The bus passed through an endless series of bleak frontier towns, grey and featureless and devoid of all character. The dead-brown of winter rice fields filled the gaps between industrial yards and tenement apartment blocks, which were the only types of buildings we had seen in some time.
“This is where I would come if I wanted to write a book about loneliness,” I commented to Gareth.
In the days leading up to the Lunar New Year – also known as Spring Festival from the literal Chinese translation – making travel plans had become increasingly difficult. Hundreds of millions of Chinese were leaving the cities for their home provinces in the largest human migration on earth. Even in Yunnan, far from China’s urban super-metropolises, busses had been sold out and the prices for hiring private cars had risen to extortionate highs. We knew that mobility would become even harder once the holidays began, so we had held an emergency brainstorming session with our Mandarin-speaking travel companion, Yan.
We wanted to avoid getting stuck in a big city where the soaring cost of accommodation would wipe out our budget in short order, and likewise we feared getting trapped for a week or more in the tiny villages that lined the Lancang as we had been told that most local bus services would be suspended.
Ultimately we decided that it was best to veer away from the river for a short time and headed for Mt. Jizu, famed in Buddhism as a holy mountain and topped with richly decorated pagodas. But before we could see it for ourselves, we had to pass through some of the least inspiring scenery imaginable.
“Life would have been very different if you were born here,” Yan commented.
Offerings for the Gods
The rooster clucked nervously from inside a wooden crate that was piled in the van under the passenger’s luggage, and considering that animal sacrifices were a traditional part of Lunar New Year celebrations, his apprehension was justified.
When we finally drove into Shazhi, an ancient market town at the base of Mt. Jizu, the cloud-topped mountain backdrop provided a welcome change from the sub-urban dreariness we had passed through for the best part of the day. With a population of just 700 people, Shazhi was the perfect place to get an intimate look at how the New Year was celebrated in Yunnan, but because of Mt. Jizu’s spiritual significance, it was a popular enough destination so as to stay connected to the outside world.
“This place is very popular for New Years celebrations because we have so many temples on the mountain,” Li Zhangqing said. An elderly incense vendor who had lived at the base of the mountain his entire life, the customers looking over the massive quantities of fireworks on display in his shop foreshadowed the nature of the festivities to come. “This was one of the first places Buddha’s disciple visited when he came to China from India, and [where] he founded the first temple.”
Though the most famous of Mt. Jizu’s temples were located high on the surrounding mountainsides, after the long trip we had just completed we didn’t have the energy to begin the trek. Luckily Shazhi had its own temples at a mercifully lower elevation, and the locals were putting them to use.
At the town’s central temple, families were arriving and departing steadily to make offerings, and nearly all of them came with a rooster or two tucked under their arm. The birds, heads on a constant twitching swivel, took in their surroundings with great suspicion – and for good reason. Feathers covered the walls of two small shrines near the temple’s main gate and the concrete beneath was splattered with blood.
After stepping into the temple itself to offer prayers, the families returned to these shrines to light incense and offer envelopes stuffed with (mostly fake) cash to the gods. The roosters, seeming to sense their mortal danger, shifted uneasily under the firm grip of the hands that held them.
With practiced surety, each rooster’s neck was twisted to the breaking point before their throats were slit with cleavers or long knives. As their blood drained and they convulsed in the throws of death, their sacrifice was acknowledged solemnly by the families, who knelt around the shrines in prayer. No one, not even the smallest children, looked away from the gore, which added a layer of respect to the ceremony and demonstrated an understanding of the connection between death and food that has been largely lost throughout the world’s most developed countries.
Though it is never pleasant to witness the killing of a living creature, the process was humane; far less cruel than the horrendous conditions endured by animals in the battery farms of the modern world as they make their way to supermarket shelves.
Explosions Under the Holy Mountain
When the fireworks started to go off along Shazhi’s main street the sun was still high in the sky and we knew it would be a long night. The children started first, beside themselves with excitement at the prospect of an entire evening dedicated to blowing things up. There were even special children’s edition fireworks on hand, bearing brightly coloured designs from DreamWorks’ animated movie How to Train Your Dragon and other Hollywood hits.
As soon as evening fell, the momentum began to build. It seemed as though every child in Shazhi was on the streets, flinging m-80 crackers into drainage ditches and firing bottle rockets haphazardly in every direction over the roofs of the town. From time to time one would emerge with a chain of 1000 or so firecrackers joined by a single fuse which, once detonated, choked the streets with acrid smoke. But the adults had yet to join in the fracas and were gathered calmly around small fires in front of their homes. From the way they doled out huge quantities of fireworks to the children, we knew that they were sitting on massive stockpiles and were almost certainly saving the best for last.
Starting at 10 p.m., an odd calm settled over the town. We stopped for tea at a small restaurant owned by 26-year-old Yang Zhong and asked tentatively if the celebrations were over for the night. “No,” he laughed, “they are just watching the Spring Festival Gala on TV. At midnight it will start.”
Ostensibly a variety comedy program, the annual TV special was sprinkled with factual educational messages from the state. One particularly long skit featured a People’s Liberation Army officer being reprimanded repeatedly for not marching with his legs at regulation height, meant to reassure citizens that even generals were expected to work hard.
But as we checked some Chinese social media sites, it was clear that not everyone was sold on the show’s realism. “This is not a spring festival gala, this is an annual conference for the party!” commented one user on WeChat.
At a quarter to midnight we found the most dedicated celebrators gathered in Shazhi’s public square, and between them they had amassed a formidable arsenal of explosives. From five kilogram coils of crackers to one metre long cardboard tubes that spewed flaming balls high into the night sky, once they started lighting things our ears didn’t stop ringing until well after the new year had passed.
As we walked back towards our guest house, the red husks of thousands of explosives crunched under our feet.
Early the next morning the town had reverted to some semblance of normalcy. The streets were still littered with debris and there were black scorch marks burned into the pavement that would likely not disappear until the next rainfall, but in all other respects the place was calm.
With the year of the monkey having begun in style, we left Shazhi and headed back to the Lancang to push further north, towards the great river’s source.
A River’s Tail is a year long collaborative multimedia journey exploring the Mekong river from sea to source. The following article originally appeared on the project’s main page and the images shown here represent only my part of the project’s creative output. To view the project as it was intended, I encourage you to visit the project’s main page by clicking here to follow the full journey.