Travelling during Chinese New Year

Getting on the road during Chinese New Year can be a risky (and expensive) business. In China, many people live and work in a city which is not where they are originally from, so before Chinese New Year the country becomes a migration mess with millions of people going back home to spend the holidays with their loved ones. This is called 春运 chunyun and it is the largest temporary migration in the world. If you want to travel during these days you can expect expensive plane tickets, impossible-to-obtain train tickets, traffic jams, and the like. However, it is said that it is better to travel during CNY than not during the October holidays, because that is the preferred travelling week for Chinese people and all the places are crowded.

A few months ago, when we started thinking where to go for CNY holidays, plane tickets were already too expensive. C. wanted to go to Japan; I wanted to go to Myanmar. Tickets to both places were quite expensive, almost more expensive than going to Spain, which is way further away. Then we started thinking about travelling inside China. But we already had a bad experience a couple of years ago, when we went to Xiamen for CNY and it was awfully crowded with Chinese tourists. So we tried to think about a place that would be interesting, but not too touristy. Then C. thought about going to Tianshui, in Gansu province. There are some famous Buddhist caves and one of this classmates from university lives there. So Tianshui it was!

Plane tickets didn’t come cheap. We were to fly to Xi’an and then take a bus from the airport to Tianshui. The internet said there were buses every hour and they took four hours. It sounded ok.

In case you were wondering where Tianshui is (I had never heard about it before going there either).

In case you were wondering where Tianshui is (I had never heard about it before going there either).

On the day of New Year we got up at 3 am to go to the airport. Everybody was home already, so there were no traffic jams and the airport was mostly empty. The plane departed on time (if you live in China you know that is not easy at all!) and we arrived to Xi’an at 9.30. Then the bad news came: there were no buses to Tianshui! But why? Well, it was New Year and they had decided, without telling anyone, that they didn’t feel like working that day. Luckily there was a train ticket booth right in the airport. The last train to Tianshui was at 11.25 and we got the last two tickets. After a taxi race to the train station in the city center, we made it! Only to find out that the first stop after Xi’an was Xiangyang… the city where Xi’an airport is located! Why didn’t the train ticket booth girl told us “Hey, you can take the train in Xiangyang instead of going all the way back to Xi’an”? Because, well, we didn’t ask (of course, we didn’t know!) and customer service is a joke in China.

Finally we made it to Tianshui. It has a population of about 1.5 million, so it is a small city by Chinese standards. It is very long in shape and composed of two districts that lay almost 20 km apart, with almost empty countryside in the middle, and lies between two sets of mountains, one in the north and one in the south.

C, his old classmate and Tianshui in the background (from the temple in the southern mountain).

C, his old classmate and Tianshui in the background (from the temple in the southern mountain).

All of the shops and restaurants were closed for holidays and we had a hard time finding places to eat. And what can you see there? Apart from the Buddhist caves I mentioned earlier (I will write a post about them), there are a few temples and old houses. Regarding meals, almost everything involves noodles, beef or lamb.

And talking about lamb: with all the talking about the new year and if it should be translated as goat or sheep, I read that traditionally there were no sheep in China, but goats. So it should be expected that the word 羊 yang refers to goat, not to sheep. So my question is: the lamb meat skewers (羊肉串)that absolutely everybody has eaten in China, should we change their translation to goat meat skewers? I have spent so many years eating them and thinking it was lamb!

CNY decoratins in the Fuyi temple square in Tianshui.

CNY decoratins in the Fuyi temple square in Tianshui. Goats, indeed.

Deserted streets and closed shops on the second day of the new year.

Deserted streets and closed shops on the second day of the new year.

In Tianshui there are a lot of muslims from the Hui ethnic minority, so there are also some mosques.

In Tianshui there are a lot of muslims from the Hui ethnic minority, so there are also some mosques.

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