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20,000 Lights in the Scottish Darkness

A Trip Through the Giant Lanterns of China at Edinburgh Zoo

This winter a little bit of China popped up in the heart of Scotland. So, to celebrate the upcoming Chinese New Year, and rounding out the end of my time in Scotland, I couldn't resist checking out the Giant Lanterns of China at Edinburgh Zoo this week. 

Light festivals have become more and more prevalent over the last 5 years —just look at the popularity of Lumiere in London, UK, or LUX in Wellington, NZ, to see some examples of other awesome festivals of light! However, lantern festivals in China date back over 2000 years, since the reign of the Eastern Han Dynasty, and can probably take the prize as the "original" light festival of its day (although advocates for Diwali might disagree?). In modern life, it is said that the use of lanterns during Chinese celebrations is meant to symbolize wishes for a warm and bright future.

While it certainly wasn't warm in wintery Edinburgh, my visit to the Edinburgh Zoo was certainly bright and festive and its easy to see why! With over 20,000 LED lights hidden amongst 16,000 meters of fabric, across 25 installations, it's hard not to be inspired by the bright and beautiful lights in the darkness of the zoo at night. Its even more magical when the lights dance and change—something that I wasn't expecting but did take great delight in.

Wandering towards the zoo, I had to wonder about how the Giant Lanterns of China ended up in Edinburgh. Scotland and China are not exactly known for their close physical borders or their common love of... well, anything, right? It quickly became clear that the link was all in the Pandas. One of the largest Giant Lantern installations, in the center of the zoo, featured Pandas of all shapes and sizes playing in a forest of Bamboo. And, it turns out, Edinburgh Zoo is the home to the UK's only Giant Pandas. Tian Tian and Yang Guang were unavailable for viewing, probably tucked away somewhere warm for the night, but like the talented artists who created the Giant Lanterns, the Giant Pandas also come from the Sichuan province of China. So the links became clear.

On top of the Pandas, there were also installations for a bunch of other animals. A pride of Lions, looking over a zeal of zebra to the ambient sounds of Toto's "Africa." A waddle of penguins (from Empire to Little Blue) on a colorful iceberg, listening to the dulcet melody of Disney's "Let It Go!", representing the daily parade of the penguins that the zoo hosts daily, and a selection of other animals, from armadillos and beavers to snow leopards and flamingos.

Of most significance to the impending Chinese New Year, was the impressively huge dragon, sat watching over the rest of the zoo and guarding the 12 symbols of the Chinese Zodiac.

I had a great time and was delighted by the manageable crowd sizes (there are half-hourly entry times to stagger the crowds), the beautiful lanterns, the informative signposts, and the work that the Edinburgh Zoo is doing for the conservation of animals around the world. I also loved watching the families come through. The small kids who found every part of the walk magical, the older ladies who were enjoying a gossip and catch up under the stars the teenagers out on dates. Finally, the twenty-minute performance by the Chinese acrobats topped it all off. The plate spinning and face changing were both impressive!

Get in quick if you're keen for a visit! The installations are only available for viewing until February 25, 2018. You'll find tickets at the Edinburgh Zoo website. Don't forget to wear comfortable walking shoes, and a jacket, hat, and scarf. It's cold out there and the Edinburgh Zoo is on a hill, so can get a little windy.

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