A Chinese New Year Travel Experience


The Chinese New Year holiday is about to begin, and I wanted to take you through what it is like, as a non-Chinese, to experience this holiday in China over the years.

I have lived in China for 9 years, and have married into the Chinese culture, giving me a little bit more insight than many “foreigners” as I have straddled the line between local and expat.

by Paul Louis via WikiMedia Commons

Chinese New Year is the most important holiday in the Chinese lunar calendar. Unlike the solar calendar used throughout the world today, the lunar calendar does not have fixed dates that take place at the same time each year.

Instead, dates can vary widely, and Chinese New Year can take place pretty much any time between mid-January and mid-February. Most westerners compare it to Christmas because it is a time for families to come together, gifts are given, and schools and businesses are closed for an extended period (usually 10 days to 2 weeks).

The vision of Chinese New Year that I had before moving to China was one I had seen in movies and television. It mainly revolved around parades in Chinatowns in the U.S., which included firecrackers and dragon dances.

by Shizhao via WikiMedia Commons

Needless to say, just like my realization that actual Chinese food in China is nothing like Chinese food in the U.S., my realization that Chinese New Year celebrations are not like what I had imagined and/or seen on film was quite a surprise.

Many foreigners who live in China choose to leave China during the holiday. There are several reasons for this. First of all, it takes place in the middle of winter, and the thought of going to a tropical location, such as Thailand, Cambodia, or Vietnam is quite attractive. Secondly, because many restaurants and shops are closed for the holidays, there aren’t a lot of options for things to do (or places to buy food!) if you haven’t stocked up beforehand. Third, the absolute chaos that takes place when you have hundreds of millions of people all trying to go back home at the same time.

by Katorisi via WikiMedia Commons

I will expand upon this point for you, as it is an extremely important one for anyone thinking of travelling in China during this time. China has 1.5 billion (give or take a few hundred million) people living within its borders. This is approximately 3 ½ times the population of the U.S.

Have you ever tried to travel on a holiday weekend? Do you remember the massive traffic jams on the roads? What about the crowds in the airports? Yeah…that is nothing! Have you ever been to an amusement park, such as Walt Disney World, on a holiday weekend? The overwhelming crowds of people, the never ending lines, the excited children running around and the stressed out parents trying not to lose them in the crowds? Mere child’s play I say!

Once upon a time during Chinese New Year I drove my wife and several of her family members from Nanjing, where we were living, back to her hometown in Anhui Province. This trip usually took us 3 hours by car. If we took the train it would be even less, but trying to get train tickets is practically impossible at this time of year, and even if you can get them, fighting the crowds in the train stations and on the actual trains isn’t worth it (if you can afford another way to travel).

That was also the first year the Chinese government decided to open up all of the toll roads (most highways in China are toll roads) during the holiday to try to encourage people to drive to their destinations to cut down on the train congestion. A good idea, in theory…

by Benlisquare via WikiMedia Commons

Unfortunately, that particular year it decided to snow. China, for the most part, is a country of relatively new drivers. Imagine an entire nation of 16-year-olds who learned to drive by playing Grand Theft Auto, and you can almost understand what it’s like.

Then, dump a load of snow on the ground and more swirling through the air, making visibility far from ideal. These are not ideal circumstances for tens of millions of overloaded cars and trucks to all be on the roads at the same time. As we inched along going in the right direction on the highway, I tried to keep my sanity as the inhabitants in my car spoke to each other in volumes usually reserved for cheering on your favorite sports team.

Then, to my shock and horror, we came to a point where they actually closed the highway…We, and the millions and millions of other people on the highway at that time, had to now use the small, poorly lit, back roads of rural China to try to get wherever we were going.

by Komencanto via WikiMedia Commons

This was beyond nerve-wracking. What I assumed was a two-lane road had at least six lanes of cars going in every direction imaginable. Traffic accidents left and right, cars spinning around and going off the road into the ditch. People running out of gas, because unlike North America, there is not a gas station every couple of miles. It was absolute and total chaos like nothing I had ever seen before.

As day turned into night, and night turned into very late night/early morning, I had to stop to “rest my eyes.” I was the only one in the car who could drive, and if I couldn’t keep my eyes open we wouldn’t ever make it where we were going. It’s all foggy in my mind now, but somehow we found something like a motel where we were able to get a little room to all pile into and sleep for a couple of hours. It wasn’t long, but it was long enough, and with the early morning sun shining through the window, I was awake enough to get back on the road and try to make it to my wife’s village. We did eventually get there. What normally was a 3-hour drive took us 24 hours to complete.

Because the roads in my wife’s village aren’t paved, and we were definitely not in a car built for snowy/icy/muddy roads, we had to park at a distant relative’s house (almost everyone seems to be a distant relative in the village!) and then have someone come pick us up in a vehicle better able to navigate the roads. If memory serves correctly, it was a tractor of some sort, but I could be confusing this trip with one of the many others I’ve taken to the village over the years.

by Ultratomio via WikiMedia Commons

My wife and her family were very happy to have been able to all come together for the holidays. As they ate large quantities of food and played mahjong together, I ate less food and tried to stay warm curled up under blankets next to the one little space heater they had.

Again, it was a village in rural China…the comforts of home that I was used to did not exist. But I was happy my wife was enjoying herself and I appreciated getting to see what the holiday was like for many Chinese people throughout the countryside.

That said…it was the first, and last trip back to the village for the Chinese New Year holiday we have taken. My wife likes to blame me for not going back (I have to admit, I am a sissy when it comes to cold, lack of indoor plumbing, and the other joys that came with my initial New Year’s visit), but she has many of the same problems, having left the village for the big city many years ago.

by Mercie Wang via WikiMedia Commons

This year will be an almost reversal of events for us. Her parents have been living with us for a while now in our current home in Suzhou. This week we will drive them from Suzhou to Nanjing (the beginning of the last New Year’s journey) where we will see many of the family members that accompanied us on that fateful trip.

To be honest, I am dreading the upcoming “3-hour drive,” and am checking the forecast for snow everyday. It looks clear and fairly warm now, but I also know that there are a lot more cars in China today than there were when we took our last trip, which means the roads will be even fuller than they were then.

But as I said earlier, it is the most important holiday for my wife’s family, and if this means her parents don’t have to go through the crush of humanity that is the train station at this time of year, then I am happy to do it. It is part of being a multi-cultural family, and it will be my daughter’s first real Chinese New Year holiday experience, so hopefully she can enjoy it like she enjoyed Christmas a few months ago. And who knows…I might have another story to tell after this year’s trip!

Next: Beijing's 798 Art District

More from TripSided