11 Aug 2013 22:00
The town of Dali lies on the banks of the Erhai lake, at the center of the Chinese province of Yunnan. Dali’s Old Town district can be dated back to the fourteenth century, the time of the Ming dynasty. It holds the ancient city wall and traditional houses that are typical of this Chinese region.
In the first half of August, the local Yi and Bai minorities celebrate the Torch Festival to commemorate Atilaba, a legendary character who, according to local beliefs, drove away locusts using torches made from pine trees. It is the largest local festival, and each minority celebrates it on a different day, according to its own calendar.
Most of the people here celebrate with their families. Family members gather for a big dinner before taking the traditional walk on the streets holding torches. Restaurants and hotels prepare for this day by buying huge food supplies to serve thousands of tourists who come to Dali to attend the rituals.
People in the Old Town start their day very early to prepare for the Torch Festival. Street vendors set up their stands at six in the morning to serve the huge numbers of customers.
Pork and chicken butchers slaughter animals brought from the countryside, letting blood run copiously to give a scene that some might not be able to stomach.
By nine in the morning markets and streets are bustle with people selling and buying food, toys, decorations, and torches for the celebrations that will start at night.
A huge number of tourists, both Chinese and foreigners, contribute to the confusion and make it a challenge to walk the streets of Dali on this day.
The smell of all kinds of food starts to spread everywhere, and it is difficult to avoid stopping here and there to have a taste of some local snacks while waiting for the sunset.
As soon as it gets dark the locals leave their homes and light up the big torches they have set up right in front of their doors, or dance in circles around bonfires in the town’s main squares.
Others walk down the road and, following the tradition, hold small torches while throwing a mixture of sawdust and pine resin at other people’s torches to start a flare. This is a way to wish friends and relatives well; throwing resin powder on an old man’s fire symbolizes wishing him long life and good health.
Nowadays the rituals have changed. The younger generations probably got bored with the ancient celebrations, and decided to add their twist. They run around town with bags full of sawdust and take people by surprise by throwing it on their torches to create a flare and scare them.
They indiscriminately attack friends and strangers, and the festival suddenly turns into a of street battle between teenagers. Luckily, flames subside quickly and do not harm those who fall victims to the teenagers’ pranks, even if they might look on fire.
A large number of policemen and firefighters stand by on the streets to keep the situation under control and make sure youngsters do not go too wild. As soon as they leave, though, the game starts again and goes on till late, especially in hangouts like the Bad Monkey. A group of foreigners got together there to enjoy the festival – they got drunk and lit up the road in front of the bar during the whole night.