Saturday, February 24, 2007

Blowing Up Beijing

Happy Lunar New Year to y’all! I’m going to interrupt my tales of Tibet again to write about the New Year in Beijing.

Almost everyone I know in Beijing is out of town for the holiday, but I have to stay in the city- I’ll explain why in another entry. I was worried that it would be boring on my own, but it turned out to be the most exciting times I’ve had in Beijing.
At first I planned on going to a bar that supposedly had good views of the New Year’s fireworks. To get there I had to pass through one of Beijing’s more sordid neighborhoods. Chinese touts called out “lady bar” when they saw me and tried to drag me into their bars, and West African men walked up to me and asked in hushed voices if I “needed anything.” I saw a couple beggar children grab onto the legs of a Caucasian woman who was trying to go into one of the nicer-looking bars. One of them kicked her as she pulled away. The beggar children’s handler, who had been watching from the shadows, then yelled at them and kicked them herself. When she saw me watching she laughed nervously. I gave her the coldest look I could muster and left. I couldn’t find the bar and went to find a more pleasant place to wander around.
Firecrackers had been going off in the city for a while, even though it was illegal to set them off before New Year’s Eve. As it got closer to New Year’s there were more and more explosions, until finally on the day before it seemed the whole city was blowing up. On New Year’s Eve the city went wild. People set fireworks off wherever they could find space on the sidewalks and in the streets, with almost no regard for safety. The fireworks blew up over their heads and showered them with debris. Pedestrians and bikers had to wait for them to finish before walking by, though sometimes people would simply run through the sparks. A few times I even saw people fire fireworks into buildings. I was chased by a twirly firework and even got hit in the arm by a streamer, though it didn’t leave a mark in my jacket. The sound was so deafening that it hurt my ears.
In the hutongs it was even more intense. Hutong neighborhoods are filled with winding alleyways and courtyards where people could set off fireworks without being seen, so explosions and blasts seemed to appear everywhere and without warning, even if they were set off only a few meters away. Buildings are usually only a story tall, so it is easy to see all the fireworks being set off nearby.
The fireworks peaked around midnight. The cacophony was amazing, and no matter what direction you looked in you could see fireworks going off. It was a strange feeling in Beijing, a city that can be eerily silent past midnight. By one in the morning things had calmed down and the streets began emptying of people. The sidewalks were so littered with the remains of fireworks that it was impossible to walk without stepping on debris. All through the night some people kept setting off fireworks. I doubt many Beijingers slept well that night.

Over the next few days fireworks continued going off every night. Some fireworks went off just twenty feet from my window.
One of the features of New Year’s in Beijing is the temple fairs. I checked out a couple, the first one at the Daoist White Cloud Temple. The temple was swamped with people, and there were massive lines as people lined up to lay incense in front of shrines and to touch holy objects. One line, for rubbing a “stone monkey,” was particularly popular. I skipped the incense and stone monkey rubbing, but I did throw fake coins at a bell for good luck. Behind the monastery there was a street lined with vendors selling random knickknacks and snacks. There was a particularly large number of Uyghur men selling sweet pastries, but the most popular snack seemed to be raw sugar cane. My favorite was a kind of small sour apple that was rolled in sugar.
The second fair I went to is Beijing’s most famous and, as the first fair to begin after the Cultural Revolution, its oldest. It was at the Altar of Earth Park, where the Emperor once worshipped the earth, but which now is just a park. The fair there was like Little Italy’s San Gennaro festival times ten- maybe it was meaningful many years ago, but now it’s crowded and commercialized. The best thing about it was that it had performances, though I only caught the end of the last one, a lion dance, when I went. Unlike the White Cloud Temple fair vendors all worked out of prearranged stands rather than carts, and their goods were tackier and food less tasty, not to mention more expensive. The space around the altar itself was surrounded with amusement-park style games. At one stand that really creeped me out children went into large plastic bubbles that floated in a pool. Every time they tried to stand up the bubble would roll and they’d fall on their bottoms, so to move around they had to crawl like gerbils in a wheel. The children seemed to be having fun despite being trapped and almost immobile but I got the feeling that the parents were having more fun watching them.

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