A Long Journey Home Posted by sasha on Feb 16, 2015 in Culture, festivals
The Spring Festival is fast approaching, and millions of Chinese people are heading home to ring in the New Year with their loved ones. For many, it’s a long and tiring journey home. Trains are packed to the brim, airports are bustling, and roads are full of cars, trucks, and buses all across the country. It’s the biggest mass migration of people on the planet, and it can be stressful to say the least. I can relate to the hard times many folks in China have getting home, as I had a similar trip for my most important of holidays – Christmas.
In the lead up to December 25th, I was on a business trip in China visiting my elves in the toy factories. On my way out, the smog impaired my vision and I ended up crash landing my sleigh. Much to my dismay, none of the people I met on the street could speak any English to help me out. Finally, one girl dressed as Snow White was able to inform me that I was in Kunming (昆明 – kūn míng), the capital city of Yunnan province (云南 – yún nán). While the “Spring City” seemed nice and all, I had to get back to the North Pole. I tried to hitchhike, but nobody dared to pick me up.
When it became clear that I was going to have to find my own way home, I had to earn some quick cash. Following the lead of other foreigners I ran into, I got a job teaching English.
To help me get between jobs faster, I decided to pick up some wheels as well. Sadly, there were no sleighs for sale, but I did manage to score a 4th hand e-bike for pretty cheap.
In my spare time, I enjoyed walking around the city center and spreading Christmas cheer. Believe it or not, there were Christmas trees everywhere. Chinese people don’t really celebrate Christmas – or even know why it’s a holiday for that matter – but they sure love shopping.
Carrying around my sack had my back aching, so I was pretty excited when I saw old ladies giving massages in the street. For just 20 RMB (about $3.50), I sat down for a shoulder and neck massage. Chinese massages aren’t exactly relaxing, though, and I ended up in more pain than when I started.
Finally, I had enough money saved up to get a train ticket. Since the North Pole is pretty damn far from Kunming, I decided to stop in a few other cities along the way and spread some more Christmas cheer. While visions of sugarplums danced in my head, I drifted off to sleep in my bunk on the train.
My first stop was Guiyang (贵阳 – guì yáng), the provincial capital of Guizhou (贵州 – guì zhōu). Before I could even leave the train station, I had to pose for tons of pictures with locals. It was as if they had never seen a foreigner before.
It was a great day in Guiyang as I really dove into the local culture. In the morning, I got my groove on with some ladies in the park. Chinese gals sure can dance!
Next up, I visited the historic Jiaxiu tower (甲秀楼 – jiǎ xiù lóu) on the river. I felt like the Emperor as everyone wanted to take their picture with me. They even let me sit on the throne!
It was a nice, peaceful afternoon strolling along the river and chatting with locals. People in Guiyang were some of the friendliest I met in all my travels in China.
In the evening, I feasted on some yummy street food for just a couple of kuai. I missed my wife’s cooking back home in the North Pole, but the Chinese sure do a damn good job with noodles. The beer could use some work, though…
The street food was great and all, but it didn’t exactly sit well. My stomach just wasn’t used to the Chinese spices. I went out in search of the little Santa’s room, and was quite perplexed by what I found.
For those planning a trip to China, I’ll give you one important piece of advice – always carry some tissue and hand sanitizer with you. There’s not much privacy in a Chinese public bathroom either, so you may get pretty close to strangers.
Another overnight train journey brought me to Changsha (长沙 – cháng shā), capital of Hunan province (湖南 – hú nán). I needed something other than rice and noodles, so I headed to a local expat joint called Crave. After a sandwich and some coffee, I was ready to take on another Chinese city.
My day was spent hiking up Yuelu Mountain (岳麓山 – yuè lù shān), a scenic area with plenty of historical landmarks. In between taking photos with giddy Chinese people, I checked out a Buddhist temple and the historic Yuelu Academy.
On the way out, I stopped for a photo opp with a giant statue of Chairman Mao outside of the university.
Things got a little wild at night, as I hit the bar street to party it up. Christmas decorations lined the street, including a mini version of me.
People were so excited to have me in their bar, and I was treated to plenty of free beers with chants of “Bottoms up!” (干杯 – gān bēi). It was only a Tuesday night, but the bars were packed full of people. The folks in Changhsa sure know how to party.
Feeling a little tipsy and adventurous, I tried stinky tofu (臭豆腐 – chòu dòu fu) for the first time. As if smelly fermented bean curd doesn’t sound gross enough, the Changsha version is also black. Despite the awful smell, it was actually quite tasty. I wound the night down by puffing on some shisha at the popular Helen’s Bar.
By the time I got to Wuhan (武汉 – wǔ hàn) the next day, the hangover finally caught up with me. It was the last city on my road trip, though, so I powered through and headed to the Yellow Crane Tower (黄鹤楼 – huáng hè lóu).
As is the case with most Chinese cities, Wuhan features a famous snack street. Having grown accustomed to the strange things people eat in China, I checked it out and tried a variety of local specialties including the “hot dry noodles” (热干面 – rè gān miàn).
After a bunch of oily and spicy food, I had to get something to wet my whistle. Much to my delight, I found a 40 oz. PBR for sale in a random shop down an alley. I headed down to the Yangtze River (长江 – cháng jiāng) to enjoy my beer and reflect on an awesome trip.
Finally, it was time to get on the train headed home. My Chinese still wasn’t very good, but I tried to confirm that we were in fact headed to the North Pole. The guys in my bunk assured me that we were all headed there and not to worry, so I got cosy and drifted off to sleep.
In the morning, I was shocked to find that we were in Beijing and not the North Pole at all. You see, the Chinese names for the two sound quite similar – 北京 (běi jīng) and 北极 (běi jí). It turns out there isn’t a train to the North Pole at all. I was down and out in the Chinese capital with no money left to my name, no sleigh, and no gifts to bring to the children of the world.
It seemed as if all hope was lost and that I’d be stranded in China forever. Just when I was ready to give up all faith, I heard a glorious sound in the distance – a group of people caroling. When I turned the corner, I couldn’t believe my eyes – there was a huge group of my Santa homies gathered in the old hutong (胡同 – hú tòng) of Beijing.
We spent the day marching through the streets of Beijing, singing Christmas songs, drinking mulled wine, and having a jolly old time. This whole time, I had been trying to get home for the holidays. Surrounded by my Santa 朋友 beneath a twinkling Christmas tree, I realized I was already there.
You can experience the whole journey with me in the short film, “Santa in China:”