Engrossed by the scenery, the lively streets, and the delicious food in front of them, visitors to Taiwan are unlikely to notice that the calendars hanging on restaurant and shop walls bear two sets of dates. Taiwan’s companies, schools, and government offices follow the Western (Gregorian) calendar, but what is called the farmer’s or lunar calendar is still used for the timing of traditional events. One of the most important of these is Zhongyuan Jie, also known as the Hungry Ghost Festival or simply Ghost Month.
The festival, observed by ethnic Chinese throughout Asia, is sometimes likened to Halloween. However, nobody dresses up as a ghoul, and there is no trick or treating, because in the past a genuine element of fear was associated with the event. In traditional Chinese thinking, the deceased require offerings from the living. Individuals who have passed on, but lack descendants able to make these offerings, are known as “wandering souls,” “hungry ghosts” or – to avoid provoking them – “good brothers.” Angered by the neglect they suffer, they are believed to cause havoc in the realm of the living.
Each year, matters come to a head in the seventh lunar month. It is said that on the first day of the month, the gates of the afterworld begin to open, allowing malcontent spirits to enter the land of the living. From that moment until the closing of the gates at the end of the month, many Taiwanese engage in rituals designed to placate these troubled and troublesome souls.
Because of the threat posed by wandering ghosts, tradition-minded Taiwanese avoid moving house, getting married, or opening a business during this period. Elective surgery is often postponed.
To appease the spirits, solemn rites and sumptuous feasts are held all over Taiwan. But one place in particular is associated with Ghost Month – Keelung, a port city less than an hour from Taipei. These days, more and more of the vessels docking in Keelung are cruise ships.
What is now called the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival has its origins in the mid-19th century, an era when much of Taiwan was a lawless frontier. Disputes over straying cattle and access to water led to pitched battles between various clans in the Keelung area. Eventually, a peace was brokered. To remind themselves of the consequences of violence, the warring parties agreed that each Ghost Month they would jointly commemorate those who had died in the fighting.
In addition to propitiating the deceased with offerings of incense and food, the Keelung Mid-Summer Ghost Festival now features parades and folk-arts performances. Like many other large-scale religious events in Taiwan, it has become a high-spirited celebration of local culture.
While Ghost Month is undoubtedly one of the most popular times of year to visit Keelung, the area has a lot to offer tourists in every season – and there is no easier way to explore the region than by Taiwan Tour Bus (www.taiwantourbus.com.tw).
Taiwan Tour Bus, an umbrella organization supervised by Taiwan’s Tourism Bureau, coordinates with licensed tour companies to organize excursions throughout the country. These include not only transportation to various attractions accompanied by multilingual guides, but often an excellent lunch and sometimes fun activities.
Tours must be booked in advance. The cost always includes full insurance, and longer itineraries can be arranged on request.
The North Coast, Yehliu, and Juming Museum Tour packs a great deal into eight hours. Priced at NT$1,350 per person on weekends and national holidays (including lunch, insurance, and admission tickets) but cheaper at other times, the tour whisks sightseers from various locations in Taipei to Yehliu Geopark. Often and accurately described as a “geological wonderland,” Yehliu is a 1.7-kilometer-long spit of land that preserves a range of striking landscapes.
Next up is Juming Museum, created by and dedicated to one of Taiwan’s most famous living artists, sculptor Ju Ming. After an hour and a half there, the bus heads to Fugui Cape Lighthouse Park (Taiwan’s most northerly point), Sanzhi (where passengers will learn a bit about Taiwan’s recent past), and Tamsui. This final stop is one of the country’s most historic towns; visitors will see a fort built by the Dutch in the 17th century and a slew of 19th-century landmarks.
The Northeast Gold Coast Tour (NT$1,200 per person on holidays, NT$1,000 on weekdays) is a one-day circuit that makes its first stop at Nanya Rock Formations, 16 kilometers east of Keelung Harbor. Nanya’s beguiling natural sculptures are the result of wind and wave erosion. Such forces have left their wondrous mark in several locations, so be sure to carry spare memory cards for your camera.
The 34 lighthouses dotting the coastline of Taiwan and its minor islands have won a special place in the hearts of Taiwanese daytrippers, and this tour takes in two of them. At both Bitou Cape and Sandiao Cape, visitors can enjoy superb ocean views. At the end of the excursion, passengers get to spend an hour at the surfing hotspot of Waiao. The bus then makes a speedy return to Taipei via the Xueshan Tunnel, the world’s fifth-longest road tunnel and a spectacular feat of engineering.
Also visiting Nanya and Bitou Cape, and priced the same, is the Northeast Coast, Jinguashi, and Jiufen Tour. But rather than continue into Yilan County, this tour heads back toward Keelung and takes in two hill towns of considerable interest: Jiufen and Jinguashi. Both grew out of gold-mining settlements and retain a huge amount of character.
Tourists pressed for time may be interested in the Keelung Harbor, Yehliu, and North Coast Half-Day Tour (NT$1,200 for adults, NT$1,000 for children 12 or younger). Pickup is from various locations in Taipei, and passengers are returned in time for lunch.
For those who prefer afternoon sightseeing, there is a Jiufen and Northeast Coast Half-Day Tour (NT$1,300 for adults, NT$1,100 for children), which sets off after lunch. This tour does not include a meal, but it is unlikely anyone will get off the bus feeling hungry. The final stop is Jiufen Old Street, where dozens of vendors serve up tasty snacks including taro balls and hongzao meatballs. It is a splendid place to enjoy inexpensive delicacies while gazing at the ocean.
For all kinds of travel information about Taiwan, go to the Tourism Bureau’s website (www.taiwan.net.tw) or call the 24-hour tourist information hotline (0800-011-765, toll free within Taiwan).