And this little set-up selling hot, home-made silken tofu, ladled steaming out of the wooden bucket, and topped with chopped pickles, soy sauce, sesame oil and chives. If you don’t like tofu, it’s because you’ve never eaten it freshly home-made like this – don’t scoff, it’s amazingly delicious.
If you’re looking for buzz, excitement and a festival atmosphere, come to Nanjing! For the last few days I’ve been having a ball at the famed Nanjing Lantern Fair, where it seems everyone is celebrating Spring Festival (the first fifteen days of the Chinese New Year) in noisy and colourful style.
We ended up in Nanjing largely by default, perhaps because it was the only destination we could get tickets to without sleeping overnight at Shanghai Railway Station. Please don’t feel unloved, Nanjing, because we had a great time! Spring Festival is the worst possible time to go anywhere in China you can’t get to by bicycle, with tickets at an absolute premium as everyone travels home to be with their families.
At Spring Festival time Shanghai can feel a little like a ghost town – there’s a mass exodus of at least a third of its population, and everything is closed. Although the quietness makes for a nice change, it’s not how people imagine Chinese New Year to be – loud, exciting and buzzing with people. Nanjing, on the other hand, has atmosphere to spare with the Nanjing Lantern Fair bringing people from all over to the streets around the Confucius Temple. Here are seven reasons to get yourself there before the Lantern Fair ends on February 6.
1. See Some Lanterns
Nanjing’s Lantern Fair is a riot of colour and craziness, with all kinds of things you could never imagine fashioned into a lanterns. Cheerful bees. Drumming dragons. Giant candlesticks. It’s all here, and runs every night until the fifteenth day of Chinese New Year, February 6, the day also known as the official Lantern Festival.
You can find the action in and around the Confucius Temple area, along with a worrying number of fire trucks and firefighters in bright orange jumpsuits, pump packs strapped to their backs and surrounded by extinguishers. I guess ‘be prepared’ is a good motto when you’re surrounded by thousands of metres of temporary wiring.
For a really great view, take one of the pleasure boats from the dock opposite the temple and cruise the canals decked with amazing lantern arches.
2. Try Your Luck on the Money Tree
Well, actually this tree standing outside the entrance of the Confucius Temple is correctly called the ‘Tree of Health and Wellbeing’, but we all know that what everyone wants more than anything else is to be wealthy. Why else are the leaves painted gold?
The aim of the game is to stand underneath the tree and throw a red-ribboned ‘wish’ up into its gilded leaves so that it sticks there. Ribbons can be purchased nearby (everyone knows you have to spend money to make money, right?)
3. Buy a Battery-Operated Musical Dragon
Or a dragon balloon, or a dragon lantern. But you gotta have a dragon to carry around through the crowds in this, the Year of the Dragon, and the larger and more unwieldy it is the better. These fellas play a cheerfully unrecognizable tinny tune and light up fiercely when you flick the switch, and they last about as long as a toy from inside a cereal packet, but hey, would it be a carnival novelty if the novelty didn’t wear off? Or wear out? Or give you a small electric shock?
4. Eat Something Sweet’n’Sticky on a Stick
Bing Tang Hu Lu 冰糖葫芦, these irresistable shiny red treats, are Chinese toffee apples made with red hawthorns covered in a crisp layer of red toffee. The hawthorns, or haws (山楂 shānzhā) look like apples, but taste quite sour and are a perfect match for the crispy toffee which shatters into sticky shards when you bite into it. You’ll probably still be picking pieces off your coat the following day but these are seriously good. Plus, they have small seeds you can spit on the pavement and feel really authentically Chinese as you do so.
Or have some regular old cotton candy (miánhuā táng, known to me as fairy floss) or an amazingingly intricate toffee version of your Chinese zodiac animal made on the spot by a toffee artist.
5. Visit the Confucius Temple
If you’re looking for a a quiet and spiritual experience away from the press of the crowds, don’t go into the Confucius Temple grounds during Lantern Fair because it’s a riotous continuation of what’s happening outside with the additional attraction of puppet shows, musical performances, and a whole lot more lanterns depicting famous scholars and pals of Confucius.
6. Buy Yourself a Lantern
The Lantern Fair is where all of Nanjing’s lantern makers show off their wares, and from 10 yuan you can have your own handmade lotus, rabbit or dragon lantern in every possible colour. I’ve still got the ones I bought two years ago. Put a tealight inside for night-time use.
7. Make a Balloon Seller’s Day
It’s compulsory to purchase a balloon at the Lantern Fair, judging by the sheer number and variety of novelty balloon items for sale. So make a balloon seller’s day and buy a whole flotilla of them – there aren’t many opportunities in the year for balloon sellers to make a lot of money, and the Lantern Fair is the pinnacle of their balloon-selling bell curve .
Balloon bunch of grapes? Balloon backpack? Balloon Sponge Bob? Go on, you know you want one, and if it hadn’t been for a bright blue Angry Birds balloon I might still be searching for my two children in the crowd.
Nanjing Lantern Fair
Every day and night until February 6 (incl)
Confucius Temple Area
G trains run every hour from Shanghai Railway Station, 90 minutes.
220 yuan adults, 110 yuan children.
The Nanjing Lantern Festival was a spectacular weekend enjoyed by me and about one hundred and fifty thousand million Chinese people. That’s no exaggeration, I counted every single one, and got elbowed by at least half of them. If I had a romantic notion that I would waft along the banks of Nanjing’s canals, my path lit by the soft and gentle light of a lantern’s glow, I was obviously in some other country, and some other century.
Wake up Cinderella! This is the new China! It’s more like Vegas than Confuscius, although it was next to his temple that we jammed ourselves along waterways lined with rows and rows of red lanterns, saw scenes from Chinese stories and legends as giant lurid neon-coloured lantern-scapes, wore crazy flashing battery operated hats and jostled for fairy floss and dragon-shaped toffee-on-a-stick. Then, sugar-high just hitting, we hopped in a flashing, flashy pagoda-shaped motor boat for a whizz round the waterside lantern panoramas (life of Confucius, life of Donald Duck, brace of swans, huge dragons) to the relaxing sounds of a pre-recorded commentary.
Head buzzing with total sensory overload, I finally made it to bed just in time for the fireworks starting. I haven’t had a fireworks-free slumber for, oh, about fourteen or fifteen days, so it was great to hear them setting off around midnight, and after a brief rest for sleep at three am, starting up again with renewed enthusiasm at around four. What a show!
Happy Chinese Valentine’s Day Lantern Scene
Nanjing’s old city is surrounded by an immense and impressive stone wall, built almost 700 years ago. In sections you can climb to the top and walk along a path trod by those who went before – friends, foes, invaders – Nanjing’s history hangs heavy in the air at every step.
To ensure the quality of the bricks used to build the wall, they came from five different provinces, hence the colour variation, and were imprinted with the name of the brickmaker and the location of the brickworks. Despite 700 years of sun, rain, war and sorrow, these can still be clearly seen on the bricks’ surface. History you can touch.