So after what seems like months of talking about it, we are finally in China. We landed in Beijing on Chinese New Year’s Eve. After a 9 hour flight, coming in to land over a clear skied Beijing with what seemed like thousands of fireworks going off below us was pretty incredible. We both quickly learnt just how big a role fireworks play in Chinese New Year!
2015 is the Year of the Goat – although it is also referred to Year of the Sheep or Ram as the Chinese character for each is the same. However in China, the Han Chinese (the majority ethnic group comprising 92% of mainland China’s population) largely see the zodiac symbol as a goat so that’s what we’ll go with here. If you are born in the Year of the Goat you are said to be gentle, considerate, hardworking and attractive but unfortunately also pessimistic, moody, vain and weak-willed so it’s a mixed bag!
Arriving at our Air BnB in a Dongcheng Hutong (after a very angry taxi driver used my phone to make several lengthy and expensive phonecalls to the apartment owner for directions) we were assailed with the sight and sound of hundreds of fireworks and firecrackers going off everywhere. The noise was unbelievable and walking around our Hutong there were remnants of firecrackers absolutely everywhere. Health and safety definitely isn’t a thing here and we walked past several raging fires and firecrackers going off right next to bystanders – all adds to the excitement! It’s also not a short lived thing – they went on all night and well into the next day. In fact, sitting here writing this two days in, there are still regular explosions happening in the distance. Thankfully jetlag meant I had no trouble sleeping through the racket but waking up with flashing lights and huge explosions just outside my window at one point did have me wondering if I was in some form of warzone before my brain worked out where I was!
There is a reason for all the pyromania though! Chinese New Year falls towards the end of winter, a time where it’s believed that in ancient China, a mythical beast named Nian used to prey upon villagers for food, The villagers under attack realised that Nian was afraid of three things – the colour red, fire and noise. They pasted red boards to their doors, built fires and threw bamboo onto the flames to explode (pre-gunpowder version of firecrackers) to frighten him away and he never returned. These methods live on and the fireworks and red decorations are still used today to scare off Nian. As an added advantage the colour red is also believed to be an auspicious colour and symbolises good fortune and joy which further explains it’s prevalence!
What struck both Joe and I on New Years Eve was the lack of partying, raucous behaviour and to be honest, drinking, that was going on – a far cry from any New Year I’ve had in the UK! It turns out that for the Chinese, New Year is very much a family time and as such the streets were deserted as everyone gathered at home to feast together and watch the CCTV Festival Gala (which from what we saw is hypnotically bizarre) in between setting fire to things.
We had been forewarned that Beijing would be relatively deserted as so many of the population head back to rural China to spend New Year with their family. Whilst it is much quieter than I imagine it usually would be and a lot of businesses are closed it’s fair to say that it’s certainly not a ghost town here! And somewhat unexpectedly Joe and I ended up being inadvertently kettled by the police as we attempted to navigate from our Hutong to a Costa Coffee (yes, we are those tourists who need a latte!) yesterday afternoon. As it turned out, we had joined a huge crowd heading for the Lama Temple near our apartment. On our to-do list anyway and with no actual way of turning round or exiting the crowd we decided to go with the flow and in a very stop-start fashion made our way to the temple. The hour long journey to cover about half a mile was well worth it – it was incredible. The Lama Temple is the most renowned Tibetan Buddhist Temple outside of Tibet and is still an active place of worship today, attracting pilgrims from around the world. The whole place was absolutely stunning and to be there on New Years Day, surrounded by people burning incense and paying their respects to the Gods definitely felt like a once in a lifetime moment. Joe and I joined in on the incense burning as everyone was given a packet on arrival. Whilst we stuck to the rule of only burning three at once, others around us seemed to be burning bunches of closer to 50 so the air was thick with smoke! Prayer flags were flying everywhere and there was just an amazing atmosphere – one that I was extremely glad to accidentally be a part of.