Posted by: CS
Fireworks in China - a thing of the past?

As Spring Festival draws to a close in China the eager visitor may have noticed that their China vacation was a little quieter than they might have expected. In recent years the New Year's fireworks have started to get a little tamer than before. Once, a China tour guide would need to severely caution a traveler to avoid thrown fireworks in the streets. Today, that's hardly necessary and as you travel the busy city streets you might even wonder why you were warned in the first place.

A Tradition

China has always celebrated the New Year with fireworks. It dates back to the legend of a mythical child eating monster which once arrived at the beginning of each Spring Festival. It is said that the locals scared the monster off by wearing red and throwing fireworks. Throughout the centuries a trip to China at this time has brought people into contact with millions of people enthusiastically setting off fireworks everywhere they possibly can.

The Problem

The problem with fireworks is that while they work very nicely in rural settings, they don't work so nicely in big cities. No-one wants to spend their China vacation in a blazing hotel where a carelessly thrown firework has set the whole thing alight. Nor do the Chinese appreciate coming home to find their apartment blocks burning to the ground.

Then there's a second issue; pollution. Pollution in Northern China has been particularly bad recently. It's manageable for a couple of days on a China tour but for the locals it's getting down right depressing. There have even been days in some major Chinese cities where people have been forbidden to travel from their homes.

The Chinese press has been full of these stories and the Chinese people are beginning to understand the impacts of air pollution on their lives and their children's lives. They know that one of the ways to prevent the problem from worsening is to stop burning things in their cities. So this vacation time in Beijing firework sales collapsed. According to the Beijing government, 40% fewer fireworks were sold this year than last year in China's largest city.

This has been confirmed by reports from many of the residents of Beijing. They confirm that they are at their wits end with the smog that envelopes the city at times. They are concerned about their health and want to ensure that they don't make the problem worse.

In fact some of the environmental charities have been encouraging a compromise. They've been pitching smaller fireworks as the way to reduce the pollution, but it appears that for most people – they've just decided to skip the fireworks completely.

It's certainly something to bear in mind when you book your China vacation. The reduction in fireworks might make Spring Festival a little less explosive but it certainly means a safer, cleaner China tour. The good news is that this doesn't stop Spring Festival from being a wonderful, warm occasion. Wherever you travel in China – you'll still have a great time.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese Embroidery – A Stitch Throughout Time

One of the best things about a China vacation is the opportunity to immerse yourself in local crafts. Something you want to keep a lookout for when your China tour hits Beijing is Chinese embroidery. This is an art form with over 2,000 years of history and it forms an intrinsic part of Chinese culture. So to help you most of a trip round China’s sewn handicrafts we’ve put together a little introduction to the art.

Han embroidery is the oldest of styles and it’s enjoying a popular resurrection at the moment. It was forbidden for a few years following the Cultural Revolution but the opening up of the economy has made sure that people are receptive to it all over again. It dates back to the ancient Chu state which would have been found along the banks of the Yangtze River. Today, you won’t see embroidery on your river cruise because the industry has begun to travel further inland.

In fact embroidery in China back in the 2nd Century BC was a martial art form. There’s a story that Lui Bei a warlord of the period was destined to face his arch-enemy Cao Cao. Cao Cao was to invade Lui Bei’s territory with a great host gathered to eradicate Lui Bei from the face of the earth. Liu did not panic but instead he made a trip to see every embroiderer in the city. China’s finest responded well and when Cao Cao arrived Liu Bei’s city was draped in majestic flags telling the story of his victories. Cao Cao was so overwhelmed by the sight that he turned tail and fled rather than fight such an imposing enemy.

Today, the embroiderer’s task is a complex one. They need to understand the complex needlework that brings the right results. They need to be a historian richly versed in the changing and intricate styles of embroidery down the centuries particularly those used by different royal dynasties. They should have a strong background in folk culture so that when they want to tell a tale through pattern it will travel across China and be universally recognized. They should also understand painting and the influences of Daoism.

There is a little gender bias in the industry. Throughout history while women have done the physical embroidery, men have been the master pattern makers and designers. Their skills are passed from father to son in every generation. The apprenticeship is a long one each designer will serve for 3 years as an assistant designer and then serve another 5 year term under a master of embroidery.

The finest pieces of Han embroidery may take months to complete. Each piece may require more than one million stitches to realize fruition. The color matching process is painstaking and requires extraordinary attention to detail.

One of the best places to see examples of embroidery on your China tour is the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. In fact it’s a great reason to make the Hall a stop on your China vacation. Here you’ll see some of the finest pieces in China from both modern and ancient designers. It’s a shame that you can’t see the embroiderers still plying their art on the banks of the Yangtze during a river cruise but that doesn’t mean you have to miss out on the end results.

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Posted by: CS
Ten Shanghai Secrets Everyone Should Know…

Shanghai is one of the crown jewels of a trip to China. This wonderful city, the largest in the world is a China vacation favorite. Your travel plans simply have to include some time walking this complex and mesmerizing place. We've got some secrets to share with you that will help you get just that little bit more out of your tour of this amazing place.

1. China's most populous city was once a tiny fishing village. It was called Hudu. The name comes from a sort of wooden lobster pot that the villagers used to catch fish in. If you have a look at local license plates you can see the Chinese character for Hu (which comes from the village name) on every Shanghai plate.

2. During World War 2 the city played host to over 20,000 Jewish people. Their travel plans weren't based on the joys of exploring China but rather an escape from the oppression of Nazi Germany.

3. Take a tour of the Astor hotel (on Huangpu Lu) and you'll find one of the strangest stories in China. Back in the 1920s there was a man who kept his mistress there. When he found she was cheating on him, he filled the hotel room with live animals. Where he found the kangaroo is anyone's guess.

4. If you'd like to see where the rich and famous go on vacation you'll want to visit the Astor House instead. It's guests have included China's very first premier (Zhou En Lai), a US President-to-be (Herbert Hoover) and the world's most famous physicist (Albert Einstein)

5. If you'd like to take a photo of something really peculiar why not take a trip to Zhongshan Park and see the tallest statue in the world of… Chopin. That's right for some reason China is very fond of the Polish composer.

6. If you'd prefer to get a little thrill from your vacation time then head to Lianhua Lu Station (you can find it on Metro Line 1). It is said to be both haunted and cursed, this may have something to do with it being next door to the largest morgue in China.

7. Or travel over to Nanjing Dong Lu and see the Shanghai No. 1 Department store which was for many years of communist rule the largest shop in the whole of China. Interestingly the store was home to the very first escalator installed in the country too.

8. Speed demons should take a trip from Longyang Lu Station to the airport. The train covers the 30 kilometer distance in less than seven and a half minutes. It's a miracle of modern China's engineering.

9. Sticking with trains did you know that Shanghai South Railway Station is the only circular railway terminus in the world? It has an impressively constructed roof which covers over 50,000 square meters of space.

10. For the perfect China vacation photograph why not go to the Moon River Art Park and take a snap of the most expensive toilet in the city. It came in at just a fraction under $1 million (US Dollars) to build.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese Buddhism

While many people don't associate China with any particular religion there are many religious influences in everyday Chinese life. During your China tour you'll visit many Buddhist and Taoist temples in particular. To make the most of this opportunity on your China vacation it's always good to have a little background before you make the trip. So we've put together a quick guide to Buddhism in China for you.

China Trip: The Tea Fields of Hangzhou

As you might expect, Buddhism made its way to China along the Great Silk Road from India. The first record of Buddhism in Mandarin comes from the year 148 A.D. A Parthian called An Shigao took a trip to Loyang and worked to ensure an accurate translation of the major Buddhist scripts was available to all who wanted access to them.

However, in these early times Buddhism was not always well accepted by the Chinese. Many felt that Buddhism was not contributing to China and some went so far as to fear that its' influences were damaging the country. What probably saved the development of the faith was its marked similarity to the Chinese Dao religion which also emphasizes meditation as a way of balancing your life.

In the early 5th century Buddhism was gaining in respect. The landed gentry were accepting it as a way of rising above the beliefs of the peasants. The faith began to travel to the high court and win imperial favor too. At the same time in China, Indian monks took many trips down the Silk Road to continue teaching as well as translating further works into Chinese.

Then during the Tang Dynasty the Chinese monk, Xuanxang, travelled to India and surveyed all the great Buddhist sites. He made a trip to every holy place he could think of and studied at the famous Nalanda University. When he returned to China he brought over 1,000 translated texts with him. This journey is not only famous but the products of it have had a lasting impact on the further development of all schools of Buddhism both within and outside of China.

Buddhist art is amongst the earliest art forms found in China. On your vacation you might visit some of the caves with stunning 8th century Buddhist paintings or one of the many Buddhist temples with their extraordinary statues.

While Buddhism's star eventually faded during the coming centuries as Confucianism and Daoism merged to become a more popular form of worship in China – it is still highly relevant today. In 2005 a 108 meter tall Buddha was erected in Sanya (an island off the southern coast). In 2006 China hosted the first World Buddhist Forum, people travel from all over the world to share their faith at this event every two years now. The government also placed a ban on any further mining on the sacred mountains of Buddhism in 2007.

In fact wherever you go in China on your vacation you won't be able to miss the influence that Buddhism still has in the country. Its practitioners are pleasant, humble people with a genuine abiding faith that has withstood the test of time. China is, as it always was, one of the most important nations in Buddhist history and development.

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Posted by: CS
A New Job for a New Year?

If you're taking your China vacation this spring festival you won't be able to escape the amazing volumes of people who travel from one end of the country to the other to see their families. However, there’s another mass migration going on at this time of year in China that’s not so obvious. Your China tour is concerned with the sights, sounds, smells, tastes, etc. of the country. So you might not notice the change-over in those people who are out to help you enjoy your trip.

Chinese workers are amongst the least satisfied in the world according to Mercer's bi-annual study on employee turnover. In fact only 17% of people feel they are fully engaged with their companies while an amazing 30% would like to change their jobs today. This isn’t an unknown situation to China’s companies. The usual pattern goes something like this; staff travel home for Spring Festival and once the vacation is over (and they’ve picked up their annual bonus) – they start job hunting. In Guangdong province for example; in an average year nearly 2 million workers change jobs in the first week following the New Year.

So what's different this year? Well, the news story of the month is that Chinese workers aren’t all that fussed about the bonuses they expect to receive in 2013. With the global economic slowdown Chinese firms may have kept their heads above water but they haven’t had the booming growth of previous years either. So before they travel back to their own parts of China, workers are deciding to secure new opportunities prior to their vacation.

The year of the snake is not-felt to bode well for business in China by Chinese employees. They are concerned that the downturn will bite harder than this year and they are worried if they leave their job hunt too late – they’ll be out of luck. That means making the trip round prospective employers before the spring festival and ensuring that they are top of the list when it comes to hiring.

It isn't of course all doom and gloom. The Chinese economy is still growing (unlike most major economies) and workers are beginning to see the appeal in working closer to home too. You see most of China’s big companies are based around the 4 biggest cities in the country; Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen. However, the cost of employing people in these cities has sky-rocketed and so has the cost of living. The mass migration of people to remote areas of China has had a real impact in smaller towns and cities. Money flows from China’s big cities to people’s home towns.

In those towns smaller businesses are sprouting up everywhere and more and more big companies are relocating further inland to cut their workforce costs. This is good news for China’s migrant workforce – they may have to take a pay cut to move back home but this is more than offset by the lower cost of living and the chance to spend more time with their families.

This new trend of looking for work before China’s biggest vacation is not the end of the world. In fact it may see a bright new beginning for industry in China. Where people are put ahead of profits and children can live with their parents year round.

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Posted by: CS
A Cashless China?

One thing you'll notice during your China vacation is how few places seem to take credit cards. In fact, if you're looking to buy souvenirs on your China tour you'll almost always end up falling back on cash. If you are lucky enough to find somewhere that accepts cards, be prepared for a whole world of rigmarole. If you don't have your passport you'll have to take a trip back to the hotel to fetch it as they'll need a copy. In fact paying by card in China can often take 20-30 minutes particularly if your purchase exceeds $100.

So it comes as a surprise that in China Daily this week there's an indication that things could soon be changing. The president of MasterCard in China may have 10 cards in his wallet, but a quick tour through the wallets of most of the nation reveals at best an ATM card and often no card at all.

However, the figures from the banks show that this last year they have handed out nearly 330 million cards. That's an astonishing number – that's more than one card per person in the United States and most of these are to new customers and not existing clients. Yet despite that only 14% of MasterCard employees in China work their lives on a no-cash basis. The rest take a trip to the bank to withdraw money on a regular basis.

There's a good reason for China to start implementing better credit card handling facilities. One of the potentially lucrative markets for Chinese businesses is targeting the spending of cross-border shoppers taking a brief China vacation to stock up on cheaper products. Most people arriving from Hong Kong or Macao are going to be armed with plastic and forcing them to use ATMs is a good way of reducing their overall spending.

The biggest problem that the adoption of cards faces in China is the reduced margins of retailers. In a very cost-conscious society like the Chinese society every penny counts. The x% per transaction model places a retailer at a distinct disadvantage – their margins may be particularly small to begin with. They need to be able to justify extra revenues from sources like tour groups before they invest in card processing facilities.

MasterCard has taken a trip around all the major Chinese banks and struck sensible deals for implementing card systems with most of them. This will hopefully start to incentivize Chinese card holders to spend money via cards too. It's that concentrated effort that will eventually reap dividends – certainly in a post-Olympics Beijing it's slowly becoming easier to pay by card.

Strangely the tipping point might come sooner rather than later and perhaps not in the form of a classic credit card. If there's one thing you'll notice on a China vacation, it's that the Chinese absolutely love their mobile phones. If card payment systems can be successfully integrated as mobile payment options in mobile phones then everyone in China might start paying for their trip to the shops with their phone rather than cash. We think it's always best to carry cash in China unless you're sure that the place you're going to spend money in will accept cards. However, it's just possible that current efforts might make a China vacation a cashless one sometime in the near future.

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Posted by: CS
Tongli – The Retreat and Reflection Garden

China vacations are superb for their ability to bring you into contact with so many new and exciting elements of life. However, there comes a point during every China tour when you fancy a little less travel and the chance to reflect on the journey so far. Tongli offers the perfect place to do just that. The Retreat and Refection Garden may not be the biggest in China but it is one of the best. To back that up, the garden was awarded UNESCO world heritage status in 2001 as the finest example of its kind anywhere in the country.

About the Retreat and Reflection Garden

China Trip: Tongli - The Retreat and Reflection Garden

If your trip is taking in Tongli, it shouldn't be too difficult to fit in a visit to the garden as you wander round the canals and bridges. It was constructed in 1885 and fits in snug 6,600 square meters so there won't be as much walking involved as there is in the gardens of Suzhou – China's other great garden city.

Most Chinese gardens travel from north to south but the Retreat and Reflection garden works from east to west instead. The buildings are placed a little back from the water's edge in the classic “near-the-water” style of China's finest gardens.

The East Garden has several features of interest and as you tour through the garden make sure you stop to appreciate each of them. The first is the Gathering Beauty Tower; it sits on a wall at the end of the East Garden. It's made in an unusual hexagonal shape and has no first floor; the flying eaves will remind you of something out of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

The colonnades of the entry hall offer a little shade if your visit coincides with one of China's warmer months and allow you to appreciate the view out on to the small and snugly decorated courtyard. Pay close attention to the gabled roof of the Guesthouse which is exquisitely finished. Then continue your trip in the Land Boat Hall; if you're lucky you may be able to see a performance from Chinese musicians here. You should then head up onto the Lasting Spring and Moon Viewing Tower that offers the perfect place to take your vacation photos of one of China's neatest gardens.

Finally in the East Garden you'll want to spend some time in Wan Xiang Hall the home of the creator of the garden, Ren Langsheng. Then visit the Celestial Bridge in the West Garden; it's one of China's most famous sights. It's a cool covered corridor that leads up to the Hardship Tower; a place that offers today's tourist no hardships at all but another great view.

Continue your tour at the Lotus Blossoms Pavillion which balances delicately over the waters on piers. The Music Terrace is a pleasant place but music is rarely performed there. One of the nicest places in the West Garden is the Osmanthus Hall and it's named after the trees in the garden.

Sleeping Cloud Pavilion perches atop a rockery and is a very unusual looking building. Soft Rain Brings Coolness Terrace is best for the horse head constructed on edge of the construction. Finally, you'll want to wrap up your tour in the Thatched Hall of Retreat and Reflection. It's here that the true cleverness of China's smallest garden is revealed. The views are designed to simulate the flow of a painting unraveling. It's a China vacation highlight that you really ought to enjoy.

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Posted by: CS
Face Culture in China

You've probably heard of face culture, but what does it really mean? How can an understanding of face help you build relationships on your China vacation? It's one of the most common questions we're asked on a China tour and one of the hardest to answer. We've found that as people travel around China they develop their own understanding, but here's a basic guideline.

Hierarchy in China

Chinese culture is very hierarchical. Unlike in the West there's very much a set definition of someone's status within any group and while it may change from group to group the rules are almost always the same. Within a family the oldest male is top dog and the hierarchy tends to work down the male line. In business it's the oldest or most senior person that gets the top slot and everyone else falls in line as you work your way down the age range/seniority scale.

Face Culture

It takes a lifetime to become entirely familiar with face. So don't expect to become an expert on your China vacation. However, during your trip if you remember a few basic rules then you may find China is a more rewarding destination.

Firstly, face can be defined as a kind of score awarded by both participants in a conversation to themselves and each other. They gain points (face) by acting in a constructive non-confrontational manner, they maintain points (face) by remaining calm and neutral and they lose points (face) when they break the rules or lose their temper.

This is often hard for Westerners to grasp. In China, society and harmony are placed ahead of individuality. A trip through life is a communal trip rather than a solo journey. That means that relationships in China depend on face and everyone is committed not just to preserving their own face, but also to preserving everyone else's.

This leads to a very non-conflicting way of approaching things. Many Westerners travel home from China thinking that people are deceitful because they cannot ask a straight question and get a straight answer. What they don't realize is that those "straight questions" in China lead to a situation where someone can lose face.

If you ask someone; "Do you know how I get to the Great Wall?" You're setting yourself up for failure. If they don't know they can't admit to that without losing face (e.g. it's shameful not to be able to help). If you were Chinese you'd understand that your tour of the Great Wall depended on asking the right question. You'd also understand that someone in China can save face in this situation by giving you an answer you want to hear – even if it's not right. Finally, you'd agree that this was OK – because you asked the wrong question.

Westerners don't know that. In their world you'd expect the other guy to say; "I don't know." Then you could ask someone else. A much better question would be; "Would it be possible to find out how to get to the Great Wall?" it's only slightly less direct but it leaves the person with an option to consult someone else. Your China vacation has just become much easier because you've allowed them to conserve face if they don't know the answer. Face can be quite a taxing issue on a China tour unless you spend a little time appreciating that it exists and working with it. The system won't change for you but if you think a little harder about how you phrase a question – it doesn't have to work against you either.

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Posted by: CS
Suzhou and Opera

One of China vacation's unforgettable highlights is a trip to Suzhou. The gardens are famed for their beauty throughout the world. It's a classic stop on a China tour for just that reason but there's another good reason to travel to Suzhou and one not so well known; opera. In fact Suzhou is one of the main bases of the art form in China. So if you're stopping by during your trip you absolutely must take some time out to enjoy the musical culture of the city.

Suzhou Opera

China Trip: Suzhou and Opera

Suzhou practices one of the oldest forms of opera known today in China. It is called Kunqu (and also Kun Opera) and it based around four melodies that give it its uniquely defining characteristics. In the time of the cultural revolution in China the opera in most of the country was suppressed. Tours were cancelled and many performers went underground. Surprisingly, the opera scene in Suzhou flourished in this oppressive environment and Kunqu became a significant and widely admired art form.

As with many forms of Chinese opera many of the performances are based on classic Chinese literature. The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Journey to the West, The Peony Pavilion, The Peach Blossom Fan and other favorites from China's past have all been immortalized in song.

In fact the opera in Suzhou is so culturally significant that UNESCO have placed it on the “Masterpieces of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity” list. Though we'd advise against trying to say that after a few glasses of rice wine.

Suzhou Opera Museum

If you'd like to take a little time during your China vacation to get better acquainted with Chinese opera then the museum is a great place to start. It opened in 1982 and is set in a beautiful Qing Dynasty tower.

Your tour begins in the main room and it's a classic opera stage with a roof designed to offer the best possible quality of song. It's perfect for a performance of your soon-to-be favorite opera from China.

Take a walk through the grounds and enjoy the sights of sculptures in the forms of musicians taking up the traditional forms of the opera. Better yet, get there on a Sunday at about 1.30 p.m. and pick up a ticket for a performance. 30 RMB for an hour and a half's entertainment is an extraordinary value. If you can't make it on a Sunday, miniature performances are available on a regular basis in the imitation Qing Dynasty tea house.

Once you've caught the music take a trip round the rest of the museum and enjoy all the relics of a bygone musical age in China. The collection includes Ming Dynasty era block prints of opera scripts. There are also some handwritten copies from the original Kungqu Opera house.

Suzhou's a wonderful city with so much to see and do in the gardens that it can be easy to overlook some of its' other attractions. Taking in a Suzhou Opera during your China vacation means that you can get just that little bit more joy from the place before you move on.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese New Year
China Trip: Chinese New Year

The biggest and most important festival in the Chinese calendar, is the Spring Festival. It's often called Chinese New Year in the West, and that's a reasonably good description in that it does coincide with the beginning of the lunar year in the country.

How long is the festival?

The Spring Festival runs for over a fortnight it begins on the first day of the first lunar month, Zhengyue, and ends on the 15th with another festival – The Lantern Festival. It is without a doubt the busiest period in China, and travelers should be warned that unless you've arranged transport well in advance – it can take, literally, days to procure a ticket anywhere. Over a billion people head home from their workplaces to their families, and then return at the end – it's the largest human migration on a regular basis on earth.

What Happens in China during the Spring Festival?

China's a big place and that means different regions have different customs. So prepare for a few surprises depending on where you visit. However there are some fairly consistent themes too.

It kicks off on the first evening with a family meal, if you're invited to one of these meals you should seize the opportunity – as with Christmas in the Western calendar, it's the day where the best food will be prepared, served and eaten. Pork, duck, chicken and sweets are the main order of the day in most of China, and there's normally a fireworks display at the end of the evening too. In fact almost every night of new year ends in a fireworks display.

The Red Packet

The following morning “children” will greet the adults around them wishing them a prosperous new year. They will then receive gifts, which is always money in red envelopes (this is known as hong bao) from the adults. Children is a very flexible term, it actually applies to all unmarried people and the “child” might be a young-ish security guard in the building you're staying in.

There is no obligation to give hong bao, but in general if you're married – you ought to carry some red envelopes stuffed with various denominations of bills just in case you run into someone that you'd like to make happy. You should ensure that you don't put multiples of 4 inside an envelope as 4 is the number for death and is very unlucky. Multiples of 8 are considered to be especially lucky. You should always put paper money in envelopes and not coins.

How much is enough? The Chinese will tell you that any amount is fine, but a good rule of thumb is to base the amount on someone's social status. A poor villager will be delighted with a few RMB, a rich man's children might be expecting something very much more substantial.

There are many other traditions that depend on the specific day of new year and the region you're in, so don't be afraid to ask what's going on during the Spring Festival, the Chinese are always pleased that someone cares enough to ask.

The Spring Festival, is a truly joyous occasion in China. Everyone comes together to celebrate, it's a bad time to do business and cities full of mainly migrant workers, like Shenzhen, quickly empty out leaving a ghost work force to keep the place running. If you're making travel plans to see China during the New Year, you'll want to choose a destination carefully that lets you take maximum advantage of the holiday period.

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Posted by: CS
2013 – The Year of the Snake
China Trip: 2013 – The Year of the Snake

If you're lucky enough to take your China vacation during the Spring Festival then you'll soon find out that this year is going to be the year of the snake. China has an interesting relationship with its zodiac (which unlike the Western version has nothing to do with astronomical star clusters). During your trip many people are likely to try and find out what your star sign is so they can better understand you. So if your China tour coincides with the start of the year of the Snake here's what you need to know:

The Twelve Signs of the Chinese Zodiac

Let's take a quick tour of the Chinese Zodiac to get started. There are, as in the West, 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac. There's the Rat (or Mouse – Mandarin doesn't distinguish between these two animals), the Ox, the Tiger, the Rabbit, the Dragon, the Snake, the Horse, the Goat, the Monkey, the Rooster, the Dog and the Pig.

Which sign you are depends on the year in which you were born (and not the month as with Western horoscopes.) In China each of these creatures has both positive and aspects associated with it. These are often given much more importance than back home too. In fact many Chinese people will only date/marry those they consider to have matching signs that offer the highest chance of success for a long-term partnership. So if you're looking for romance during your China trip – it's a good idea to know your sign and which signs it might be compatible with.

The Year of the Snake

From an American perspective being a snake might not seem like a good thing. We associate snakes with the Biblical temptation of Eve and as such it's not generally something we aspire to. In China this it's a very different proposition. As you'll discover during your travel in the country snakes are considered to be one of the better signs to be.

Snakes are supposed to be considerate and measured people. Their trip through life is seldom rash and impulsive. They approach their problems with thought and logic rather than rushing to a solution. They are reputed to have a very good head for business though the flipside of this is that they can also be a little stingy with their wealth. They tend to be independent of thought, something that is not always admired in China.

People born in the Year of the Snake are said to have fantastic fashion sense and a real intrinsic appreciation for beauty. The Chinese also believe that snakes might have a sixth sense and are highly perceptive of other people's needs and feelings. However, given that snakes are reputed to prefer a stay at home style of life there might not be too many snakes on your China vacation.

People born in this Year of the Snake have another aspect of their personality to consider; the element of “water”. This aspect might just make them join your China tour after all. They are considered to be adventurous souls who enjoy a little risk taking. They are supposed to be blessed with intelligence and creativity. These people are said to be proud of achievement whilst being considerate and caring towards others. This makes for an auspicious birth.

However, a word of warning the color for the year 2013 is black. Black is not the best of omens and signifies instability and change. The Chinese warn you need to plan carefully to make the most of a black year. That's why we always plan your China tour with care and attention – to ensure you don't get caught out.

Chinese New Year is a great time to take a China vacation. Many of the Chinese themselves travel to all parts of China to appreciate the sights and you'll be able to make plenty of new friends. Those born under the year of the Snake are likely to have a fantastic time of things in 2013.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese New Year Food

One thing you're sure to notice on your China vacation is just how seriously the Chinese take their food. In fact many Chinese people take their own vacations just to try the food in neighboring provinces of China. A culinary tour of China offers a thousand different dishes to try. One of the best times to take a trip to China is during the Spring Festival (Chinese New Year) when there's a whole host of additional options for your plate. We've collected some of the best New Year's food options to make your mouth water.

Symbolism in Chinese Food

China Trip: 2013 – Chinese New Year Food

Before we look more closely at the best Spring Festival food it might be a good idea to take a quick trip through some of the symbolism which is considered to be inherent in the food. This symbolism offers a keen insight into China's traditional animistic culture which is present in all aspects of Chinese life.

Noodles for example are often served around New Year because their long free-form shapes are said to represent long-life. It's worth noting that it is considered extremely bad luck to cut them as you eat, so you might want to practice with your chopsticks or ask for a spoon and fork during your feast.

Spring rolls on the other hand are said to bring wealth to the consumer. That's because they're said to be shaped in the same manner as gold bars. Oranges and tangerines are also very popular because the Chinese names are close to the words for luck and wealth.

Popular Chinese New Year Foods

There are many popular Chinese new year foods and if your China tour coincides with this period you should keep an eye out for the following: Dumplings (Jiaoze), in the North of China you'll find that you won't be able to take a trip out of your front door without encountering dumplings. Their resemblance to silver ingots makes them particularly popular during the Spring Festival. Almost everyone in China can make them and that means they're perfect for sharing during this happy time.

Glutinous rice cakes – symbolism aside these are delicious. You'll find more than just rice inside as they tend to be a rich and interesting dish stacked with sugar, chestnuts, dates and lotus leaves. They are sweet because your host wishes you a sweet life, they are round to celebrate the reunion of family, and finally they have multiple layers to ensure that your abundance over the following year is constantly increasing.

China Trip: 2013 – Chinese New Year Food

You'll also find that fish plays a part in the Chinese Spring Festival menu. That's because "yu" the Chinese word for fish, sounds like two other words "wish" and "abundance". So when your host serves you a meal of fish on your China vacation they are actually wishing you abundance for the coming year. The reason they don't remove the head or the tail when it's served is because this is supposed to symbolize a complete and satisfying beginning and end to the year ahead.

If you're in Hong Kong on a China tour during the Spring Festival you'll also find that lettuce wraps are extremely common, that's because lettuce is very similar to a Cantonese phrase meaning "rising fortune". You'll be particularly honored if the lettuce contains oysters (that's because dried oyster is very much like the word for "good" in Cantonese).

If you're lucky enough to take your China vacation during the Spring Festival then be sure to enjoy all the food offered to you. Each region has special dishes too, such as the Lion's Head Meatballs which are served in Shanghai and which are supposed to grant strength and power to the person eating them. Your tour of China will be that bit more special when you take part in one of the largest holidays on earth.

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Posted by: CS
Private Museums in China

In a developing nation like China the government has to focus on a few priorities. Most of those tend to relate to essential spending like health, defense, etc. However as you'll soon notice on your China vacation – the Chinese don't like to be left behind at anything. In this week's news the focus is on a whole new industry sector springing up around the country. It's one you might even be lucky enough to encounter during your tour; private museums are springing up all around China. With a bit of luck the news will travel far and wide and they'll be getting better and better by the minute.

What is a private museum? Essentially it's a museum that receives no funds from the public purse. A quick tour round the rest of the world will show that in the West they've been around for decades. New York's Guggenheim is a globally famous brand that's made the trip to Abu Dhabi now because of the Arab world's desire to cash in on the brand along with a desire to develop its' own heritage centers. China isn't quite as far along the path as some of those places but there are plenty of interesting little places in China if you know where to look.

For example, in Liuzhou (a place that's not on our China tour list just yet) a man called Xie Zhikuan has started his own museum. He's obsessed with old appliances – TV's, Record Players, Fridges and the like. So he's filled his own home with them and because so many of them are rare and unusual – he's now letting visitors in to have a look. It's a long way for most people to travel for a small house full of electronics but locally he's building up a decent following. Sadly, Xie's collection is probably not sustainable in the long run. It relies on funds from his pocket not just to keep expanding but also for housing. Many of China's other private museums are in the same boat whereas many foreign equivalents are funded through large bequests and the intrinsic value of their own collections. They also tend to do well from donations and entrance fees something that small Chinese collections are less likely to attract in significant numbers.

One place you might be able to see on your China vacation is the Guanfu Museum in Beijing. It was the first private museum to be established in the country (it dates back to 1997 – to give you an idea of how recent these developments are). It is one of the only private museums so far to have attracted a reasonable level of donation and there are some interesting paintings and furniture exhibits to be seen in its' growing collection.

If that's not oddball enough for you then you might want to take a trip to the biggest private museum in China, which is also in Beijing. It's called the Red Sandalwood Museum and hosts over 2,000 bits of sandalwood furniture.

In the long-term as China grows richer it's certain to start investing more money into private museums. However, for your China vacation you have the opportunity to see the museums as they really are – a collection based on an individual's passion. Which may be, to you, much nicer than another sterile clone of a Western museum.

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Posted by: CS
Chinese Traditions Regarding Babies and Birth

To understand a culture properly you need to start by looking at its' attitudes to children and family. Your China vacation may or may not bring you into contact with pregnant ladies and the newborn but it's nice to know how to handle the situation isn't it? If your tour does bring you that particular joy then you'll be able to show off an insider's knowledge of China. We've taken a trip through China's beliefs to help you know a little more than before.

Pre-Natal Beliefs

China Tour: Chinese Traditions Regarding Babies and Birth

There's a whole host of beliefs relating to getting ready for babies in China. If you spy dolls and lotus seeds scattered on the bed as you travel round – it's because they're believed to aid fertility. It's also said that if a woman eats plenty of tofu, lettuce and mushrooms it's more likely that she will have a boy when she does conceive. If she's tucking into a bowl of meat or fish then she'll be aiming for a girl.

Once a woman falls pregnant she needs to take a tour of the house and ensure that everything stays in the same place during pregnancy. That's because in China it's believed that moving the furniture might damage the unborn. It's also said to be unwise for a woman to become exposed to glue as it may cause complications during birth (we think that's pretty good advice – solvents are often toxic).

A woman with a round belly should be having a girl. Women need to be careful on a trip to the restaurant too – it's said that sour foods can cause miscarriages. It's even considered that the best babies born in China are those whose mothers speak softly and swing their arms as they walk.

During Birth

The father is expected to take a vacation away from his wife during the birth of their first child as it is unlucky for him to be present. He is allowed to be present at the birth of any additional children. Instead the lady's mother should be present during that first birth. China's favorite drink – tea - is strongly recommended to reduce labor pains. Cold drinks are considered bad news during the labor itself as they might sap the life energy (Qi) from the baby. It is a bad idea to eat squid too as it's said to make the birth "sticky".

Following the Birth

Once the baby is born it's the mother's turn for an enforced vacation of sorts. She's supposed to take a month (Zuoy Uezi) to recover. During this time she's not supposed to get out of bed except to visit the bathroom. She's not allowed to shower or bathe at all during that month. Instead her family is expected to give her a sponge bath. The mother is also not allowed to wash her hair at all as it is said to induce headaches. All in all it must be a fairly unpleasant time for the mother of a newborn in China.

On the bright side she's allowed to eat a lot. Pig knuckle soup is mandated to replace the nutrients lost in the birthing process. She's strongly encouraged to eat a lot of fish with ginger, chicken and rice. Though salt is off the menu as it might mess with the ability to lactate. Finally, the umbilical cord must be kept in a red packet and hidden as it's thought that if it is eaten by rats it will cause the baby to get sick.

All told it's a complex series of rules that govern pregnancy and birth in China. If you're lucky enough to encounter a family expecting such a joyous event of your China vacation make sure you've understood the customs so that you can support the arrival of a little one as a little extra bonus on your trip.

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Posted by: CS
The Tea Fields of Hangzhou
China Trip: The Tea Fields of Hangzhou

Hangzhou is a popular destination for a China vacation. Nearly everyone who comes to the city on their China vacation is there to see the West Lake. That's a UNESCO heritage sight and undoubtedly one of the finest vistas in all of China. However, for those who want to get in touch with Chinese culture and are prepared to travel a little distance on foot to get there – there is an alternative place to visit. We're positive that there's no better way to get to know China intimately than to spend some time getting intimately acquainted with its' most famous beverage – tea.

To find the tea fields of Hangzhou you'll need to hop on a bus (you can ask your China tour guide to help find the right one) and head off to the Nine Creeks and Eighteen Gullies natural park and hiking trail. Your travel plan should leave you stepping off the bus and directly on to a well-paved trail that meanders up the hillside and into the tea villages on the slopes. For as far as the eye can see there are fields and fields of tea.

One of the nice things about a trip out into the countryside of Hangzhou is that unlike the rest of China – you can have it almost to yourselves. The Chinese love to travel to see their own famous attractions but haven't quite got used to the idea that a vacation can be as well spent communing with nature. That might be down to the rural heritage of most people in China who prefer modern cities and crowded places to solitary countryside walks.

Open your ears and you can enjoy the gentle hum of crickets and the call of wild birds as you gently make your way to the nearest tea village. As you travel into the fields you might surprise a few workers but don't be alarmed they'll be pleased to see you and will offer a cheery “Ni Hao” and an invitation to come and take a cup of tea in their teahouses. That's a nice way to take the weight of your feet during your trip. China has many types of tea but in Hangzhou you'll be treated to the famous "West Lake Longjing Tea".

The houses themselves are classic homes very much representative of local architecture. They have clean whitewashed outer walls, black tiles on their roofs and cute lattice windows. There are rather more than 9 creeks and 18 gullies on the trail (the numbers are symbolic and chosen for their significance in China's folklore). However, if you keep working your way up the path you'll soon come across the Li'an temple. This could be a real China vacation treat if the head monk is out demonstrating his reputation – as one of China's greatest tiger tamers. Once you've finished your trip through some of the scenery that has been described by various travelers as the finest on earth, you can take a bus back into Hangzhou and join everyone else at the lakeside.

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