Word on the street might have you shaking in your shoes when it comes to traveling during the Spring Festival. During “Chun Yun” (lit: Spring Festival rush), China is in a state of complete and utter of chaos. People are everywhere; scrambling to get tickets, rushing to buy last minute gifts, and packing incredible amounts of luggage for the long journey home. And oh the luggage they do bring. I’ve seen rice cookers, oscillating fans, water dispensers and enough insulated clothing to choke a horse. Anyone who has spent this holiday in China and braved the traveling masses will certainly have a story to share. While these stories might scare you into planning a “staycation” in your cozy Chinese dwelling, you might want to think twice.
Although a dreadful time to travel, the Spring Festival is truly a wonderful time of year. Traditions run deep, food is aplenty, and family members venture from afar to spend time with the ones they love. I have had the pleasure of celebrating a few Spring Festivals with Chinese families and have enjoyed each and every one, despite the overwhelming crowds and claustrophobic moments. My advice to you: don’t let the rumors turn you away from traveling this holiday season. For me personally, the madness has actually proved to be quite eye-opening and dare I say…enjoyable.
Making the best of a travel nightmare
A particular area that gets especially complicated during the Spring Festival is travel. This isn’t surprising; it hasn’t been coined the “largest annual human migration in the world” without reason. Whether flying, traveling by train, bus, or driving; expect challenges, but persevere. The best case scenario would be to book your plane tickets months in advance at a reasonable price. Unfortunately, this has never been a realistic option for me since my employer operates on a last-minute basis when it comes to announcing holidays. If you’re luckier than me, you can conveniently book tickets online, with no pre-sale limitations. As the holiday approaches, tickets get quite expensive, and there’s not a discounted flight to be found. If you or your travel companions aren’t willing to cough up the cash, taking the train is the next best option. This is where the situation gets messy.
Although traveling by train is increasingly convenient—there are several new high-speed lines that run throughout the country as well as new regulations that make it slightly easier to buy train tickets for the holiday—this type of travel can still mean waiting in lines and sold out tickets. If high speed trains aren’t an option for you, the older trains aren’t bad either, providing you don’t mind dealing with not-so-pleasant folks packed like sardines on a train for several days. If you’re lucky you might even get stuck in a sleeper car infested with cockroaches! Yuck. But on a serious note, if you’re thinking about travelling by train, plan ahead. Although there is now a 20-day window for booking tickets, they’ll go faster than sunbonnets at a Chinese beach.
So what if you can’t find tickets, but still want/need to travel? I found myself in this very situation last year. With no train tickets available and flights incredibly expensive, there was no other option than to “hitch a ride”. Well, there was the sleeper bus alternative, but after my last experience involving bodies in aisles and Chinese police, this was obviously vetoed. So yes, I traveled from southern China to central China by car during the craziest travel time of the year. Let me tell you, the highways and traffic jams were a sight to behold. A trip that should have taken around 12 hours took more like 24. As you can imagine, traffic was backed up, often coming to a stand-still with people getting out of their cars to stretch and snack. Which, in turn, resulted in massive amounts of litter and orange peel scattered everywhere. And Chinese rest stops, oh my. The smell of instant noodles being brewed by restless travelers lingered about in the air. The restrooms (if you can even call them that) could not be described using words.
Actually, now that I think about it, I wouldn’t mind reliving that adventure. It’s the moments like those that I love; moments that make you appreciate the life you’ve chosen. If you’re up for it, ask a Chinese-speaking friend to help you check www.58.com to find ride share opportunities headed to your destination. It’s cheap and definitely unforgettable! If you’re concerned about safety, it would be best to meet the other party beforehand. I traveled with a lovely young couple that was simply looking to save money on fuel and we became quick friends during the journey.
Spending some quality time with the family
Once you’ve made it to your destination, drop your luggage and get ready to party! Well, perhaps not the type of party you’re thinking. The Chinese New Year is filled with age old traditions and time spent with family. For those celebrating with a Chinese family, you can expect a lot of food and incredible hospitality. Bear in mind, it is polite and often expected for family members and guests to arrive bearing gifts. Visit any supermarket this time of year and you’ll find a variety of gift boxes, nuts, dried fruits and chocolates, all of which are suitable for gift-giving. According to Chinese tradition, reds, oranges, and yellows are colors that create warmth and excitement. Thus, oranges are often given to arriving guests as a warm welcome.
Although every family celebrates the festival a bit differently nowadays, there are a few traditions that seem fairly common throughout the country. Of course, the traditions run far deeper than my non-Chinese self is able to describe, but from my experience, the most important days are New Year’s Eve and the first few days of the New Year (See the dates here). Generally, families will gather for a tremendous feast on the eve of the Chinese New Year. Following the meal, the nation tunes in to watch the Chinese New Year’s Gala. Young people even enjoy ringing in the New Year at a bar or club, with “crowded” describing the environment lightly. Depending on where you are in the country, prepare yourself (have your cameras ready!) for the roar of fireworks when the clock strikes midnight. During the first few days of the New Year, families travel around to relatives’ homes to pay a New Year’s visit, drink tea, snack, and chat. During the evenings, some families gather for a game of mahjong. This, for me, means staring blank-faced at the table while being hypnotized by the melody of the rustling tiles. I really need to learn how to play.
If you’re joining a family celebration, come ready to eat. Food is central to the holiday and meat is particularly abundant, symbolizing a precious reward for the hard work and struggle throughout the year. You’ll undoubtedly have the opportunity to try many types of food and parts of animals that you didn’t even know existed. The look on my face must have been priceless when an entire “messenger bird” aka pigeon was dropped into my bowl. How to handle such a situation? Pretend to enjoy it and then discreetly discard it when no one’s looking; no one will mind. A fish will often be served at family meals during the New Year, but not eaten. This is a reminder to always leave a little bit remaining. The pronunciation of the words “fish” and “surplus” are the same in Chinese (yú), thus giving rise to the importance of fish in both food and decoration during this time of year.
Honestly speaking, I look forward to the Spring Festival each year. As much as I would like to hibernate in my apartment in front of my space heater watching Sex and the City reruns, it’s nice to get out and experience what China is really about. People work and anticipate the entire year for this moment. It means the world to them and as guests in their country we should grant it the same respect. Next time you are graciously invited to a Chinese New Year’s gathering, be honored, for they are opening their home and time-honored tradition to you. Turning down the opportunity to experience the spirit of the season would be downright sad. The holiday is long, the opportunity is rare, and you’ll have plenty of time to recuperate. Book your trip today!
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Keywords: Chun Yun experiences China Spring Festival travel
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Feb 24, 2014 22:38 Report Abuse
You know if you venture to another country, you should keep an open mind and actually put a little bit of effort into experiencing their holidays like a local. If you just came here for a quick job and expected everything and everyone to accommodate you, ni zuo meng ba (you are dreaming). I actually look forward to Spring Festival because I spend it with Chinese family and friends. This is one of the rarest occasions where you get closer to the inner-workings of their culture. If I didn't do this, I wouldn't want to be in China either for Spring Festival... so I don't blame some for that. But I think all people who made the effort to live and settle in China, should join one Chinese family and just observe and try to understand their custom in a more rural setting (in their old villages). A very worthwhile experience. I learned some interested traditions like the coins in the dumplings on the morning of Springs Festival, what the signs they place on their doors really mean (not just luck, it was originally to ward off a ghost beast)... lots of cool stuff if you only look deeper.
Jan 18, 2014 15:55 Report Abuse
Oh, but your way is the "right" thing. Trying to understand Chinese culture and interacting with them during their most important holiday is not... Move to Thailand then... if you have that option. A lot of foreigners can't or don't want to interact with the locals. It's like Chinese that study abroad and instead of going out and meeting locals they huddle together scared in close knit groups. When they get back home... they have experienced pretty much nothing.
Jan 19, 2014 13:45 Report Abuse
FYI I have studied Chinese in university here for four years and speak near fluent Chinese. I have many Chinese friends and have experienced more of this culture than you ever will. So get your facts straight. CNY is a crap time to be in China. That's it.
Jan 20, 2014 09:13 Report Abuse
Good for you, I have been in China for nearly 8 years, married a national, speak fluent Chinese, tons of Chinese friends & family, been to over 40+ Chinese cities (lived in 5), So I doubt your claims. Traveling during Spring Festival isn't so hot, but that doesn't mean spending the time with your Chinese family is crap. You are very narrow sighted. Chinese call your type "a fluent fool"... Nothing wrong with traveling outside of China during Spring Festival and nothing wrong spending time with the family.
Jan 22, 2014 00:42 Report Abuse
Please "Don't Adventure" in participate on Chinese Spring Festival Activities, Or Trips, Or NEVER visit one of them on this season...Mind "you as a FOREIGNER" and not all situation fits you. Hope all of you guys still considerate my advice of 20 years of experience in living here China, and to know very well what's going on in this situation ........
Jan 20, 2013 01:21 Report Abuse
The article is extremely complaining about travelling in holidays, maybe Katie thought that come to China is equal to come to Wonderland, should i call you Alice? Well, any holiday in China is actually really crowdy, annoying, estressful... but if you don't care for these things will be a good choice to travel and see which kind of things chinese use in this festival (clothes, songs, dance...), and how chinese still respect their culture, because maybe in couple years China is gonna be a Mix country (franemegermland, for example), anyway, see how they celebrate the Chinese new year is really beautiful and show that this country still has a bit of hope.
Jan 12, 2013 19:37 Report Abuse
Yes, blame foreign influences for the decline of Chinese culture. I'll quote expatlife26: "Unfortunately I think the reality is closer to a blend of the worst of both east and west. Our materialism without our earnest idealism, their rigid thinking without the loyalty and selflessness." If Chinese are such good, virtuous people, why do they only copy the bad stuff? How does that make foreigners bad? Take responsibility instead of whining like a petulant child.
Jan 18, 2014 09:14 Report Abuse
What a great article. Thank you. Well written and exactly my sentiments also. Each year I also am looking forward to this event of Chun Jie/Spring festival. One of the best ways to get to know Chinese people much better and learn to appreciate their customs.
Jan 12, 2013 04:53 Report Abuse
I completely disagree. I think anyone with any brains gets on the first flight out of China at CNY, This is my fourth year here and I've gone abroad for every one and don't regret it in the slightest.It's impossible to get travel tickets or a hotel at a reasonable price and staying in your home city is stupid because every where just shuts down. A trip to SE Asia or the Subcontinent is a much more attractive alternative.
Jan 11, 2013 22:27 Report Abuse
That's the thing. Most of the people return to their home villages and many cities and towns do shut down... Have you seen Beijing during Spring Festival? It turns into a Ghost town. However, if you have Chinese family and friends... take the invitation and go with them. Then you can experience the joyful part of Spring Festival...
Jan 18, 2014 15:45 Report Abuse
I am inclined to agree. I like that the holiday is still mainly about spending time with the family more than consumerism and just a chance to take a vacation. The problem is that is hard to understand the holiday if you don't have Chinese family or close friends.
Jan 18, 2014 15:44 Report Abuse