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Be Prepared!  This is sound advice for nearly any occasion.  On a backpacking trip it usually means bringing enough food, water, and warm clothing.  On a deep sea fishing trip it could mean carrying an adequate amount of sunscreen or filling the cooler with at least a week’s worth of beer, even if the trip is only for a day.  But the average festival typically only requires a fully charged battery in the camera and good walking shoes.  This is not the case for the Yanshui Fire Work Festival.

To experience this festival to the fullest you need to be prepared.  You need to be prepared like the space shuttle is on re-entry.

The standard festival attendee is covered from head to toe; wearing a full face helmet, an ankle length raincoat, several layers of clothing underneath that coat, the thickest work gloves on the market, motorcycle boots, and something long (and hopefully nonflammable) to use as a scarf.  If you happen to have catcher’s gear or a space suit, you might add that to outfit.

There is good reason for this level of protection; the purpose of the festival is to pummel the crowd, some 60,000 to 100,000 people, with rockets.  The city of Yan Shui, a city in Southern Taiwan has set about setting fire to the locals…and the locals love it.

The festival, which was started in the mid 1870s, began as a way to fight off an evil spirit—a spirit that we know as Cholera.

The epidemic must have pushed them a little past their “wits end.” The plan they conjured up to fight back the disease was to “Beehive” the evil out of people.

One quarter of one hive

They created mobile parade floats that we might as well call  movable bombs. They are basically iron framed shelves assembled into large squares.  Mounted on the thin shelves are thousands and thousands of rockets, about two or three times the size of the average bottle rocket.  The whole contraption is called a “Beehive.”

It must have worked; the bad spirit left and hasn’t come back.

Now, I am pathologically unprepared most of the time.  For this festival I wore a hooded pullover, blue jeans with one leg rolled up to keep out of my bike chain, and crocs.  I brought swimming goggles to protect my eyes.  I had no idea what I was getting into.  I looked like I was about to roll into an 8:00am Freshman Philosophy class, and the rest of the crowd looked like poncho sporting Stormtroopers.

The God of War, and also an adept businessman

The show began near the Temple of Kuan Kung, the God of War; a warning shot was fired into the air, and the sparks fell lightly into the surrounding crowd.  I wanted pictures so I tried to fight my way up, and I got pretty close.  The fact that the people around me were heavily protected didn’t seem to register.

Shortly after the warning shot, a fireman grabbed my arm, and said, in English “Is that all you’re wearing?  You need to get out of here right now!”

He rushed off towards the temple, dragging me by the hand.  As we arrived at the temple, a safe enough distance away, the crowd where I had been standing lit up like a bomb fire as the thousands of rockets were fired straight into—INTO—the masses.

Thick smoke rose in the air as rockets whizzed through the mob, reducing those closest to the hive to mere silhouettes in a background of fire.  The scene was stunning.  And right at that moment, as the crescedo of fire built to the climax…my camera died–You’ve got to be prepared!

Shot just before the camera died, and the Bee-hive eruption.

I found my friends, and we ran up the steps of the temple’s museum, up the ladder to the roof, and watched from relative safety as the parade would drive a block, shoot off a warning and then fire the place up like before.  On an on through all the neighborhoods and surrounding townships until the parade eventually came back to the temple, around 3 or 5 am.

“It’s Sunday!  Don’t these people have to work tomorrow?” my friend remarked to a temple worker.

The worker said that not only will they stay up all night following the parade; they’ll go to work, and come back for the next night too.  “Don’t underestimate the power of the god,” he said.

I believe he might be right about that.

And so, I learned a couple of things; always be prepared, and don’t underestimate Kuan Kung, but there was one thing I didn’t learn, and still want to know.  How in the hell did 19th century city dwellers protect themselves against this crazy show?  It kind of makes me think that the reason Cholera disappeared was because everyone who had it was blown to smithereens.  If you know, would you let me know?

Special thanks to Mia Lee, Emily Lewis, and Sharm el Shiekh Holidays.  And as always—Good Journeys!

Triathlon training generally involves six days of exercise—two days a week for each sport.  Over several months, even with the variation, the routine can become a bore.  This particular day was a cycling day, and it would turn out to be one of the most memorable of any, and it had absolutely nothing to do with the actual ride.

The purpose of the ride was speed, so there weren’t to be any tough climbs in the scenic mountains; only a dull flat out burn through small towns and rice fields.  The sun was baking.  For an hour or so, my partner and I sped along until at last I heard the words I was itching to hear.  “Let’s take a break.”

We were in Nantou County—central Taiwan.  It’s a fairly mountainous county, tea farms abound.  An offshoot of that industry, Pottery, is also popular in the area.

My partner said, “Let’s take a good long one.  I know a guy here you ought to meet.”

I agreed, and we rode a short distance of the main rode to a large house with a terracotta roof. A small workshop was off to the side.  My partner shouted out a greeting, and soon after a thin Taiwanese man with long curly hair popped his head out of the shop.  Right off, he looked like an artist.

He grinned and walked out to greet us.  Then he walked us into his studio.  It was filled to the brim with stylistic clay pots, tea kettles and cups, sculptures, and awards.  He started brewing tea.

“This is Liao Hsi-Li.  He is quite popular here in Taiwan.”

Hsi-Li spoke some English, but most of the conversation was translated.  We sat there, Hsi-Li smoked cigarettes, we drank tea and listened to him describe his craft.

For most of his adult life he’d made his living making and selling pottery.  He had gone to school for it, and established a reputation for his skill.  For a long time he worked his craft in the traditional Taiwanese style.  But seven or eight years ago he got bored.

“Traditionally, Pottery was a craft with practical purposes.  Here in Taiwan there were craftsmen doing the work, but it wasn’t art” he said.

He, and some others, began to experiment; mixing traditional methods with his own influences from life and modern art.  He started making art that you could use—“Practical art.”  The traditionalist thought he was wasting his time.

At first they belittled the effort, but over time they realized that Hsi-Li was not only skillful, but innovative too.  A “New Modern Pottery Art” trend began to spread.

His particular style involves using the old style keen and pure raw materials.  His most famous works are made from a mixture that he invented—he calls it “Paper Clay.”  And I am telling straight, from the look of it, you would think it was paper that had been crumbled up until it was cloth like, but to the touch it was as hard and sturdy as any I’ve come across.

“They thought this was a silly idea too,” he said, grinning as he pointed to his 2010 Taiwan Craft Competition award.  He came in first with his new style.  Some of his work is even on permanent display at the New Taipei City Ceramics Museum.

“Those same people are now teaching this technique in the art schools here,” he said.

Two hours later, as the impromptu studio tour was coming to an end, Hsi-Li handed me a small clay pot.  It was dark and round. The top handle was made from a bit of tree limp.  The sides of the pot had irregular indentions on either side.

“This is for you.  It’s made out of clay from Sun Moon Lake.”

And then he said something that has served as food –for-thought ever since.

He said,” You see these indentions.  Some people might see them as mistakes or flaws, but I put them there on purpose.  And you see this top.  It’s made from wood far up in the mountains.  It is the only one in the world with this shape.  Machines and factories can put out millions of perfect tea cups, but this piece is like us, you see, it’s unique.  It’s imperfect…but beautiful.”

Yeah, I like that.

We readied for the ride back, said thank you and goodbye, and Hsi-Li welcomed us to come back anytime.  His words and gift made for a quick and easy ride back and still serves as a reminder of the unexpected joys that lay and wait for you when you deviate from the set routine every now and again.

Good Journeys!