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Seven Must-Dos at Nanjing’s Lantern Fair

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 Lantern Festival

Just wanted to share with you some of the psychedelic joy of this year’s Lantern Festival. The Lantern Festival marks the LAST DAY of Chinese New Year celebrations, and just for a change there will be bazillions of fireworks and another rash of house fires to light up the night.  
Legend has it that the lanterns were originally intended to venerate Buddha, way back in the Han Dynasty more than 2000 years ago. There’s also the story involving a jade emperor, a crane, a band of villagers, and a fake fire, but it’s so convoluted I’m going with the first explanation.
Last year we spent the Lantern Festival in Nanjing, walking along the old city wall, visiting the lantern market and eating heaps of great festival food. And because it fell on a weekend we shared the experience with a million or three Chinese people, which was claustrophobically fun, but that sort of intensity is really just a once in a lifetime only. This year, we went to Yu Gardens before the actual night of the festival to avoid the crowds. Not wholly successful, but the atmosphere was amazing, and the lanterns, as always, were totally OTT.
Like this one. Every year, Pepsi creates a wild and wonderful New Year lantern using Pepsi cans as the main building material. Genius. I can’t imagine how they came up with that one. I think this year’s Pepsi-eyed tiger/lion/dragon is a big improvement on last year’s lame efffort, but did anyone tell them it’s the Year of the Rabbit? At least it’s large, dazzling, and an opportunity to showcase their new fruit juice drink, which I believe is the drink of choice of tigers/lions/dragons.
Over by the Huxintin Teahouse there is a panoramic moving lantern display with an Emperor, and a lot of……stuff. Lilypads and the like. I’m guessing this is supposed to be a Chinese legend of some description. It could even be the story of the Emperor, villagers, dead crane, and fake fire, but that is just a wild stab in the dark on my part.

And don’t forget to buy your rabbit ears and flashing, singing, battery-operated rabbit toys. Enjoy!

Lanterns, Lanterns, Lanterns!!

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

Giant Dragon Lantern

Cheeky Laughing Lion Lantern

I Love Lanterns

Chinese New Year is fast aproaching (Feb 14, Year of the Tiger), and with it comes the annual Lantern Festival, Yuanxiao, on the date of the first full moon of the Lunar New Year, (Feb 28). Yu Gardens is the lantern epicentre of Shanghai, and they’re springing up left, right and centre in all shapes and sizes. Now I love a lantern, as everyone knows, so I was thrilled to bring home three flat packed ones from the Commodities market yesterday. Easy peasy thought I, just whip them out of the cellophane envelope and pull the little string and voila! lanterns x 3 would appear fully formed and ready to hang in my window.

Oh but I am in China now and every day brings a small but useful challenge. So out of the bag came 68 pieces of red and gold cardboard, lots of tassels, a hundred small wire rings and no instructions. Not even in Chinese. So as I am swearing and cursing I am imagining whole Chinese families constructing these lanterns with the same ease and grace with which my family constructs our plastic Christmas tree every December. And in my imagination they are also swearing and cursing, just like us.