Dumplings, Fireworks and Mickey Mouse

I never really understood why the Chinese had their own “New Year.” I’d heard about how China, that big, scary, far away country, had their own lunar calendar and new year celebrations AFTER January first, but never really thought about it until I got to live it! This year Chinese New Year fell on Jan. 26. This is the time of the year when all foreign teachers take their saved up yuan and hit the road (or train tracks) and explore this country while all the citizens are busy with their families. Being a teacher in China during the new year is awesome because schools have seven weeks off. Which means seven weeks of paid traveling time. Perfection.

Two of my classmates and I decided to meet in Beijing and stay there for the new year. We wanted to experience the pride, rituals and traditions of the Chinese New Year in the heart of the country. We decided that we would then just try to get train tickets anywhere and work our way down the country until either our money or our patience ran out. We had our eyes set on Hong Kong Disney World being the finale to our trip. So I packed up my purple LLBean pack and flew to Beijing with a month’s pay in cash and no set travel plan except “survive and keep moving south.”

Beijing was incredible. We stayed in a hostel close to Tianneman Square and became familiar with the metro system pretty quickly. I spent some time in Beijing in 2007, so it felt very familiar. We spent Inauguration Day viewing Mao’s mausoleum and were greeted by the security guards with a shout of, “OBAMA! TODAY!” We were caught off guard not just by the guard’s knowledge of English, but also by the irony of the situation! We spent eight days in Beijing, visiting the Great Wall, Summer Palace, Ming Tombs, Temple of Heaven, Confucius’ Temple and other popular tourist hubs.

The highlight of Beijing would have to be New Year’s Eve. (Jan. 25). We didn’t know what to expect and so we bundled up against the freezing Beijing wind and wandered outside around midnight. The Chinese love fireworks. They invented them and this pride has not diminished over the centuries. We stood in the middle of a closed off Beijing highway and just watched as the sky lit up in brilliant colors. No July 4th will ever compare. Dangerously close to apartment buildings and offices, firecrackers and full-blown fireworks exploded in the sky for over an hour. Families and teenagers stood open-mouthed, gazing at the spectacle, and my friends and I just stood near them watching in wonder as the country celebrated its New Year.

The next day my friends and I boarded a 10-hour train north to the Russian border town of Harbin. We had planned to stay in Harbin only three nights, but because train tickets are hard to come by (that’s putting it lightly) we ended up extending our stay to five nights. Harbin is like a winter wonderland. This town gets its claim to fame by its ice and snow sculptures that are on display from December to February every year. I wore five layers of clothes each day, but was never really cold because I was too busy being occupied by the amazingness around me to consider the sub-freezing temperatures.

We visited a Siberian tiger preserve; the only preserve in the world dedicated to the breeding of the endangered animals. Russian architecture (and people!) were everywhere, making us feel like we weren’t in China any more. Sculptures made of ice and lights were everywhere in the city, even the street lights were ice! Life-size castles and replicas of Chinese landmarks were on display and I was spellbound. I still don’t really know how to describe Harbin except for as an amazing ice world that one has to see to believe. Ice mazes, pianos, billboards and angels lined the streets welcoming visitors to the wintery town.

After five nights in Harbin, my friends and I boarded a train to Hangzhou where we were planning to spend one night at my house to drop off our winter gear and then head south to Shenzhen and Hong Kong. We grabbed our hard seat train tickets in the last car (think, the cheap seats … the bottom of the Titanic), and were chatting with people around us who were surprised to see foreigners in the hard seat section when one of the fellows told us our train ride would be 36 hours. We thought it was 12. We thought we would be arriving at 8 p.m. that day, but no, we were scheduled to arrive at 8 p.m. the NEXT day.

This began probably the biggest character test of my life. My friends and I rationed our food: oranges, peanuts and crackers, and one bottle of water each. We rotated seats in order to gain more leg room as the seats are set up so that we were facing other passengers. People who were issued seat-less tickets lined the aisles and rotated in and out of kind people’s chairs. Going to the bathroom was next to impossible because we had to literally climb over the passengers in the aisle and were bombarded with people wanting to get a look at the foreigner passing by. People smoked, spat and disregarded personal space as the train slowly made its way from the top of China to my home, half way down the east coast. For 36 hours.

I loved it. I am so glad that my friends and I were on that train.

We taught our new Chinese friends how to play the child game MASH and they taught us new vocabulary words. We shared fruit and conversation for 36 hours with very little sleep and no hygiene. It was a perfect experience of submersing into culture and not expecting things to be comfortable or accommodating.

When I exited the train my legs were cramped and lacking muscle tissue, but I almost was sad to leave car 16 of train K554. I learned a lot about mass transit and the human spirit on that train. And had a lot of unforgettable memories.

After a one day break in Hangzhou just long enough for a good sleep and shower, we hopped on a sleeper bus to Guangzhou and then a short bus to Shenzhen where a few of my friends live and teach. We completed our travel goal with an overnight trip to Hong Kong. HK Disney World is precious. Coming from Florida and growing up on princess stories and tales of mice and ducks, I expected to feel at home in the park, and I was right. Walking Main Street USA brought tears to my eyes! Everything was so clean, precise and just like home.

Interesting parts of the park were that in some rides that require tour guides there were separate lines for English, Cantonese, and Mandarin speakers. The park employs speakers of a gazillion languages to cater to international guests. We saw a traditional Chinese lion dance and a Chinese New Year parade, complete with a Mandarin-speaking Mickey Mouse and Minnie in traditional Chinese dress. The park had miniature replicas of Disney’s best rides like space mountain and the teacups.

The next day we took a boat an hour across the South China Sea to Macau and spent the day there. Macau is like heaven. It’s like Spain, Florida, New Orleans and Asia had a baby and named it Macau. Macau used to belong to Portugal and has a strong Spanish influence. There is abundant sunshine, never ending palm trees, water on every side, fresh seafood on every corner, and the main tourism draw is obvious: gambling. After the freezing weather in Harbin, Macau felt like another world. We spent the day in museums and back alleys and boarded the boat at night for Hong Kong and then an overnight bus back into Mainland China.

All in all my passport was stamped eight times in two days.

After 23 days of travel with the same two other people we said goodbye and I flew to home to Hangzhou. I hung up my backpack, with the dirt of two trains, two planes, and two buses staining the once purple fabric. I still think to myself that that trip was all a dream. The three of us are planning our next adventure, to where we aren’t sure yet. There’s one thing I know for sure after that intense travel experience: It’s a small world after all.

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