Bounded by the densely populated cities of the north, and the lush tropical plains of the south, central Taiwan is a region principally defined by mountains: the mighty central ranges contain a vast array of tantalizing landscapes, from the mesmerizing beauty of Sun Moon Lake to the awe-inspiring peak of Yushan, northeast Asia’s tallest mountain.
Taichung is one of the most dynamic cities in the country and gateway to the region, noted for its innovative teahouses and vibrant nightlife. To the south, the flat river plains sandwiched between the hills and the sea are rich in traditional Chinese culture; worship of Taoist deity Mazu, known as Goddess of the Sea and often regarded as the country’s patron saint, is more intense here than any other part of Taiwan. The towns of Beigang and Dajia are home to the most important Mazu temples on the island, and the annual Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage is Taiwan’s largest religious festival. Lugang is one of Taiwan’s oldest towns, a living museum of master craftsmen, narrow streets and temples, while the Great Buddha Statue in Changhua is one of Asia’s biggest. The geographical centre of the island, Puli, is home to the mind-boggling Chung Tai Chan Monastery, a staggering monument to contemporary architecture and Zen Buddhist philosophy.
Further south, the narrow valleys and traditional Tsou villages of Alishan National Scenic Area lie to the east of Chiayi, an area best explored on foot or with your own transport. The Scenic Area’s appeal is compounded by an array of attractive and highly individual homestays, while aboriginal culture is particularly strong here. Alishan borders the Yushan National Park, offering a more challenging hiking experience, though the stunning path up its main peak is tackled by hundreds of visitors every year.Read More
Mazu Holy Pilgrimage
Mazu Holy Pilgrimage
The annual eight-day Mazu Holy Pilgrimage from Zhenlan Temple (鎮瀾宮; zhènlángōng) in Dajia (大甲; dàjiǎ) to Fengtian Temple (奉天宮; fèngtiāngōng) in Xingang (新港; xīngǎng) has become one of the greatest and perhaps most bizarre of all Taiwan’s religious festivals. The event has become a veritable media circus, attracting ambitious politicians and even street gangs who in the past have ended up fighting over who “protects” the goddess during the procession.
The pilgrimage traces its origins to the early nineteenth century, when Taiwanese pilgrims would cross the Taiwan Strait to the Mazu “mother temple” in Meizhou in Fujian every twelve years. The practice was suspended after the Japanese occupation in 1895 but cattle herders are believed to have restarted the pilgrimage in the 1910s, making the more permissible journey to Chaotian Temple in Beigang, long regarded as Taiwan’s most senior Mazu temple. In 1987 however, after Meizhou officials assured Dajia that its Mazu statue was equally sacred, Beigang was snubbed with a new annual pilgrimage route to what was considered a “sister” temple in Xingang, 5km east.
The core procession comprises a series of palanquins that ferry Mazu and other senior Taoist deities 300km through rice fields and small villages, the roads lined with believers who kneel to allow Mazu’s palanquin to pass over them for luck. Stops are made at smaller “branch” temples to enhance the power of local deities, and a constant stream of free drinks and food is handed out to the pilgrims trudging along behind. If you want to experience the mayhem you’ll need to plan ahead – the best locations to watch the procession are in Dajia itself when it leaves town and returns eight days later, or in Xingang at the end of the third day when the town becomes a massive carnival of parades and traditional performers. The statue remains in Xingang for a day of celebrations (confusingly termed “Mazu’s birthday”, though the official birthday is Lunar March 23) before embarking on its four-day journey back to Dajia. Unfortunately, it’s hard to know when the parade will start until a few weeks before: the day of departure is determined by a special cast of “throwing blocks”, on the eve of the Lantern Festival (usually in January or February). The parade itself usually takes place in April in the period leading up to Mazu’s official birthday (see wmazu.taichung.gov.tw for the schedule; Chinese only). Dajia Bus Company runs minibuses from Taichung train station (on the corner of Jianguo and Chenggong Roads) to Dajia throughout the day, but you can also pick them up on Taizhonggang Road.