A Travellerspoint blog

New Year and Spring Festival

In which evil spirits and my sense of hearing are done away with by massive piles of firecrackers.

5 °C

The Chinese New Year fell, this year, on February 7. This also marks the beginning of the Spring Festival which lasts 15 days. Most people have at least one week off from work, and many, many people return home to visit and celebrate with their families. This means that, on the days leading up to the holiday, seemingly the entire country is boarding trains headed somewhere. Train tickets are difficult to get, and the system for selling them is difficult to understand. One can obtain train tickets three, five or ten days in advance depending on the type of train and its destination. One can purchase them from the train station of departure, or a nearby ticket outlet, but can not purchase return tickets until arrival at one's destination. Under particular stress, one may buy a ticket from a man called the "Golden Cow" who lurks about Aaron's university selling hard-to-find and slightly marked-up train tickets to homesick university students. Given all this, and our flexibility in not having families to visit in China and a long vacation, Aaron and I decided not to travel during the busiest pre-New Year days. Instead, we found a hostel room near Tian'anmen Square from which to witness what promised to be hours of celebratory fireworks and firecrackers. No one loves their explosives-based entertainment more than the Chinese. The firecrackers had begun sporadically days ago in Changping, and were quite frequent during our Super Tuesday TV marathon.

The hostel was located in a hutong (old little alleyways of densely packed homes) about a five minute walk from the square. We went for a long walk along the road just outside the Forbidden City as the sky grew dark. By this time, firecrackers provided constant background noise. As soon as the sky was sufficiently dark, fireworks appeared all around us: little ones from behind hutong walls, and larger ones in the distance. There were kids with sparklers and Roman candles and families setting off noisemakers ranging from single POP…BANG! to long red ropes of minutes’ worth of continuous noise and flashes of light. The city grew louder and louder…

Our goal was to eat dumplings, the traditional New Year’s food due to their money-pouch shape, for dinner, but we set out too late, and most restaurants were closing early to let their employees spend time with their families. We found a tiny restaurant still serving dinner, and ate our plates of dumplings next to the owner’s family as they enjoyed their New Year feast.

As midnight neared, we wandered the alleyways amid the deafening din of firecrackers (many approaching what I can only assume is military strength!) and longer and longer rounds of fireworks. Every neighborhood had a bicycle cart stocked with fire extinguishers, and there were roving bands of uniform-clad men carrying fire extinguishes and wearing fire extinguishing backpacks. Down one lane, we spotted a motorcycle equipped with a fire extinguisher tank and a hose on a reel that ended in a trigger-type nozzle.

At midnight, the firecrackers were deafening, and from one spot on the sidewalk near the square, we could see fireworks in eight or ten different locations. The din continued until two or three in the morning, and picked right back up at seven the next morning. I think we’ve seen fireworks every night since then!

In the morning, we met Steve and Amy, Steve’s parents and his best man (who all looked more well-rested, and a little more adjusted!) to attend a temple fair at the Temple of Earth Park near Amy’s parents’ apartment. Many parks and temples in the city hold temple fairs as celebrations of the culture and the New Year during the Spring Festival. The subway station for this park was expected to be so busy on New Year’s Day that officials decided to just shut it down for the day! This should have been a sign of the popularity of this event. From the moment we entered, we were shoulder to shoulder with the crowd as we mobbed slowly past trees decorated with paper lanterns, food booths selling grilled meat on sharp pointy sticks (at this, Steve mimes what one would expect to happen when eating anything from a sharp stick while walking in, and being jostled by, a huge crowd), booths selling everything from Year of the Rat paper cuts to ugly stuffed animal hats (that is, hats that look like the stuffed heads of animals), to pinwheel noisemakers that break the second they come in contact with the crowd. In short, it was a conglomeration of sadness toys.

We made our way to a stage area where we watched a lion dance – each lion was made by two people – one for the head and front legs, and one for the back and back legs – which could run, jump, summersault and balance on stacked chairs. The lions looked really alive in their movements, and had great character. We also watched a martial arts demonstration, and a traditional Manchurian dance. Really, I would have been happy just watching the lion dance all day.

Everyone was together with their families, and the crowd had a happy, relaxed feeling. After a few hours of bouncing off strangers’ bodies, I was happy to flow on out of there!

The Spring Festival continued on with nightly firecrackers and fireworks, the character “fu” symbolizing good fortune plastered on door fronts, car hoods and shop windows, and an air of leisure and relaxing times spent with family.

Posted by ucpegasus 20:21 Archived in China Comments (0)

Spring Festival

In which Aaron and I reverse our planned travel direction, and the US political parties have not yet chosen a direction.

3 °C

Our original plan was to take a train 36 hours south to the island of Hainan, the "Jewel in the South China Sea," absorb some warm weather and eat some spicy southern cuisine. But then, "Winter Storm Disaster 2008" struck south China, stranding millions of people (mostly factory workers from Guangzhou, the "world's factory floor") at the train station with no outbound trains, and in small villages with dwindling supplies of water, coal and electricity. CCTV9 ("China's only English-language news channel!") has been showing dismal scenes of electric company workers smashing ice from power lines and telephone poles, armies of men shoveling snow (with actual shovels! This storm delivered snow that could not be swept with a broom!), and absolutely packed train platforms, temporary shelter tents, food lines, and tired looking people. Even though the train company offered refunds, most people chose to wait DAYS for a train back to their hometown. Spring Festival is the one week when people have the time off to return home (and when their mothers fully expect them to come home), so giving up seems not to be an option.

After viewing these scenes and weather reports, Aaron and I decided that this month was not the time to go south. Instead we've decided to spend today and tomorrow (New Year's Eve and New Year's Day) in Beijing eating dumplings, watching fireworks, listening to firecrackers, maybe splurging on a gin and tonic, and then going to a temple fair. On Saturday, we leave on a 12-hour train ride north to Haerbin where we will see the famous Ice and Snow World (giant ice sculptures lit from the inside) and ice lanterns, the tiger park, Sun Island Park, and the germ warfare museum. I hear there's also an underground roller disco. It's also -20 Celsius during the day. However, tickets were available, and I've heard great things about the city.

This morning, we watched hours of BBC coverage of Super Tuesday, in which BBC America's primary newscaster, Matt Frie, repeatedly called the US election process "archaic" and "byzantine." It's quite informative and very, very funny. The coverage has potential to be a great drinking game, if only we had any alcohol and it wasn't before noon...

Posted by ucpegasus 20:50 Archived in China Comments (0)

Steve and Amy get married!

In which Steve and Amy make their marriage official!

3 °C

On Saturday at 6 o’clock in the am, Aaron set off to Beijing with Vitor and Joe, two of our colleagues, to meet Steve at his hotel. At 7:30, the men, including Steve’s best man Morrus, from England, set off to Amy’s parents’ apartment. Their mission? Grab the girl. It even said so on the detailed, minute by minute itinerary for the day written by Amy’s aunt, the official wedding planner. In fact, at 6:30 am, Steve was slated to have his makeup applied. I don’t think this actually happened.

At the apartment, tradition dictates that the merry band of men must bribe and beg their way inside, pushing the door in, as Amy’s family tries to hold the door closed from the inside. Traditionally, the groom passes envelopes of money under the door, solves riddles, and sings, according to the whims of the bride’s family. Once the door is opened a crack, the men push it open and rush into the apartment. Then, they continue to pay off the bride’s family with envelopes of money. The scene repeats at the bride’s bedroom door. Once inside, the groom must find the bride’s shoes which are hidden somewhere in the room. According to Aaron, Steve bought many a hint to locate Amy’s shoes! Then, the entire wedding party and family breakfasts on baked goods before heading to the ceremony.

Due to the different backgrounds of the betrothed, this wasn’t a typical wedding. First, a ceremony was held at a catholic church on Wangfujing Street in the center of the city. The church is very beautiful and exists, as far as I could tell, only to perform weddings. The couple must rent a half-hour time slot as some days the priest marries many couples one after the other. The ceremony was in Chinese, and was very small and simple. There was a flower girl, Amy’s cousin as maid of honor and Steve’s friend as best man. There were, unfortunately, more cameramen than members of the wedding party which was quite distracting. Poor Morrus got bumped on the head several times by one videographer. The service was short and sweet, and Steve did well on his one line in Chinese. It was strange to look around the church and see all the guests huddled in their winter coats and hats – it was too cold to do wear anything less!

Then, off we went to the ceremony and reception at a restaurant not far away. Tradition says that the entire ceremony must be finished before noon, so we had a schedule to keep. Often, when driving down the expressways in Beijing, I have seen caravans of black sedan cars, the lead car with a big flower arrangement on the hood, the other cars with single blossoms attached to the door handles, hood and roof of the car, and license plates covered with red plaques saying something like “100 years together.” Many couples rent fancy black cars to caravan from the bride’s family’s apartment to the ceremony. Amy and Steve had two black cars, and a really nice red Cadillac with a black top. When they arrived at the restaurant, fire crackers containing confetti were popped as they got out of the car.

The restaurant was a huge greenhouse with a river running through it. It smelled nice and earthy. The wedding host led Amy and Steve though the traditional wedding rituals on a stage at one end. The wedding book (the government document that makes the marriage official) was read, the bride and groom exchanged gifts, they drank tea with their in-laws and called them “mom” and “dad,” they drank wine from cups with their arms entwined, they bowed to one another and their parents, they accepted red envelopes of money from their parents (999 from Steve’s parents – the number of years they’re hoped to be together, and 1001 from Amy’s parents – Amy is one in a 1001 girls), gave gifts to their parents, and poured champagne for toasting from the same bottle. Aaron translated for the host from Chinese to English, and for Steve and his dad from English to Chinese. It sounded like he did a very good job. Meanwhile, the guests had a feast of an enormous amount of food – fried shrimp with oranges (my favorite), oysters, soup, pork, beef, fish, vegetables, lamb, nuts, fruit, cake, rice balls, wine, beer and baijiu (horrid clear liquor). The bride and groom went around to each table to great and toast with each guest (Amy switched to water from liquor). There was SO much food left over. It was quite delicious, except for the sea cucumber, but that may be an acquired taste. Pictures were taken with parents, colleagues, friends, neighbors.

I had quite a nice time (and received lots of compliments on my jacket), and we were all home by 3:00 pm. Steve’s family, who had arrived the day before, looked quite bewildered the entire time, but I think they had a good time as well. Congratulations to Amy and Steve!

Posted by ucpegasus 20:47 Archived in China Comments (0)

Interviews, Olympics, and the bicycle saga continues

In which I am officially on vacation!

-3 °C

On Friday, I postponed finishing my grades for the semester because...Aaron and I were granted intereviews for positions as volunteers for the Olympics!! We dressed in "interview clothes" which really means that we weren't dressed warmly enough and were wearing impractical shoes. We met the interviewer at the Beijing Municipal People's Government building which was set behind tall, imposing looking walls flanked by official looking guards (well, they didn't look any more official than the other hundreds of thousands of guards in the city, but they wouldn't let us in). We ended up in a freezing cold packages receiving area for the compound and filled out paperwork and handed over our last passport photos (note to anyone thinking about living in China: have several DOZEN European sized passport photos made before leaving home!) and thought we would follow her inside for our interviews. But no, our interviews would be conducted right there, in front of one another, and as the door was opened and closed as packages were brought in and out! I requested that Aaron go first: he was planning to interview in Chinese and so neither of us would have the advantage of prior knowledge of the questions.

As far as I could tell, Aaron's interview went really well. He scored 9s and 10s in whatever system the interviewer was using to score him. Mine went well, though I think the language was a bit of a problem. The questions ranged from "What prior volunteer experience have you had?" to "How would you get from Changping to Tiananmen Square?" and "Where is the airport?" The strangest question was "Out of a Beijing map, a Chinese-English dictionary, volunteer's handbook, or a badge identifying you as a volunteer, which is most important?" I was totally stumped (as was Aaron), and needed to ask several clarifying questions. I chose the map, with the qualification that I wouldn't leave the house without any of the four! We were apparently successful, because we were both "highly recommended" to the Olympic Committee for positions. We'll find out in May! We got tickets to kayak slolom, and nothing else. Sounds like only 10% of applicants received any tickets. I hear we can purchase them from travel agents in the US, so we may look into doing that. Or just have fun volunteering, hopefully!!

Ironically, all the interviewer saw of our interview attire was our jackets and impractical shoes - it was too cold to take off our coats!

Then, we went for a fitting at the tailor's. Our wedding attire looks excellent! We pick them up on Tuesday.

When we returned from Beijing, we found that my bike had been stolen. Again. This bicycle was a total piece of junk that could hardly be pedaled, and I was seriously thinking of getting rid of it. But still. And, it was locked up with TWO locks! How irritating. Today, I bought a new (grey) Giant, with a handle bar lock, the hugest and heaviest u-lock available, and a can of paint. I'm about halfway through defacing the paint job. Hopefully between the locks and obliteration of anything saying "Giant" I might get to keep this one for a while...

My grades have been turned in, and I am officially on vacation! Hopefully we can get train tickets - they become available on the 3rd for the 7th (5 days in advance - eek!), and won't be available for our return trip until just before we want to return. Nothing like last minute... Makes for a really stress-free vacation!

We made beef stew with herbed dumplings for dinner. So yummy.

Posted by ucpegasus 06:14 Archived in China Comments (0)

A clarification

In which I do not actually have a "fat ass."

snow -2 °C

To clarify, I do not think I have a big butt. One Christmas, the Boiteau-Chagnon family packed the trunk of the car with food and presents, piled in, and began to back out of the garage on the way to visit one side of the family or the other. On the way over the giant driveway hump, the bottom of the car scraped. Dad pulled back into the garage and said, "Kate, get your fat ass out of the car." Due to some bizarre filial obligation I seem to feel, I obliged (though, I think I may have been the lightest person in the car at the time). Dad backed out again, this time clearing the big bump. I got in, and we were on our way. I swear - it was the junk in the trunk, not my big bum!! However, this has stuck (between Sylvie and I anyway) as a running joke.

I still think slits up the side of my Chinese jacket would be a good idea.

Posted by ucpegasus 16:55 Archived in China Comments (0)

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