Tag Archive: China

The Long Way Home

Hello everyone!

In a few weeks, my other half Lisa and I will be going abroad to travel for nearly seven months.

As you’d expect, posts on this blog will probably be less frequent until we come back in April 2013.  I suspect that the next “Journal RSR” post will be the last one for good.

Until we return there’ll be plenty of updates on our travel blog:


…Where you can read about our adventures in India, Nepal, China, Hong Kong, Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand, Singapore, Bali, Australia, New Zealand and California.

Don’t forget to subscribe so that you get your e-mail notifications when we make a new post.

Until then, see you in another life.



Through the mists that move in slow tides around the mountains, the Nian descends upon the village.

This is ancient China.  The village is small, bordered by rice paddies and low fences that encapsulate the slow-grazing herds upon which the villagers rely.

The Nian is a horned beast, nubs of smooth bone protruding from a shaggy knotted mane.  Its teeth and tusks are striated yellow; its breath reeks of the furnace in its belly where a cocktail of acids has been eroding its stomach walls.  It is ravenous.

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We step out of the hotel room onto rain-browned pavements.  Umbrellas bob up and down behind rows of parked cars or crawling buses.  We head up Portland Street, then turn down Princess Street towards the town hall.

This is modern Manchester: cosmopolitan, restless, crowded.  It is January 6th 2011, the first Sunday after the Chinese New Year.  It is the day of the festival.

At first the crowds are thin – normal weekend crowds.  But from this direction the square in front of the town hall is hidden by the city library; turning the corner, we see dense groups of people, young and old, piled against the barriers erected in front of the hall’s entrance, around another specially-prepared stage, and clotted in front of the row of stalls selling steaming food and nick-nacks.

The air smells like spring onions.  In another direction, the wind erases all scents and the air is only cold, but clear.  Lanterns, in red, are strung above our heads.

Everyone awaits the dragon.

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This is ancient China, the stalking ground of the Nian.  It is not the colourful creature of today’s parades; it is an animal, thick with the stink of matted belly hair and claws sheathed in ages-old dried blood.

It strikes down like lightning, taking up a goat, scattering chickens.  Feathers only partly muffle the strangled bleating.  Wooden doors slam open against huts as the villagers become aware of the beast’s resurgence.  They can smell its arrival in the still, damp air.  Its low growl turns over in the mist like a thunderhead, rolls away, rolls away.

There are children planting rice in the waterlogged fields.  The dead goat lies uneaten in the muddy thoroughfare.

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This is modern Manchester, where the rampage of a 175-foot dragon is curbed by the use of a hypnotic sceptre.  It is hard for us to see the dozens of men and women supporting the undulating body of the grinning dragon, but we can spot the tag-team method they use to replace tired puppeteers with eager, rested ones.

A gong beats rhythmically amongst the booming of drums.  There is no melody, only rhythm.

To the pulse of the drums the dragon is lured away, out of the fenced arena, out of the square, to shimmer down street after crowded street with its entourage of costumed associates.

In its wake, dancing lions make a cheerful chase in front of the crowd, ringing bells and shaking their ribbons, blinking lazily like idiot courtiers.

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This is ancient China, where the Nian steals away a screaming child, screaming child, silent child, and distantly a family mourns.

The village, through experience, has grown used to the Springtime visits of the monster – here the Springtime comes in the first month of the year.  But there is sometimes no stopping its vengeful, hunger-driven attacks on the children of the village.

Night falls.  The villagers await its return, but they are prepared.  When next it arrives, galloping down the slopes of the mountain under a milky moon, they have made it small in their minds and hearts.

Through the sudden application of gong and firecracker, they drive the beast back.  It is also, they have discovered, afraid of the colour red.  The hue of blood ripples in the cool night-wind, a wave farewell to the fearful thing.  But even as it bellows and lurches away, they toss food to pacify it.

They know that it will be back next year.

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We are moving towards the narrow grid of streets that is Modern Manchester’s China Town, proudly organised behind its impressive Ming-style arch in concentric squares around its open centre.

It has growing dark.  It’s too easy to get crushed in the barely-moving crowds.  Pressed in on all sides, we try to glimpse the wares in each of the stalls that line every street: red lanterns, red ribbons, lucky coins strung together with red, red, red.  One of us buys a charm, the other a painted gourd.  We both have tiny paper dragons.

Where the congestion is worst, we see signs of activity and good humour.  Two figures in rounded demon heads are running in and out of doorways; they dance within the restaurants and shops of China Town until they are pelted with bits of cabbage or beans.  The two Nians twist away, perturbed but bobbing smoothly in the doorways, and find another place to invade.

This is the evolution of the legend.  It is believed, I’m told, that the Nians still exist.  Unseen by man (the firecrackers, the gongs, the colour red were all too successful in driving it into hiding), they prowl the fog-laced mountains.  Some live under the sea, water-dragons subsisting on fish or clumps of seaweed.

Above China Town, the sky explodes with light and colour.

This is a new year.

— db