play, and had no family members to carry out essential funeral rites after their passing. Thus they’re forced to wander the underworld, and for one month each year (during the seventh month of the lunar calendar, which varies, but usually falls in August and September) the Gates of the Underworld open and the restless souls roam the earth. Although this might sound a bit alarming, it’s a great time to be in Taiwan, with countless colorful and intriguing things going on.

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At the heart of the procession are representatives of eleven original clans residing in Keelung, who each bear elaborate paper ‘houses’, destined to burnt on the waters of the East China Sea later in the evening

Ghost Month observances come to a vivid climax in Keelung City tomorrow night (Tuesday, August 16th 2016), on which the 14th day of the seventh lunar calendar falls this year. On this day is held the Parade and Procession of the Water Lanterns, one of Taiwan’s most fascinating and colorful folk festivals. The parade that starts off after darkness falls over the city isn’t ghostly or creepy at all, but more like a carnival, as the streets of the city are thronged with thousands of spectators who come to see the procession of floats, bands, dancing troops etc. At the heart of the procession are the eleven rival clans of Keelung,  each preceeded by a large banner bearing their family surname, and large, colorful, elaborately decorated ‘houses’ made of paper stretched over a framework of balsa wood.

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Arriving at their final destination, Wanghai Harbor, after 10 pm…

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…the sacrificial objects are prepared…

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…taken down to the beach…

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…and after 11 pm are set alight…

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…where they drift out to sea, apparently to illuminate the way for ‘good brothers’ still out on the ocean

After being paraded through the streets of central Keelung for everyone to see and admire, these arresting construction are later carried nine kilometers east to a small seaside port area where, at 11pm, they’re blessed by a Daoist priest, carried down to the water’s edge, pushed out into the ocean, and set alight. The succession of blazing paper houses floating out to sea is one of traditional Taiwan’s most magical sights, but it’s all over in about fifteen minutes. Before the last paper house can sink into the water, extinguishing the last remaining flames, the crowd has risen, intent on getting back to Keelung in time for the last train.

There’s a lot to see in Taiwan during Ghost Month, and the story of its history (especially in Keelung) is a fascinating one, explained in detail (along with descriptions of all the main events of the festival, plus where and how to see them) in chapter 50 of Taiwan 101, book one.

volume 1

See Taiwan 101, chapter 50 (book 1, page 357) for lots more info!

Six of the Best: my favorite corners of the world (so far): Part One

Incredible coastal scenery in the Faroe Islands

Incredible coastal scenery in the Faroe Islands

Adele penguins in Antarctica

Adelie penguins in Antarctica

The unforgetable ice fjord at Ilulissat, Greenland (taken just before midnight in July)

The unforgetable ice fjord at Ilulissat, Greenland (taken just before midnight in July)

Following an enforced change of plans this summer, over the last six weeks I ended up exploring Ireland and Sicily, two European regions I’ve been fascinated by for years, but never made it to until now. Both are magnificent, amazing places, although their also far from unknown quantities to travellers. Ireland was about as wonderful as I’d long expected, but Sicily really took me by surprise – it’s surely one of the great travel destinations of the world.  Despite the popularity of both places, one thing that struck me in a very positive way was how ‘authentic’ they felt on the whole. Tourism is still relatively low-key in Ireland, Sicily and elsewhere in southern Italy, the people of both countries are curious, friendly almost to a fault, and absolutely fascinating culturally, retaining their own unique characters in a world where people often seem to be losing their individuality. Best of all though the despised plague of mass luxury tourism that’s infecting popular tourist destinations the world over has yet to taint either.  This summer’s travels set me thinking about other far less well-known places that I’ve been lucky enough to visit already, and how bizarrely and inexplicably (although so fortunately, for us travellers) they’ve remained off the radar for most to this  day.

My body is still stubbornly functioning on England time at the moment, so to use my jetlag for a positive end, I’ve sorted briefly through some of the (digital) photos I’ve taken over the years, and come up with my six most mind-blowing, utterly extraordinary destinations. These tower above all else in my travelling experience so far, and I’d jump at the chance to visit any of them again.

I’m running the risk here of coming across as an immodest show-off, but anyway, here’s the list! With a bit of luck the photos will prove that I’m not casually name-dropping a tally of exotic, far-flung countries just to improve my travel-writer’s cred and gain a few brownie points. I believe these places truly are among the world’s greatest travel destinations, although for various reasons (such as perceived safety issues or the need for vast sums of money or effort, both of which are largely unfounded) none of them have so far become popular travel destinations. Things are slowly changing, but undiscovered corners of the globe like this knock you sideways with their beauty, the friendliness of their people, and their blessed lack of damned commercial tourism.

Anyway, lets start the name-dropping with maybe the most sought-after (and certainly the most memorable) medal of honor for any traveler:

Our home for eleven days down the Antarctic Peninsula

Our home for eleven days down the Antarctic Peninsula

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An Anatrctic base, left just as it was when the researchers left decades ago; visitors can only enter in small numbers of several at a time, lest they disturb anything.

An Antarctic base, left just as it was when the researchers left decades ago; visitors can only enter in small numbers of several at a time, lest they disturb anything.

ANTARCTICA

Bug**r me if there’s anywhere else on this earth that deserves to be mentioned in the same breath as Antarctica for sheer, unadulterated, overwhelming, profoundly moving beauty. Antarctica is less a travel destination than a kind of Paganistic religious conversion, albeit one that reveals the sad state of the remainder of our exceptionally beautiful but polluted, developed world in a remarkably powerful way. Before committing to the expense of heading down there in January 2010, I’d heard (from a couple of people who’d already been) that Antarctica is on a whole new level as a travel destination. However nothing could have prepared me for the trip, which (and I promise this isn’t empty hyperbole) was among the most intense experiences of my life so far. Boarding a boat in Ushuaia and crossing the Drake Passage felt a little like stepping into a space ship.

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After a couple of rough, sometimes vaguely scary days bobbing across a cold, wild and unforgiving ocean, we saw the first growlers, bergy bits and icebergs  of the Antarctic Peninsula (you soon become an expert at telling them apart), and it felt like we were entering another world. And in a way, that’s exactly what we were doing. That Drake crossing (which is often dryly referred to as ‘paying your dues’ – it’s clear why once you’ve done it twice) effectively  cuts Antarctica completely off from the rest of the world. For eleven magnificent days we saw not one airplane or vapor trail in the sky, let alone a single length of asphalt, or, for that matter any sign of human life, beside a couple of research stations. The very air  (which must have been largely free of radio waves, and certainly many hundreds of miles from the nearest TV or cellphone signal), almost felt as if from another planet. The occasional fellow cruise ship passed, but we only saw a couple of other boats during our 11-day trip. Antarctica is on another plane of pristine remoteness altogether. I imagine Alaska would look very similar, and Greenland (more on that in a mo) definitely does, but both those regions have stretches of roads, and they’ve been tamed, colonized, if only in small patches. Antarctica is utterly vast, utterly empty, and profoundly untouched, and it makes all the difference. People that have been that far south tend to refer to their experience in hushed, referential tones. It’s a bit like being in an exclusive little club, and we’ve long given up trying to explain what it’s like, because the only way to know is to go. If you do go (and you must), for goodness sake, join a small boat (of less than a hundred people if possible), which gives far more opportunities to go ashore (in rubber Zodiacs). It’s not exactly a cheap trip, but whatever you do, stretch your budget as far as you can and get the longest trip you can afford. We did an eleven-day trip which  crossed the Antarctic Circle. Most trips don’t head that far south, as conditions start getting very icy and forbidding down there – far more so than crossing the Arctic Circle at sea off Norway or the west coast of Greenland. Limited numbers of luxury cruise ships regrettably do cruise these waters (not that you’ll notice them while you’re there), but the Antarctic experience is so diametrically opposed to that whole fake ambiance of style, cuisine and plush comfort that presence of these floating palaces is a deeply unwelcome intrusion on one of the last corners of the world to remain aloof from the polluting effects of human meddling.

Ilulissat Ice Fjord

Ilulissat Ice Fjord, north Greenland

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Remote and magnificent Nanortalik, in south Greenland

Remote and magnificent Nanortalik, in south Greenland

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Settlement on the west coast of Greenland

Pack dogs impatiently wait-out the summer months in fields on the edge of a settlement in north Greenland

Pack dogs impatiently wait-out the summer months in fields on the edge of a settlement in north Greenland

GREENLAND

Greenland is a great deal closer to my English home than Antarctica, but a visit feels light years away from neighboring  Iceland, that extraordinarily beautiful country that in recent years has perhaps become too touristy for its own good. Like the Antarctic Peninsula, Greenland is quite an expensive adventure (with no roads at all outside the few small, widely scattered centers of population, all travel is by boat, plane or helicopter), but wow, is it worth it! Naturally, Greenland sees far more big cruise ships than Antarctica, but really the only way to see it properly is to travel like the amazingly friendly, curious locals: hop between settlements and towns on the west coast by boat, ferry or helicopter, and walk around the quaint villages of wooden houses painted in bright colors. On the outskirts of the more northern villages to find the dog-sled teams, which spend the summer impatiently camped out in the open waiting for the snow to return, barking all night.

Greenlandic  supermarkets, which are veritable meeting places for each settlement, are remarkably well-stocked and surprisingly inexpensive. Prices for food and domestic helicopter rides (among other things) are subsidized by Greenland’s Danish overlords. Before going, I assumed that Greenland would be largely inhabited by Danish émigrés, but in fact the large majority of inhabitants in most settlements we visited were Inuit, a wonderfully friendly, curious people. No-frills six-or-eight seater helicopters serve most of the domestic routes here (the kind where pilot has to give you ear mufflers to wear before boarding – grab the two seats along the side window against the door for a view you’ll never forget). The only remaining public ferry service runs down the west coast (which is the part most travellers visit, since it’s perhaps the most interesting). The trip from Ilulissat and impossible-to-pronounce Qaqortoq (the ‘q’s are all enunciated a bit like the ‘ch’ in ‘loch – but not quite…) is rather expensive, and a sometimes rather dull three-day journey  (much less interesting than the absolutely  stunning Hurtigruten ferry that runs the length of the Norwegian coast).

Luckily it’s still possible (although now I think technically illegal) to quietly get a local to give you a lift in one of their tiny fishing boats along the coast between the remote settlements of the southwest coast. Many of these boats only fit three or four people, and it may be hard to believe you’ll get out alive speeding down the west coast of Greenland for several hours. However, as on the Antarctic Peninsula, a string of offshore islands ensures calm seas for much of the summer. This is the way to explore Greenland!! Its southwest corner is undoubtedly one of the world’s most spectacular places, with scenery that exceeds anything I saw in Norway – think southern Patagonia’s great mountain national parks like Torres del Paine. It’s crushingly expensive for the average backpacker to charter a boat here (we divided the cost of a day-long boat charter between two of us, and we still spent a small fortune each), but the day trip by little boat from Nanortalik (a tiny village in a fantastically remote and scenic setting) up Tasermuit Fjord is one of the most beautiful trips I’ve ever taken! I hear the scenery gets even more superlative a few hours further south.

Unlike stormy Iceland (which, although at a similar longitude, seems, like northern Scotland, to sit in the northern hemisphere’s equivalent of the Roaring Forties), the summer weather in southern and mid Greenland is remarkably wonderful. During our two-week stay we had blue, largely cloudless skies almost every day, and several locals told us the fine weather would last all summer, until into August. Greenlanders live a simple life blissfully separate from the rest of the world and its tensions. Boarding helicopters, there’s no baggage check or security of any kind, you simply walk across the tarmac of the car park-sized heliport, bag in hand, and jump aboard while an assistant throws the packs in the helicopter’s boot. Once, while on a plane flight between Greenland’s only two proper airports, our cabin attendant (after finishing her introductory duties) sat down in the seat in front of us, took her knitting out of a bag sitting on the next seat, and returned to a sweater she was finishing.

The beautiful, unspoilt, unknown Faroes

The beautiful, unspoilt, unknown Faroes

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FAROE ISLANDS

Visiting the Faroe Islands made me wistfully wonder if nearby Iceland would have felt like this before its new status as a tourist magnet took a shine off the experience. Iceland was the only vaguely disappointing part of our Arctic summer of 2015. Scenically it still knocks the socks off many other popular destinations around the world, but culturally much of the population seems to be hurtling enthusiastically into the modern world of consumerism, and there’s a feeling that everyone wants to make money off you, although they do it in a very friendly, smiling, pleasant way.

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The Faroes do now seem to be taking off slowly as a destination, so maybe eventually they’ll lose their extraordinary charm. Meanwhile their awesome natural beauty (including some of the most majestically wild coastal cliffs I’ve ever seen) is complimented by a population of disarmingly lovely, friendly people, prices that are quite a bit cheaper than pricey Iceland, and some much more homely, much less ’boutique’ home stays than any we found in Iceland. Our August visit even coincided with Europe’s smallest Gay Pride march, where a large proportion (we heard something like 30 or 40 percent) of the Faroe Islands’ capital city Torshavn took to the streets to march for equality. It’s impossible not to love a place like this, and even though it’s difficult to see their side of the notorious annual whale hunt, talk to them before leaping to an emotionally-charged judgement.

 

Part 2: Ethiopia, Iranand Uzbekistan… coming later…

 

Runners Up

I could easily add a few other neglected countries –  Colombia, Zimbabwe, Mali, Algeria, Uganda, Kyrgystan, Pakistan, Albania and Romania have blown me away for different reasons, and two others, the Ukraine and Bhutan, both wowed me so much that I’ve already written blog entries on here about them. However I visited the first seven countries in my youth during the early 1990s, when print film was still the only way to go and camera quality wasn’t a spot on today’s cheap digital marvels. One day I’ll sort through a few of them, scan them and upload them for nostalgia’s sake, but meanwhile here are a few places I got to more recently that nearly, but not quite made it into my most treasured travel experiences.

 

Taiwan 101: The books are out!

volume 1

volume 2

WARNING: This blog entry includes an image of a bawdy traditional folk belief which might offend some readers!

After three years of writing, and a gaggle of delays and headaches, my latest (and probably last!) books are out. They finally emerged at the end of May, just a week before I jetted off for my summer holidays (which themselves didn’t turn out anything like I had planned, although that’s another story completely…).

Anyway I think Taiwan 101 is my best work (although I suppose I would say that), and I certainly learned more about the history and culture of this wonderful island than while writing anything else about it.

I’ll keep this brief, since I’ve got to get back to regular blogging, so if you’ve bought a copy, thanks, and of not, buy them! They’re available in Eslite and Caves books around Taiwan, and I can send them by mail if you don’t mind paying the postage.

 

Thanks,

Richard

Salt fields in Tainan City, a reminder of an ancient industry that's been practiced in today's ROC for eight centuries

Salt fields in Tainan City, a reminder of an ancient industry that’s been practiced in today’s ROC for eight centuries

Memorial at Checheng, Pingtung County, one of several places in the area associated with the Mudan Incident of 1871, one of the key defining incidents in Taiwan's history

Memorial at Checheng, Pingtung County, one of several places in the area associated with the Mudan Incident of 1871, one of the key defining incidents in Taiwan’s history

Here’s the advertising blag (and I’ve scattered a few photos around to keep things colorful too…):

Taiwan 101: Essential Sights, Hikes and Experiences on Ilha Formosa  

Taiwan is a perfect illustration of the saying that good things come in small packages. In comparison with more popular tourist destinations in the Far East, Taiwan is very modest in size, but despite its diminutive scale, the island has an astonishing amount to offer the curious explorer.

The boat burning ceremony at Donggang, Pingtung County...

The boat burning ceremony at Donggang, Pingtung County…

...and Yanshui Beehive Firework Festival, two of Taiwan's amazing, unique traditional festivals

…and Yanshui Beehive Firework Festival, two of Taiwan’s amazing, unique traditional festivals

The two volumes that make up Taiwan 101 are the perfect guide for exploring the very best of Taiwan: not only the island’s finest hikes, but also its best historic towns and cities, brightest traditional festivals, unique Chinese and aboriginal cultural riches, and its little-known natural wonders such as eternal flames, mud volcanoes and badlands.

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The huge Lulin Tree in Chiayi County is ranked only fifth in Taiwan, meaning that there are at least four larger on the island, while other bigger ones could exist. [There have recently been reports that a tree has been found that might now be the largest in Taiwan]

More giants, and the outrageous phalli spaced around Man Rock in Taitung County, one of the more unusual sights of folkloristic Taiwan!

More giants, and the outrageous phalli, placed at intervals around the Man Rock in Taitung County, one of Taiwan’s more unusual sights!

Together, Taiwan 101 Volumes 1 and 2 present Taiwan’s finest attractions to anyone who wishes to get to know this island of kaleidoscopic charms, and comes with detailed information on getting around by public transport, and accurate GPS coordinates of nearly 800 fascinating places.

The Crescent Pillar at Taitung City, part of a huge prehistoric site that includes the largest known prehistoric graveyard in the Pacific Rim area

The Crescent Pillar at Taitung City, part of a huge prehistoric site that includes the largest known prehistoric graveyard in the Pacific Rim area

Liukou Hot Spring, one of many wild, untapped hot springs that can still be found around the island.

Liukou Hot Spring, one of many wild, untapped hot springs that can still be found around the island.

 

Taiwan 101: Part 6. Offshore Islands

My latest book, Taiwan 101: Essential Sights, Hikes and Experiences on Ilha Formosa, will be published in May (in two volumes), and the photos in the following six blog entries describe just some of the hundreds of places and events that appear in the book’s 101 chapters. After this main part, a substantial section at the end of volume two gives a run-down of Taiwan’s aboriginal tribes, the island’s listed historic relics, its National Parks, National Scenic Areas and National Forest Recreation Areas  etc. and there are tables with info on the complete Top One Hundred Peaks and the Little Top Hundred Peaks. About 800 GPS coordinates pinpoint the locations of all the main places described in the book, and there’s info on car and scooter hire from various cities around the island, and bus/train access, where available. It’s been the hardest of all my books to put together, but immense fun, and during these several years of selecting which places to include, re-visiting many favorite places and visiting many new ones for the first time has only reinforced what an incredibly dynamic, diverse, and outrageously beautiful place Taiwan is!  

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Swallow-tail-roofed house on Kinmen

Temple at Qinbi, Beigan island, Matsu

Temple at Qinbi, Beigan island, Matsu

The Old Man Rock, Lanyu

The Old Man Rock, Lanyu

Rock formation on remote Hua Island, Penghu

Rock formation on remote Hua Island, Penghu

Continue reading

Taiwan 101: Part 5. The South

The endemic Formosan macaque at Shoushan, Kaohsiung City

The endemic Formosan macaque at Shoushan, Kaohsiung City

The Boat Burning Festival at Donggang, Pingtung County

The Boat Burning Festival at Donggang, Pingtung County

Titantic Rock, Chiayi County

Titantic Rock, Chiayi County

Sperm Whale skeleton, Taijiang National Park

Sperm Whale skeleton, Taijiang National Park

Southern Taiwan has some of the most interesting aboriginal culture on the main island, with atmospheric (and often remote ) villages of Paiwan and Rukai stone houses, and several of Taiwan’s most memorable traditional festivities, including the insane Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival, surely one of the most intense traditional annual participation events anywhere in the world.

For lovers of natural beauty, Chiayi County is unsurpassed. The crowds all flock to Alishan, but the best places in the area are Continue reading

Taiwan 101: Part 4. Western Taiwan

Hakka sanheyuan house near Xinpu

Hakka sanheyuan house near Xinpu

Dabajianshan, Taiwan's most magnificentlly distinctive high mountain peak

Dabajianshan, Taiwan’s most magnificentlly distinctive high mountain peak

Temples at Shitoushan, Miaoli County

Temples at Shitoushan, Miaoli County

Shuiyang Lake, a beautiful creation of the great 1999 earthquake

Shuiyang Lake, a beautiful creation of the great 1999 earthquake

In Taiwan 101 western Taiwan is everything from the Hakka lands of Hsinchu and underrated Miaoli, through Taichung City, Changhua, Yunlin (another under-explored corner of the island), and beautiful Nantou County. This long swathe of the island comprises the flat and (for a nature lover) relatively uninteresting western plains, but these are dotted with some of Taiwan’s most historic (and interesting) towns, the majority of Taiwan’s Continue reading

Taiwan 101: Part 3. Aspects of Taiwan

Museum of Marine Biology, Pingtung County

Museum of Marine Biology, Pingtung County

Guardian at the Zheng Chong-he Tomb , Miaoli County

Guardian at the Zheng Chong-he Tomb , Miaoli County

On the 8-day-long Longde Temple Matsu Pilgrimage, which starts in Taoyuan City and heads all the way down to Yunlin County and back

On the 8-day-long Longde Temple Matsu Pilgrimage

Salt fields at Jingzaijiao, Tainan County

Salt fields at Jingzaijiao, Tainan County

 

While the natural beauty of Taiwan will always be its greatest allure for me personally, the island also has an extraordinary wealth of cultural, historic and industrial attractions. Salt harvesting has been carried out on Taiwan for hundreds of years (with a history of eight centuries on the ROC-controlled island of Kinmen). Today salt production is a very minor industry here, but some of the salt fields (and a pair of unusual salt ‘mountains’) remain; the best have a strange beauty that’s quite unlike anything else on the island. Sugar, one of Taiwan’s biggest industries in the 1950s and 60s is now produced at only two sites on Taiwan, but some of Continue reading