Fri, Feb 22, 2002 - Page 7 News List

Hell breaks loose in Yenshui

Yenshui's annual fireworks festival has its origins in a cholera epidemic over a century ago, but the festival itself now seems just as deadly

By Steven Crook  /  STAFF REPORTER

"I've seen ear, eye, chest and leg injuries, plus people whose hair caught fire," he said.

Some people with relatively serious burns have come to Yen for ointment and bandages, and then gone home -- or rejoined the festival.

Even well-prepared individuals can get hurt, as Ariana Lindquist, a Taipei-based English teacher, discovered to her cost two years ago. "My friend and I had decided to head home, so I took my ear plugs out," said the Minnesotan. "Then we went back and stood right in front of a fireworks wall as it went off. A rocket flew up under my helmet and exploded. It took a month for the hearing in one of my ears to fully recover."

Undoubtedly the safest and most comfortable way to enjoy Yenshui's Fireworks Festival is to watch it from a downtown balcony or rooftop. But for outsiders, even those willing to pay, this is difficult to arrange. Many landlords worry strangers might damage their property, and so restrict access to friends and relatives.

In any case, veterans agree, viewing is no match for ground-level participation. This requires stamina and preparation.

Some join the parade carrying only a large sheet of cardboard or plastic with which to defend themselves -- scant protection against ricocheting projectiles.

A full-face motorcycle helmet with a strong visor is essential, while those who expect to be in the thick of it should leave no flesh exposed. A towel used as a scarf makes for good neck protection.

Old clothing is preferable. Rockets sometimes catch in the folds and set the material alight, while flying embers burn tiny holes in almost everything.

On the night, vendors sell protective headgear, smog masks, ear plugs and other useful items. It is best to arrive fully prepared, however, as these products are often shoddy or ill-fitting.

Footwear should be the strongest possible. Following the parade entails a great deal of walking. Toes get trampled in the mayhem.

There are other hazards. The smoke causes sore throats. Pickpockets work the crowds.

On festival night police stop non-residents from bringing vehicles into the town.

Fortunately, Yenshui is easy to reach by public transportation. Express trains stop at nearby Hsinying, from where visitors can take a taxi or local bus.

Visitors leaving late at night will find plenty of taxis, and private bus companies offering rides to Taipei and Kaohsiung.

Those who find crowds claustrophobic, or dislike standing for long periods, are better off staying at home -- or attending the more sedate fireworks competition at Luerhmen, a temple complex in Tainan City.

But for aficionados of unusual and memorable experiences, the Yenshui Fireworks Festival provides a rush that few will forget.

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