Dragon Boat Festival: Day Trip to Danshui, Northwest Taiwan
Efficient Public Transportation – Sleepy Port Town Comes Alive – Pigs Hold Down the Fort – A Mob With Firecrackers – Stalking a Parade
The last weekend in May was the Taiwanese Dragon Boat Festival, a national holiday observing the three-day Dragon Boat Race in Taiwan and Mainland China. The festivities kick off on Thursday, the races run through Saturday and as a result the Taiwanese enjoy a four-day weekend, a rarity in these parts.
I’ve come to realize that the Taiwanese are hard workers. They work long hours, and they rarely enjoy breaks. For example, at my school I work alongside three other Western teachers. If we have two classes each day we might come in at 3:30 for a 4:30 class, including prep time, and we’ll usually stay till about 9PM. The Chinese staff, the local teachers who sit in on all of our classes and teach their own classes, often in the local tongue for clarity, come in around 1PM and stick around till maybe 10PM. We all work six days a-week, although my Saturday classes are only in the morning to early afternoon and I enjoy a fair amount of free time throughout the week.
When it comes to holidays, there are few nationally recognized days off. Dragon Boat Fest’s official day off is Thursday, however the government here allows businesses to take off Friday as well (ensuring the four-day stretch for travel) on the condition that the workday be made up, usually the following Saturday or Sunday!
I’m still new here so the bureaucracy of this system doesn’t bother me yet, however, I knew that I would have to do something for this nice holiday.
My original plan was to head down South to the Toroko Gorge National Park. I hear from locals and other expats who have been here quite some time that the Gorge itself–basically a giant hole in the ground–is underwhelming and overly touristy. Coming from the flat Midwest and having just tasted a bit of the serene mountain life on a trip to Colorado earlier this year, I was still eager to check out Taiwan’s most popular destination.
Of course since it was Dragon Boat Weekend, I was not the only person with this vision of grandeur. All the hostels in the area were booked, my Lonely Planet guide book read, “avoid at all costs on National Holidays” and the two-hour plus train ride wouldn’t be worth the time or money for a simple day trip.
I decided instead to use the free weekend to explore some of the many day trips offered outside of Taipei.
As far as big cities go, you couldn’t really ask for a better-situated one than Taipei. Sure it’s noisy, polluted, overcrowded at times and void of most natural life, save for the surgical-masked hordes that crowd the streets, but by way of a simple city train or bus outside of the city center you’re suddenly staring up into lush green mountains or sunny seaside towns.
The most popular daytrip from Taipei is Danshui, a little port borough located just Northwest of the city proper, and conveniently situated at the end of the Red Line on Taipei’s MRT Train system, a NT$45 trip from my apartment, cup-o-noodle prices people.
Public transportation, at least Taipei’s metro system, is one of the best I’ve ever encountered. It could be that since it is not even ten-years-old the city was able to really plan ahead for the future. The system connects most of the major points in the city and is the perfect vehicle for getting away for a simple daytrip to places like Danshui or the natural hot springs at Beitou, another future destination.
Danshui is to Taipei, what Coney Island is (or once was) to New York City. It’s a festive getaway by the shore with its own boardwalk, its own unique cuisine (Coney Island has its dogs, Danshui, its squid kebabs), some monuments and sights, a beautiful temple, games and other forms of entertainment and its own ferry across the Danshui river to Bali, another, road less traveled coastal community.
I arrive early afternoon Thursday along with a train car full of Taiwanese, dressed in their sun hats, children and elders at their side, smiles on their faces. It’s a bit more overcast than I would have like but this setback doesn’t stop the crowds.
Immediately upon exiting the MRT station I am thrust into a busy plaza of food stands, toy vendors, bicyclists (Taiwan is a wonderfully bike-friendly country I should add!!) and local musicians singing to pre-programmed tunes off a PA-rigged, 90s era Casio keyboard, you remember, the ones that played all classics but with the sonic finesse of say, Nintendo.
I grab a quick snack before heading off for some daytime sight seeing. As you might have seen from the previous entry, Danshui is known for its seafood and quail eggs. My first foray into the countless tasting possibilities were steamed shrimp balls, served, predictably, on a stick.
I make my way towards the first of Danshui’s three most famous sights: the Fuyou Temple. Like the awe-inspiring cathedrals of Europe, or the lively and ornate mosques in Turkey, I can’t seem to get enough the many temples I’ve come across during my time in Taiwan so far
For starters, all the temples, even the oldest, are still active and always full of people of all backgrounds. The Fuyou Temple is small and is located on Danshui’s busiest drag, a busy shopping street by day, and a bustling night market by night.
I spend a good twenty minutes or so seated in the corner and out of sight and watch locals and tourists flow in, each carrying a long stick of incense. The temple has an open roof but the sanctuary still floods with aromatic smoke. Large wooden tables play host to various offerings–boxes of noodles, sweets, tea leaves, a couple pieces of bread, etc. I feel uneasy snapping photos but I can’t resist.
Next up was the Fort of San Domingo, one of the few remnants of the Spanish occupation from 1626 to 1641. The current sight is actually a rebuilt imagining of the original structure that was either destroyed by the Spanish prior to the Dutch take-over in 1642 or by the Dutch or Chinese later on. Nobody really knows for sure I learn. The current fort is a bit disappointing on the outside, although the hilltop view of the coast and the city of Danshui is worth the hike up.
Next I head over to the old British consular residence, located adjacent to the Fort of San Domingo. Like its neighbor, the building itself is average but the spectacular interior with original furniture and masterful colorful tile work from the British Raj era.
One of the most rewarding aspects of being a wandering traveler, the kind of curious soul who uses the map sparingly and often heads off the beaten path, is stumbling upon the truly unexpected and outrageous. Such a moment befell this writer while heading off the tourist map towards what looked like a hidden, more industrial part of town.
I happened around a corner and noticed two large beasts outside of what appeared to be a fish house or rundown bait and tackle shop but ended up being a food stop/convenient store/betel nut depot. Two dogs? Perhaps. The Taiwanese do enjoy their four-legged friends and many leave their pets tied up outside stores and restaurants back in Taipei. I never suspected to find two, full-grown, elder hogs standing guard outside a rundown corner store.
A nasty sight: flies hovering around their nether regions, saliva drooling out of their gluttonous maws. Still, I can’t turn away and ultimately continue to photograph the giant show-pigs to the merriment of the toothless old shopkeeper inside (on a side note, the betel nut is essentially similar to chewing tobacco only far more disgusting and destructive to the mouth. The nuts are shelled, wrapped in betel leaves, soaked in lime and chewed by the elders in Taiwan who then spit the vile but colorful excrement all over the streets and walkways, staining the ground a bright red. The lime reeks havoc on the teeth and gums, as was confirmed by the proprietor of the two watch-pigs, possibly this woman’s twisted interpretation of Taipei’s Betel Nut Beauties). I end up buying a bottle of water from the shopkeeper who asks where I’m from but doesn’t bother following up after my response. She is, however, impressed with some of my Mandarin and the few Taiwanese phrases I’ve picked up.
Danshui’s boat wharf, a curved mile-long wooden boardwalk that hugs the northern most part of the shore, is the perfect spot for watching the sunset and proves to also be a popular destination for the recently married. I spend a bit of time by the shore, soaking in the sights, occasionally interacting with some locals. I meet a tall Swede and his Taiwanese girlfriend both on a similar daytrip away from Taipei. The Swede has been in the country for over a year and gives me some advice on what to see, where to go and what’s good to eat. “You must try the squid!” he exclaims.
After snacking on the Swede’s recommendation while also picking up a refreshing orange bubble tea of sorts, that is chock full of orange and papaya pieces not to mention weird looking tapioca shapes and jellies, I head back toward the main drag and stumble upon the start of Danshui’s Dragon Boat Festival Parade.
Mind you, the decision to visit Danshui was random and I had no real plan for my time in the town. I also had no idea about the festivities ahead of me.
On a previous day adventure in Taipei I randomly walked into the middle of a large political march for the Taipei DPP party. Here in Danshui I stumble upon the start of something even bigger.
Throughout the middle were local dancers, and walkers, some donning traditional garments, others in full-face paint. The parade moves at a slow pace due to the thousands of people crowding the narrow streets. Firecrackers are set off at various times, always around large groups of people, each eruption numbing the ears and filling the streets with heavy smoke.
It is hard to maneuver through the masses, but my ability to see over the heads of most around me an unfair advantage. I snap a ton of photos often-beckoning participants and onlookers to flash the universal Chinese sign for peace or hey (hand facing outward, index and middle fingers standing tall mimicking a rabbit ears or the Nixon “Victory” gesture).
The music is fantastic. Simple drum rhythms played on large stretched-hide wooden barrel drums. The Taiwanese marching bands put their cymbal players to work filling the ear with a shrieking clang of metal that rivals the intensity of the nearby firecrackers. Children and some elders play wooden flutes, the face-painted clan of colorful demons (or dragons) dance and jive down the street, and the spectators watch in awe or walk in and out of the streets. The scooter traffic is minimal but present. The rhythm of the parade is understood.
Just when I think the parade is beginning to wind down the line makes a turn and heads towards the MRT station and continue down a long, more modern stretch past irritated cars and scooters stopped at street barricades.
At 10:30PM my feet are spent and I head back towards the train station and pack into the train car along with everyone else back to the city.
While I should’ve assumed that the first night of Dragon Boat Fest would be anything but average, I had no prior knowledge of the festival in Danshui. A similar experience happened when I was in Eastern Europe two summers ago on a backpacking trip.
We arrived late in the evening to the Southern Polish city, Krakow, made are way down an unassuming street towards our hostel and literally shuffled into an incredible outdoor concert festival in the town’s central square–the final night of a week-long celebration of the city’s 750-year history. We spent at least two hours staring at the large stage and the breathtaking orchestra playing. Had we been just a day later we would have missed the whole event. As luck had it, with no prior knowledge about what was scheduled that night, we stumbled upon a moment that I’ll undoubtedly cherish the rest of my life.
It’s safe to assume this will not be the first traditional parade I happen upon here in Taiwan or anywhere else in East Asia, however, taking into account the trip’s serendipitous nature, this was one hell of a memorable night.
Up next, Dragon Boat Festival Day Two: Day Trip to the North East Coast of Taiwan, a16KM walk between two towns, water buffalo, and a new friend.
Until next time, your trusted long-legged wanderer and guard-pig enthusiast.