In which evil spirits and my sense of hearing are done away with by massive piles of firecrackers.
16.02.2008 5 °C
The Chinese New Year fell, this year, on February 7. This also marks the beginning of the Spring Festival which lasts 15 days. Most people have at least one week off from work, and many, many people return home to visit and celebrate with their families. This means that, on the days leading up to the holiday, seemingly the entire country is boarding trains headed somewhere. Train tickets are difficult to get, and the system for selling them is difficult to understand. One can obtain train tickets three, five or ten days in advance depending on the type of train and its destination. One can purchase them from the train station of departure, or a nearby ticket outlet, but can not purchase return tickets until arrival at one's destination. Under particular stress, one may buy a ticket from a man called the "Golden Cow" who lurks about Aaron's university selling hard-to-find and slightly marked-up train tickets to homesick university students. Given all this, and our flexibility in not having families to visit in China and a long vacation, Aaron and I decided not to travel during the busiest pre-New Year days. Instead, we found a hostel room near Tian'anmen Square from which to witness what promised to be hours of celebratory fireworks and firecrackers. No one loves their explosives-based entertainment more than the Chinese. The firecrackers had begun sporadically days ago in Changping, and were quite frequent during our Super Tuesday TV marathon.
The hostel was located in a hutong (old little alleyways of densely packed homes) about a five minute walk from the square. We went for a long walk along the road just outside the Forbidden City as the sky grew dark. By this time, firecrackers provided constant background noise. As soon as the sky was sufficiently dark, fireworks appeared all around us: little ones from behind hutong walls, and larger ones in the distance. There were kids with sparklers and Roman candles and families setting off noisemakers ranging from single POP…BANG! to long red ropes of minutes’ worth of continuous noise and flashes of light. The city grew louder and louder…
Our goal was to eat dumplings, the traditional New Year’s food due to their money-pouch shape, for dinner, but we set out too late, and most restaurants were closing early to let their employees spend time with their families. We found a tiny restaurant still serving dinner, and ate our plates of dumplings next to the owner’s family as they enjoyed their New Year feast.
As midnight neared, we wandered the alleyways amid the deafening din of firecrackers (many approaching what I can only assume is military strength!) and longer and longer rounds of fireworks. Every neighborhood had a bicycle cart stocked with fire extinguishers, and there were roving bands of uniform-clad men carrying fire extinguishes and wearing fire extinguishing backpacks. Down one lane, we spotted a motorcycle equipped with a fire extinguisher tank and a hose on a reel that ended in a trigger-type nozzle.
At midnight, the firecrackers were deafening, and from one spot on the sidewalk near the square, we could see fireworks in eight or ten different locations. The din continued until two or three in the morning, and picked right back up at seven the next morning. I think we’ve seen fireworks every night since then!
In the morning, we met Steve and Amy, Steve’s parents and his best man (who all looked more well-rested, and a little more adjusted!) to attend a temple fair at the Temple of Earth Park near Amy’s parents’ apartment. Many parks and temples in the city hold temple fairs as celebrations of the culture and the New Year during the Spring Festival. The subway station for this park was expected to be so busy on New Year’s Day that officials decided to just shut it down for the day! This should have been a sign of the popularity of this event. From the moment we entered, we were shoulder to shoulder with the crowd as we mobbed slowly past trees decorated with paper lanterns, food booths selling grilled meat on sharp pointy sticks (at this, Steve mimes what one would expect to happen when eating anything from a sharp stick while walking in, and being jostled by, a huge crowd), booths selling everything from Year of the Rat paper cuts to ugly stuffed animal hats (that is, hats that look like the stuffed heads of animals), to pinwheel noisemakers that break the second they come in contact with the crowd. In short, it was a conglomeration of sadness toys.
We made our way to a stage area where we watched a lion dance – each lion was made by two people – one for the head and front legs, and one for the back and back legs – which could run, jump, summersault and balance on stacked chairs. The lions looked really alive in their movements, and had great character. We also watched a martial arts demonstration, and a traditional Manchurian dance. Really, I would have been happy just watching the lion dance all day.
Everyone was together with their families, and the crowd had a happy, relaxed feeling. After a few hours of bouncing off strangers’ bodies, I was happy to flow on out of there!
The Spring Festival continued on with nightly firecrackers and fireworks, the character “fu” symbolizing good fortune plastered on door fronts, car hoods and shop windows, and an air of leisure and relaxing times spent with family.