Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Lunar New Year Surprises – Confusing the Spirits

While Supriya remains on hiatus this week, our special guest blogger, Beth Green, fills us in on a festival you may only learn about here at Novel Adventurers. Beth is a writer and English teacher living in Southern China. She grew up on a sailboat in the Caribbean, and though now a landlubber, still enjoys a peripatetic life. She writes articles and suspense about travel and expatriate life. (And check out her amazing photography.)

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
For the first few days of the trip, we were fine. Buses were cheap, plentiful, and went to the places that I had planned out for us. We observed traditional wooden architecture, tasted spicy minority cuisine, and visited villages where people still work the fields in traditional homespun dress, bedecked in silver jewelry.

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
We studied my guidebooks and chose a village that some people had described as “too touristy.” If they were used to tourist money, we thought, maybe they’d have some stores and restaurants open. We were tired of instant noodles.

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.
We wandered through the town and saw with relief that it was indeed open for business. We ate beef noodle soup and found a guest house on the main drag, right near one of the five drum towers. Our room looked over the street, and we sat in the window taking pictures and chatting about what to do next. I hadn’t originally researched this village, and we’d been cut off from the Internet for a week or so, so all I had to go on was a few paragraphs from the Lonely Planet.

“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
“That’s to confuse the evil spirits,” I overheard a guide telling a small group of Western tourists who’d pulled up in a chartered van.

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"
I sidled close enough to the tour guide again to hear that killing the dog represented beating tigers and other fearsome beasts. After this parade, the spirit world would protect the village from those predators.

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.


  1. Beth, what a charming story! I agree that finding things you haven't expected to find are the nicest surprise.

  2. My inner adventurer is very happy that there are things that are awaiting "discovery" despite the internet!! Thank you!

  3. Ditto what Patricia and Geets said! I love the fact you couldn't locate this event online. Well, until today. :)

    Thanks for sharing it! Love love love the photos as well. Except for the animal cruelty...

  4. To everyone--Thanks for the comments!

    @Geets--one of the challenges of traveling in China is that there's SO much that's not online in English, and sometimes not online at all. While China is becoming more and more internet functional like the West, they still lag behind most countries in their tourist-friendly websites. I'm sure it will all change in the next several years, but for now, it's a frontier!

  5. What a wonderful story, Beth (and gorgeous photos!). Thanks for sharing it with us. I'm a big fan of the Lonely Planet guidebooks, too. The one for Iran is excellent, and I take it with me whenever I go there.

  6. @Heidi Thanks! I've been a big fan of Lonely Planet for years too. I don't however, recommend their all-China guidebook as it is now--the information is unfortunately too sparse and biased for much of the off-the-beaten path places (i.e. the whole reason you would buy the book) to warrant lugging the giant book around. Their regional guides are better, though. Also, interesting note, Lonely Planet's China guide is not actually sold in China because the map in the front shows Taiwan as a separate country--which goes against the official stance of the government.

  7. Ah, good ol' Lonely Planet. Their head office isn't too far from my place. Thanks for sharing such a wonderful adventure with us, Beth. I'm a planner myself and I have to agree, most of my most memorable experiences are the ones I could never have planned. Guess it pays to be flexible sometimes, huh?