Today begins the Chinese New Year celebrations and in honour of this we have a guest post from Erin Lidz, an English language teacher currently living and working in China and blogging at Hobosapient.
In China the anticipation of Chinese New Year (Spring Festival) can be felt weeks away. Red lanterns start to line the streets, bazaars pop up selling all kinds of food and candy, and trees are decorated with festive lights. As a working expat living in China it's especially exciting, as with the holiday comes a lovely 5-10 day paid vacation! It didn't take long for my excitement to wane, though, as I discovered that traveling during Chinese New Year is dreaded by Chinese, expats, and short term travelers alike. I'm a budget traveler, and the New Year is the most hectic and expensive time of the year to travel in China. Most Chinese people head back to their hometowns to spend the holiday with their close family. For many people it's the only time a year that they'll make the trip home. Additionally, most workers have at least a few days, but up to a week, before or after the holiday off, so tons of people are using that time to check out tourist attractions and take relaxed vacations!
However stressful traveling during Chinese New Year may be, the block of time off is too tempting to pass up, so my boyfriend, Kevin, and I decided we had to make use of our vacation and explore somewhere new. Figuring out a way to avoid tons of tourists and stick to our pretty tight budget was a challenge. We made many mistakes, and our trip definitely didn't pan out just how we expected, but through trial and error we were able to better understand traveling during the most traveled time of year. Through this experience we discovered that Chinese New Year isn't necessarily a time to avoid travel. Rather, it's a time to plan differently.
Pick a place that's off the tourist trail or off-season
This doesn't mean you can't go somewhere desirable, it just means that instead of immediately envisioning yourself escaping the cold and catching some rays on the beach, button your coat up a little tighter and think about exploring the mountains! Be creative! What's something a little off the beaten track? The great thing about Chinese New Year is that it's celebrated everywhere, countrywide. You never have to worry about missing out as long as there are people around.
Seems so obvious, yet this is the area where Kevin and I went terribly wrong, which resulted in a 14 hour, overnight train in hard seats. Granted, we decided to grab our tickets a mere 6 hours before we wanted to leave. Whoops!
It's not impossible to get reasonably priced transportation around Chinese New Year, but it's definitely not the time to wait until the last minute to book! Train tickets become available 10 days in advance at train stations and ticket offices. Chinese people will begin lining up to book their tickets, and for good reason! Train tickets don't become more expensive for the holiday, so if you're on the ball and make arrangements early you can get where ever you need to go without breaking your budget.
Also, you'll save money and avoid crowds by skipping out on tour groups or packages and popular tourist attractions. By renting bicycles for the day, Kevin and I were able to explore small villages around the area, visit monasteries, and get great views of the mountains for practically free (bike rentals cost us less than $5 each for the day)! Most of the people will be in a few of the places, so if you can live without seeing all of the "must sees" and do some discovering of your own, you can have a unique and tranquil vacation even in a popular place!
Chinese New Year is an exciting, festive time of year, so don't be afraid to get out and explore. If you're an expat, you can definitely put that time off to really good use. If you're travelling through China short term, don't have heart failure when you see hotel and transportation prices skyrocket. Think outside the box a little, and be extremely flexible, and a budget vacation is definitely within reach!