Shining, shimmering, splendid. That’s probably the best way to describe a bright spectacle, akin to a fireworks display, that happens only in the ancient town of Nuanquan in Zhangjiakou City (河北省张家口蔚县暖泉镇), just west of Beijing.
The sensational performance called Dashuhua (打树花 which means creating a canopy of flowers) is a 500-year-old tradition in which blacksmiths sprinkle molten iron near the city’s high wall, creating a firework-like spray. The performance itself is dangerous as the molten metal reaches a temperature of over 1,600 degrees Celsius. To protect the blacksmiths from the flying shards, they wear sheep fur and straw hat. It’s said blacksmiths who can’t afford pyrotechnics use and melt scrap metals for merrymaking during Spring Festival. Hence, Dashuhua is also called poor man’s fireworks.
Dashuhua isn’t only just a dazzling display; it actually immortalizes the old love story of a young man named Shitou to a local girl named Xinghua. They swore their love to each other in front of the eternal hot spring (暖泉 nuanquan) in the town. When everything in their love story seemed to be falling into place, bandits overran the town and killed Xinghua. Her death came on the eve of the fifteenth day of the first month of the lunar year — the day when Shitou was supposed to propose to her through Dashuhua. But enough for spoilers! We’ll leave you hanging so as not to preempt the story!
While the town is named after that eternal hot spring in the story, I didn’t see any hot springs when I visited. But what’s lovely for me is the sight of old and rural China – the yellow hues of earth in mud houses and old castles against the unimpeded view of the blue sky. The town center was busy with jiaozi restaurants on one street and old and rusty chuan’r stalls with large speakers playing funky Chinese music on another street.
At the town square, there were mini shows called gao qiao (高跷 or walking on stilts) and pao han chuan (跑旱船 or boat rowing on the ground), as well as dragon and lion dances. Inside the old city walls are more jiaozi restaurants, as well as a bunch of fancy lamp sellers and paper cutting houses.
A few hundred meters from the town center stands the Glass Tower, lauded by the town as the only viewing tower in China. Directly in front of it is the town’s Shuhua Theater where Dashuhua takes place four times on a specified day.
Travel notes and essentials
- Nuanquan can be explored in one day, and there are travel groups offering trips to the town. Foreigner China Network (WeChat: foreignerandchina) offers a day travel inclusive of a round-trip bus ride, bottled water, travel insurance, and trip guidance. If you join the group, you’ll get a discount for the Dashuhua performance tickets.
- Temperatures in Zhangjiakou this time are freezing so wear warm clothes and bring gloves.
- As I mentioned, the town has street food galore and you might have difficulties finding a good restaurant, unless you can read and converse in Chinese or if you’re traveling with a Chinese-speaking buddy. There are no fast-food or convenience stores either. It would be wise to bring your own snacks.
- Bring cash (at least RMB 300 will do) as most of the vendors don’t accept WeChat Pay or Alipay yet.
- Souvenir items like paper cuts and lamps are shockingly cheap!
- There’s a health center within the city but it’s unknown if you can use your health cards/insurance there, so better bring first aid kits, medicines, and health items.
- As with other travels, bring tissue paper, wet wipes, and hand sanitizer. Public toilets are nastily dirty and smelly.
- Beware of pickpockets. Beggars can be particularly pushy especially when they try to ask you for coins or food
How to get there?
If you’re joining a travel group like FCN, it will take at least 4.5 hours to get to the town from Beijing. FCN will have another trip on February 11. But do take note that the Spring Festival return rush is still happening that weekend so getting back to Beijing might take a little longer.
If you’re driving through G6/Jingzang Expressway from North 4th Ring Road, it will take approximately 4.5 hours. For more detailed travel directions, type in “Nuanquan Ancient Town” or “河北省张家口蔚县暖泉镇” in Apple Maps or Google Maps.
孙蕾 Sun Lei of FCN and Mark Sacayan contributed to this story. Featured image courtesy of Matevz H on Flickr. Town photos courtesy of Andy Penafuerte, Jane Coulton, and Mark Sacayan.