Chinese new year 2013: Exit the dragon

I’ve taken a shed-load of photos recently, and could do a batch on just about any topic, but it makes sense to share a few of the whole chinese new year period and tell people a little about it. It’s going to be picture-book intro.

The local name for chinese new year is the spring festival, which better captures the scale of the thing. It’s not just one night. It’s by far the biggest holiday of the year here. A significant of chunk of the country are migrant workers who’ve gone from small towns and cities to the likes of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, Shenzhen, Chengdu (Sichuan), and Chongqing, hundreds or even thousands of miles from home. The wealthy ones go home a couple of times a year, but the poorer ones only go once. Much of the big cities shut down as a couple of hundred million people get on a train or bus to go home for the first time in a year. Brits might sometimes not see their family at christmas. We see them often, so its not a massive deal. Can you imagine how big a thing it is if you only see them once a year? Nobody, not one single person, fails to go home for new year.

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Pretty soon the sky is lit up with fireworks. They don’t wait until midnight on new year’s eve. You hear and see them every night. The firecrackers they have here would need a firearm certificate in Britain.

ImageThis was a kid firing mini rockets, bless him.

ImagePretty soon you can’t move for bits of exploded fire crackers in the towns. It’s a bit like confetti and kinda beautiful.

And the countryside is no different.

ImageEvery (occupied) house has couplets either side of the door. I told my chinese pal that I couldn’t read them and he said he couldn’t either. It’s old skool chinese.

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Indoors the main thing that’s going on is eating. People are just stuffing their faces all day, to the point where I need to get out and climb a frickin mountain or go round taking photos at midnight to burn some calories. From the from the left here we have pickled ginger, pork skin, tofu stuffed with minced pork, goose, a local sweet thing, made from corn flour and fried, fish balls in soup (made from fresh meat straight off the carp). I think there was also something like fried trout, and some veggies, too. This is one of the simpler meals. Everybody wants to cook loads of food without wasting, so the ones that aren’t finished get reheated and more are added. A dozen or more dishes at one meal is common.

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This one was particularly interesting. It’s mulled wine, people! Except it’s rice wine, heated up with chopped ginger, goji berries, and red dates. Gotta love it. The world is THIS [pea sized] small.

ImageThere are all sorts of traditions about what people are meant to do, and they’re still going strong. One way or another if you go back you’re meant to visit everyone. That’s the basis. There’s also a lot of people giving money in red envelopes. It’s pocket money for the kids, or if it goes to your parents or older relatives it’s considerably more. I was warned to get enough cash for the whole period (and withdrew 500 quid)  because the ATMs empty. People are giving their parents a couple of grand, their grandparents a couple of hundred… …the list goes on. If you ever wondered why Chinese people are such good business people, that’s why. The financial pressures to earn are big. Couple that with the lack of a welfare state and it’s a wonder anyone doesn’t go mental.

ImageThere’s local tradition of flower markets at new year. I don’t know the details, but buying plants at new year makes sense however you look at it. Goldfish and terrapins are also hot commodities, for some reason.

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Other traditions include taking care of your ancestors. At certain times people are meant to go tomb sweeping. You can see at this little shrine that they have thermos flasks and oranges on the table. I guess they pour tea for their ancestors. This was inside a hakka minority roundhouse. We were invited in, no charge, and I’ll post more photos of it later. It’s essentially a whole clan or village living in one house. Every new son builds rooms for his relatives and the house gets bigger and bigger. I think this one was a couple of hundred years old.

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One thing to remember is that the spring festival is more or less the start of spring here. People have daffodil bulbs in pots inside their houses right now, flowering, and they seem to symbolise spring in much the same way as they do in Britain, only a month or more earlier. This is peach blossom.

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It’s not hard to see that spring is on its way.

But pretty soon everybody has to go back to the city to work again, and not many of them want to. Many cleaners and manual workers in Guangzhou are independent home owners in their home village, with a large network of friends. They don’t really want to be back on the bus going five hundred miles away to work. Maybe they have something in common with some of the foreigners out here, who got laid off and then came over.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Waterfall, mountain, cute village, and man jiggling snake around by the tail.

Village sunset

One of my colleagues invited me to her home town recently, so I thought I’d share a few photos. It’s in the countryside somewhere between the two cities of Conghua and Zengcheng. I described the second one to my pal as being “nice, in the sense that it doesn’t look like the set of a Judge Dred movie.”

Chinese cities tend to be industrial and functional in a sense that makes them look like they were wholly built by BP or Middlesbrough. This may be faint praise, but I kinda liked it. It’s built a lot lower and more spread out than Guangzhou, and there’s a riverside promenade complete with trees, grass, bamboo and reeds, which thinking about it, is pretty good for a large city anywhere. They also have an artificial beach. They put a little peninsula running down the middle of the river and added a beach facing back towards the bank, and it’s about half a mile long. This may sound weird to anyone back in the west, but local governments here have a number of reasons for liking big infrastructure projects. Cheap entertainment for local people never goes down badly anywhere, and even here in coastal Guangdong, that city is almost four hours’ drive from the sea. Guangzhou is closer, but I’ve still met a number of people there who have never seen the sea before. These people were university students and, in one case, someone doing a masters in marine biology. It takes a while to get used to, but if you don’t have a car, paid holidays, or live within a day trip of the sea, I guess it’s not surprising.

The countryside is your typical Guangdong stuff, with rice fields, banana trees and quaint old houses. This is all a bit deceptive, though, because you’re looking at it and thinking that it’s lost in the mists of time, and the reality is better.
Village backstreet near Zengcheng
It’s standard in the countryside for people to own their home outright, because it’s been in the family for generations or they got it when the government stopped owning it. People often don’t sell up. They just go to the city, often buy somewhere to live there, and then have another home to come back to. That’s the case for my friend. Her dad has a business and home in the nearest city. So the village is cute, poor and undeveloped, but that’s just because all of the action is elsewhere.

Baishuizai waterfall was pretty odd. It’s on the road between Conghua and Zengcheng. Near the entrance there was a fork in the path, with a sign saying that the best scenery was on the left. I was suspicious, but followed it. Look what I found. The best scenery? Let’s say that zen-like minimalism isn’t quite as prevalent here as you think. They’re charging you about $10 to walk up a hill and look at a mountain, so they need to justify it by ‘improving’ it. Painting up a mountain, cobbling sections of it over the top of natural rock to make it look better and adding concrete railings shaped like branches, all together makes me wonder whether it occurred to them to put bright red lipstick and a short skirt on it as well. I power-walked past this part and didn’t slow down until I got through the crowds.

In amongst all of this a group of people spotted a snake, and I put my camera on rapid fire to try to get a shot. They were mostly out of focus, because the little thing was terrified and trying to get away, but this one is clear enough.
man jiggling snake around

Some guy decided to pick it up and have a laugh with it. I felt sorry for it, because otherwise I would’ve found this daft woman hilarious. It was the size of a worm. Stop being such a wuss! And to whoever it was that said: “It’s a water snake.” [sigh] It was a snake, and it was in the water. Thank you, Dr Dolittle.
Baishuizai waterfall near Conghua

A little further along, you can see the top of the waterfall in the distance. I believe the mountain was only about 500m high, but it was actually a pretty brutal trek with only a KFC meal in my stomach and not enough water. I took about two hours getting up there on some very windy paths, and then, somehow took 1hr 40m to get down, going two steps at a time the whole way. My calves were so sore I couldn’t walk right for days and I had to go find milk and cookies as soon as I got down to recharge my mojo.
Here’s a more scenic one:
Baishuizai waterfall

The next morning I went out for breakfast in zengcheng, and thought I’d take a couple of shots of an ordinary back street, that accidentally included two gems: “generic old man no1” and “the kung fu film extra.” This guy has steamed bread on the back of his bike, but I expected Jackie Chan to jump out right after he rides past. He has that kind of vibe.
Kung fu film extra

Generic old man no1

Generic old man no1 could be just about anybody’s grandad coming back from theshops with a massive bag of mints in one hand and seventeen crossword books in the other. The main street had big stores and malls, and the inevitable mcdonald’s, but the backstreets are a little more interesting. The people were friendly, and while I sat down for breakfast I had the lady who ran the store and woman with a little girl asking me questions about salaries and kindergartens and the usual stuff. The lady selling cheap noodles for breakfast had a son at university in Guangzhou studying business, so you can see why she was happy. Things here tend to progress in a positive direction like that, but in the west it’s often the other way round.

Here’s the massive artifical beach.
Zengcheng river artificial beach

The river is to the left of the trees and looks like this from the cycle path.
Zengcheng riverside

I think this is a gill net, that might be a touch illegal in Britain. He seems to be trying to catch the fish as they come out of this little tributary, and considering that the net went right across from one side to the other, I think he had the upper hand.
Fishing