Pingxi Valley: Sky Lantern Troubles and a Solution

Disclaimer: While not paid to write about these lanterns I was invited to some tester days and given a demo of the WISH festival. Less garbage in the forests is something I can definitely get behind so I'm happy to write something for them.

Lanterns in the Pingxi Valley

A pic from a mass launch during the 2011 Lantern Festival when my camera was still a potato

Flying paper lanterns are a familiar sight in the Pingxi Valley. Around lantern festival, which usually falls in February, thousands of them are launched into the skies. Even outside of the festival they are popular.

In a not so distant era invasions by bandits, militias and a general lack of law were problems in what was then a remote valley. Once the marauders left a hidden villager would launch a lantern as an all clear signal to those hiding in the hills. As Taiwan modernized and became less troubled by roaming thievery the lantern system fell out of use. In recent years however the tradition has been revived. Now they are launched by tourists after they paint their wishes onto the sides. It's a fun way to come together as friends and family and the mass launches around the festival dates are beautiful.

The Problem

This lantern has ended up in a river!

This is familiar sight in the hills around Pingxi

In my first couple of years in Taiwan I took family and went with friends to launch lanterns and the experience was very enjoyable. I was told by a Taiwanese friend at the time that the lanterns all land in the same areas downwind and are collected for disposal. This friend was only partially right.

While this may happen on a small scale it definitely does not happen with the majority. A short article here details a system where locals are rewarded by the government for collecting lantern waste. However the residents doing this are quite old and can't reach many areas.

The lanterns land in a wide area of mostly dense forest. The paper degrades but it takes a while to do so. The metal frames do not and the chemicals on the paint and paper can leach out. During my own hikes in the area I've come across many old lanterns causing a visual blight in an otherwise unspoiled area. After seeing this I stopped launching lanterns though I was saddened as it was such a fun activity and unlike anything found in western countries.

Like many villages in the Pingxi Valley Shifen is surrounded by atmospheric mining industry ruins. The WISH Festival will take place near this large sorting tower.

A Solution?

I was happy to hear a company called Cultural Bank have been developing a sustainable lantern. These are designed to burn up completely and leave no garbage. They are made from recycled biodegradable materials; the base looks a little like egg carton paper.

They are also a little more fun than the regular lanterns as they suddenly combust at the height of their flight and don't just drift down to earth. Naturally burning things is still not the most environmentally friendly thing to do but I think it's unrealistic to expect people in the area to abandon this income stream completely. It's also an important part of Taiwan's cultural heritage and so I'm happy to see people working on ways to bring it into the modern day without losing its essence. The companies events include a carbon offsetting program which helps neutralize the burning damage. I hope these lanterns make inroads into the shops selling them on the village streets and I see them replace the old metal versions.

Festival Time

That brings me to the WISH Festival! This will be held on October 12th in Shifen among the old trees and mining relics. There'll be live music, tasty food and drink, and a mass launch of the eco-friendly lanterns. There will also be an opportunity to a ride on the old coal train from the nearby Shifen Mine Museum and a range of arts and craft stalls. As an optional extra you can enjoy a farm to table dining experience among the trees. It's not cheap but having tried the menu I can say it's delicious and the setting is atmospheric.

Public transport is being arranged by the festival to limit environmental damage as much as possible. Some more information can be found at both the WISH website and the My Taiwan Tour site. I'll hopefully see y'all there!

I'm working on a bit of a guide post for stuff in Shifen beyond the lanterns and waterfall. However there are one or two things I still need to visit so it's unlikely to be ready before this festival! The adventures that make up these entries are often posted as Instagram stories at tomrookart first. So give that a follow too if you like as it can sometimes be a year or more before stuff turns up here!