“Throw your dreams into space like a kite, and you do not know what it will bring back, a new life, a new friend, a new love, a new country.”
Shifen, Taiwan, reminded me of a town from an old American western movie set. Railroad tracks run down the center of its narrow main street, with wooden two-and three-story buildings lining both sides. At the end of the street stands the train station, once the heartbeat of this former coal mining town, in the days when the train transported coal from mines in the region.
Mining ended here in the 1970s, and by the ’90s the town had transformed itself into a tourist destination, with its train transporting passengers from Taiwan instead of coal from the mountains. Shifen’s old custom of releasing sky lanterns as a signaling system for mine workers to tell their families that they were safe became a new tradition of sending wishes and dreams into the sky. And if our visit is any indication, launching sky lanterns on Shifen Old Street is quite the booming business!
A Sky Full of Wishes
We followed our tour guide Jenny into a souvenir shop, where lantern painting stations with brushes and pots of black paint were set up. After forming groups of four, we took turns painting our wishes on each side of our lanterns. The sides’ different colors represented categories of good luck, from Health & Peace to Money & Wealth.
When our paintings were completed, we headed outside onto the railroad tracks with a man from the shop who would be igniting the flame to launch our lantern. But before we began, he insisted on taking photos of us waving and making silly hand gestures. It was all part of his comedy schtick, but fun just the same. And when the launch began, he took a short video to capture the moment.
Shifen Old Street
After the launch, Herb and I walked from one end of Shifen Old Street to the other. We passed food and beverage stands, cafés and a host of souvenir shops as lanterns floated above us like miniature hot air balloons. The railroad tracks were as crowded as the sidewalks, and when a train slowly pulled into town, launchers and their lanterns scattered to the sidelines, returning to the tasks at hand when the train headed to the station.
A suspension bridge called Jingan stretches over the Keelung River from Shifen Old Street to Nanshan Village. Constructed in 1947, it was originally used to transport coal and now is a pedestrian-only bridge. We walked across and back – it was a bit shaky! – and enjoyed the views of Shifen and the mountains beyond as well as the interesting murals hidden in the columns.
Our next stop was Shifen Waterfall, a natural attraction known as “Little Niagara of Taiwan.” Located on the upper part of the Keelung River, the horseshoe-shaped waterfall is 66 feet high and 130 feet wide and is considered the broadest waterfall in Taiwan.
We crossed another suspension bridge that spilled into a park filled with horse statues bedecked with red ribbons. Ribbons were hanging from the trees as well, looking like Christmas decorations. These were trees of wishes, Jenny told us, where people hang their hopes on the branches. The horses, she said, have no specific meaning.
With time on our own, Herb and I headed to the waterfall. Hiking trails led to various lookout points, offering views of the falls at different heights and angles. Shifen Waterfall isn’t as dramatic as Niagara Falls, to be sure, but its nickname “Little Niagara” is well deserved.
Zhongzheng Park – A Bonus Stop
The half-hour drive back to Keelung was quick and traffic-free, and we arrived earlier than planned. But instead of dropping us off at the ship, Jenny had another idea. “How would you like to visit the Goddess of Mercy and Zhongzheng Park?” she asked our group. I couldn’t believe our good fortune. Instead of returning home early, our lovely guide wanted to show us more of the city that seemed to fuel her with passion and pride.
Zhongzheng Park is spread out on a hill overlooking Keelung Harbor. It’s a beautiful location and an interesting dichotomy. The park is a religious site, with a temple, massive bell and dozens of statues, and it also serves as an amusement park-like gathering spot, complete with bumper cars.
We entered under an archway and headed up a stone staircase lined with eighteen “helping Buddha” statues. At the next level, a golden Smiling Buddha grins broadly from his lavender lotus flower perch. And at the top of the park is the main attraction – the 82-foot-tall Goddess of Mercy, the largest goddess statue in Southeast Asia.