Yansheui (Yanshui), Taiwan: Festival on Fire (and More)
Or, rather, they stayed the same. The town didn't get any bigger, the roads weren't widened, and traditional businesses weren't replaced by factories and condos.
The wooden-framed merchants' shop-houses on Ciaonan Street, one of the oldest thoroughfares in Taiwan, still stand. Many are dilapidated, some have been abandoned. All of them exude a tangible antiquity that makes photographers gasp and history buffs gush.
Elsewhere in the town, there's a unique-to-Taiwan eight-sided house. The first story is brick, tile and stone. The windows on this level are shaped like banners fluttering in the wind -- a nightmare to glaze, but a dream to look at.
The second story is made entirely of wood, and completely encircled by a shuttered balcony. All it needs is a Juliet. If you do wait outside and look up, you might well be invited in by the family that lives here. Like all Taiwanese they're exceptionally friendly to overseas visitors, and they're justly proud of their 161-year-old home.
Yanshuei is ideal for those who like to walk and wander. Explore each and every alleyway that takes your fancy; peer over walls for glimpses of ancestor shrines, disused wells, or handmade noodles (a local specialty) drying in the sun.
You can stroll from the southern end of Ciaonan Street to the Martial Temple, on the northern edge of the town, in less than 20 minutes.
A Fiery RitualThe Martial Temple -- so named because it's dedicated to Guan Gong, the god of war -- is central to an annual event that has made Yanshuei famous throughout Taiwan: A fiery re-enactment of a plague expulsion rite (also known as Yanshui Beehive Fireworks Festival).
In 1885, a cholera outbreak wreaked havoc on Yanshuei. At that time, Western scientific medicine was virtually unknown in Taiwan, and the town's herbalists and healers were unable to stem the epidemic.
Dozens of people were dying each day, and in a final desperate attempt to drive out the evil spirits blamed for the pestilence, townsfolk carried an effigy of Guan Gong through the streets.
At each corner they set fire to a pile of spirit money (the silver-gold paper still burned in Taiwanese folk temples) and let off masses of firecrackers.
This exorcism worked; the epidemic quickly receded. Ever since there have been annual parades, sponsored by local businesses and Taoist shrines such as the Martial Temple. Participation is free; residents cash in by selling snacks, soft drinks and protective attire.
The fireworks parade begins around dusk on the fifteenth day of the first month on the Chinese lunar calendar (February or March on the Gregorian calendar), and continues until dawn the following day.
It isn't, be warned, a fireworks display in the conventional sense -- although there are plenty of colorful explosions up in the sky. It's an audience-participation event. Millions of bottle rockets are fired at, into, and around those watching.
Nothing like this happens anywhere else in the world. In terms of adrenalin and danger, the plague-expulsion festival can perhaps be likened to the annual running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain.
Almost everyone who gets close to the frontline wears a full-face motorcycle helmet and thick fireproof clothing. Even then, there are plenty of casualties. Burns and bruises are very common. And with 50,000 or more participants crammed into a town of just 28,000 people, there's also the risk of getting trampled.
But for Westerners, especially ones used to paying high prices and signing legal disclaimers for carefully managed 'extreme' sports activities, the joyful recklessness is a revelation.
Tips for ParticipationFor an unforgettable experience, stay close to the palanquins that bear icons of Guan Gong.
Wherever these halt, you'll see a 'beehive' -- a shipping-container sized structure containing tens of thousands of fireworks. Each time a beehive is set off, you'll be able to admire a colorful vertical fusillade. When this wanes, brace yourself. There's a deceptive moment of respite before the horizontal launch racks begin to empty themselves.
This is the beehive living up to its name: Like angry bees, rockets scream in every direction, ricochet off the houses on either side of the street, and sting any flesh left bare.
Fireworks will shoot like tracer bullets over your head. The onslaught of bottle rockets forces everyone to take a few steps back. If you're slow to react, you might find yourself fully exposed in the field of fire.
Ducking does little good, because the angle of fire gets lower and lower. Projectiles bounce off your helmet visor. Rockets pummel your chest. The physical sensation is akin to being surrounded by a stone-throwing mob. Just before the bombardment ends, fizzing rockets skid off the road surface and bruise your shins.
When it's over, follow the crowd to the next beehive, and the next one.
But if you haven't already seen Yanshuei on a normal non-festival day, be sure to save some stamina, so you have the energy to see this town at peace and in the sunshine, when its ancient lanes and timeworn buildings look their alluring best.
Food and LodgingMany hotels in Yanshuei are run as brothels. For five-star comfort, base yourself in Tainan City. If your next stop is the mountain resort of Alishan, stay in Chiayi City.
Yanshuei doesn't have any international restaurants, but you can eat cheaply and well even if you don't speak or read any Chinese. Your best bet is to look for a buffet-style eatery. These can be found on major roads, and recognized because by the smorgasbord of vegetable, meat, fish, egg and tofu dishes. In some you simply point to what you want, and the workers pile it up on a disposable plate. In others, you take a pair of tongs and help yourself before proceeding to the cashier, who either weighs your plate or counts the items and then tells you how much you should pay. Rice – Taiwan's staple – is optional; soup is usually free and all-you-can-slurp.
If You GoThe nearest international airport is Kaohsiung (KHH). If you're starting from Taiwan's capital, Taipei, take the high-speed railway to Chiayi Station, and then a taxi. Contact Taiwan's Tourism Bureau, or Barking Deer Adventures.
Steven Crook, an Englishman who has lived in Taiwan since 1991, has written for all three of the island's English-language newspapers, CNN Traveller Asia-Pacific, Review Asia and several inflight magazines. His second book, Dos & Don'ts in Taiwan (Thai Book Pub. Co.) is due out mid-2009. His first book is available at Keeping Up with the War God Read his blog: at http://crooksteven.blogspot.com
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author