Each year on the 15th day of the 8th month in the Chinese calendar – which this year fell on 15th September… yes, I know it’s confusing! – the whole of mainland China celebrates the Mid-Autumn festival (‘Jhongqiu Jie’ in Mandarin). During this holiday, it’s tradition to supply your close friends and family with a mountain of mooncakes – little circular pies with a golden-brown crust and indulgent filling which can be sweet (e.g., sweet bean or lotus seed paste) or savoury (e.g., pork and salted egg yolk).
Mooncakes suddenly appeared on sale everywhere we turned and there were stories on social media of people queuing for over 2 hours to buy traditional ones from stores on East Nanjing Road. Matt compared this to queuing for 2 hours outside Greggs for a sausage roll, but I don’t think it’s quite the same thing!
Starbucks and Hagan Daas, exploiting the Chinese love of popular brands, marketed their somewhat less-traditional and significantly more expensive chocolate and ice-cream filled mooncakes on every billboard in every metro station in Shanghai. Unable to escape, Matt and I promptly changed into stretchy trousers and resigned ourselves to piling on a few pounds as we sampled one calorific pastry after another!
Guilin Lantern Festival
Another -less fattening – tradition of Mid-Autumn festival is to hang brightly coloured lanterns and we had heard that there would be a lantern festival that evening along the banks of RongHu (Banyan Lake), a short walk from our hotel in Guilin.
Banyan is one of four lakes which make up Guilin’s “Two Rivers and Four Lakes Scenic Area”; a continuous waterway that flows through the centre of downtown Guilin. The two rivers are the Li and the Taohua (peach blossom). Of the four lakes, three are named after trees that grow along their banks; the Rong (Banyan tree), Shan (Chinese fir), and Gui (Osmanthus tree). The fourth – Mulong (wooden dragon) – is named after the cave which overlooks it.
We wandered into town after dark to find the banks of Banyan lake lit up in bright primary-colour floodlights; the two pagodas were also floodlit and looked like something straight out of Disney.
Predictably every man, woman and child in the vicinity of Guilin that evening was heading in the same direction that we were, which made the the main entrance looked more daunting than Liujazui metro station at rush hour. Not keen on elbowing our way through the mob, Matt and I found a table outside a cool lakeside cafe and ordered a pizza and bottle of white wine and set about some people-watching.
The two girls below joined us on the patio, dressed up for the occasion in beautiful pastel coloured traditional dresses, photographers flocking to them like flies to a flame (myself included).
An hour or so later, bolstered by carbs and wine, we headed into the festival and joined the hundreds of people taking photos of hundreds of lanterns. The lanterns themselves came in every colour of the rainbow and looked to have been decorated by children; they were an incredible sight strung up and floating in the night sky.
Some of my favourite lanterns:
I love this next photo; Matt surrounded by the ‘people mountain, people sea’ – a phrase used here in China when you find yourself swamped with many, many, many other people, which actually happens to us quite a lot!
The atmosphere was bustling and friendly; everyone seemed to be enjoying themselves. Families spanning three or four generations were enjoying themselves together; teenagers helping their grandparents or great-grandparents to amble around. No gangs or binge drinking like you would undoubtedly find in the UK.
One thing I’ve noticed since we moved to China is how safe I feel, even amongst huge crowds of people all speaking a language that I don’t understand. You still have to be careful – and being a blonde girl in a sea of brunettes I get stared at on a near continuous basis, which can be unnerving – but the feeling of safety is one of the things about our new home that has been a pleasant surprise.
Matt and I concluded that we would love to go back to Guilin, especially the Yangshuo region as it was a truly beautiful place; although our long bucket-list of places to visit in the next 2 and a half years might make return trips unlikely!