It's the night before Christmas in Yangshuo, and the town is far from silent. Crowds of locals and tourists throng the cobblestone pedestrian mall of West Street, where carolling and drunken revelry are the orders of the evening. But all is definitely bright.
From the banks of the Li River to the karst limestone peaks that ring the town like fangs in a dragon's mouth, the night is lit with brilliant explosions, as colourful rockets and fireworks burst over the river. In the streets, a strange local Christmas game is taking place in which revellers scream 'Merry Christmas!' and hurl fistfuls of mothball-sized explosive charges at the feet of anything that moves.
One thing is certain: Noel is joyous in Yangshuo, possibly one of the wildest places in which to spend December 24. For more than a decade, the town has been one of southern China's hippest tourist hotspots. Located in Guangxi province, downstream from Guilin and on the semi-nebulous backpacker trail, Yangshuo's beautiful scenery, hospitable locals, laid-back vibe and ample selection of places to study tai chi and eat banana pancakes have made the place a magnet to slackers of all nationalities.
In Yangshuo, as in much of the rest of China, the locals have caught the Christmas spirit big time. While not everyone is aware that what they're celebrating is the birth of Jesus, the Chinese ability to assimilate the best aspects of other cultures makes for interesting merriment. Festivities are adapted to suit local tastes.
In Shanghai, where shopping rules year round, Christmas Eve is an excuse to make a special trip to fashionable Nanjing Road to fill one's stockings. In Beijing, urbane hipsters search out Christmas cheer in trendy nightclubs, dancing till dawn to techno beats.
But Yangshuo, while lacking urban glitz, is a town that takes its partying seriously. So it's only natural that Christmas Eve should be celebrated in style, but with Chinese characteristics. The smell of eggnog may be mixed with a hefty dose of gunpowder smoke, and the strains of Silent Night may be hard to discern over the explosions, but the people of Yangshuo celebrate Christmas with fellowship, family, feasting and goodwill to all men.
All over town, the streets are filled with carollers deftly dodging explosions and drunken revellers. Outside Minnie Mao's Cafe, between West Street and the canal, a group of tourists from Guangzhou wearing Santa hats pause in their drinking games just long enough to shout 'Merry Christmas!' at every passing foreigner. And inside the Lizard Lounge, a bar on Xian Qian alley favoured by rock climbers, expats down a few shots of the owner's special eggnog, made with rice wine and a dash of snake bile.
'These people sure know how to celebrate Christmas! It's much more festive than the holidays at home,' one of the expats yells. I ask where he's from. His reply: 'Jerusalem!'