Partying with ghosts
Put a freakish tropical downpour and a ghost festival together and it surely has the makings of a tourist highlight, right?
Certainly the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival was the most intriguing event on the itinerary for a visit late last year to Taiwan, or the Republic of China as it is officially known.
Arriving in the country barely weeks after Cyclone Morakot swept through, killing more than 500, our party of journalists weren't quite sure what we'd actually get to see. The badly damaged southern part of the 36,200-square-kilometre island off the south-east of mainland China was off limits, forcing a hasty retooling of the itinerary. The ghost festival remained though, and what a snapshot of Taiwanese life it proved to be.
Keelung is one of the bigger cities in Taiwan, situated about an hour north of the capital, Taipei. A leisurely bus ride revealed a pretty port city, but the tropical warmth and high humidity screamed rain for the ghost festival parade.
Thousands of people were streaming into the cordoned-off city centre to honour the dead. It's a ceremony that dates back to the mid-1850s, when the warring Changchow and Chuanchow peoples, like most of the Taiwanese from mainland China, fought a war. A sacrificial ceremony was held to signal a bout of more revenge, but mediation stopped the fighting. Families from both clans pledged to honour the dead and the yearly festival has the aim of stopping the victims' souls from suffering in the afterworld.
Clearly, it is an event the Taiwanese take seriously. People shimmied up lamposts to squat on overcrowded balconies and the streets were packed in anticipation. Thankfully the foreign journalists had seats in the covered VIP grandstand near the mayor, but that did not prove to be the bonus it promised.
Things started well enough, the 50-odd groups parading down the main street thrilling watchers with dances, chants, drumming, singing or simply through the intricate costumes and floats that accompanied them.
But the rain that had been threatening was inevitable. Watchers used fans to fight off the humidity, but when the rains came, there was no escape. It started as it continued, the skies simply opening and dumping incredible amounts of water.
The parade continued. Young children, old women and men stoically soldiered on, smiling, dancing and waving their flags. The crowd though was thinning as spectators ran for cover. All was not well in the VIP area. I could see water pooling in the tent structure, which had not been drawn tight enough. It was only a matter of time before it gave out. When the structure ripped, it did so right above the dignitaries; it was as though the contents of a Para pool had been poured on them. Some stuck it out, others ran for cover. This crazy Kiwi simply stood in the rain and laughed as the torrents continued to fall.
It rained for 30 minutes ... and the parade continued. Some time after 9pm our bedraggled crew walked the 2km back to our hotel, thinking we'd witnessed nature and a wonderful slice of history collide.
But it was not over. We were told our bus would take us to the Keelung foreshore shortly after 11pm. The Filipino contingent and half the Europeans protested: soaked, they weren't going out again.
The handful interested enough to stay on, or perhaps unwilling to upset their hosts, were in for a treat. At the harbour diggers were busy trying to clear the sea. The ocean was awash with logs and other flotsam resulting from the cyclone. They pulled out a log at a time, moving them up the beach while a dive team trained in unison at the water's edge.
We were wondering what was going to happen, and after midnight it became obvious.
Those in the ghost festival parade earlier, in their sodden clothes and picturesque but damp floats, started to turn up.
One by one they produced, from somewhere, replicas of houses made out of wood and paper and placed on flotation devices. One by one the houses were set alight. The groups who had made them, assisted by the dive team, marched, one after the other, into the sea. They pushed off the log hazards, set the flaming houses adrift and watched them float away.
Some houses sailed just a few metres and were crushed. But the majority, once escorted past the breakers by the divers, drifted away on fire. At the ceremony's busiest, there were dozens of burning rafts in various stages of destruction.
It was a visual treat and an extremely moving tribute to the dead. Thousands of Taiwanese, who presumably ditched the wet parade earlier, watched in silence.
Of course, the rain came again, but it was less onerous than the first time thanks to a lovely local who gave me her umbrella.
The ghost festival had been worth the discomfort and illustrated perfectly the side of Taiwanese life Kiwis have little idea about.
If Keelung was a surprise, Taipei was not. A modern city with all the modcons, it is one of the most tidy, orderly Asian cities imaginable. In 2008, Taiwan was the world's 18th largest merchandise exporter and importer and was rated fourth in the world, and second in Asia, in prestigious competitiveness surveys. It is easy to see why.
Everything runs smoothly, with public transport via trains and subways catering for tens of thousands efficiently. The world deaflympics were on and the sold-out opening ceremony was spectacular, a great mix of cultural highlights and high-tech wizardry, except when fireworks dropped on to a cordoned-off section of the grandstand and set plastic seats on fire.
Until this year, Taipei was also home to the world's tallest building, Taipei 101, surpassed by a new structure in Dubai. Views from the 508-metre high architectural wonder are spectacular and the lift ride is an experience, taking 37 seconds to go from the 5th to the 89th floor.
Taipai's newer buildings, technology and upmarket shopping precincts are as good as anywhere. By contrast, its culture and friendly locals set it apart.
Markets flourish in some of the newer surrounds. They range from touristy night attractions to a snake market (yes, they are live), flower and jade markets.
Taipei is also one of the rare Asian cities where you need not hesitate to dive into the vast array of food sold by myriad sidewalk stalls. The food is one of Taipei's highlights, with cuisine of any type available. As Taiwan is at the edge of the Asian continent it is a travel crossroads, and when Chinese nationalists fled from the communists of mainland China an exodus of top-grade kitchen genius accompanied them.
The result is top-class options at each corner and sidewalk stalls offering an abundance of tasty morsels.
The Taiwan-China relationship is seemingly at its best in decades there is a reluctant tolerance of each other and seems to have resulted in a mellow local populace. Strangers repeatedly stopped and asked if we needed directions.
That's what makes Taiwan inviting friendly people and an insight into a different culture.
Wander through the Longshan Temple, the Shilin Night Market, the Red House district soak in the culture of a people who will make you feel welcome. Just watch out for ghosts in the rain.
FIVE MUST DOS
* Visit Chiang Kai-Shek Memorial in Taipei. The former Chinese leader was forced out by the communists and led other nationalists to Taiwan. His memorial is imposing and the changing of the guard is precision personified.
* Spend a night or two at the Hotel Royal Chiao Hsi Spa in Yilan county. Just over an hour's drive from Taipei, it is one of the flashest facilities you can imagine. Mineral spas in every room, an infinity pool that overlooks the beautiful Yilan foreshore and unmatched food. Paradise.
* Visit the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Home of one of the finest collections of Chinese art and culture, it is one of the top 15 most-visited museums worldwide. Thousands of Chinese make the trip to see key items of their heritage.
* Stop in at the National Taiwan College of Performing Arts. What skills, amazing. Features acrobats and the like and viewers can try their hand. Apparently, I'd make a fine clown.
* Eat. Anything and everything. There are five-star restaurants rated highly internationally but it's difficult to go wrong in this city. And drink Taiwan Beer, great in the humidity. The Cantonese restaurant The Dragon, at the Taipei Sheraton, was particularly memorable.
* Bryce Johns travelled to Taiwan courtesy of the Taiwanese government.