Back in 2012, after we returned from our very first trip to China, we promised ourselves to return to Nanning again by 2015 to celebrate Chinese New Year. You see, we enjoyed our first trip so much, and we had such an amazing time, we simply had to go back. Great food, great people and over 80 shopping tents all around our hotel where you could buy almost anything your heart could desire.
So, in 2014, as the year of the goat rapidly approached, we excitedly planned our return trip to Nanning—6 of us: 3 veteran travelers and 3 China newbies. Actually, the fun seemed to begin weeks before our departure as we relived our first trip time and time again in the retelling. Finally, the 16th of February arrived, and we took our 11-hour flight from Amsterdam to Shanghai, and then another two-hour trek to Nanning.
It was early afternoon when we arrived in town, so we decided we had plenty of time to shop and light firecrackers before we had to do check-in at our hotel. That wasn’t going to happen, however. Much to our surprise, there we no shops along the roadside selling fireworks, and there wasn’t a single solitary tent set up outside our hotel. In just three short years, everything had changed here. Even the new shopping mall that had been built in 2012 was now closed and being remodeled. Also, the wonderful Cantonese restaurants where we had gorged ourselves on Cantonese food during our last trip, they were all gone as well. Horrendously disappointed, we registered at our hotel and then made a one-hour journey to a new shopping mall that had opened since our last trip, and during dinner we asked our waitress (who only a bit English) where we could buy fireworks. It took her about 30 minutes to find out, but she finally brought us a note we could give to a taxi driver with directions to a small market nearby that most assuredly sold fireworks. A little leery of the clandestine feel of all of this, we decided to go where we had been directed anyway, and were taken to a small market that had one string of firecrackers for sale. Yes, one string. Almost laughing, we bought them. And then we bought a few more fireworks from the same guy who sold us the firecrackers because he had a few stashed in his backyard. Not exactly like our last trip. Were we really in China, the birthplace of pyrotechnics?
When we did light the fireworks we had purchased, there was something distinctively different about them: the smell was not what we were used to. This must be the way real fireworks are supposed to smell before all of the U.S and European restrictions are applied. We definitely liked this old smell better. It was kind of intoxicating.
A little happier now, having lit a few fuses, we were still dumbfounded by the lack of product available and the lack of variety being sold. This was Nanning, after all. When we returned to our hotel, we showed a newspaper article to several of the employees there about the abundance of fireworks in their city. They told us about a shopping square fairly near the hotel that had the requisite red tents that sold fireworks (tents that sell fireworks in Nanning are always red). After a brisk 30-minute walk in unusually high humidity and warm temperatures, we found the red tents we’d been looking for. Finally, we had found the fireworks we had been looking for since our plane had touched down in China.
The tents turned out to be our dream come true, replete with a wide variety of product to peruse and to purchase. This was the reason we had traveled 13 hours to get here. I guess we were easy to please at this point, too, because this handful of tents made the entire trip feel completely worthwhile.
Fully laden now with small novelties, strings of firecrackers and small thunders, etc., we headed off to find a good location to light a few fuses. And we had a great time firing everything we had bought, until a very serious-looking guard showed up and began talking to us rapidly in Chinese (which of course, none of us understood). We thought we had chosen the perfect spot in an area that wouldn’t bother anyone, but China is a country of many rules and we obviously had made a mistake.
Therefore, we crossed the street to another area and fired a few more newly purchased fireworks. This location must have been OK because the guard didn’t follow us anymore and he appeared uninterested. Then we made a couple of really fun purchases: two large rolls of firecrackers approximately 65 ft. and 95 ft. long (20 and 30 meters)! But as we carefully unrolled them near a bridge and prepared to set them off, the guard’s interest quickly piqued again, and even others in the area this time seemed equally upset. But we lit the fuses anyway before anyone could stop us, and then made a quick escape after the noise died down so no one could reprimand us in Chinese. Later that day, we found out that the problem was that we set them off too close to a bridge (strictly forbidden) and that was why everyone appeared upset.
In spite of our rule violations during the day, Chinese New Year’s Eve had finally arrived and we were anxious to buy more fireworks to fire during the evening festivities. So, back to the red tents again where this time others had already gathered to buy and fire their elebratory fireworks as well (and even set them off on the bridge which we now knew was against the rules). By early evening, fireworks were lighting up the skyline almost everywhere, and we enjoyed the color, sound and smell until around 2:00 AM.
But alas, just like in so many other countries around the world, the rules have changed for fireworks production in China (at least in regards to what consumers can buy). No longer can you buy shells bigger than 1.5” to 1.75”, and no longer can you buy cakes any larger caliber than 30mm (1.18”). On our last trip in 2012, we bought 10” shells and 100-shot cakes that were 2.5” and even cakes with 75mm shells! Well, those days are definitely over.
Although the rule change did tarnish our enjoyment somewhat (we had longed to fire large caliber shells like we had 3 years earlier) it was still amazing to actually BE in China celebrating the New Year with them. Happy 4,712, by the way!
And don’t think we didn’t continue to celebrate! We kept on firing fireworks for the remainder of our trip. In fact, we fired so many that two amazing things happened: one, we finally reached a point of being pyrotechnically satiated (that in itself was amazing), and two, the owner of the property we were using to light fireworks told the guard (who was still following us around) to leave us alone.
Nanning turned out to be the perfect choice for our Chinese New Year’s celebration for a number of important reasons. Since Nanning is a relatively wealthy city, it is very clean, has nicely paved, modern streets and very nice hotels. We especially enjoyed the Marriot in Nanning, and can wholeheartedly recommend the restaurants there. Of course, fireworks in Nanning were probably a little more expensive than in the countryside (a 100-shot, 1.3G cake costs between $60-$100/55-91 Euros), but after New Year’s, you’re free to haggle and get lower prices. In short, don’t expect Luiyang prices there! The truism now almost everywhere is that fireworks are no longer cheap in China. But Nanning is beautiful place during New Year’s celebration (generally a comfortable 20-25ºC/68-75ºF) while Beijing is smoggy, crowded and cold. Between the two, we were very happy to have had our pyrotechnic vacation in Nanning. We had a wonderful trip.