It wasn't the noise so much as the feeling of being in a strait jacket and moving involuntarily in a human tidal wave.
In Beijing, Spring Festival just isn't Spring festival without a visit to a Temple Fair. It's an ideal way to dive into Chinese folk culture and enjoy the carnival atmosphere with all the bargaining of a market. But it's not an outing for the faint-hearted.
Having been around for at least a thousand years, some fairs have kept their traditional link with religious rituals. In Ditan Park (Temple of Earth) people rush blindly to the centre of the park, clutching three incense sticks and bowing elaborately three times before the fire at the altar. It was the place where in days gone by only the Emporer would stand, as he offered his sacrifice to the God of the Earth for blessings on the Middle kingdom.
"I don't really believe in these religious rituals as they are just some kind of superstition," said my friend Li Yong Mei. However, saying that didn't stop her from scrambling up to the altar to ask for fortune in the year ahead.
"For just in case," she smiled. Better safe than sorry right?
"... this was snack central... "
Near the altar a performer was hitting all the high notes in a Peking Opera recital. Onwards, ever onwards. As we moved I almost had my face squashed against the protruding plump bum cheeks of a toddler riding on her Dad's shoulders. She was wearing a pair of those ventilated trousers that have easy access for toilet functions. The little cheeks were apple red, seemingly frozen on such a chilly morning.
An entire goat on a spit, Mongolians stripped to the waist in cowboy hats tempting the crowds with their skewered lamb, a woman smacking squid to flatten it against a sizzling grill ? the air swam with smoke. This was snack central. People made small islands in amongst the flowing mass munching on an unimaginable variety of snacks. The ground was a trellis of dumped wooden skewers. I was busy slurping my sesame porridge when I saw Li waving me over.
Come and look at this guy, she shouted above the din. I pushed my way over to where a vendor was creating animals out of sugar, using a glass-blowing technique. He sat seemingly unperturbed, warming up the toffee. Then, taking a small lump he blew, pulled and tweaked until it magically resembled a bull, reminding us all that this was indeed the Chinese year of the Ox. People snapped up the bulls as fast as he could make them.
"Shouts of 'Hao, Hao' went up"
I finished my porridge just as an excited fellow wearing a pink wig and waving one of those ubiquitous multicolored windmills tried to sell me a face mask ? perhaps he thought I needed a change of face.
I stretched my hand high up above the hordes and snapped pictures as I bobbed and weaved in the Temple Fair shuffle. Somehow the wave had moved us to what looked like a planet made entirely of soft toys. Teddy bears, pandas, oxes and even crocodiles. Some were strung from beams by their necks, causing a crying fit from a small girl near me who thought the toys were being punished.
I tried my hand at one of the traditional games throwing a small hoop over protruding tubes. The attendant had shown me the hoop did in fact fit over. Having long arms I was able to stretch across and almost drop the hoops over the tubes. The attendants exchanged glances, went into a huddle, debated, then nodded and handed over one of the large bears that had previously hung in the gallows. Shouts of 'Hao, Hao (bravo, bravo)!' went up from the crowd.
Around me the park hung thick with red lanterns, and I needed to step back and find a place of refuge. I was sideswiped into a small clearing which seemed to offer some escape, but just then a troupe of carriers dressed in red outfits danced past, an ancient sedan chair on their shoulders. Perched on the chair a happy child laughed her head off as she was bounced along, while Mom ran alongside trying to take as many pictures of her pride and joy as was humanly possible.
There was no getting away from the action. Li was calling again. "Come on, come on," she said, "this is not the time to relax." I guess it wasn't, and dived back into the fray.