Chinese New Year — a time to share and reunite

Wednesday, January 18, 2012
The China Post news staff

While Taiwanese families return to their hometowns and lock themselves away for the Chinese New Year celebrations, Taiwan's expat community usually makes the most of the nine-day holiday to explore the island.

For the uninitiated, it is the only time of the year when cities shut down, shops and restaurants close — not including the convenience stores, thank God — and the usually-bustling city streets are like ghost towns.

Still, the Chinese New Year holiday is a unique opportunity to experience first-hand the beauty of Taiwan and the kindness of the local people. Below are some useful tips for traveling at this time of year compiled by The China Post.

For those between 15 and 30 years old, the Youth Travel Card (青年旅遊卡), initiated by the National Youth Commission (NYC, 青年輔導委員會), is a free discount card that offers bargain prices at more than 800 attractions, transport systems, accommodation spots, restaurants and shopping centers across the island (http://tour.youthtravel.tw).

Youth Travel Card holders can also apply for the Taiwan Rail Pass (台鐵環島周遊券), which gives unlimited access to the Taiwan Railways Administration's (TRA, 台灣鐵路管理局) railway system, including the Chukuang Express (莒光號), Fuxing Express (復興號) and other commuter trains. Five-, seven- and 10-day passes are available from NT$599 to NT$1,098 at the island's TRA stations (www.railway.gov.tw).

For those planning to travel by High Speed Rail (HSR, 台灣高速鐵路), you can buy tickets at one of Taiwan's several convenience store chains. Just before Chinese New Year, the HSR website and phone booking systems (www.thsrc.com.tw) are overloaded so jump the line by buying and printing out your tickets at the terminals found in 7-ELEVEN (www.7-11.com.tw) and Family Mart convenience stores (www.family.com.tw).

We recommend avoiding the peak times at the beginning and end of the holiday and setting out when train tickets are easier to find. Top destinations around the island include the snowy peaks in Nantou County (南投縣), the small fishing villages in the north and northeast corner of the island, and the tea plantations outside Taipei, which provide relief to Taiwan's heaving metropolises.

Yet, if you didn't buy your tickets on time for the Chinese New Year — it is not the end of the world — the most spectacular part of the holiday season, the Lantern Festival (元宵節), is held on the 15th day of the first lunar month; it is another major festival in the ethnic Chinese world. The year, the main lantern will be lit from Feb. 6 to Feb. 19 in Changhua (彰化), on Taiwan's west coast.

The festival is traditionally celebrated by lighting lanterns in various shapes of the Chinese zodiac, mostly dragons for this Year of the Dragon, and sometimes releasing them into the sky. Two such large-scale events are held each year, one in Toufen Park (頭份公園) in Miaoli County (苗栗縣) and the second in the small town of Pingxi (平溪) in New Taipei City (新北市).

Without a doubt, you don't have to leave the capital to experience the traditional culture; the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall and Taipei's smaller parks have their own lantern-releasing events.

Even for expatriates, Chinese New Year is a time for new beginnings and a chance to reunite with friends and family — or Tuan Yuan (團圓) in Chinese. The spirit is similar to our New Year; it's just the timing that's different.

In fact, there are several unique festivities held across Taiwan during that period, such as the Bombing of the God Handan (台東炸寒單) in Taitung. Wearing nothing but a pair of red shorts and holding a banyan leaf, a man assuming the role of Handan is paraded through the streets in a sedan chair while crowds throw firecrackers at him. This is symbolically meant to keep the god warm and win his favor (http://event.taitung.net/).

There is also the spectacular Yanshui Beehive Rockets Festival (鹽水蜂炮), held in Tainan County (臺南縣), during which bottle rockets fill the night sky outside the Military Temple (武廟) with a swarm of sparks — and perhaps the sparks of love. ■

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