When it comes to traveling, I’m a planner.
I clip magazine articles, bookmark the heck out of travel websites, and buy Lonely Planet books as if they’ll impart the secrets of the universe to me. But I always enjoy a good laugh at myself when I sit back and realize that, on the whole, the best travel adventures I’ve had have been unplanned.
I’ve been living in China since 2006, and as much as I try to plan my way around this giant, populous land mass, there’s always a surprise or two around the corner.
One of the hardest times to plan for travel in China is during the country’s most important holiday, Spring Festival. Also called the Lunar New Year, this celebration lasts for a two-week period, usually in February.
The first year I lived in China, I didn’t know it would be so difficult to travel at holiday time. But by 2009, I got wiser. “We’re not taking the stupid train THIS year,” I told my boyfriend. “We’re going to bus it.” We were living in Guizhou Province. Guizhou is in Southwest China and is most known for being poor and for having a lot of different minority ethnicities. China has more than 50 recognized minorities (the majority are Han Chinese), and Guizhou has settlements of 13 of them.
If we took only short, local, bus rides, I reasoned, we'd be able to travel during Spring Festival without all the hassle. Plus, we'd be able to explore Guizhou, which few travelers get to do. So, several guidebooks in hand, we set off before the Lunar New Year to explore the jungle-covered karst hills and the minority villages of Guizhou.
|The village of Zhaoxing in southern China's Guizhou Province|
Then, on the first day of the Lunar New Year, my plans ground to a halt. We arrived in a larger town of a few thousand people. All the shops were shutting down. No hotel would take us. And worst of all, we were told there would be no buses for three days.
After some discussion in my broken Mandarin with a few taxi drivers, we did find one hotel that would be open. They sent us off running to a convenience store that was open for only another hour. We stocked up on instant noodles and bottles of drinking water. Restaurants would close for the festival too, we learned.
We made the best of it, going for walks to nearby hamlets to see the wooden drum towers and playing endless rounds of gin rummy in our hotel room at night.
But my plans were a mess. There was no way we were going to get to see all of the stuff I’d laid out for us. We’d just have time for one more village before we needed to arc our way back north to Zunyi, the city we were living in. We were teaching at a winter holiday camp in a few days.
|The "crowd" in Zhaoxing|
Buses still weren’t running at their normal schedule on the third day of the festival, but we managed to find some minibus drivers who did occasional passes through the villages, and they agreed to take us and some other stranded tourists to Zhaoxing village.
We got dropped off in a muddy parking lot on the outskirts of the village. All of the houses were wooden and slope-roofed, and we could see the layered turrets of the drum towers, one of the most striking things about a Dong minority village.
|A cloud of smoke follows this Zhaoxing pedestrian, |
a cigarette in one hand, a firecracker in the other.
“Hey,” we said. “Look at that guy!”
We watched a man walking down the road, dragging a loop of fireworks. He wore old, torn clothes and a burlap sack over his head, with two holes cut out for the eyes.
Villagers stopped and talked to him, and he posed for pictures for the Chinese tourists. We leaned farther out of the window and craned our necks.
A trio of girls dressed up in traditional purple, handmade cloth, with their hair elaborately coiffed, scurried by, like they were late for something.
We heard music getting louder.
It was time to investigate.
We headed down the street and ended up in a five-hour parade we had heard nothing about.
Dozens of young people—dressed in traditional costumes of violet, hand-dyed cloth, embroidered jackets, and silver jewelry—marched together through the town. Two beautiful tween girls and two handsome boys decked out in near-wedding finery were carried in sedan chairs, protected by dainty parasols. I looked closer; one of the “girls” was actually a boy, and one of the boys was really a girl.
|A child being carried through the crowd in a sedan chair|
The older generation came out too, in embroidered silk jackets and fancy hats. One man, perfectly bald, wore round sunglasses and a hat that made him look like a Mafia don.
Then we caught sight of more burlap-sacked men. One was a devil, sticking his tongue out at passers by and growling mischievously at tourists. Two carried either end of a pole, a dead dog tied to and dangling from the middle of it. At first, I thought it was just fur or a stuffed animal, then we noticed how limply it was hanging. It had charcoal lines striped on its dun-colored hide.
|A "dog tiger"|
We followed the parade around the drum towers and along the river. Some of the participants went down to the river and splashed the onlookers on the banks. “It’s good luck,” a grinning local man told me in Chinese. He let them sprinkle him, so I did too, happy I’d brought a splash-proof camera.
At the end, after fireworks, and two memory cards’ worth of photos, we watched the parade participants drink baijiu, a Chinese liquor, and exchange red packets of “lucky” money, then disperse to their homes.
A week later, when we’d gone back to work, I tried researching the festival online, but couldn’t find any mention of it.
This is a great lesson I keep telling myself everyone must learn, especially me: Some things just can’t be planned for.