So far as the lanterns themselves go, this was pretty much all you got

This post goes out to all you readers out there who saw the google graphic from the 17th and went “wait, didn’t they just have a holiday?”
Yep, they did, which is actually directly related to the timing of this one. Chinese New Year’s is based off the lunar calendar, so fifteen days after it happens you get the first full moon of the ‘year’ which signals the end of the new year’s festivities. In practice, this translates to “anyone who hasn’t set off all their fireworks needs to hurry up and do that tonight.” For the past two weeks Beijing has been a city under siege, but for all the noise tonight I may as well just be living in the trenches. The 1,000-piece rolls of firecrackers sound like machine guns, the heavier fireworks are mortars. And as you bike or walk through the streets, they’re exploding all around you, and little pieces of the trees through which said fireworks are shooting rain down on you like shrapnel. It’s insanity.
Anyway yeah, to celebrate the first full moon people write riddles on lanterns and hang ‘em up, and then sit around eating 汤圆 (lit. ‘soup round,’ these sickly sweet rice-based dumpling-y things filled with sesame paste. They have the consistency of warm peanut butter, and you can’t bite them in half without the sesame crap going everywhere so you have to take ‘em in one go — you can imagine how this might present difficulties). Having already partaken in the latter at lunch this afternoon, I decided I might as well go see the lanterns proper; the same Qianmen that I’ve written about several times hosts what’s apparently the city’s biggest lantern festival.

Qianmen,

, entrance bottlenecked by an insane amount of useless police,

at night.

I like taking shots of buildings at night, clearly. Here’s what that ring of police were guarding, by the way.

From the second I left my hutong, though, it became obvious that tonight was special. This didn’t seem to be a second-thought sorta holiday, that people recognize in passing but don’t actually do anything about. The atmosphere of the whole area was different. People were milling around everywhere, shouting, spitting, hawking cheap plastic crap — standard procedure, but not for 10pm, and not in nearly these numbers. It’s hard to articulate the feeling of the Tian’anmen area in English, but it’s the epitome of 热闹 — bustling. Electric. It never ceases to humble me that I’m so centrally located in the most important city of the most populous country in the world. Everything cultural is concentrated right here, so the opportunities within walking distance that are open to me on a regular basis are truly incredible.
Once I started making my way south of Tian’anmen towards Qianmen though, the downside of living in a place where millions of people want to go hit me in the form of the largest crowd I’ve seen in my life. Here’s what it looked like inside Qianmen, for instance –

人太多

Longer-time readers may remember this post, where I bitched a lot about the poor design of this area, specifically how it’s full of people-blockers and other obnoxious things. Take my difficulty trying to get through that area and multiply it by, I don’t know, twenty thousand? More? A lot. A lot a lot of people. Cannot exaggerate enough. The result is this sorta business:

Mass fence hopping, in front of all the police, who didn’t seem to mind at all. I reiterate, they served zero immediate purpose. I musta hopped 6 fences, maybe more tonight. What was the most bizarre is that all the police cars made a big line to further bottleneck traffic on the way into Qianmen, so they were almost forcing you to hop fences to even get to the front of the street, at which point you were blocked again by the cops themselves. And after struggling through all this crap, you finally get to the street and all it is is this

Nothing against cardboard dogs, but...

Honestly, I was baffled. Not at the miaohuis, not in the subway, not at the terracotta warriors during a country-wide holiday, not at the huge tourist destinations I visited the summer had I ever been forced fight as many people as I did tonight. And it was all for… that?
What the hell, right? This was the biggest lantern festival Beijing has?
I didn’t get it at all. I assumed I was missing something, but when I asked why everyone was here and what they were all coming to see or do, the only responses I got were “oh, it’s the lantern festival. There are lanterns and stuff.”
This wasn’t particularly satisfying. There were thousands upon thousands of people swarming everywhere, for a couple hundred cheap plastic lanterns — the same kinds that are strung up along streets everywhere.
Much to my chagrin, readers, I have to admit that at this point I pulled a card that I haven’t yet had to resort to in my month and a half here.
I stopped trying Chinese entirely. I looked as pathetic as possible, and just started asking strangers “do you speak English? I don’t understand what’s happening. Can you explain?” (note to the wise — don’t try this on police officers. Pretty likely the reason that they’re stand-still-for-hours-doing-nothing-style police officers is that they are not particularly well educated. English is part of that)

Eventually one guy was able to help me. He said what everyone else had been saying in Chinese, namely that people were just here because it was the Lantern Festival and Qianmen is the place to be when that happened. But then I pressed him, saying that the lanterns weren’t really that special, and finally got an answer:
“Well, really the lanterns themselves honestly don’t matter that much. People are here to feel the festival itself, to be part of the atmosphere, to be with each other. It’s a collective experience, a group celebration moreso than a normal tourist attraction. The lanterns and the fireworks are nice, but that’s not why everyone came here tonight.”
Two seconds of thinking later and I knew exactly what he was talking about. I was feeling it as far back as Tian’anmen but had been so distracted by the crowds and the fences and the police that I’d kinda forgotten that base energy that had been so apparent to me even on the street by my house.
So the lanterns weren’t that astounding, sure. It’s still a damn cool holiday.

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