Virus silences Lunar New Year celebrations in Beijing

4 min

Beijing (AFP)

A woman praying alone in front of shut temple gates was one of the only signs of Lunar New Year observances at Beijing's Lama Temple on Saturday, as fears over a deadly new virus mount in China.

The popular Tibetan Buddhist temple, which had more than 80,000 visitors during the holiday last year, is usually packed with crowds queuing to burn incense for good luck.

The epicentre of the SARS-like virus is in central China, but it has spread to other regions, prompting authorities as far as the nation's northern capital to close tourist attractions and cancel public events to prevent further contagion from a disease that has killed dozens and infected more than 1,000.

Authorities even decided to stop long-distance bus services to and from the capital of 20 million from Sunday as part of efforts to control the spread of the virus, state media reported.

Security guards loitered in front of Beijing's Lama Temple on Lunar New Year, shooing away anyone who lingered for too long.

A red sign on the closed front gate said the temple was closed until further notice "in order to guarantee the physical health of the religious masses and the Buddhist monks."

"It doesn't feel like the New Year," said a 21-year-old woman in a long beige jacket, who only gave her surname Li.

Wearing a white surgical mask, Li told AFP she had planned to burn incense at Lama Temple, before realising it was closed.

In the capital of 20 million, where health authorities have reported at least 39 infected patients, famous landmarks were closed to prevent the virus from spreading, including the historic Forbidden City and a section of the Great Wall.

The Ming Tombs and Yinshan Pagoda are also not open to visitors. Beijing Ditan and Longtan Temple Fairs -- held for roughly three decades according to state media -- were also cancelled.

In central Hubei province, where the majority of cases have emerged, more drastic measures were taken: travel restrictions have been imposed in cities housing 56 million people.

"When we left home, it (the virus) wasn't that serious yet," said a 40-year-old woman, who arrived in Beijing from southern Guangdong province before the closures began.

"I am worried, but I also feel like worrying too much is useless," she added. "It's better to face it head-on."

- 'No point in worrying' -

At a shopping district near Beijing's Houhai lake, where tourists buy street food and souvenirs, many restaurants were open on the first day of Spring Festival.

The narrow streets were festooned with red lanterns and Chinese flags, while food stalls sold snacks like stinky tofu and sugar-coated fruit.

But there were fewer people than normal, pointed out Huo, a 63-year-old Beijing native who only offered his surname.

"There's definitely an impact (from the virus)," he said. "Look at how few people there are."

But when asked whether he was worried about the virus, Huo remained nonchalant.

"In 2003, SARS was much worse," he told AFP, referring to an outbreak that killed nearly 650 people across mainland China and Hong Kong.

"I don't have to wear a mask because everyone else is," joked another man, who had travelled from eastern Shandong province.

"There's no point in worrying," he added.

Some tourists also felt they had no choice but to go through with travel plans to Beijing despite the closures and risk of infection.

At the upscale Taikoo Li shopping distrct, a 26-year-old woman said her hotel refused to refund her booking.

"Some people are over-panicking," she told AFP, explaining that some friends were worried about getting infected, even while staying at home.

"The atmosphere is a bit tense this year," agreed another woman, a 47-year-old who gave her surname as Zhang.

The situation in Beijing is not as serious as Wuhan, the epicentre of the epidemic, she said, which was put under effective quarantine on Thursday.

Still, "people aren't really going out for gatherings or socialising —- a lot has been cancelled,” she told AFP, her voice muffled through a blue surgical mask.