I set out to find the real Qufu, which doesn’t take long. Just outside the ancient city wall, the beautifully paved roads, well-tended gardens, and up-market restaurants are replaced by squalid streets, crisscrossed with electrical cables that form an untidy grid across the sky, where an orange midday sun hovers in the pink smog. A man on a bicycle picks his way through the potholes and the mud. To let off steam, he lets fly a kick, and yells at a small dog that is rummaging through a pile of garbage growing against the non-tourist side of the city wall. Scooters transporting whole families wobble by.
Dad is the driver, mom sits behind him, squeezing baby in between, and big brother brings up the rear. Helmetless they race off into the smog, dodging the usual assortment of unruly Chinese road users. Turning a corner, the road spreads out into a food market, where next to muddy puddles, food vendors set up stands, selling bowls of beef noodle, and the Chinese version of a hotdog, which involves a pita-type bread, a chemical red Vienna and a squirt of sauce. In cast-iron pots that are sticky soft with ages of congealed grease, breads fry in deep fat. Noodles are shaved into boiling vats, and all around locals are head down, slurping up their food.
The activity on the market square gets more and more hectic as the day fades. Today is the Mid Autumn Festival, and tonight is a very important night. According to a 3,000-year-old belief that stems from the days of Chinese moon worship, the sun – the male Yang – has his annual date with his wife, the moon – the female Ying – tonight. The Chinese believe that this full moon is the most beautiful full moon of the lunar year. Tonight the beauty is enhanced by pollution special effects. The moon hangs blood orange in a strange purple sky; beautiful in a very ‘tripping’ kind of way. Inflatable red arches with green and yellow dragons crawling over the top span the roads, creating long tunnels under which the locals gather around spotlit stages, where superstar wannabes are enticed to show the crowd what they’ve got.