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Feeling the burn

Source: Updated:2018-05-14

A recent satellite event in Zhejiang of the world-famous Burning Man festival inspires Camilla Tenn to consider attending its US incarnation.

This past May Day holiday, I found myself hurtling through the undergrowth in bamboo-blanketed Anji county, Zhejiang province, triple-checking my seat belt as our bus sped along increasingly narrower dirt roads.

A group of Beijing-based friends and I were making our way to a satellite Burning Man event called Dragon Burn, deep in the heart of the forest. In the distance we could see the shimmer of the sunset reflecting off a vast reservoir, and knew we were close.

Colleagues had warned me that poisonous snakes inhabit the wilderness there, and someone in the dedicated WeChat group had created a panic about leeches. I was not feeling too confident in the strength of my mosquito repellant to protect me from such foes.

Once we had arrived, however, I felt in safe hands. The local police were on hand to register us foreigners-meaning no need to rush off to the local station once we'd set up our tents-and veteran "burners" were handing out maps directing us further into the wilderness.

First held in 2014, Dragon Burn is an official Burning Man regional event promoting the "10 principles", namely: radical inclusion, gifting, decommodification, radical self-reliance, radical self-expression, communal effort, civic responsibility, leaving no trace, participation and immediacy.

At first I wasn't entirely sure what that all meant, other than that I needed to take all my trash with me when I left, and be open to new people and experiences.

The community spirit of the Burn meant I was soon caught up.

People strap metal boxes to their belts to collect their cigarette butts and scan the campsite to pick up any debris, regardless of whether or not it was theirs.

Artists flock from across China to create interactive installations and activities that promote community spirit and the event's core ideas.

Many artworks this year required groups of people working together to activate or experience fully. Some were hidden in the forest, made just barely visible from the main path by their ethereal glow, while others stood many meters tall and lit up the reservoir.

Themed camps put on dozens of workshops to exchange knowledge, insights and experiences, from dancercise and meditation classes, to a cook-off and candle making.

The main event is the Burn itself, where fire eaters, breathers and dancers perform in front of a colossal dragon effigy before it is set alight, to roars of delight from the crowd.

The culmination of the long weekend, the Burn reflects on the spirit of its 10 principles, as the elemental, even primal, power reminds us of our innate humanity-a feeling best experienced when joining together to celebrate around a fire.

Determined to see everything, I must have made dozens of circuits around the entire camp, which was the biggest to date. On one of these tours, I bumped into a top hat and aviator goggles-sporting burner whom passersby hailed as "Founder".

Sven Aarne Serrano is indeed a veteran burner, having been involved with the earliest days of Burning Man back in the 1980s in San Francisco, as part of the Cacophony Society.

Life has since moved him to Osaka and then on to China, where he became the first China regional contact for the organization in 2011, and the founder of Dragon Burn.

I asked him about his experiences pulling together this ambitious event.

"We made a conscious effort to respect all Chinese laws, make sure the locals were happy, not wake up the neighbors with the music and clean up after ourselves," he says, adding that the local authorities were very cooperative.

He says the idea is to pack in and pack out, as though the event had never taken place at all.

One of the stated aims of Dragon Burn is to encourage people to attend Burning Man in Nevada, where some 60,000 plus burners congregate in Black Rock City every summer.

"It's an otherworldly feel. It feels like you're on another planet. It's an indescribable sensation," Serrano says.

I talked with Kirsten, a US student studying in Beijing, who has attended two Dragon Burn events. She says the experience led her to Black Rock City last year.

"This was the biggest reason I decided to go to Burning Man. I realized that the people were some of the most open-minded and welcoming crowd I've come across and I knew I could find that on a bigger scale at the main event. It also gives you a sense if you would be able to survive in the desert."

I'm not sure if I'm there yet.

I'll admit, the idea of seven days in the desert without access to running water intimidates me. But if Dragon Burn was but a taster of the real deal, I may start looking into portable-shower options for next year.