The Pingxi Lantern festival is an incredible experience. It was worth standing in the cold for about four hours; which we did almost accidentally. We arrived via Mrt-managed bus leaving from the zoo station. The bus system ran with incredible efficiency, great signage and these mobile payment stations that meant you paid outside the bus and then got on. This was a great trick because it makes it so you can update your bus fleet or payment system completely independently of each other.
In general all public transportation outside of Boston makes the T look like a hilarious joke. Every city has fast, spacious, silent trains that are clean and go everywhere in the city. To visit Boston and it’s ancient trains must be an incredible shock to any resident of Asia traveling to the US.
Anyways we got to Pingxi, it took about 45m. The other option was to take a train that goes right through the center of the town:
The trains come through every 20 or 30 minutes. Whenever the coast is clear people jump into action to launch lanterns from the train tracks. The lanterns are much bigger than I expected, they’re these big paper contraptions with a lit coal suspended just inside the bottom to fill the lantern with hot air.
They look really cool when they’re launched.
We browsed around and bought some souvenirs and then found the area where the big, timed and coordinated launches were going to happen. We were surprised to find a huge crowd was already gathered, with an entire 20ish foot side lined with camera tripods holding people’s spots. We sharpened our elbows and carved out a space and then defended it from some pretty clever attempts to encroach on our turf by other onlookers. One enterprising group would try to expand their territory, already quite large and demarcated by a picnic blanket, by making a show of reorganizing things on the blanket, and in the process move a few items off the blanket into other people’s space. Then they would replace the items with a body part, and soon have more area claimed. They got a few inches off of Heather and I but no further! And we had built in a margin for error in our space with wide stances and backpacks. It was super cold and we were fresh from the balmy Philippines, but we toughed it out and it was totally worth it for the surreal sight of the lanterns launching so close.
Pre launch, they gather group 1 (who arrived much earlier in the day to get a number) into the center:
Then they spend an actual eternity talking and standing around. Then they release!
They drift off into the distance, presumably to eventually litter the countryside. Heather says that launching lanterns like this is only legal in Pingxi because it’s the only town where the lanterns can’t reach the ocean.
Then they talk for another two or three days, and then get another group ready with a new color of lantern, and a new dimmer setting because the sun is going down.
The pink ones were nice, but the ones I liked best were a new design that all had little hats on top. I got a really lucky shot of this batch; lighting was extremely difficult without a tripod and mine was much too tiny for the job. Plus I forgot it. So we were working with as low a shutter speed as we could with moving subjects, aperture wide open and trying to come to some compromise with ISO that didn’t leave us with mosaic-like grain on all our pictures. But! There were spotlights sweeping around and I totally unintentionally snapped one of my burst pictures just as one came across the lanterns:
I got some other lucky shots as well. The A7 really came through for me.
Then we headed back to Taipei, which should have been a complete nightmare because we got back to the buses only to find literally thousands of people had chosen to leave at the same time. We joined a line 20 people wide and many blocks long to board buses that would be traveling 45 minutes each way to Taipei. With most of my experience of public transportation being from the US and even worse, Boston; I figured we were doomed and we’d be sleeping on the streets. Instead the line moved slowly but inexorably forward. The line eventually divided into two, people who were willing to stand for the 45m and people who wanted to sit. There were more standing slots on each bus so that line moved quicker.
The reason the line kept moving is because there was never, not for one second a bus not waiting to fill up with passengers. I couldn’t believe it. Every once in a while you’d see that the bus queue was empty, and the next bus was going to pull away with no one on deck and just then six more buses would sweep down the road. I have no idea how many buses must have been in service. The efficiency was awesome to behold.