Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Spring Festival From the Outside

Yesterday, January 26th, was the first day of the first month of the Lunar year. The most important holiday of the year in China, the new year and Spring Festival have a number of traditions involved. Unfortunately, I haven't really been able to participate in any of these traditions, but I have observed some different behavior and scenes. On the 25th, Carrie, Travis, Karrin and I were in Guangzhou after flying back from Sanya late the night before. That day we went to a wonderful dim sum breakfast with one of Carrie's freshman and she then showed us around the city for a bit. The main visit of the day was to the main flower market near Beijing Lu. During spring festival families decorate their houses with flowers and bring flowers to others when they visit. Their is one specific flower having to do with 5 generations in a family that is one of the most common flowers during this time of year. I had never seen it before, and it is a strange sort of flower in that it doesn't blossom and you can't eat it. The flower market was filled with these, though orchids, lilies, gladiolus, and others were also there.

Also being sold along the market were pin-wheel type toys, bought and carried about by both children and adults. Decorations for Spring Festival also include red and gold posters of traditional phrases or images of plump children, and also never-ending knots. Red and gold-or yellow-are unavoidable during this time or year.

Also unavoidable this time of year are images of the Ox. This new year's animal, the ox is everywhere and everyone wants a picture in front of it-or rather all of them. I particularly enjoyed these grandparents and grandson posing in front of an Ox with winnie the pooh at the entrance to the flower market.

Yesterday, the new year, we arrived in Hong Kong. Most shops, restaurants, and business had closed for the holiday-usually new years and the following 2 days-but though much of the city was closed, the streets were still alive with activity. That, I think, is what I've enjoyed most about the New Year and Spring Festival-seeing families together. It is a common sight to see grandparents toting children around and spoiling them, but rarely do you see both parents-mother and father-walking leisurely with their child (or children). Tonight, the 27th we went to California Pizza Kitchen for a western treat and got to watch a spectacular fireworks show over the water. The feeling, the crowds were calm and quiet. No drunkenness, no rushing about, but rather families sharing the spectacle together. It is this sense of togetherness and the enjoyment in simply being together that has stood out most for me. The lunar new year and spring festival really are about family-being with your own and visiting others-and so as a foreigner here I have really only experienced the festivities from the outside, but I've enjoyed observing nonetheless.

Imlek - Chinese New Year in Indonesia

I thought that my decision to spend my winter vacation in Indonesia would mean a temporary hiatus from all things China. I didn't quite do my homework, however, and was surprised to find out that Indonesia actually harbors a rather sizable Chinese minority, about 5% of the total population. I was surprised to see Chinese architecture and Chinese characters throughout Jakarta. In addition, the government of Indonesia recognizes six official religions, one being Buddhism and one being Confucianism (yea Qufu!)

I am currently volunteering in Jakarta at an orphanage/free education center. Because it is volunteer run, underfunded and serving over five hundred students, there is not a lot of free time to explore the world outside the center. However on January 26, the Chinese New Year, we happened to have left to go to a technology mega-mall in search of a wireless router. We took a forty-five minute bus which allowed plenty of time for me to peer out the window and soak up the sights. Street after street I continued to notice red banners with Chinese writing and red Chinese lanterns filling the sky. I turned to one of the boys who lives at the center and asked him what this was about. "Imlek," he said, and then told me that this is the name for the Chinese New Year, a public holiday in Indonesia. Curious to learn more, I asked "why is Chinese New Years celebrated here?" His answer was to the point but sufficient, "we respect the Chinese people." Why didn't I think of that?

Intrigued, I did some research when I got home and learned that Chinese New Year is celebrated here very similarly to how it is celebrated in China, with a large family meal, gift giving, firecrackers, decorating with banners and more. On the holiday, all schools and offices are closed. Street parades are held and singers and dancers flood the roads, making their way from one temple to the next. Something unique to Chinese New Year in Indonesia though, is the TV programming, which includes hour after hour of celebratory Imlek themed variety shows with Indonesian actors dressed in traditional Chinese garb. I was not lucky enough to catch the shows first hand, but when I asked another Westerner here to describe her impression of the shows, her words were "entertaining" and "less than politically correct."

Before I left, my students made sure to remind me what a pity it was that I was not spending New Years in China. I agreed, but am happy with my decision to come volunteer. It seems that today I was fortunate enough to have the best of both worlds: Chinese New Year celebrations and a tropical climate. :)

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!

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Travel Update and Harbin

So I apologize for the general lack of blogging in the last few days... Sometimes it's just not in the cards. I mean lets face it, between Counter Strike and playing Risk on Facebok, who has time for things like "reading," or "traveling," or "blogging" anyway?

Okay so in my defense, yesterday I got fed up with my muscles being weak with atrophy and the impending feeling of office-ass hanging over my head and played basketball and went for a run. And today I went out to lunch! ...Don't judge me you've all been there.

Anyway in all seriousness, due to the suns rays reflecting off of Venus thus igniting some swamp gas in Florida and the deepening economic and financial crisis in the United States, my travel plans have become FUBARed (that statement is 50% right!) and I'm in the midst of re-arranging travel plans for the prolonged break I am currently on. Noah (my older brother for those who don't know) was supposed to visit from the 21st of January until February 7th(ish), but, because of the deepening economic and financial crisis in the United States (I wasn't lying), at the last minute had to cancel his trip. I have now found myself alone in Qufu attempting to re-sort and re-tool my upcoming vacation, and I think I've almost got it worked out. If (and this is a big if) buying train tickets goes according to plan, tomorrow or the next day I will head for Beijing to meet up with Rachel, Olivia, and Lucy to hang out/get out of Qufu while they sort out visas for the rest of their travels. On the 20th I will hopefully head for Guilin and Yangshuo where I will hole up for somewhere in the realm of a week to a week and a half. Following that I will head toward Hong Kong, see the sights, and quickly depart via plane for Thailand on or around the 6th of February. Depending on funds and general interest, I'll spend the better part of February visiting LT (Lowell Thomson, former high school teacher and mentor who now lives in Thailand with his family and who has very graciously offered me a place to stay for a few nights), exploring Thai mountains, and of course, going to the beach. After that I'll head back toward China via Hong Kong and, most likely, head on back to Qufu. Maybe go to Hangzhou or Suzhou along the way, they are supposed to be cool.

So that's whats on tap - now lets take a step back...

About two weeks ago, right near the start of our vacation Olivia, Eliza, and I set out on a 23 hour train ride (don't worry we had beds!) to the city of Harbin, located in the northeastern most section of China and home to the Harbin International Ice and Snow Festival. The trip in some ways was lackluster for me - Our hostel was gross, I spent a lot of money (mostly on cabs that ripped us off), and most importantly, I'm not a big fan of being cold (To be clear - I enjoy cold, and I enjoy snow, and cold, snowy places, but I don't like being cold. Call me picky or whiny or whatever - it is what it is). Despite some of the lame aspects of the trip, the city itself as well as what it had to offer more than made up for having snot-cicles in my mustache.

There were 4 main attractions we visited in Harbin aside from the city itself: the small (very much a relative term here) ice lantern festival, the Siberian Tiger Park, the snow sculpture park, and the grand daddy of em' all, the big ice lantern festival. Harbin itself was originally founded as a Russian city and is still shows signs of Russian influence to this day; notably so in architecture as well as food. It also serves as a very popular tourist destination for Russians from Siberia, and local signs will often advertise in Russian, and annoying street vendors trying to rip you off don't only shout "HELLO!" but also the equivalent word in Russian (unfortunately my Russian is a bit rusty so I'm not exactly sure what that is...).

We arrived late Saturday afternoon and one of the first things that struck us was the ground. Olivia slipped and hit the ground hard disembarking from the train... It was to be the first of many. This is also a good time to mention one thing I found most interesting about Harbin, where, more months than not, the temperature is well below freezing; that being, the complete lack of sidewalk or road treatment. The entire city is very much a giant skating rink. When you combine this with typical Chinese sidewalks and taxi drivers, it's devastating. I saw no plows (although it never actually snowed while we were there, they've got to have plows stashed somewhere...), no sanding trucks, no salt. In fact, the only way I saw ice being removed from roads was, in true Chinese fashion, by hand. That's right, crews of six or seven people with sledge hammers, pick axes, and giant chisels going to town on the expressways. This was all well and good for the fifty feet of curb they had managed to clear that morning, but unfortunately neglected the several miles of black ice underneath the hydroplaning wheels of our taxi. Even more astonishing (or not at all I suppose) was the lack of thoroughfare de-icing at the festivals themselves. When we went to the big ice festival (don't worry I'll get there eventually), which is very much an international event, going up and down staircases made of ice was, well, icy! I mean I can't complain too much it was a world made entirely of ice, I wouldn't want them to skimp on the stairs.

The small ice lantern festival was in the city itself near a very popular and very chic walking street with all sorts of fun shops and touristy things. We had dinner on this street at a Russian cafe recommended by the ever trusty Lonely Planet, which was an adventure. We were famished and hadn't eaten since the train, so we decided to have an early dinner at around 5:30... After sitting down, we slowly began to notice that, while there were many people actually in the restaurant, very few people were eating, and fewer still had apparently given their orders. Not wanting to miss out on our one chance at piroshkis, we patiently waited for them to take our orders. Long story short, we waited until right around six o'clock, at which time they finally came over to take our order - except that every time we tried to order, the waiter would shake his head and say "we don't have." Apparently all they had was cold sausage and bread. We thought that was a very fitting Russian meal, in the end.

After dinner we headed straight away to the festival. This one was Disney themed and had an ice castle (with working three story elevator - one of the only things not made of ice), a pirate ship, and all sorts of other smaller structures and buildings.

Approaching the Castle
The castle - notice the functional escalator and elevator.

Part of the slide which came off the castle. Yes, its amazing, and yes, made entirely of ice.

There was much more happening at this festival than these three pictures show, including some very elaborate and finely crafted sculptures, but that will have to do for now. Remember, this was the small festival...

The next day we started off with a sure winner - the Siberian Tiger Park. The park itself states that it raises tigers to be released back into the wild. As the guidebook explains however, how exactly it does this is not clear, as you can buy strips of meat (10 yuan), live chickens, (40 yuan), goats (200 yuan), or whole cows (somewhere in the range of 200 USD) to watch them eat while you drive through the park. The park was in some ways a bit sad - lots of cages and the tigers looked completely immune to the OBNOXIOUS heckling of Chinese businessmen (I wanted to punch one guy in the face), but you cannot deny the awesomeness of the animals.

"I could kick your ass if I wasn't a big lazy cat."

We all wanted one afterward. They just look so adorable!

After we went to the tiger park, which was located a good distance outside the city, we made our way back to Harbin proper via one of my favorites of the trip, the snow sculpture park. While it wasn't entirely completed when we were there, the scale of it, as well as the intricate and cool designs, carved entirely out of snow, blew us away.

I Thought this arch was really cool.

There was a whole section of different Santas.

This was only a small part of this particular sculpture... it goes to the left another three pictures. Just to give you an idea of the scale.

We could have gone across the street to the big ice festival that evening, but at this point we had been outside in the Harbin winter for almost five hours, we had another full day in the city, and there were back to back episodes of "Corporate Law All-Stars" on TV, so after the snow park we grabbed dinner and headed home.

The next day we packed in a bunch of very cool sights, including the Church of St. Sophia, a Russian Orthodox church in the heart of the city which is now a museum, a Buddhist monastery, and finally the big ice festival. Unfortunately My camera battery was on its way out, so I only have a few pictures of the grand finale ice festival, but let me tell you - it was awesome. Remember, EVERYTHING in these pictures is made of ice.

The Church of St. Sophia (not made of ice)

The entrance gate to the ice festival.

The center castle. This thing was massive.

Another view of the center castle.

A checkers board made of ice... Also gives a good perspective in the background to the scale of the whole complex.

Snow Buddha visible through some ice pagodas.

The Snow Buddha up close and personal. Use the flowers for scale.

Okay I think that's all for now - I took almost 300 pictures all told while I was in Harbin, these are just the highlights. I'll do my best to blog about my travels to Guilin, Hong Kong, and Thailand as they unfold. We'll see how it goes.