In Beijing, celebrating Chinese New Year isn't complete without a visit to a Temple Fair. It's an ideal way to dive into Chinese folk culture and enjoy the carnival atmosphere with all the bargaining of a market. But it's not an outing for the faint-hearted. Its not so much the noise as the feeling of being in a strait jacket and moving involuntarily in a human tidal wave of thousands. At least being shoulder to shoulder helps to keep warm in the icy cold air.
Having been around for at least a thousand years, some fairs have kept their traditional link with religious rituals during Chinese New Year. At the fair in Ditan Park (Temple of Earth), after entering people rush to the centre of the park, clutching incense sticks purchased from pious looking vendors. After enduring the long queues, they go through the ritual of bowing elaborately three times before the fire at the altar, asking for health and abundance in the year ahead. The altar was the place reserved for the Emperor in ancient times, where he would stand and offer his sacrifice to the God of the Earth for blessings on the Middle Kingdom at this time.
By far the main attraction at the fair is food, glorious food. From an entire goat on a spit, to Mongolians stripped to the waist in cowboy hats tempting the crowds with their skewered lamb and women smacking squid to flatten it against a sizzling grill — the air spirals with spice-laden smoke. People make small islands in amongst the flowing mass of humanity, munching and slurping on an unimaginable variety of snacks, silent for a brief blissful gastronomical moment
Excited vendors wearing pink wigs and evil rubber masks scream their sales pitches in a decibel waving those ubiquitous multicolored windmills in people's faces. Arts, crafts and general goods stalls abound, flanking a set of stages offering an eclectic range of traditional performances. Frequent Peking Opera recitals alternate with colorful dancers in wooden stilts, who float above the enthusiastic crowds. Over on the east side of the park is a daily show featuring bizarre snake performances. Watch snakes disappear up peoples' noses and crawl over attractive models who lie disinterested, oblivious to the incredulous looks of the audience.
Moving between attractions you will quickly learn to bob and weave in time with the hordes. Forget about Gangnam style, this is the homegrown Temple Fair shuffle. It will lead you to toy and game land, an area that resembles a planet made entirely of soft toys in bright primary colors. Teddy bears, pandas, oxes and even crocodiles, with the toy of choice being the animal representing the current Chinese astrological sign.
Red lanterns and paper umbrellas hang thick in the air, adding color to the depressing grey of Beijing winter. Frequent stops are needed to recuperate during the fair amble, and if you find the need to let someone else have the burden of transporting you around, hop on an ancient sedan ride and let the red clad troupe shoulder the load. If nothing else it will get you noticed and you can enjoy your 5 minutes of fair fame.
Tiring as it may be, the Temple Fair is an experience not to be missed and you won't be left feeling lonely!