Monday, January 26, 2009

Chinese New Year in Yangshuo

Happy Spring Festival! (the Chinese New Year, for those who don't know)

I'm currently sitting in the Yangshuo Culture House, the small hostel I have made my home for the last few days, and where I spent Spring Festival last night. Staying at the Culture House was in some ways an attempt at experiencing the festival with a Chinese family - the Culture House is operated by a Mr. Wei and his family, who cook all the meals for the guests, eat with us, and offer things such as cooking classes, Tai Chi, and calligraphy lessons. I've been here five days now, and it's fantastic - if you ever find yourself in Yangshuo, China, I recommend looking it up...

Anyway, lets talk about the festival!

Like New Years in the States, Spring Festival is very much a midnight celebration, and "ringing in the new year" is actually similar to how we do it in the U.S. (think firecrackers, and lots of them). Now, Spring Festival is a big deal here. While the western calendar is used for all things official, it's not really 2009 in China until the lunar calendar says so, usually sometime in early February; this year happened to come a bit early. I'll get into the specifics of how I spent my first Spring Festival, but I don't want to get ahead of myself.
Ask any Chinese person and they will tell you how extremely important Spring Festival is to everyone here in China. They will also most likely mention that one of the most important aspects of the festival is that it should be spent with your family. I've been at the Culture House for five days now, and one of the big reasons is travel. China, as most of us know, has a very large population. Combine that with an ever growing migrant worker population all trying to get home at the same time, and add a dash of trying to buy train tickets (it's rare to be able to buy round trip tickets, and most places you can't buy tickets very far in advance) and you've got absolute mayhem. I'm told that last year in Guangzhou, home to one of the biggest migrant worker populations, there was at one point a million people standing outside the train station trying to get home. That's a lot of people. Suffice it to say, laying low for this period of time is something all of us took to heart.

Sunday was New Years Eve, but instead of spending the day in preparation for the festival like our hosts, Eva, a German woman staying at my hostel, and I decided to go for a hike along the Li River. Considered one of the most beautiful landscapes in China, we didn't want to miss out on catching a glimpse of the scenery, and here is a 24 km hike along the banks which was supposed to be fantastic.

The towns were completely alive when we headed out - the markets were busy, the bus station was busy, everything was busy. The air just had that electric tension which only comes from great anticipation and excitement; really a cool feeling to experience in another culture. We arrived in the town of Yangdi, about 70 minutes north of Yangshuo and headed out along the banks of the river. Long story short, we went left when we should have gone right, and ended up high in the mountains surrounding the Li River. Absolutely beautiful, if not about 15 kilometers from where we wanted to be hiking... When we finally realized what had happened, we were too far along to turn back (the road we were on led to the same place, just not via the river), so ended up hiking through the one and two house farming communities which dot the area. When we finally made it back to civilization (by way of the two of us crammed on the back of a motorcycle taxi), we were shocked at how dead the towns were. The same city streets, crowded not hours before, were total ghost towns. I've never seen a Chinese city as quiet as I did yesterday.

We made it back to the Culture House just in time for dinner - a fantastic feast consisting of about 10 to 12 different dishes, and after dinner everyone at the hostel really got into the New Years spirit. Now, as I mentioned before, the Chinese take Spring Festival very seriously, and they also take firecrackers and fireworks very seriously. In the last few days, massive wheels of fireworks had gone on sale on just about every street corner. Myself and Eric, a businessman from Holland, bought several of these firecracker wheels, one of which you can see in the picture.

These aren't your everyday firecrackers... they pack serious punch.

One of the most interesting things I noticed about the fireworks, is the complete disregard for the way in which I was raised to deal with fireworks. Most notably demonstrated by the three eight year old boys running around launching bottle rockets and roman candles at houses, people, the unlit firecrackers in an attempt to ignite them (they were successful to), or anything else that suited their fancy, yet nobody really saying anything... It was a bit wild.

After fireworks we all headed downtown and hiked to the top of a peak in the middle of Yangshuo and watched the fireworks at midnight. I've never in my entire life seen so many fireworks, firecrackers, and other explosive and incendiary devices ignited all at the same time. It was a spectacular sight to behold - the entire town became immersed in the smoke cloud associated with large fireworks displays.

That sums up my Chinese Spring Festival for the most part - in a lot of ways similar to the New Year in the U.S., but with a very distinct Chinese feel. In a few minutes I'm going to help make jiaozi, or dumplings, which are eaten on New Years Day for good luck.

That's all for now - as for a travel update, not quite sure what is next. Perhaps Hainan Island, in my increasingly desperate search for warmer climates. I'm heading to Thailand on the 5th of February, and if all else fails I'm sure it will be warm there. Happy New Year!

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