Wednesday, January 19, 2011

Winter Break

For many in China, the travails of travel have begun. The upcoming holiday, Chinese New Year is the most revered and most celebrated holiday in the country. It is called Chun Jie, pronounced Tshun Gee-ay, which translates to Spring Festival. Traditionally, this holiday marks the start of spring, as well as the Lunar New Year.

During Chinese New Year, college students return home for their 5-week break, food vendors shut down their stands and wheel them off the streets, migrant workers get to see their family for the first time since last year’s Chun Jie. Yep, a whole year. All transportation venues – long distance bus and train stations, and airports are crowded beyond belief and all avenues leading to said venues are jam-packed full of traffic: buses, taxis, private cars… you name it.

I had occasion to witness this stampede recently. My friend Ken, came in from Xi’an for the weekend but, knowing how difficult it is to buy train tickets during this season, he asked me to go to the train station and buy his return ticket. Thus, ten days before his arrival, and before the travel season begins in earnest, I found myself at the train station.

Getting to the station was an ordeal in itself. The regular city bus that usually navigates straight into the depot had to take a detour just to get to the station. Of course, the bus was so crowded that it was not just standing room only; I did not have to hold onto any rails or bars because all of the people around me held me in up as the bus lurched down the road and around curves. The upside to that was that I didn’t have to worry about pickpockets; no one could have slid a hand in my bag or pocket to pick it!

Finally arriving at the station I went to the ticket booth and stood in the mob. There was no standing in line because there were no lines. EVERYBODY wants to go home. As opposed to in the States, you cannot buy your transit ticket online, nor can you buy it months in advance. Ten days is the limit on buying tickets in advance. There are ticket booths throughout town but for the most accurate availability and up to date information, the train station ticket office is the best bet. Everyone knows that, too. Fortunately there are enough windows at the train station ticket office to guarantee expedient sales, and they are all staffed. Directly over the sales window a giant marquee scrolls the trains, identified by number, and the seat availability.

I looked around me while waiting for my turn at the window. Affluent citizens and migrant workers wore the same expression as they eyed the marquee nervously. Would their train be sold out? Would they be able to get home? Will they have to stand in the aisle of the train all night, or however long it takes to get them home? Ticket holders walked out of the office, holding their ticket in their hand and looking bemused at their good fortune at having secured a means to get home.

Is there such anticipation at homecoming in the States? Except for maybe soldiers returning from combat, maybe not. Many travelers in America focus on the aggravation of traveling: packing bags, going through security, possible transit delays… how many overlook those logistical issues and see only their loved ones when they look at the tickets they have that will allow them to be home again?

Although the mob was frenzied it was not out of control. People were very polite and did not cut in line. When it came my turn at the window, the clerk took extra pains with me, causing delays in the buying of tickets for everyone behind me. With 34 other windows selling tickets as fast as they can, surely the people in my line got mad at the foreigner who might ruin their chance to get home. No one said or did anything mean or bad about it, though.

And what of those who cannot secure a ticket home? I honestly don’t know. Just today I read that people are now camping out overnight to buy their tickets – remember the ten-day advance buy rule. As soon as the tickets for ten days out become available, they will be snatched up. Remember also that it gets below freezing overnight nowadays as China experiences one of the harshest winters of the century, this one and the past one. With it being considered nothing less than sacrilege to not be home for Chun Jie, I can’t imagine how one would feel or how badly they would be condemned for not getting home for the holiday.

I was able to buy tickets for my friend with minimum hassle. The train for the day he had specified was sold out so I bought tickets for the next day. That means he will have to spend an extra day in Wuhan, but at least he will get home.

I battled my way out of the train station in back to the bus stop. As the bus trundled homeward I noticed meat and sausages hanging out of windows: on ledges, on coat hangers, on special wooden racks and even from power lines. How odd, I reflected, that meat should suddenly appear everywhere. I did not make the connection between Chun Jie and these meat manifestations until I asked Sam about it.

I thought that, maybe, this being winter, the government rationed meat to everyone and curing it and hanging it outside while it is cold out was a way of preserving it. Sam corrected my impression by telling me that hanging meat out indicates that family’s prosperity for the new year, and by hanging it outside it gains a special flavor that you just cannot artificially season the meat with.

How strange: with as dirty as this city is and with all of the grime flying around, I wonder what that meat is going to taste like?

Incidentally: this Lunar New Year is the Year of the Rabbit. It officially starts on February 2nd.

I get off the bus at the proper stop and walk back to campus. The Street, eerily quiet now that the students and vendors are gone, now reflects a quaint neighborhood. Many of the shops are closed and most of the farmers who usually sell produce at the farmer’s market have gone home. People I don’t recognize stroll the sidewalks in spite of the cold. They must have just come home for the holiday.

Chun Jie kuai le! Happy Spring Festival to all!

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