One thing that the Chinese absolutely love without a doubt is making noises and letting off fireworks. Oh, OK – that’s two things they love, but they go hand in hand.
Throughout New Year’s Eve the sound of firecrackers being let off in the street is punctuated by larger mortar-style bangs. It frightens away the evil spirits, you see; I know if I was an evil spirit, it would certainly frighten me!
Come the arrival of dusk, Beijing goes totally ballistic. Talk about World War 3! From my apartment windows I can see maybe 30 or 40 different firework venues. As most people here live in high rise apartment blocks it would appear that one family lets off its fireworks in the street or courtyard outside, followed by the next family and so on. So at 5.30 the reign of fire begins and it goes on… and on… and on… and as midnight approaches it increases in intensity such that there surely cannot be any evil spirits left in the entire country, let alone Beijing. By 1am the intensity lessens, but the building is still being rocked by mortar blasts until maybe 2.30 when some kind of sanity begins to take over.
Think about it. 5.30 pm until 2.30 am. That’s nine hours! I fall into bed and wake up the next morning to the sun shining through my window with the sound of swish swish swish outside.
Despite the fact that it is New Year’s Day, there is a veritable army of street cleaners outside clearing up the debris from the night before.
I down a strong coffee, made by my delectable espresso/cappuccino maker that I was given just a couple of weeks back, and head out for some fresh air. It’s time for another Temple Fair methinks – but this time I’m off to Chaoyang Park situated near the embassy quarter.
My web guide tells me that this particular fair is known as the Chaoyang International Fengqing Festival since there aren’t actually any temples in this park. Also, it adds rather ominously, it caters principally to the laowai crowd. (Laowai / 老外 is one of several Chinese words for foreigner, literally translated as old/lao/老 foreigner/wai/外.)
But when I arrive, there is not a foreigner in sight, save for some Russians making fools of themselves – literally – on the stage set …
and some Czechs/Hungarians/Bulgarians/Greeks giving out some tourist brochures to curious passers-by.
Unlike yesterday’s jaunt to Ditan Park, this outing reminds me much more of a European fair with 101 different ways of winning (or not!) a horrid stuffed animal that you could probably buy cheaper than forking out for a lucky couple of balls/darts/hoops/pop-guns with which to win these wretched animals.
Many of the stall holders have that look about their chops that gives their innermost thoughts away. Why am I here in the freezing cold, rather than lying in a nice warm bed at home they obviously think.
But the Beijingers are out in force. They are determined to enjoy themselves come what may and appear happy to part with their well earned kwai.
Everywhere there are hawthorn candy sellers – that most popular street candy, made by sticking hawthorn fruit on sticks, dipping in boiling sugar solution and selling for around RMB4 a stick. (I have to admit to recently developing a taste for hawthorn juice in preference to my early morning orange juice.)
Other eateries are doing a roaring trade. If you want to know what it is they are selling, you’ll get a clue by identifying the carcass hung up over their counters. A few metres away from this dead pig, for instance, there are the remains of a sheep/goat hung up to tempt the visitors.
Naturally there are litter bins everywhere provided for the good burgers of Beijing, all clearly marked for what goes in which bin…
But I guess the world over, fairs appeal mostly to the kids (or maybe adults who have never really grown up). You could pretend for a short moment in time (well, about 75 seconds by my count) that you were Lord or Lady Muck and get carried around a circle inside a brightly painted palanquin.
All the while a band of musicians brave the cold to serenade the little blighters as they are carried around.
For the slightly older kids there are rides on dragon-decorated trains and roller coasters
and for the older still, you can get thrown through the air on dragon boats.
Safety is, of course, a number one priority and there are plenty of railings to keep back the crowds. Being the good citizens they are, I see no one trying to leap over anything, let alone a railing that I would have great difficulty climbing over, never mind leaping!
One of the most popular rides calls itself The Magic Sword Wheel. “It is a 20-meter-high dangling equipment,” we are told, “whose wheel dangles from the left to the right or circles clockwise or anticlockwise around the central pole with the maximum panning angle of plus or minus 110 degrees during the operation of the equip-ment. The passengers can strongly sense a gravity and fell as if they are riding the clouds”.
Hmmm. Somehow I am not tempted. But just to make sure, there is another notice beside the first which says that “those who are pregnant, drunk or weak or suffer from acrophobia, high blood pressure, heart disease, cerebral thrombosis, neurological disease or staggers are not allowed to take it.” Well I may not be pregnant, but I decide to give it a miss anyway.
Rather ominously, there is another stricture for the customers – “No smoking, littering or fighting” it warns. But those who stagger away from the contraption after the ride look in no mood for a fight, preferring instead to head for the public conveniences, which can be spotted a mile off in the shape of giant ladybirds.
Of course, it being the New Year, everyone is looking for a bit of good luck to see them through the coming year. Never ones to miss a trick, you’ll see the Chinese have planted good luck trees around the place. You pays your money, you bash away on a drum to get rid of the evil demons who might be lurking there, and then you pin your lucky ribbon onto the tree and voilà – you are guaranteed good luck ahead. What could be simpler?
Naturally there are cheapskates everywhere; and if you don’t feel like parting with the readies purely to bash a drum before hanging up your good luck prayer you can do it on the cheap at another tree without a drum bash for half the price!
Probably the best thing at Chaoyang – for me at any rate – was a collection of ice carvings that had been made, featuring an eagle, dragons, fish, rabbit, and various other animals. They were a definite hit with the kids too.
But don’t you just know it that when you look at ice carvings, with the outside air temperature well below zero, the first thing you start worrying about is where can you go to have a pee! I guess it is time to go in search of a ladybird once again….