Every year it comes with blasts of gunpowder, steamed dumplings and red envelopes. Chinese New Year or Chūn Jié (Spring Festival) as it is known in China is The celebration on the Chinese calendar. Think Christmas, New Years Eve and Thanks Giving all mashed into 15 days of festivities. Fireworks bang, red oval lanterns hang and red cut-outs are plastered everywhere; symbolic of happiness, longevity and wealth.
During the Chinese New Year Festival it’s obligatory to be with your nearest and dearest, so every year sees hundreds of millions of Chinese return to their hometowns and villages. It’s when the city folk really appreciate the migrant workers doing menial jobs to keep the cities ticking over, because things slow right down once they’re gone. They’ll leave by train, bus, car, motorbike, boat, bike, horse, plane, whatever. It is the largest human migration on the planet, by far.
Over the festival, around 2.6 billion trips are made. That stretches China’s extensive transport networks to breaking point. For most Chinese, train travel is the mode of choice – it’s safer than planes and the roads are congested and less comfortable. But the finite capacity means only about 12% of trips during the festival period are on tracks.
China has an amazingly sleek and modern rail system. It boasts the world’s highest train (5,072m to Tibet), the world’s fastest intercity trains (up to 350km), stations more impressive than most international airport terminals, and all sorts of rail innovations that are incredibly clean, comfortable and efficient. However, it’s still the good, old fashioned outdoor queuing to purchase a ticket home.
Around Chinese New Year Festival, train tickets go on sale just five days before departure causing a mad rush for the limited spots. On many city blocks, there are hundreds of locals queuing for hours outside the local ticket shop in below-freezing temperatures. A lot miss out on train seats and beds but most manage to find a way home on buses, standing on trains for multi-day journeys, even riding pillion on scooters for thousands of kilometres.
Luckily for us, our celebrations were a little closer to home – a convenient 120km drive on the freeway from Beijing to a small village in the hills with Ellen’s friend Betty and her family. The venue was a Píng Fáng; the traditional Chinese bungalows that are becoming increasingly scarce in cities as shiny new apartment blocks take their place.
The stone abode was straight from a Chinese Revolution documentary. The beds were concrete, kept toasty by individual fires underneath. The floors were also stone, there was a water well, a large wood-fired pit to boil dumplings and the obligatory portrait of Chairman Mao hanging in the living room. It was gorgeous.
Betty’s grandparents were in their 80s and were really cute. They provided a good opportunity to practice the Chinese we had learnt over the past five months, my favourite was the simple “baba de baba ba shi ba” – Dad’s dad is 88. I’m not sure how much they could understand, but they just smiled big toothless grins and nodded with bemused looks.
With Chinese New Year comes dumplings, signifying the family’s reunion. I love dumplings. In northern China, it is traditional for a family to prepare dumplings together so we all pitched in. We made hundreds of them, stuffed full of pork, fennel, loads of stinky garlic and all sorts. It was great fun, but I quickly learnt that folding the dough to keep the filling parcel neatly inside is an art form, and something I failed miserably at. Ellen’s nimble fingers adapted well, but my creations became the source of much hilarity for the family. Even after they were boiled in the pit, my deformed creations were still unmissable and became the butt of many jokes for the rest of the weekend.
We walked around the village hills, we played hacky sack with a weird shuttle cock thing, we watched the television broadcasts of the annual concert in Beijing and we played with fireworks. Ask any expat what China is like during the Spring Festival and they all mention the fireworks.
China invented fireworks and hasn’t looked back since. For the celebrations, most families accumulate a personal collection of fireworks that would outdo the Sydney Olympics. Night after night, they’ll set off six-metre rolls of bangers and crackers the size of small ovens that set off car alarms hundreds of metres away. The novelty never seems to wear off. Fireworks are the time when the playful boy escapes from even the sternest of Chinese men. For two weeks they blew for hours on end, often so hard that our apartment would shudder. It felt like we were living in Baghdad.
Now it is March, the lanterns are down, everyone is back working long hours and the smell of fireworks is fading. Here’s to the Year of the Rabbit.
Some helpful Chinese terms for the Chinese New Year Festival:
Chūn Jié kuài lè … Happy Chinese New Year
Zhèi gè jiăo zi hĕn hăo chī! … This dumpling is delicious!
Chī băo lè (rubbing your stomach) … I’m full
Gān bēi! … Cheers, bottoms up (good any time of the year)