Today is the Lantern Festival, the last day of Chinese New Year and for good measure Chinese Lovers’ Day. The school told us in our briefing yesterday that there would be a lantern show today at Yuanmingyuan, the old Summer Palace, just next to our campus and thinking this would be an (evening) event worth seeing I arranged to meet a friend there before sunset at 5:30pm. We bought our tickets to the park as the office shut for the night and they closed the gates behind us. That seemed a pretty ominous sign that not much was happening inside and we proceeded to wander around the bleak winter landscape hoping that there would be more to it than just the strings of unilluminated red cloth lanterns hung between trees around the lake.
Needless to say there wasn’t. I had obviously forgotten that the most hyped event/view/scenic spot is usually a damp squib. Saying that, it is of course possible I got the timing all wrong but in any event we gave up on the park pretty swiftly and went for a consolation dinner nearby. If you’ve read my food post you could predict that from a culinary perspective even that didn’t achieve the intended purpose.
As we left the restaurant at around 7pm and headed back to campus beside the 6 lane highway, a few clusters of fireworks fizzled in the distance, blending with the hazy neon lights. Being a bit of a child about fireworks I was disappointed not to be closer up but we stopped by the streams of traffic to admire for a moment as some paper fire lanterns drifted overhead high in the sky. Then as I walked further along the main road I realised things were just warming up. Localised firework displays began popping up behind every other building while groups of people lit massive piles of firecrackers in the bicycle lanes. Think bonfires along the outer lane of Park Lane and you get the picture.
One family had a smouldering heap of ash at the mouth of a side road around which drivers were steering without a hint of irritation while the son leapt about with a mixture of glee and fear as his father lit little whirling dervishes of gunpowder in the gutter. On the next pavement another family had tied their firecrackers to the base of a tree and watched through plastic protective goggles as they exploded next to the parked cars. All between and behind the buildings more rockets were going off. In appreciation of all of this and in spite of the thickening clouds the full moon managed to put in a jaundiced appearance.
I toyed with the idea of stopping at Starbucks at the crossroads before campus but I’m rather glad I didn’t: as I entered the university and looked down the long tree-lined lawn to our Soviet style main building, our fireworks display – which they hadn’t thought to mention yesterday – was beginning. The huge facade of windows reflected showers of light while the unyielding concrete bounced sound all the way down the faculty buildings lining the avenue. Not being in the Zone of Quietness, where car alarms are verboten, a number began to shrill with the first burst. Those that hadn’t already triggered went off with the third round of rockets: single coloured lights that rose halfway up the building then detonated with a white flash and a thunderclap. The reverberations sounded like a heavy mortar attack.
One of the UK papers reported last week that the government here had requested people to hold back on firecrackers this year due to the pollution impact. As it happens I heard a fair bit of noise last night too which might explain why it was so grey and the air a bit more acrid than usual this morning. The addendum to that dictat is that after tonight it will be illegal to set off firecrackers, presumably until the next festival, so everyone has to set off everything they have before the night is out. If the noise outside is anything to go by then the government’s pleas fell on ears that will be even more deaf by tomorrow morning; it sounds like we’re under seige. Glad I have a pair of earplugs.