Friday, February 6, 2009

Chinese New Year 2009 and Xiamen

Each year in China during their New Year, or Spring Festival, there is a massive migration of people leaving the cities to go back to their home towns or villages. Chinese New Year is roughly comparable to Christmas and New Year thrown together. It's a very family oriented holiday, with the giving of gifts, eating a lot of food, and other things similar to Christmas. At the same time, it is the celebration of a new year with a lot of fireworks and other celebrations. Normally, everyone in China has one or two weeks off of work for the holiday. Since Hangzhou is a relatively large city with a large migrant population, the city was kind of deserted at the beginning of the holiday. All day and night, the people that remained were setting off fireworks all over the city. There wasn't a centralized park or square where a big fireworks show would take place, but just individuals setting off fireworks. It was pretty non-stop and I would often get woken up in the middle of the night to the sounds of a huge string of fireworks.
Hangzhou Fireworks
Hangzhou Fireworks
I decided to do some traveling during the holiday, despite some people advising me that it can be too crowded during this time of year. I figured I would travel for about 10 or 11 days. Without too much planning, I made a tentative itinerary and bought a train ticket out of Hangzhou without knowing for sure if I would be able to find hotels and all the trains or buses I would need. I was also going to be traveling alone since most my friends either had plans with their significant others or preferred not to travel during the heavily traveled New Year period. I've never traveled alone and there were definitely some questions about how the trip would go, but I thought I might as well give it a chance. Before I go on, I should mention that the next 5+ blog posts will be about this trip, so hopefully it doesn't get repetitive for my loyal readers. I decided to head to southern China as the weather would be more favorable there. The first city would be Xiamen (pronounced roughly "sheeah men"). I took a night train from Hangzhou to Xiamen. The train wasn't too crowded, but since I was pretty much the only foreigner, everyone wanted to talk with me. It was a really good chance for me to practice my Chinese as most of the people spoke no English, so I had no choice but to speak Chinese. I would notice people crowding around and listening to my conversations, even if they weren't participating. Riding on the night trains probably isn't recommended for the tall or non-Chinese speakers. I'm sure that it could be done, but the beds are probably only comfortable for someone who is a max of 5'10", unless you can sleep tucked in or don't mind your feet hanging over the edge of the beds. At the train stations it's not guaranteed they will have English signs or speak much English, so it could be pretty frustrating if you spoke no Chinese at all. However, I do know some people who will have a Chinese friend or the people at their hotel write some Chinese characters on a paper so they can buy their train tickets or things like that. There were a lot of young people or young families on the train, since a lot of them will be going back to their parents and grandparents in the countryside. All of the families had gifts and, in a way, it seemed it was almost reverse as Christmas with the kids bringing the parents a bunch of gifts from the city for the New Year, instead of the parents giving the kids all the gifts. Another thing I noticed was that Chinese people travel light. I definitely had the biggest pack and I felt that I was packing light with my smaller rolling luggage, but most Chinese people just had a small bag. Upon arriving in Xiamen, I immediately went to Gulang Yu, which is this island next to the city. I found a hotel there and then took the ferry back to Xiamen to see the sights that day. For the most part I would say that Xiamen is a typical Chinese city. It has a nice Buddhist temple, a pedestrian shopping street, and some other sites. The majority of medium-sized to large Chinese cities have the same.
Dragon in Park Temple Garden
Temple Garden Buddhist Temple
The cool thing about most Buddhist temples in China, though, is that they're often built on mountains and you can hike to the top of the mountain and see several smaller temples along the way. Unfortunately, it started to rain a little, so it wasn't too clear at the top. On the way up, this temple had an interesting collection of small Buddha statues. I overheard an English tour guide say that it's considered disrespectful to throw away old statues, so people will bring them here on the mountain.
Statue Collection View from the Top
That night for dinner, I went into a random restaurant in the main pedestrian street without really knowing what kind of food they had. After I looked at the menu, I quickly realized that it was a Chinese version of a western restaurant. The menu had entrees such as a steak, spaghetti, and a fried egg all together on one plate. If that's not western food, I don't know what is! I have to say that it was close to the worst food I've had in China.
Pedestrian Street
Xiamen from Across the Bay
While the first day exploring Xiamen was a pretty standard day, fortunately there are some interesting day trips that are possible from the city. Gulang Yu, where I was staying, also has some interesting sites. So, in summary, the best is yet to come. I will leave you with a couple people of Chinese people doing what they do:
Old Man Doing Tai Chi
In the mornings, old Chinese people are always in public squares and parks doing some kind of exercise. Normally, it's tai chi or "shadow boxing". Basically, it's a set sequence of slow martial art moves. The position of the legs, feet, arms, hands, and everything is set and the transitions are very important, as far as I understand. I think one full sequence takes about 20-30 minutes and you have to memorize each position and transition. Maybe some day I will learn.
Chinese Men Chilling
Here are some more pics of Xiamen: