I took a walk to the bookshop the other day, a stroll along the busy streets of Baiyin, dodging the traffic, weaving through the crowds and avoiding the uncovered manholes. There is precious little in the bookshop that I can read but it's an odd thing. Even when I can't understand anything they have for sale I still like being in bookshops, being surrounded by books. And they do have an art section where I can look at the pictures in the books. I may not be able to read Chinese but it doesn't stop me browsing.
The route to the bookshop is along familiar streets. It's one of the alternate routes to the school where I teach. Usually I head through the edge of the park and watch the morning dancers in their synchronised exercise but occasionally I take one of the other paths for a little variety.
It had been a few weeks since I had gone this way though and it had changed.
We are on Spring Break at the moment and on countdown to the Chinese New Year. The rules by which the date of the New Year is calculated are complicated, the Chinese calendar involves, among other things, occasional additional months. This year, when all calculations are done, the result is that New Year is on 23rd January – just a few days away now. This means that every street corner suddenly has stalls selling fireworks, lanterns, wall hangings, brightly coloured decorations in all shapes and sizes.
As I followed the familiar route to the bookshop, it seemed that that street had even more than the others. Every inch of the pavement along the main street, and all of the side streets, was covered. The goods are usually laid out on the carpets on the ground with the bright red lanterns hanging above, ranging from the size of a tennis ball to huge things that two people couldn't put their arms around. The fireworks stalls have rolls of the ubiquitous firecrackers but also huge dangerous looking cylinders, red and yellow cones a foot high, spheres, cubes, pyramids – fireworks in a bewildering array of sizes and shapes.
On the decorations stalls there are red plastic squares with cut-out designs in Chinese letters, or animal shapes. There are elaborate circular displays a yard across; there are streamers and posters; floor, wall and ceiling decorations.
It's quite a display.
Spring festival is in the air.
The supermarkets are also full of similar goods. The ends of every aisle have their own selections of decorative wares for the crowds that now fill them. A week ago I could go and do my shopping in twenty minutes. Now the task is much harder as I need to fight my way through the masses and queue for double that time to get to the checkout.
Everyone is preparing for the holiday and all the students who are normally away at their Universities are back in town. Many of the pavement stalls are being run by students eager to make some money before they return to their studies.
I returned home from my browsing expedition and settled in for a night of DVD watching. It proved to be a more difficult task than anticipated as the firecrackers started. From the window of my fourth floor apartment I watched the block opposite. From each window long strings of firecrackers had been hung, exploding and flashing like fire creeping up the side of the building. As one lot finished another started. The thunderous cacophony rolled around the city for most of the night. The brief interludes of silence were a welcome respite but inevitably were replaced by more explosions. And there was still a week to go to the New Year.
Sadly I won't be here for the actual New Year festivities. That's because I'll be in Xi-An. Like everyone else in China, I'm on holiday and I have my plans.
On the evening of the 22nd I get on a train and sleep through the night journey that sees me arriving in Xi-An early on 23rd. I have a couple of days there visiting friends and then the big part of my journey – twenty eight hours on a train to Guilin followed by forty minutes in a taxi to Yangshuo where it will be midnight when I arrive.
I've already written about Yangshuo and I shall write more when I return – on a thirty eight hour train journey!
There will probably be some shorter posts in the next couple of days and I may manage some from the Yangshuo internet café, but for now this will be my final long post until I get back, around thirteenth February.
I'll wish everybody a happy Chinese New Year.
See you again later.