Mazu mania: Free food, great parties. Wait, this is a religious festival?
With more than 5 million participants spread over a massive nine-day, multi-city pilgrimage, few religious festivals can match the enormity of the Mazu International Festival in central Taiwan's Taichung City.
No surprise then that the local nickname for the festival is “Mazu March Mania.”
The mania is all about one helluva birthday shindig for Mazu ("mother ancestor"), the Goddess of the Sea and Taiwan’s most popular deity.
Taichung City is the best place to experience the event.
Taichung's Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage
The city is the start and end point of the festival's highlight -- the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage, which begins from Jenn Lann Temple. The annual pilgrimage has been running for centuries.
Some 200,000 pilgrims or xiangke ("incense guests") walk up to 12 hours per day for nine days, carrying a statue of Mazu in a sedan chair. The journey covers 300 kilometers, much of it through mountainous and rugged terrain.
More than 100 temples and the coastal counties of Changhua, Yunlin and Chiayi are visited on the route before it returns to Jenn Lann Temple.
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That's the spirit
Also known as "Mazu patrolling," the pilgrimage is recognized by UNESCO as a world intangible or living heritage, and is considered to be one of the greatest religious festivals in the world.
The Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage runs April 5 to April 14 this year.
"The tough and long walk has grown beyond a religious activity," says Shelle Yen, public officer of the Cultural Bureau of Taichung City.
"It has become an event to show great community spirit and human kindness."
Mazu is said to rest in a different temple during the eight nights of her hike. Pilgrims stay in temples or look for alternative accommodation.
Recent university graduate Henry Huang, who wrote a masters thesis on the pilgrimage, took part in last year's event. His blog details his experience (Chinese).
Though the walk was demanding, Huang says finding a place to stay at night was never difficult.
“Many people offered their living rooms, gardens, garages for pilgrims to rest. Many of the banks, mail offices and train stations are open, too," he says.
“We slept in a political candidate's campaign office once. They were generally very helpful to potential voters.”
The most memorable stay was a night Huang and a friend slept in a market stall's garage. Huang awoke just in time to find himself in the path of a car backing into the garage. The garage owner was surprised to find the travelers there, but kind enough to offer them a spot to sleep in his stall.
In addition to free stays, free food and drink are often provided to pilgrims by local residents.
“It may be the most interesting thing about the pilgrimage -- you've a chance to taste dishes made by local followers for free,” says Huang.
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There are fireworks, parades and performances -- all to please Mazu -- at each destination.
The Mazu Goddess gets to meet other Mazu statues that reside in different temples. It’s believed these exchanges empower temples and bring luck to local communities.
While sunscreen, a hat, windbreaker and mountain footwear are recommended for walkers, Huang also suggests going vegetarian for three days prior to the pilgrimage as a gesture of piety.
Other activities in Taichung City
In Taichung City, celebrations officially began March 16 and will last until the end of May.
Temples not participating in the Dajia Mazu Pilgrimage often put on their own celebrations. Check here for details.
A major Mazu temple near Taichung City is Beigang's Chaotian Temple. Founded in 1694, the temple lures more than a million pilgrims each year.
Alternate activities for those not keen on the nine-day pilgrimage include a Mazu historic relics exhibition, a free Mazu cultural bus tour and a scenic train tour along the mountains and coast of Taichung. Check here for more.
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