Showing posts with label wufeng. Show all posts
Showing posts with label wufeng. Show all posts

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Pasta'ai 2010

Yesterday we went up to our 2nd Pasta'ai - a festival held by the Saisiyat tribe of Taiwanese aborigines. The festival is held in two locations: "North Side" in Da'ai Village, Wufeng Township, Xinzhu County, and the other in Nanzhuang, Miaoli County.

While the event in Nanzhuang is more accessible for those without private transportation, we always make the effort to go to Wufeng as, being harder to get to and less well-known (most people assume we're going to Nanzhuang until we tell them otherwise), it's almost certainly less touristy.

My first post incorrectly stated that it was held in the "Jhu Family Village" - it's near that village, but actually in Da'ai village (大隘), about an hour or less from Zhudong, and maybe an hour and a half from HSR Xinzhu Station.

Last year, we met the owner of our homestay, Ah-Q Mama, in Zhudong and drove up with her. Her husband does all the driving. This year, her husband was laid up with recovery from surgery and they were unable to help us get to Wufeng. As we've been doing recently whenever we want to go somewhere, we've been lucky enough to have friends with Taiwanese or international licenses who are also eager to go (not that we invite them because they have licenses - we've been fortunate that they've been happy to drive). So this time, we took the wonderful HSR down and rented a car at CarPlus.

Before leaving we got directions from the tourist info desk at Taipei Main Station, and I printed out a series of maps from Google between the HSR and the site, as well as the site and the homestay.

We got a little lost in Zhudong, but not anything too serious. The drive up was pleasant, as Eduardo, our friend behind the wheel, is a conscientious driver who, being Venezuelan, is used to crazy traffic. His skills are equal to that of our friends Emily and Drew, though he's less aggressive on the road and isn't one for high speeds. The road up from Zhudong is narrow and windy, but not very high up.

There seemed to be more attempts at tourism to Wufeng this time - fabric flags lined the road up from Zhudong with "PaSta'ay" written in Papyrus font.

We arrived just after dark and parked next to a "house" that people apparently lived in, despite it not having a roof. Oookaaay...all in all parking seemed to be much more difficult to come by this year, and we had to drive quite a ways from the site before we found a suitable spot. Maybe it was just as bad two years ago, but we weren't driving ourselves so we didn't notice.

Before we could even get into the building where spirit-protecting grass is tied around your head or arm as well as all cameras, a group of dancers and torch-bearers came out of the main site, singing a chant-like melody.

First the torch-bearers came through..

Then a line of dancers, some with back accoutrements with beads and metal chimes, came out, moving and chanting in unison.

I covered the origins of this festival in my post two years ago by linking to an online site on the Pasta'ai - you can read it here if you are interested. Basically, a long time ago there was (or may have been) a tribe of dark-skinned pygmies called the Ta'ai living near the Saisiyat. The two groups were intially friendly, but after some time, the pygmies began taking the Saisiyat women for reasons you can guess at, as well as stealing food. The Saisiyat attacked and killed the Ta'ai...but it turns out the Ta'ai knew sorcery and cursed the Saisiyat, who now have to hold the Pasta'ai as an offering at the end of the harvest season to atone for the massacre.

Anthropologists agree that the Ta'ai may well have been a real tribe in ancient Taiwan, and that the Saisiyat may well have killed them. Clearly they were not magical beings as the Saisiyat legend claims, but there is quite likely a historical basis for the story.

I asked a local if the designs had any special meaning: she said they did not, just anything the owners found aesthetically pleasing. Buddhist swastikas (a Buddhist symbol before it was a Nazi one), curved mirrors and embroideries of surnames are common design elements.

Making the chimes tingle in unison looks very painful for one's backside. Tired dancers with chime plates could often be found sitting gingerly with the audience while on break.

Then we entered the sacred grass-tying area.

...and waited in line with tourists and Saisiyat people alike. This year we saw more children than last time in traditional costume and encouraged to participate in their tribe's customs. We also saw more foreigners than two years ago - apparently a foreigner who married into the tribe sent out a large Facebook invitation and many people did end up coming. How they get to Wufeng, I have no idea.

Then we all got our sacred grass...

...and watched the festival from above the main area for awhile. As you can see, the dancers go in an arc or circle, sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. When they go quickly, they often rush to the middle and chant excitedly before fanning out again. The dancers themselves don't seem to know what they're doing - I learned from one participant that any Saisiyat in traditional clothing can join, not just experienced or trained dancers (the chanters and people with chimes on their back plates clearly know what they are doing however - and the chime beaters dance separately from the main group).

The facilitators in yellow vests clearly knew how it was all supposed to work and were guiding the dancers, many more of whom were young Saisiyat children this year.

Before heading to the main area, we went to the row of food stalls nearby to get dinner. We started with a traditional Saisiyat dish...

Ah, nothing like old fashioned aboriginal food!

...of grilled muaji (rice gluten) covered in chocolate and rainbow sprinkles. (I was being sarcastic about the "traditional" bit).

Then we got our main dinner of mountain pig, cabbage and "rice wine chicken soup", which was so potent with rice wine that I'm pretty sure it had more alcohol in it than broth. As Joseph said, "it's like eating a bottle of vodka". I liked it, but none of us could finish it.

This year the rules about taking photos of the front of the dancers (thereby standing in front of them in what I had thought was a "sacred area") were relaxed.

I also noticed an investment in Christmas lights to decorate around the area (look above the heads of the dancers).

The dancing and chanting is to call forth the spirits of the Ta'ai, and appease them. The big tinsel and light-up things are made by different families - each family makes one. One woman told me that usually, the children will help decorate it, so as to teach them about their culture and heritage. I couldn't determine any pattern for the holders of these giant talismans, though they did dance and did seem to somewhat follow the arc of dancers. When the dancers would rush to the middle and excitedly chant, these were always in the very middle.

I was told that the semi-conical shape was...well, I couldn't really understand the woman clearly but either to bring the Ta'ai spirits down like water through a funnel, or to broadcast the families' participation to the Ta'ai, like a reverse satellite dish or suntanning mirror. It had something to do with calling souls. Note the sacred grass affixed to the top of each.

This was the friendly woman who answered my various questions about the event details to the best of her ability and to the best of my limited understanding.

Another view of the conical things.

By about 9pm, people were starting to get seriously wasted on traditional millet wine. As it was with the last Pasta'ai, you don't just buy and drink your own millet brew. You buy some, share it with others, and get glasses of others in return. We tried to minimize this, or at least sniff what we were about to drink this year, but it can't be helped to some extent. The two non-drinkers among us managed to actually not drink, though - which surprised me. It was impossible to avoid two years ago by the time 10pm rolled around. Forget teetotalling. By 9:30 we had plenty of new 酒肉朋友 (drinking buddies).

Who's this guy? No idea. He invited us to cone stay with him in Zhudong, though, and treated us to much of his millet wine - which had an aftertaste redolent of gasoline.

Some random people dressed up Brendan and Eduardo in traditional clothing - I had a touch of grease from *something* on my lens but still wanted to post these.

This year, the participation rules were also relaxed, probably in another attempt to promote tourism. Last year you could not participate until midnight. This year, you could join the dancers at 10pm.

With an election looming, even though Xinzhu isn't an election hotspot this time around, we expected a bigger showing of politicians. A few members of the DPP showed up, looking...well, like quintessential members of the DPP.

As usual, there was a not-too-quiet place for exhausted dancers to rest.

This guy'd been drinking for awhile.

Loving the Christmas lights.

Plenty of traditional aboriginal food was on offer - including these roasted birds (tiny quail? Pigeons? We had pigeon in Egypt and this tasted different.) They cut it up for you so it's easy to eat, but I'd forgotten that they give you the head with everything else. Before I knew what it was, I'd bitten into the brain. EWWWWW. I am pretty openminded about food, but I do not do innards or brain. I chucked it at a pile of accumulating garbage, missed and hit some poor woman's coat.


What happens at Pasta'ai stays at Pasta'ai is all I can say.

We also got some amazing sweet potato fries and one drunk guy gave us stinky tofu (YUM!) and onion pancakes.

More dancing above, and a detail shot of the conical family talisman things below. The carrier had been hitting the betel nut pretty hard. Along with millet wine, buckets of energy drink in brown bottles and betel nuts were for sale everywhere.

So, at 10pm we all started dancing - not that we knew how. Last time, women would come around with wooden buckets of millet wine and ladle it into your mouth as you danced. This year that was not so common, and they had plastic pitchers of wine with shot glasses for dancers - but there was less going around. Boo.

On the upside, I didn't get heinously drunk this year (yes, I know my family reads this thing, but I gotta be honest. I got really drunk last year. It's an aboriginal festival - you can't not get drunk the first time or, for that matter, any time). Fortunately the homestay owners were not drinking and could make sure we all got back safely. It was the worst hangover I've ever had - you don't want to know the full story about the next morning. Let's just say that when the worst of it hit, only my sister was awake to hear it, and she'll never think of me the same way again.

But that was last year - when I would drink whatever was offered without making sure it wasn't, you know, grain alcohol, paint thinner, energy drink and Coca-cola mixed together...or maybe not that but not tasting much different from what I imagine that would taste like.

This year I kept my head on a little better - partly because I didn't want to feel half-dead today (I'm writing this the next day even!) and partly because we didn't have Ah-Q Mama to get us home safely. I had to help Eduardo navigate, though Mark (another friend who came with us) had biked the route and took over for me.

At one point while I was dancing, though, someone gave millet wine to Mark, Joseph and Brendan, who all surreptitiously threw most of it out as it was "not fit for human consumption" according to Brendan.

I felt bad for the woman walking around selling it from a basket on her back. She was selling it for cheaper than the stands, and clearly making money for her family, but we had some from another spectator who bought it, and it really did have a gasoline-y aftertaste. Ew.


We stayed and danced until about 3am before walking back to the car, after which time the eminently sober Eduardo drove us to Ah-Q Mama's with Mark's help (as Mark had biked there earlier and knew the way).

I recommend Ah-Q's homestay, "A-mue", as highly as I did last year. With a delicious homemade breakfast, great view, friendly owners, warm blankets, adorable pets and rustic setting not far from Guanwu (entrance to a national park), the residence of Zhang Xueliang, Dabajianshan and the Pasta'ai, it's a great spot for a rest if you have your own transport.

We got there at 4am - they'd left the rooms open for us - and collapsed into bed.

I awoke at 7am with a headache, took some Panadol and slept again until about 10 or 11. The coterie of dogs from two years ago was nowhere to be seen, but in their place, they had a pile of kittens.

O.M.G. 好可愛喔!! How cute is this pile of adorableness?

Pretty darned cute.

They pretended to like Brendan because they were hoping he'd open the door to the kitchen area for them. We visited for a bit, drank tea, ate breakfast, enjoyed the view, played with the kittens and puppy, and they reminded me of how ridiculously hungover I had been last time. (Also, apparently they understand my Chinese now.)

The view from Ah-Q Mama's.

Because we don't know if or when we'll be back in that area or when we'll have our own transportation, we had a look a few kilometers down the road to the former residence of Zhang Xueliang who you can read about on Wikipedia. Pretty nice place to live out your days under house arrest...

...and anyone who managed to kidnap Chiang Kai-shek is someone I can't dislike too much, even if the Mainlanders think he's a hero.

The entire experience left me with four lasting thoughts:

1.) That picture of the nice older lady I posted above? She speaks fluent Saisiyat and Chinese, but surrounding her were her children and grandchildren (of which she had many). Not one of her grandchildren could speak the Saisiyat language, despite being in touch with their culture enough to participate in the Pasta'ai. The Saisiyat are not even the tiniest or most assimilated of the aboriginal tribes - if their own language is dying out to the extent that grandchildren cannot speak their grandparents' mother tongues, then this does not bode well for the future of aboriginal languages in general (which are commonly recognized to be dying out at an alarming rate).

On the other hand, it's fascinating to head up through these villages and realize that you aren't hearing even one word of Chinese or a Chinese-related language spoken. There are still more native speakers of Atayal, Saisiyat etc. who use it on a daily basis than one would expect.

2.) Every once in awhile I get a thought in my head that goes something like this: "What are you doing spending so much time and money traveling instead of saving, buying a home and working on a career? Haven't you noticed that people are people no matter where you go, that travel is a luxury that, when you're done with it, leaves you with no material gain? Anyway, haven't you traveled enough?" Experiences like the Pasta'ai remind me that no, people are not the same everywhere you go, and that while there may be no material gain to travel, there's a lot of gain in terms of cultural exposure, wisdom and knowledge of the world. I'm not one of those people who travels without trying to learn (and retain) something about the history, politics, economy, language and culture of a place or event - so I inevitably come away with new pieces of firsthand knowledge.

Sure, I could read about Taiwan in a book - it's pretty clear that many policymakers in the US State Department do just that. (Officers travel abroad, learn languages and have a wide scope of global knowledge, but I've noticed that actual policymakers and those who influence decision-making...well...don't - even representatives posted to the countries they're dealing with). If I had "stayed home", built a career and had a more settled life in the country of my birth, sure, I could read, watch TV shows, see movies and learn online about different people in different parts of the world, but I wouldn't really know anything tangible about them, and I would completely miss out on things like Pasta'ai. How many newspaper articles, websites, TV shows and school textbooks on Taiwan mention aborigines, let alone the Saisiyat, not to mention their festivals or really any pertinent information about them? Most people don't even know that Taiwan has aborigines to begin with.

And that right there is valuable, and it's one of the main reasons, if not the #1 reason, why I continue to travel even as pressure increases to settle down.

3.) Ten minutes at a festival like this will show any nay-sayers, fence-sitters and ignoramuses who get their opinions from scant news articles rather than real world experience to what very great extent Taiwan is not a part of China. How could anyone claim that a country with a rich mixture of heritages, which includes but is not summed up by Chinese culture? This is not only not Chinese, this is something you will never see in China, something that has never had anything to do with China. Something created and continued by people who are not ethnically Chinese and hail from an entirely different cultural tradition than anything East Asia could offer, let alone China. It's unique to Taiwan, and showcases how Taiwan is unique. And, if you'll allow me to expand on that, showcases how much a unique place like Taiwan deserves to be recognized as the self-governing nation and cultural unit that it is.

Though I would not judge anyone who says that Taiwanese culture is strongly influenced by Chinese culture, and much of it originated there, I stop short at accepting that the entirety of Taiwanese culture was imported from China. As you can clearly see here, it was not - at least not entirely. This goes beyond the case for the divergent cultural evolutions (and Revolutions, har har har) of China and Taiwan - this is at the core of things, a fundamentally Taiwanese cultural facet that evolved long before there even was a "Taiwan" and a "China".

4.) There is really something to be said for having your own vehicle and the skills to drive it. I wish I had those skills (or rather, I have them but I wish I had the experience and confidence to use them in Taiwan). The freedom of being able to visit these places and participate in these festivals - and one thing that sets Pasta'ai apart from the Taiwanese temple fairs is that the audience can participate - with your own transportation is a great feeling, and I wish we had more access to it. Which means more practice for me.

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.