-The storefronts are all closed up. Red lanterns are hung all around the city. People are out and about. The incessant explosion of firecrackers is a clear sign the Chinese New Year is upon us.
Children light them off. So do adults. However, it’s the teenagers who are most aggressive. One will ride on the back of a scooter facing backwards, lighting and dropping a series of firecrackers while his or her friend drives. I saw others having mini-wars; throwing clusters at their friends. Other pranksters just set them off near strangers and scamper before being seen.
Some firecrackers are bigger and louder than others. After a long succession of big ones, there’s always at least one car alarm that goes off. The climax will come at midnight, when nearly every family in the city will be setting their own fireworks off at the same time.
I am witnessing the Chinese New Year in Jianshui, a city in China’s Yunnan Province, about 200 km south of Kunming http://www.gogobot.com/kunming-china . Jianshui is known for its traditional architecture: its towering red gateway arch Chaoyang Lou, its revered Confucian Academy and Temple, the traditional Zhu Family Gardens, and the ancient multi-arch Twin Dragon Bridge.
Tomorrow will be New Year’s Day and people will leave their homes to promenade through the old cobbled streets during the afternoon. The shops will all be open; the Taoist temples will be busy, and the street vendors will be cooking up their famous Jianshui barbecue.
The Chinese call this Lunar New Year’s celebration Spring Festival. The Lunar Calendar is observed in much of Asia and the holiday is celebrated heartily in these other countries. The Vietnamese call it Tết. The Koreans, Seollal. The Mongolians, Tsagaan Sar. It usually falls at the end of January or beginning of February.
How did I end up in Jianshui, a seemingly no-name city in the provinces, for the New Year?
I was actually told to stay put for the Chinese New Year or if at all possible to leave the country. I was warned: transportation would be sold out, hotels would double their prices, and businesses would shut down.
Leaving China would not be an option. I would have to find a small enough city to hide away from the masses and hopefully get to see how the Chinese celebrate their Spring Festival.
Jianshui fit the bill; just a small dot on the map which my Rough Guide described as “a country town”. When putting Chinese cities into perspective, this “country town” turned out to be a city with a metropolitan area of a half-million people. But still, the promise of this more relaxed city, in a country full of noisy, polluted mega-cities, was an undeniable attraction.
Jianshui began to reveal itself soon after I arrived as the best little city you’ve never heard of. It’s got enough traditional architecture to make you feel like you’re in the real China. And its few stellar sites around town qualify it as a traveler’s destination. Except the tourists are nowhere to be found.
Before New Year’s I explored the confusing layout of the old streets and sampled some of Jianshui’s famous barbecue in the evenings. Among the meats and vegetables I was surprised to find a variety of insects. But I learned that with enough salt and chili powder, a dragonfly kabob tastes nothing more than a salty spicy crunch.
In the back streets, among the old interconnected mud brick houses there are old stone wells where locals draw their water. Jianshui is still a secluded place where children don’t often see foreigners, so they they’ll stare in astonishment for a minute while you pass by and try to shout out “hello”.
A few kilometers past the edge of town is the Twin Dragon Bridge — among the ten oldest still standing in China. The stone bridge’s 17 arches now cross over a sleepy stream which flows past rice paddies. There’s no ticket both, and barely any other people. A walk across the narrow Dragon Bridge is like discovering this ancient site for the western world.
Back in the old town, the Zhu Family Gardens are a reminder of the great wealth some families attained. Spread out over 20,000 square meters, the compound is a collection of ancestral buildings, family homes, ponds, and gardens dating from the Qing dynasty.
For another reprieve from the noisy streets, enter the huge walled Confucian Academy and Temple. For nearly 750 years this was a great center of learning and the place where imperial examinations were held. The Temple is one of the biggest and most important in China, modeled off that in Confucious’ hometown of Qufu. Local children are still brought here before exams to kowtow at the temple.
Standing at what was once the edge of town is the imposing Chaoyang Gate, the gigantic red gateway arch. It’s free to climb the stairs to the top where you’ll find a teahouse with men playing cards and mahjong in between sips and cigarettes. A view from the top reveals elderly people dancing and playing music in the park below.
Sights don’t usually drive the purpose of my travels, but in the case of Jianshui, they were excellent distractions as I tried to hide away from the hordes during the Chinese New Year.
Stephen Bugno has been traveling the world and writing about it for the past decade. For more of his writing and photography, visit his blog Bohemian Traveler.