Riders rested their heads on tables or put their legs up on their partner’s lap while they stretched out on hard seats. Those without seats crowded on the floor or on small folding chairs outside of restrooms. We were on a train, somewhere between Bengbu and Nanjing, at just after 2 am on the way back to our places of work after Chinese New Year break.
Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, brings people from the big cities where they live and work in to the towns and villages they grew up in. It’s the one week of the year that Shanghai is quiet and empty while cities in nearby Anhui like Bengbu and Dangshan are alive. It’s the one week of the year Shanghainese might actually miss the “out-of-province” people some of them ordinarily feel superior to.
“The city couldn’t function without migrants,” a Shanghai-born man said two days before New Years while looking for a mechanic to fill up his flat tire and finding all of the shops closed. As for me, I wrote a few days ago about how most of the small restaurants are closed except for those run by Hui minorities.
So I decided to see how things were in a small city north of the Yangtze River. On my way to Xuzhou on Spring Festival Eve, the man sitting in front of me on the train mentioned his hometown Dangshan, a county-level city at the northernmost tip of Anhui. The bus to Dangshan went over bumpy roads by barren, dusty fields and two-story buildings with chipped paint. About 2 hours and 100 km later, we arrived outside Dangshan train station.
A guesthouse around next to the station cost about 70 RMB (compared to over 200 RMB for almost any hotel room in Shanghai) a night for a passable room with internet and toilet. Down the street, actual restaurants were open serving food. Most of the restaurants there seemed to be open.
I had spent the morning of the first day of the new year in Xuzhou, where I watched retired locals perform a pangu dance for which their Railway Folk Troupe was paid by a mall.
The previous night, Spring Festival Eve, rowdy young men lit made-for-export fireworks and threw them, like grenades, into the river running through the city, and watched them explode, lighting up the water with a flash. Once one of them set off a firework upside down, sending everyone to the ground to dodge the multicolored sparks that shot up off the ground. As this was all happening, an old guy sat, completely calm, on a railing a dozen meters away. No one ever said Spring Festival is completely safe, but no one got hurt in the short time I observed the relaxed display of booms and bangs either.
There can be some more fireworks expected during Lantern Festival on February 22. Here’s my video of Lantern Festival in Beijing from 2014:
Being in Xuzhou, however, I missed seeing young men kowtow to their elders on the first day of Spring Festival. It’s an ancient tradition that is not observed much in the cities now, as families are far apart and neighbors don’t know each other. But in the old days, and still in many villages and small towns, the men go from door to door and get on their knees and bow to grandparents.
The tradition of kowtowing reflects how important family and ancestors are considered in Chinese culture. (There is also a tradition of kowtowing to the graves of deceased ancestors during Qingming Festival.) After the young ones bow, the elders give them red envelops containing money—from a few hundred to a few thousand yuan, ordinarily. For children, that money is often deposited into savings accounts for tuition. Now Chinese kids can still get red envelops and new pairs of clothes even if they don’t do the kowtowing. “Little emperors,” indeed.
Overall, the Spring Festival traditions I did see or hear about all appeared to be going stronger in the countryside. The leader of the Railway Folk Troupe, Zhou Xiangxi, told me that folk arts like pangu were born in the countryside and that he and his fellow retirees were trying to keep them alive, as, “It is slowly dying.”
The high school students who showed me pictures of the men in their hometown kowtowing said it only happens anymore in the countryside, and my friend in Shanghai said his son would think it was strange if he told him to do it.
Dangshan is right on the edge of the modernization and tradition. In between the major roads, you can find crisscrossing alleyways where brick and stone courtyard homes house groups of families.
On the edge of the city, you can see new apartment towers being built. In the south, a manmade lake is being filled up, where ancient-style walkways were built over the water, and friends and lovers hang out and fly kites. A young man who just broke up with his girlfriend invites me to drink a beer with him on the bridge.
There’s still no McDonalds, KFC, or Starbucks. The closest they get is Dikos, a Chinese chain of fast food chicken restaurants with a presence in smaller cities, and DBS, a hamburger joint whose logo has a striking resemblance to Burger King’s. (The closest Starbucks is in Xuzhou.) After dinner one night, a woman bemoaned the fact that there was no Haagen-Dazs. For better or worse, the new pleasures of consumption are what many Chinese want.
There are so few foreigners that three people at three separate places mentioned the “black English teacher” to me.
There is a high-speed rail station opening later this year that will make it much faster to travel to Xuzhou and Zhengzhou. For now, I was left to purchase a hard seat on a train that left at 9:40 pm and arrived in Nanjing at 2:30 am. Others had to purchase standing-room only tickets. One woman going to Kunshan (near Shanghai), although she was able to purchase a seat, had to pay for a ticket for the whole length of the journey from Zhengzhou to Shanghai, because all the tickets allocated for local trips had been sold out.
When I arrived at Nanjing Station, the long journey still wasn’t over. The line at the taxi stand was long, and just one taxi came in five minutes of waiting. I ended up getting a taxi by walking down the street outside the station, where a taxi driver picked me up along with another person. It was in violation of the regulations to pick up either of us so close to the station, let alone both of us at once. “The regulators are sleeping,” the driver said. “I wouldn’t have done this during the day.”
The driver was just responding to high demand and low supply. Even many of the taxi drivers went to their old homes during Spring Festival. By Monday, everyone else will be back wherever they are working, and everything will be back to normal.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.