Firstly – Happy New Year – it is my pleasure to be writing my first blog in the year of the Horse – I hope you enjoy it! This blog is going to be a mixture of personal reflection on Chinese New Year, rough travel guide and random ramblings. I hope you can get through my mixed style and enjoy this blog.
After setting off a few Chinese firecrackers, enjoying a wonderful dinner with one our homestay families in Chengdu and successfully not getting blown up by the 1000’s of fireworks and firecrackers exploding all around us in the middle of the street whilst cars, motorbikes and people moved around the city. I was off to spend the holidays in a different province – Yunnan, China.
China has 22 provinces which are all vastly different to each other, which is why when someone asks – “what’s it like to live in China?” the answer can be somewhat problematic and relative to the individual. The answer may vary significantly if you live in the icy Heilongjiang Province, Tropical Island, Hainan or spicy Sichuan province (which is where Chengdu is located). In summary, China has many provinces which are bigger than many European countries and with distinctively different personalities, food and landscapes. One of the joys of living and travelling here is you can experience a very different China right on your doorstep.
The capital of Yunnan – Kunming is one hour flight from Chengdu and a little over 2 hours from Zhuhai and Qingdao. Famous for being the “Spring City” with year round temperate and sunny weather as well as being one of the most ethnically diverse provinces of China (25 of China’s 56 recognised ethnic groups call Yunnan home).
Whilst in Kunming, I noticed some distinct differences to Chengdu:-
• (Even) more chaos – be careful when crossing the street here!
• Sun… much more sun.
• Less push chairs and more babies on their mother’s back (carried in ethnic minority style carriers).
• Less tall buildings/advanced development – Kunming is growing but at a slower pace than Chengdu.
• More travellers/hippies/backpackers and tourists (domestic and foreign)
• Flowers – EVERYWHERE!
• More street vendors and street food
• More exotic fruit and vegetables (fruit that is not available in Chengdu until Spring is already readily available)
• More expensive taxi’s
• Cheaper water
• No humidity
• Red earth and Eucalyptus trees (outside the city it can look a little like the Australian bush!)
• High Altitude – you may feel tired for the first few days and this is where Chinese athletes come to train – try to run / cycle here at your normal pace and you will struggle.
• You can get sunburnt in January and wear a T-Shirt.
Kunming is a great gateway to some wonderful destinations (and I am forgetting it borders Myanmar, Vietnam and Laos – which all require a separate blog) – go south to the beautiful rice terraces of Yuanyang, and further still to Jinghong and Xishuangbanna where free roaming elephants, jungle and spicy food next to the Mekong river await.
Go North and you have tourist hot spots and hippy hangout Dali and further North Lijiang and the (highly recommended) Tiger Leaping gorge where you can hike spectacular scenery and look down at the Chinese tourists taking the “safe” road below while you climb along waterfalls and negotiate the mountain pass used by tea traders in years gone by and now travellers from around the world.
As you can probably tell I have a soft spot for Yunnan – it was my home for a year and a half and my girlfriend also comes from there. It was really great to enjoy the Spring Festival with her family. We had huge, delicious dinners, played a lot of Mahjong – a lot of money exchanged hands(even I got a couple of Hong Bao’s – Chinese lucky money). We also spent the holidays relaxing, watching movies and eating chocolate and exotic fruits! It was also a good chance to visit some parks and bars in Kunming which I used to go to regularly, (try) to do my Chinese homework and have a decent Indian curry! All in all a productive time in Kunming.
After spending a few days in Kunming I also took the chance to visit Yuxi and enjoy the Hot Spring’s and food in a city voted one of China’s best (small) cities. Beautiful flowers, Spring Festival traffic jams and endless blue skies greeted us as we drove to the city which is just two hours from Kunming.
It was also a chance to meet up with some old colleagues and friends in Kunming, enjoy a few beers and catch up. Spring festival can be a strange time for a foreigner in China – not knowing quite how to embrace a festival which is not your own, but as I found both two years ago and this year Chinese hospitality knows no end and if you happen to be in China during this time I am sure your new friends / colleagues will make it an unforgettable time.
China has so much more than the Great Wall, Shanghai skyscraper’s and Terracotta worriors, in every one of our cities Chengdu, Qingdao and Zhuhai you will find wonderful treasures hidden in and around the province. So apply now! China is a gift that keeps giving and I have found the longer and closer you look the more you can find in this vast country! Happy New Year!
In China the biggest festival of the year is the New Year, also called spring festival 春节chūnjié in Chinese. You may be asking why they celebrate the New Year in late January or early February and not at the beginning of January like most of the world. The reason for that is the lunar calendar.
The Lunar Calendar
Before China started to use the Gregorian calendar they had their own system, which followed the moon but even to this day China’s festivals are still celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Many people in China even celebrate their lunar birthday instead of the Gregorian calendar birth date, which can actually be found on their ID cards.
This can be confusing for people from other countries, as the lunar calendar varies from our calendar by a few weeks, hence the dates change every year.
The Chinese New Year starts on the first day of the first month of the lunar calendar, which this year is on the 31st of January. Usually it is celebrated for one week, but as most people will go to their hometown, they will usually stay away for two weeks, sometimes even longer. This leads to a mass of people travelling through the whole country with crowded trains, buses and planes. The ticket prices rise tremendously just before and after this period so it is not advised to go on a journey at that time. However during the first few days of the actually holiday period tickets are very cheap and it’s not as busy as everybody is already home with their families.
Customs and Traditions
Just before the holiday you will see people buying new clothes and getting new haircuts. Everybody wants to look good for the New Year. As red is the lucky colour, the people who were born in the year of the same zodiac animal, will buy red underwear and wear it on the first day of the New Year.
People will also clean their homes and put red banners with 春联chūnlián, couplets, at their front doors wishing for good luck and a prosperous new year. They are put up vertically one on the left, one on the right and one horizontally on the top of the door
There are many other decorations as well, usually red lanterns, paper cuts or posters of the character 福fú meaning ‘good fortune’ and the zodiac animal of the year. You can often see the picture of fú hanging upside down, so that the luck will pour down on you.
Another traditional decoration is fish, the reason for this is the saying 年年有余，天天有鱼 niánnián yǒu yú, tiāntiān yǒu yú, which translates into ‘Have abundance year after year, have fish every day’. As the words for abundance and fish have the same sound (yú), Chinese people use fish as a symbol for abundance. That is also why Chinese will have fish in every New Year’s meal.
There is one red thing everyone anticipates, it’s the red envelope 红包 hóngbāo. It’s the typical New Year present filled with money from family or close family friends and is usually given to the children. Most companies will also give out a New Year’s bonus in a hóngbāo to their employees.
Family is the most important during the Chinese New Year. As many people work in a different place than their hometown for most people it’s the only chance in the year when the whole family will get together. During the holiday there will be plenty of lunches and dinners with family, extended family, friends and neighbours. It’s a very lively time and the atmosphere is bustling with excitement.
Of course you cannot miss out on the firecrackers and fireworks, that is what the Chinese invented gunpowder for (not for guns ;-P). The noise of the exploding crackers is supposed to drive evil and ghosts away, so that there will be a happy and peaceful start into the New Year.
After filling their stomachs and letting off a huge amount of firecrackers most families will spend a calm New Year’s eve in front of the TV watching the New Year’s Gala 春节联欢晚会chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì, a four hour or longer programme with singing, dancing, comedy and magical performances from the different ethnic groups all over the country.
Before the actual holiday many Chinese New Year events and parties will take place, just like companies in western countries will have their Christmas party. There you can also see traditional performances such as the dragon dance.
Do you want to experience a Chinese New Year celebration yourself? Apply for an internship and do a homestay to have an authentic Chinese New Year with a Chinese family!