Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt

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The premise for this walk was somewhat unusual: go to San Francisco for the evening of the Chinese New Year Parade, but avoid as much as possible walking along the parade route and try not to even cross it. Unconventional, but actually an important part of the strategy for an annual tradition, a Chinese New Year Treasure Hunt. It is an urban treasure hunt, in which teams endeavor to solve approximately 15 clues, then visit the location for each one of them on foot to find additional information to record on their score sheet. Teams have to stay together throughout the event. The team that solves the most clues in the shortest time wins. There are 4 divisions: Beginner, Regular, Masters, and Thinks faster than Walks. Each team makes up a name that is related to the zodiac animal of the new year.

A friend invited me to participate with his team, which is mainly populated with experienced orienteers. The team name this time was Baaaaad to the Bone, and we participated in the Regular division. Having a sense of teamwork and adventure are essential. Map-reading and navigational skills, as well as smart phones for looking up information, are quite useful. Action starts around 5pm, and there is a 9pm cutoff for turning in score sheets. The beginning and end points for the event are at Justin Herman Plaza, near the Embarcadero.

Due to the season, the weather can be challenging, and the event runs rain or shine. This year, however, the weather was glorious: sunny and still warm at the start, cooling off pleasantly as the evening progressed.

image of colorful character among the teams gathering at the start

Colorful character among the teams gathering at the start

The action starts when clue packets are distributed. The first phase is solving the first part of each clue, which has information about the location that must be visited. Then a route is planned, to visit each location while avoiding getting caught up in the parade, which is happening simultaneously. (If you get caught in the parade you can lose a lot of time!) We spent about an hour working on this part.

picture of Team Baaaaad to the Bone working on the clues

Team Baaaaad to the Bone working on the clues

The GPs track shows our path as we visited the locations for the 16 clues we’d been given. We thought we had the correct locations, but the complicated jumble of our path near the center of the route shows that we couldn’t possibly have figured out the most efficient path to all of the clues. The orange dot toward the right is where I started up my GPS after we emerged from the building where we had worked on the clues, a location with good lighting as well as Internet access.

GPS track

GPS track

Shortly after 6pm we set out to find our first clue! Within about 10 minutes we had found and recorded two clues and we began to feel more confident. Before heading north we decided to check out two other clues that were both close together and close to the parade route. As it turned out we spent 10 minutes trying to get to the location of one of the clues, running into some pretty crowded sidewalks, and eventually finding the answer to the clue without being able to get to the location on our clue sheets, because the actual answer was half a block away (and we probably got lucky). While we were close to the parade route we saw one of the snake figures that often come early in the parade. This year many of the figures are lit up with LED lights.

photo of snake figure in the Chinese New Year Parade

Snake figure in the Chinese New Year Parade

The next clue was near the top of Union St. The other experienced treasure hunters assured me there is always at least one good hill climb, though that may be omitted from the route for the Thinks faster than Walks division.

Elevation profile

Elevation profile

We headed north on Montgomery St to climb the hill, and it turned out to be an opportunity to do a bit of sightseeing along the way. Just past Broadway there was a nice view of the Bay Bridge on either side of Yerba Buena Island, with just a sign post marring the view.

image of Bay Bridge from Montgomery St

Bay Bridge from Montgomery St

The last part of the climb up to Union St is accomplished via some steps. From the top of the steps there was a pretty view down Montgomery St to the TransAmerica Pyramid.

picture of TransAmerica Pyramid from the top of the Montgomery St hill

TransAmerica Pyramid from the top of the Montgomery St hill

After finding the clue near the top of Union St there were two others generally west along Union. Along the way we passed close to, but below, Coit Tower, which was nicely illuminated. Sometimes Coit Tower is illuminated in red or orange for special 49ers or Giants occasions.

photo of Coit Tower

Coit Tower

After those two clues we had found 6, with 10 to go. And we had used about 45 minutes, with just over 2 hours remaining. We were doing ok, but the next several clues would be close to the parade route and our navigator hoped he had determined correctly which side of the route they were on! To avoid congestion on Columbus we zigged south, then east, then south and east again. Along the way I was amused to see this street sign; I hadn’t realized that a block of Green St in front of Club Fugazi, where the infamous Beach Blanket Babylon revue plays, had been named in honor of the long-running show.

image of street sign in honor of Beach Blanket Babylon

Street sign in honor of Beach Blanket Babylon

As we walked east on Pacific St toward Columbus and our next 2 clues we passed through a portion of the Chinese New Year street fair, which takes place in Chinatown during the day times of the weekend of the parade. These tea cups look like a small Disneyland-style ride.

picture of tea cup ride in the Chinese New Year street fair

Tea cup ride in the Chinese New Year street fair

As we approached Columbus, sure enough, we encountered more congestion and parade activity.

photo of parade activity near Columbus and Pacific

Parade activity near Columbus and Pacific

Next there were two clues on the same street, but possibly – diabolically – on either side of the parade route up Kearny St. We had to do quite a bit of back-tracking here in order to get around the parade. Kearny had barriers along both sides, so crossing the street was impossible, even if we’d wanted to try a street crossing between parade elements. We spent over 50 minutes finding just 4 clues that were in a pretty localized area.

But the next clue may have been the toughest! We found the correct location but had difficulty finding the answer. Other teams were having the same issue: there was quite a crowd of teams milling about the area. This picture is a little blurry but shows one of the costumed teams reviewing some information on their clue sheets and having a discussion about the current clue or what to do next.

image of treasure hunt team working on a clue

Treasure hunt team working on a clue

We actually spent over 10 minutes on the tricky clue before recording some information I had found – which turned out to be incorrect – and moving on. We now had 5 clues remaining and less than 45 minutes to get back to the start, with nearly 2 miles to walk in order to go to the correct locations. We had some trouble with the last one, partly due to insufficient time to search for an alternative interpretation of the follow-on information on our clue sheets.

We made it back to Justin Herman Plaza to turn in our score sheet with about 5 minutes to spare. If we’d been 5 minutes later, we would have been disqualified. Whew! I think we correctly solved 13 of the 16 clues. The winning Regular teams finished between an hour and an hour and a half faster and had all 16 correct solutions.

The nearby Ferry Building currently has special lighting to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 1915 World’s Fair, the Panama-Pacific International Exposition (PPIE). A nearly year-long celebration began just one week ago, with numerous events planned throughout this year.

picture of Ferry Building with special lighting commemorating the 1915 PPIE

Ferry Building with special lighting commemorating the 1915 PPIE

Although we didn’t see much of the Chinese New Year Parade, participating in the treasure hunt was a different and entertaining experience. We had a celebratory pizza before dispersing in our different directions.

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