Kuora: Visiting Beijing during Chinese New Year

A new lunar new year is upon us. Starting tomorrow, actually. So this week’s column will be about that most festive time on the Chinese calendar. It’s from one of Kaiser’s answers originally posted to Quora on December 7, 2010.

Is it a good idea to visit Beijing for Chinese New Year?

Chinese New Year (CNY) isn’t the best time to visit, but neither is it the worst. I’ll lay out the pros and cons and you can decide.

The Pros

  • If you’re a pyromaniac, Beijing during CNY is paradise. People set off weapons-grade fireworks all over the damn city and the sky is lit up with few interruptions from the lunar New Year’s Eve through the 5th day of the new lunar year, and then again on the 15th day though you’ll likely be gone by then. Fireworks are cheap, powerful, easily acquired, and — bizarrely — completely legal.

UPDATE: Not anymore.

Beijing was awfully quiet this Chinese New Year’s Eve

  • If you like dumplings, there’s nowhere else on earth you should consider being. You’ll eat more goddamn dumplings than you ever thought humanly possible.
  • The temple fairs (描绘 miáohuì) are good family fun. Eat candied skewered haws, sugar-fried chestnuts, roasted sweet potatoes, and other wintertime goodies. Watch incomprehensible performances of obscure Peking operas. Buy your kids little noisemaking drums on sticks with beads on the end of strings that strike the drum head loudly when you twist the stick. Sheer joy.
  • Traffic is actually tolerable, so long as you avoid the wildly congested areas near the temple fairs. Finding taxis is much harder than usual, but the subways aren’t as jam-packed during the holiday.
  • Beijing actually looks kind of good in winter.
Photo by Michael Cooper

The Cons

  • If you suffer at all from post-traumatic stress disorder, stay away during Chinese New Year, what with all the pyromaniacal excess. Asthmatics should also avoid Beijing during this time because of the thick acrid gunpowder smoke that hangs in the air. (Update: Again, not as much of a concern anymore.)
  • The city is so thick with domestic tourists that you’re not actually apt to meet Beijingers, who are mostly at home watching pirated DVDs or videos on Youku and Tudou, or playing mahjong with family and eating dumplings. Lines at popular attractions are very, very long.
  • Services like banks are closed or have abbreviated and seemingly arbitrary hours, almost like visiting one of those Catholic countries like France or Italy with their vexing assortment of obscure feast days that serve as an excuse for not opening shop.
  • It’s really, really cold. That the holiday insists on calling itself Spring Festival is proof that the lunar calendar is badly out of sync with the actual seasons of the temperate northern hemisphere.
  • One must endure way too much talk about the CCTV Spring Festival Gala. All conversations about the show, which all of China feels obliged to watch on the eve of the holiday before setting the sky (and occasionally, a building) ablaze, are either annoyingly snarky or annoyingly earnest — i.e., inescapably annoying. And occasionally you’ll get something truly jaw-dropping.

But as always, Beijing Welcomes You! And Happy Year of the Pig!

Kuora is a weekly column.