Happy Mid Autumn Festival Everyone!
The full moon is high in the sky and I am surrounded by more mooncakes than anyone could ever eat.
I just got back from a quick trip to Hong Kong to get my work visa (whoo I’m legal!!), and after a doctor’s visit and a few other errands, I’ll soon have my residency permit!
In the spirit of the Mid Autumn festival, I thought I’d talk a little about the craziness of Chinese holidays- summer included.
It all started this summer with Tibet. Aside from trying to get a train ticket to Shanghai the day before we wanted to leave, I’ve never actually had problems getting train tickets in China. All I knew was that if you went to the train station, or a little hole-in-the-wall booth that sells train tickets, you can get them 10 days in advance in person. The main issue is that you can only get tickets departing from the city you’re currently in. For example, if you’re in Beijing, you can buy a ticket from Beijing to Shanghai, but not a ticket from Shanghai to Beijing. The whole system worked perfectly well when Nate and I traveled all through Chongqing and Sichuan. But I had yet to encounter: the Chinese Holiday.
It all started with the assumption that once in Qinghai, we could buy tickets from Qinghai to Tibet. I was under the vague impression that no one goes to Tibet. When I picture Tibet, the words that come to mind are: rural, cold, trekking, guest houses, “roughing it”, culture, and political tension. I’ve only met a few Americans who have been to Tibet, giving me the impression that it’s not a popular tourist destination, especially since all foreigners have to have permits and a tour guide. I think of Tibet as one of those places a lot of foreigners would love to go, but they all never quite get around to it. With all the stories of self emulations portrayed as terrorist attacks, and the hatred of the Dali Lama, I assumed that not many Chinese people would want to go to Tibet. Boy, was I wrong. Apparently when Chinese people think of Tibet they envision: the Potala Palace, interesting minority culture, beautiful scenery and clean air. So while Tibet isn’t an extremely popular tourist destination for westerners, it IS for the Chinese, especially during the summer when the Chinese can escape their boiling, monsoon drenched cities for the cool and breezy mountains.
So, what are two girls to do when all the train tickets are sold out? Well, our Tibetan guide, Lumbum, was the first to warn us about tickets. Apparently tickets go on sale online 20 days in advance on a Chinese website, and you can only pay for these tickets with a Chinese debit or credit card. Whoops. Well, lets just say all the tickets to Qinghai and Tibet sold out before we even realized you could buy them online. Yoko and I decided to fly to Qinghai since there were no other options, and our tour guide, Lumbum, promised to help us get tickets through a friend for a fee. We assumed that this “friend” was a travel agent in Qinghai who bought up massive amounts of tickets that he or she could sell for a profit. We were fine with paying the fee, until Lumbum told us it would be 500 kuai PER PERSON ($80 USD). Really?! The tickets themselves were 700 kuai ($112 USD) per person for a soft sleeper. We decided to pay the fee because it was still cheaper than flying, and it is much better to take the train in terms of acclimatizing to the altitude.
In addition to the summer, Chinese holidays during the year are some of the only times that Chinese people can travel. While most people only get Thursday, Friday and Saturday off for the Mid Autumn Festival (they have to work on Sunday to make up for Friday??), it’s not a lot of time to travel, but with at least a full week for National Day and Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), things get crazy!
A few friends and I decided that we wanted to go to Guilin and Yangshou in Guangxi province for National Day, the first week of October. First, let me comment that Chinese breaks are weird. Not only do you have to make up for holidays on the weekends, I get Tuesday October 1st through Monday October 7th off. Why not just get Monday through Friday off so that I get both weekends to travel? “But the holiday starts on Tuesday??” said the school when I asked. Also, even though the holidays are set by the government, schools don’t decide what days exactly (if any), students actually get off until.. a few days before. Schedules? Exact dates? Yeah, those don’t exist here.
That is why, out of the six of us that wanted to go to Guangxi, only three of us knew our schedules in time. The next issue was train tickets. Like I said, normally I haven’t had a problem, but getting train tickets during National Day is almost impossible. By the time I figured out where we were going for the holiday and what dates I had off, it was too late to get a train ticket to Guilin out of Ningbo, Hangzhou and Shanghai. I eventually decided to take a train to Shanghai and fly to Guilin from there. There are a million trains to Shanghai from Ningbo, however, most of these were even sold out!
Since the flight to Guilin was pretty expensive, I wanted to be sure that I would get a train ticket back to Ningbo. There is only one train from Guilin to Ningbo, so I knew that I needed to buy the tickets the minute they went on sale. Most train stations start selling tickets at 8am, but Guilin does’t start selling until 5pm. However, the train from Guilin to Ningbo doesn’t start in Guilin, it merely passes through… so all the tickets were sold out that morning before I was even allowed to buy one. However, there were four trains from Guilin to Hangzhou, and another four from Guilin to Shanghai, so I figured there was a pretty good chance I could get one of those tickets. When I logged on at 4:55pm the train tickets hadn’t gone on sale yet. By 5:03 they were all gone. ALL eight trains sold out. Even seats, HARD seats for a 24 hour train- gone. Luckily, I had asked one of the teachers at my school to help me get a ticket since I was in Hong Kong and didn’t have a Chinese credit card. Somehow she managed to get a soft sleeper from Guilin to Ningbo?! Don’t ask me how she did it, probably magic.
Let’s just say I’m definitely leaving the country for Chinese New Year.