It would be a stretch to say that anyone was happy about the weather when the MyTaiwanTour team – along with a couple of friends from the local expat community – reached Pingxi for our lantern cleanup hike. Though it had merely been cool and overcast when we left Taipei, which some might call perfect hiking weather, when we crossed the mountain to Pingxi the rain was coming down pretty heavily.
We weren’t hiking for fun, but as part of a project to assess the environmental impact of the practice of releasing burning sky lanterns in and around the town of Pingxi through direct action, specifically by taking a hike with a local man who regularly walks through the paths around the town locating and recycling the half-burned lanterns. (An issue that we wrote about in greater detail in this article: The Pingxi Sky Lantern Festival: Color, Culture and Controversy)
Donning our rain jackets, we met up with Elder Brother Wang and headed out away from the town itself as dozens of lanterns rose above Pingxi despite the downpour. While making the hiking less pleasant than it otherwise might have been, the rain turned out to be instructive, causing the lanterns to descend sooner than the would have in drier skies.
In normal circumstances the lanterns rise nearly out of visual range and are carried by the wid before burning themselves out and landing, sometimes miles away. But there was no illusion of out of sight, out of mind on our trip, as our small group watched the lanterns rise from Pingxi old street through heavy, wet skies before being blown just a short distance away before being dragged down by their own weight to land half-burned in the fields, trees and rivers just outside of the town.
We walked along various paths, picking up soaking wet colored paper, many of which were still intact enough to allow us to make out the wishes and dreams written on their sides. In some cases, we were able to catch a few lanterns as they landed with wet plops on the road. Elder Brother Wang showed us his method of separating the wood from the wire, explaining that these components could be used again. Within an hour of the hike, we had one large bag filled with wet, half-burnt paper, another of compressed stacks of wire, and a third containing slightly charred wood.
As we walked, we discussed the festival, with the three expatriates present generally agreeing that the word festival was no longer appropriate, since the activity was now an everyday thing rather than a ceremony performed only at certain times in the year. The conversation turned to a topic brought up by a few Taiwan Scene readers, namely whether or not the releasing of sky lanterns might one day be curtailed or even eliminated as Taiwan sought to tighten environmental protection laws.
Elder Brother Wang dismissed this idea, mentioning that the activity had been curtailed at various points in recent years, but that this was following an especially dry stretch of weather rather than environmental protection.
“A few years back we went several months without rain, and the fire risk was quite high,” he told us. “But I don’t think the government would ever take permanent action to ban the practice in the name of environmental concerns, at least not in the next ten years.”
Nathan, who hails from Australia, pointed out that there was no way sky lanterns would ever be permitted back home because of the country’s arid conditions.
“Australia’s first sky lantern festival would be Australia’s last sky lantern festival,” he commented, offering a bit of dry Aussie humor on an otherwise damp day.