Zhangbei, around 4 hours drive from the capital, close to Inner Mongolia, has been referred to as China’s Woodstock, but it commonly known as one of the more chaotic, gritty local festivals on the calendar. I went out there for the first time on the last day of last year’s festival and had so much fun I wanted to head back again this year.
This I was planning on heading out again on the bus and camping, but the offer of joining friends who were performing was too good to turn down, so at 7am on the Sunday morning I headed out on the musicians bus with a bunch of sleepy bands due to play on the last day of the 3 day festival. 4 hours later, after passing wide open grasslands, wind-power turbines, and leaving the grey skies of Beijing far behind we arrived at band central, a holiday park full of chinese tourists staying in permanent yurt-style rooms just across the fields from the stages. If we were still in Hebei, it didn’t feel like it, during lunch we were serenaded by three horsehead fiddles – with a backing track of drum & bass and flashing lights and dancers!
After last year’s experience, and the drama I had heard about, but not been affected by myself, this year seemed a lot more organized. Sure the acts were running late, starting the day about an hour behind, and ending up over 2 hours late, but I can say behind the stage, things were chilled and enjoyable! Crowds were down from the last day or last year, my friends Residence A played around 7pm to a decent crowd of a few thousand dancing fans. After their set we checked out Hackberry (朴树), a band I hadn’t heard of before, but was told were a well-known Taiwanese band that hadn’t played for some time. They weren’t bad at all, the crowd seemed to know all the songs, esp. their most popular one Colourful Days, which that sounds a lot like an Oasis cover.
I was super excited to see one of my favourite Chinese festival bands – Miserable Faith – who I just don’t get to see often enough. They started their set with some new songs, which is great because I haven’t heard anything new from them in some time, but sadly they didn’t play my favourite song “不要停止我的音乐”(Don’t stop my music). A good friend of mine was doing the sound for them, and having a nightmare as he got to the desk to discover his 1 ½ hour sound check had been deleted completely, so he had to do the levels during the set on the fly. Apparently this is not un-common at Chinese festivals …
After checking out a little of Tang Dynasty’s set we headed back to our digs with the bands, just as the headliners Spiritualized were arriving back stage. I really felt sorry for these guys, by the time they’d sound checked they started around 1am, with most of the crowd already on their way back to Beijing on the last buses, so only a few locals around to listen. We could hear them from outside our rooms and they actually sounded pretty good!
While I didn’t really get to check out the food, stalls or other sides of the festival it seemed like people were enjoying themselves. Apart from myself and the bands I only saw one other laowai the whole day, which makes sense since there was very little promotion in English for this one, you really had to search in Chinese to find out any information at all.
After 4 years, Zhangbei seems to be getting itself more organized, they just need to work on get the sets on time and maybe arrange the last day better so the main acts aren’t playing just to a few local farmers. I’m looking forward to next year already – and hopefully next time I’ll actually organize myself enough to camp out there all three days!