The Chinese Lunar New Year is the biggest holiday of the year in China — it is basically like Christmas and Thanksgiving rolled into one big celebration! It is estimated that nearly 70% of China’s population travels during the Chinese New Year, which means that approximately a BILLION people will travel within China in early February.
Being in China for the Chinese New Year is one of the most special and cultural travel experiences I have had to date. Traveling during holidays is a great way to get to know a country’s culture through a unique perspective, and I am here to share all my reflections and advice for traveling as a foreigners in China during the Chinese Lunar New Year!
What is it like to experience the holiday as a foreigner?
Personally, I think it super fun to travel to other countries during their/your holiday seasons. I wrote a whole separate blog post about what it is like to travel during the holidays, but I think that big national holidays are an awesome way to experience the local culture. It is a time of year when there are a lot of traditions and joy on display. There is a lot of pride in the air and people are often enthusiastic to celebrate with foreigners too, showing off their traditions!
I loved my experience in China during the Chinese New Year. You can expect to see a lot of red lanterns and special decorations in celebration of the holiday. Red is the symbol of good luck and prosperity in China, which is why it is so prevalent during the holiday season.
You can also expect to sample some new foods. There are several dishes that are special to the Chinese New Year, such as custard steamed buns (pictured below), braised snails and roasted goose, which are fun to try. Chinese New Year Eve traditionally includes a big family meal, but many families go out for dinner on that evening too. Family-style restaurants are a great way to ring in the new year because you can try an assortment of dishes while also engaging with Chinese families! Our New Year’s Eve dinner was lively with lots of cheers-ing with locals and singing karaoke!
What to Expect in China During Chinese New Year?
Many Chinese people have immigrated to the country’s 1st and 2nd tier cities (such as Beijing or Shanghai) from 3rd tier or rural areas, so during the holiday time, they typically return home. This leaves the big cities nearly empty in the days before and after the holiday. I couldn’t believe how much of a ghost town Beijing felt like. Even our tour guide was shocked how empty it was and we kept getting to places early because there was so little traffic!
Sold Out Transportation
Because there is so much domestic mobility during the holiday season, flights, trains and buses sell out weeks ahead of time. I know several Semester at Sea students who couldn’t find any transportation options about 2 weeks before arriving, so it is important to plan your itinerary well-ahead of time. Foreign travelers should reserve all of their flights and trains with travel insurance as well, because there have been instances of last minute cancellations without refunds.
Few Foreign Tourists, Lots of Domestic Tourists
January and February are already the low season months for international travel in China, thanks to the cold temperatures and poor weather; but then you combine it with the stress of traveling during the busiest time for domestic travel, and you’ve chased away a majority of potential visitors.
If you do decide to brave the weather, you’ll find yourself as one of the only foreign tourists at the major sites. At the Forbidden City, the only other western travelers we saw was another Semester at Sea group!
By contrast, the holiday season is a popular time for Chinese tourism. Plenty of family members from smaller areas come to explore the big cities like Shanghai and Beijing with their children, and they might be seeing the tourist sites for the first time.
I couldn’t believe how many Chinese travelers came up to our group to engage with us or snap photos with us at places like Tienanmen Square and the Great Wall. For Chinese travelers from very small town, there is a good chance we were the first foreigners they had ever seen. It was such a unique experience to be traveling with locals. There was the same sense of wonder and excitement at seeing the sites from the locals as from us!
Scarce Hotel Availability
Similar to the transportation issues I mentioned above, hotels can be scarce during the holiday season since there is such high demand from Chinese travelers. Book your hotels, especially on the few days surrounding the New Year holiday, well ahead of time to avoid issues.
Lots of Firecrackers
Like many holidays abroad, fireworks and firecrackers are commonly sold and lit off in the cities. They are largely banned in the large cities because of the air quality issues, but in smaller cities, you will certainly experience fireworks. They typically aren’t organized firework shows, but people will buy their own to celebrate with. The booms for the firecrackers will sound throughout the day and night, most heavily clustered at midnight obviously.
I was in Yangshou for the holiday and the midnight fireworks were THUNDEROUS. It was the loudest I have ever heard fireworks. Don’t expect to get much sleep until well after 1 or 2am! But it is fun to be out and seeing everyone with their sparklers, firecrackers and Roman candles in the middle of the street. People of all ages will be around celebrating!