Sunday, November 16, 2008


We headed to Zhudong yesterday morning to catch transportation to Wufeng for the paSta'ai festival, held every two years by the Saisiyat aboriginal tribe. It's a really cool festival with a fascinating background story, which you can read here:

The festival goes all night but we stayed until 2 or 3 am (after midnight, non-Saisiyat were allowed to join in and dance - which is odd, because the day David visited, outsiders had to leave by midnight. I'm not sure where the disconnect is there.

We got off in Zhudong and called Ah-Q Mama, our contact in Wufeng, in a daze. We had no idea where anything was. We enjoyed our hour in Zhudong, though, buying mountain fruit (apples etc.) from various vendors and snacking on them.

We found Ah-Q Mama through a website ( that my students at, of all places, an investment and fund management firm, helped me Google. She is a lovely woman, petite in stature but big in personality. Ah-Q and Susu were among the friendliest people I've met in Taiwan, and that's saying something. If you are in the Wufeng/Dabajianshan/Guanwu area and need a place to stay, I highly recommend their charming, very country-fied homestay.

We were picked up by Ah-Q Mama and her husband, Susu in Zhudong. They are a very friendly "Taya-su" (I presume that's another name for Atayal because I can't find an aboriginal tribe named 'Taya' when searching) couple who run a homestay up the mountain from Wufeng, where you can see Dabajianshan. They drove us to the site, and then Susu helped us pick up Emily, who came later (all the buses had stopped running by then).

Ah-Q is a sociable woman who until recently held a huge grudge against "Talu" people - it took me awhile to figure out that she meant "dalu" people, or Mainlanders. By Mainlander, she meant anyone of Han Chinese origin. All "Talu" were, apparently, scoundrels until a few years ago when the government began to promote and preserve aboriginal culture instead of destroying or assimilating it.

She also told me why most aborigines vote KMT - "when we had no food, they took care of us and gave us food. The DPP steals money and doesn't care about aborigines. They only care about their kind of Talu." She agreed that, in fact, the KMT is just as corrupt and steals just as much money as the DPP, but maintains that the DPP doesn't care about her people, so she won't vote for them.

Her accent was quite thick as Mandarin is not her first language; she's a native speaker of the "Taya" tongue.

I noticed one cultural difference that caught me off-guared. We shared some of our Zhudong-purchased fruit and chocolate with her and Susu. They immediately accepted and munched on wax apples and Lishan apples, as well as Meiji chocolate, with relish. I'm so used to the Taiwanese refusing something on the first offer, or even the second, before accepting that it took me a moment to see that there was a legitimate cultural divide here.

There's not a lot to do in Wufeng - it's a small hill town without much of anything except a few houses, a school, a church, the paSta'ai grounds and great views.

Really great views. On the way up, we met groups of Saisiyat who had already begun, ah, celebrating.

By celebrating, of course, I mean drinking home-brewed millet wine. I love millet wine, so I was fine with this, even though I'm sure some of it was brewed in a bathtub somewhere. My sister liked it, too.

She really liked it.

This guy is a tribal chief, so said Ah-Q Mama. He put leaf talismans on our arms or foreheads as well as on our cameras.

Before entering the festival area, we donated money and got these leaf amulets that do - well, something. Ah-Q Mama tried to explain what but Mandarin is neither my first language nor hers (she speaks to her husband, Susu, in their own tribal language which I believe is Atayal), so I wasn't very clear.

The grounds, before night fell.

We ate a delicious dinner of fragrant fish in broth and stinky tofu with a spicy dip...

...served by this very nice woman. (The kid is a proud owner of a blue lightsaber).

There were lots of bonfires, which struck me as dangerous considering all the drinking going on.

The dancing began at 7pm, when few in the audience were still sober. The guy next to us thought it was time to join in and crashed into this group soon after I photographed them, and was then carried away by officiators to the area set up especially for drunk people.

More dancing.

...and while the dancing was great, the best part about it was the party atmosphere - food, drink, merriment and socializing. Millet wine - mostly home-brewed - flowed freely and was openly shared. We tried some good wine, some bad wine, some strong wine, some sour wine and some sweet wine and bought the best of the kinds we sampled to share with our new "friends" in the stands. Above is Emily with her new Saisiyat partying gear.

Everyone was drinking - 13 year olds were sharing bottles. Old folks were dancing. A guy from Taizhong in a colorful do-rag puked into a bag behind us. I guess that's what one can expect at a harvest festival. Every indigenous harvest celebration around the world seems to have one thing in common.


Home-brewed millet wine. The dictionary definition of "tastes like it looks".

The carnival atmosphere at times overshadowed the dancing. With all the drinking and partying going on in mid-November, I bet there are a lot of birthdays in mid-August in the Saisiyat community.

The dance also involves dancing and shaking giant talismans, either to celebrate or call the ta'ai to the festival. I'm not clear on which.

Line dancing! People stay up all night to do this and often do so for three days straight. There are areas in the back where dancers can rest or sleep away the day. At midnight we were allowed to join in the dancing, at which point women in traditional garb came by with buckets of millet wine and poured shots into our mouths. Fun, if unsanitary!

Some people had trouble staying awake past 2am.

At the end of the formal ceremony, just as the crowd was allowed to join in, they had a fire ceremony.

More fire ceremony. After dancing until about 2-3 am we called it a night and headed back to the homestay with Ah-Q Mama and Susu.

Susu feeds the various animals living at the homestay...

...and one of these animals was an adorable orange kitten.

Ah-Q Mama not only is the laobanniang of the homestay, but also makes her own woven goods for sale. We bought a few purses and other items. Both businesses were started with government grant money that a "Talu" helped her secure, so she's OK with them now.

We woke up with horrid hangovers from the home-brewed millet wine, but nothing cures a hangover better than a breakfast of home-grown food, clean air and mountain views.

The cloud sea sets in around 2pm.

Ah-Q and Susu were kind enough to drive us back to Taipei that night for the same fare as the bus plus a hundred extra or was good that they did as I collapsed in the front seat and tried not to vomit for most of the ride. You know it was a good trip when you come back barely standing!

Some Information:

Pasta'ai is held every two years in Wufeng (Jhu Family Village) and Nanzhuang. Wufeng is the more remote celebration, and Nanzhuang is the more well-known one. It usually spans 2-3 nights in late autumn, at the end of the harvest season. To find out exactly when it is on any given year (even numbered years only) you can do an internet search in early autumn or, if you can't read Chinese, have a friend do it for you. Every ten years there is a 'grand ceremony' where the Saisiyat repent killing the ta'ai but I don't know on which year that is held.

To get to Wufeng, take a Guoguang bus to Zhudong. The big bus terminal, across Chongqing Rd. from the West terminal, has buses leaving from Guoguang Bay #17 every 15-25 minutes. This building is shared with Ubus, so walk past the Ubus area to get to Guoguang. Buses run from 6:15amto 10:25pm.

From Zhudong, be sure to be dropped off as close to an actual bus terminal as possible - our friend had to take a taxi 2km because the driver dropped her off on the outskirts. Take a Xinzhu Transport Company (Xinzhu Keyun) bus to Wufeng - some continue to Qingquan, some terminate in Wufeng, and get off at Jhu Family Village - you'll see a crowd. The last bus to the festival departs Zhudong at 6:25pm so come early!

Alternately, you can drive. I wouldn't know anything about that! Catching a taxi or shared car will cost up to $1000 NT one way. The ride to Wufeng is 40 minutes to an hour.

Accommodation is hard to come by - you can either plan to be up all night and catch a morning bus back, arrange transport to a homestay as we did, or stay in the only nearby hotel which, while quite nice, is a long walk from the festival grounds and charges $5000+ per night for a double room.

If you are driving, you can get directions to any one of a number of mountain homestays from the proprietor (or get a Chinese speaking friend to get them for you). Four-person rooms should be in the $2600-$2800/night range.

It is probably possible to catch a ride back to Zhudong by hitching, and possibly even from Zhudong to the festival, but don't plan on that without a backup, and beware that this festival involves a lot of you may not want to be in a car with someone who's been hittin' the home brew behind the wheel.

Food and drink is available at the festival so don't worry about bringing your own. Do bring a flashlight, warm sweater and bug spray.

Nanzhuang is the more well-known of the two sites because it's more publicized and also easier to get to. You can take the train to Zhunan and take a bus from there, and I've also been told by a friend that there is a train all the way there. The last bus departs at 9:30pm for Nanzhuang, but in general there are more transportation and accommodation options.

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