Bursting out all over

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 30 March, 2006, 12:00am

As the vernal equinox arrived, emblems of spring were everywhere in Taipei. Newly returned barn swallows cut arcs above the traffic, sweeping up every stray mosquito and roosting at night in nests not far above the crowded pavements.

Taipei is home to an astonishing range of birds: on the Taipei American School campus alone, 42 species have been recorded. Night herons, Asian cuckoos and Chinese bulbuls are common. A gigantic bird - described to me as an eagle but probably a goshawk - was recently noticed asleep in a city-centre park. The birds seem to be doing very well despite a ban on feeding them, as a bird flu precaution.

The season calls forth the instinct to celebrate among humans, too, especially the young ones - as Taiwan's annual Spring Scream music festival attests. Running over 10 days and starting next week, the festival has a non-commercial, Woodstock-style atmosphere that is unique among Asian music festivals. Its charms draw about 20,000 adolescents towards the sun at Kenting, on Taiwan's southernmost tip. There they greet the new season amid green, leafy surroundings: listening to about 200 live bands as they do so.

The festival is so popular that this year - its 12th anniversary - tickets can be bought at the island's many Hi-Life convenience stores. It has far outgrown its original conception as a small, underground carnival. Some American bands are being flown in this year, and more than 60 food and souvenir stalls are already registered.

Last week, before the seasonal rains set in, Taipei was treated to a few truly spectacular days. On one of them, in the volcanic hills of Yangmingshan, 30 minutes' drive from the city, azaleas blazed in tribute to the season. Taiwan's spectacular blue magpies were abundant, flying from tree to tree. They trail their tail feathers so fetchingly that there's an expression for it in Chinese, 'a display of long tails'.

In mid-week, the final days of the hilly area's Flower Festival were attracting hosts of visitors. The landmark Yangmingshan Flower Clock - which is seven metres wide and plays music every half hour - celebrates its 40th anniversary this year. Close beside it, cypress trees - reportedly planted by former Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek himself - continue to flourish even though the former dictator's name was removed from over the doorway to the Presidential Offices last week.

Seeking a new lover may be characteristic of spring elsewhere, but here it is a time for couples to feel uniquely close as they gaze at the flowers of Yangmingshan and the breeding swallows of the city centre, or contemplate a romantic - if noisy - weekend at the Spring Scream festival.