We found ourselves in China for Chinese New Year somewhat by accident. We weren’t specifically trying to celebrate Chinese New Year (or Lunar New Year as our Korean friends would prefer that we call it), but when we realized we would be there for the celebrations we got pretty excited. Unfortunately, we had no idea where to go or what to do. So we did what any normal traveler would do: we asked the employees of our guesthouse. They speak a little English, which is a little more than most people we’ve encountered in China. That’s when the owner of the place told us about a traditional Chinese New Year dinner he was hosting. The cost of 100 yuan is more than we would usually like to pay for a dinner, but we decided it would be worth it for the experience. I think it was.
Chinese New Year is really more like Christmas than New Year’s Eve back home. It’s more of a season than just a holiday. People are one vacation. They go home to visit their families. People go shopping. Gifts are exchanged. And on New Year’s Eve most people have a big dinner at home with their families before shooting off fireworks or watching China’s new year celebration show on TV, which is why we were excited to have a family style New Year’s Eve dinner.
Though we’re in Dali, the owner of our lodge is from Hong Kong originally so he was excited to share a traditional New Year’s dish from his homeland. The dish is call poon choi (or Chinese Casserole). It is basically a giant bowl layered will all different types of meat, including seafood, pork, and beef. It is a vegetarian’s nightmare. The dish originated at the end of the Song dynasty when the Mongols were invading China. The emperor fled to the Gaundong Province. In an attempt to feed the young emperor and his soldiers, the townspeople gathered all of the best food they had. Without enough serving containers for all of it, however, they ended up serving it all in large washbasins. Our version wasn’t served in a washbasin, but it was still delicious. Especially accompanied by the homemade rose and cherry wine that our hosts had made.
After dinner we headed out into the streets to enjoy the festivities. The TV in a coffee shop caught our eye because it was playing China’s official New Year’s Eve celebration show. It is a little bit like the New Year’s Eve celebration in Time’s Square that is televised throughout the US every year, except it is all Chinese performances and shows. The owner of the shop noticed our mesmerized faces and ushered us in. We tried to decline (the dinner cost had us second-guessing any further purchases that night), but she insisted on serving us free water and traditional snacks because of the holiday. We didn’t understand anything that was happening in the show, but it was still fun to watch. And the snacks were tasty. We went back the next day and made some actual purchases to show her our gratitude. If you ever find yourself in Dali, Hello Dali coffee is a cute little place to check out.
Our night ended with some fireworks. We didn’t actually set off any fireworks, but judging by the sound of it everyone else in Dali did. In America there is usually one main fireworks show where all of the biggest explosions are, and maybe a few smaller explosions happening around the city as people light small fireworks in their backyards. That is not the case in China, or at least not in Dali. Everyone is shooting off all manner of fireworks. At midnight, it sounds like the city is under siege. The sky lights up, and car alarms around the city begin to sound. And the fireworks are not relegated to New Year’s Eve. It is now two days later. There are still random explosions throughout the day. Some are a string of small popping noises, others sound like they may have just leveled a house.
By the end of the night, we were only lacking one thing in our Chinese New Year experience: a dragon dance. The next morning we woke up without much hope of seeing a dragon dance. We hadn’t heard anything about one, and had read something online about how they are not as common in most of China. We got dressed, wandered down to the main street, and lo and behold there was a whole parade of dragon dancers. We snapped some pictures and reveled in our good luck. On the way back, Patrick found a pearl on the ground. Perhaps this will be an auspicious year for us after all.