Dragon Boat Festival in Shanghai

The Dragon Boat Festival is a popular Chinese tradition involving dragon-themed boats racing down the river. There are different types of boats that hold various amounts of rowers. Every team always one drummer who’s job it is to keep a steady rhythm for his team to row to.

Unless you plan weeks in advance, you won’t be able to snag train tickets to one of the popular places near Shanghai that go all out for the festival. Hangzhou is one of the top spots to celebrate the festival and it’s only about an hour away, costing around 100 RMB ($15.)

Ctrip.com only lets you buy tickets 60 or sometimes 30 days in advance. We set an alarm to the exact time that we could buy our ticket and the earliest ones were sold out within minutes – the return go even faster. Also keep in mind that Ctrip can have high booking fees, as high as 30 RMB per person ($5). Once you pay for it online, you still need to pick it up at the train station which requires the confirmation and a passport. We’ve gotten away with a digital photo of a passport twice, but you shouldn’t risk it.

Back to the dragon boat festival. We stayed in Shanghai and watched it from Zhongtan Lu. I’ve already experienced a dragon boat festival in Prague at a Rotary event and this wasn’t much different. It was pretty low key and there was a tiny stage on the other side of the bank where a few performers were performing simple dragon dances. It was cool, but I wasn’t especially impressed. But maybe I’m just spoiled!

The top places in China to see the dragon boat festival according to Wanna Travel are:

  • Yueyang International Dragon Boat Race: Miluo River Dragon Boat Race Center, Yueyang, Hunan.
  • Zigui Dragon Boat Racing: Xujiachong Bay, Zuigui Country, Yichang, Hubei
  • Miao People’s International Canoe Festival; Qingshui River, Guizhou
  • Hangzhou Xixi Dragon Boat Race: Xixi Wetland Park
  • Bamboo sea Dragon boat race in Anji

Just keep in mind that if ticket prices during this time are high – whether you are flying or taking the train. Plan your trip in advance to ensure a good place to stay. Finally, don’t forget to eat zongzi during the festival. Zongzi are those cute rice triangles wrapped (and cooked) in bamboo leaves. They are prepared differently around the country and they can be filled with sweet bean paste, savory meats, etc.

 

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Restaurant Manners in China

A typical Chinese restaurant offers a wide variety of food including tofu in all shapes and forms, at least four different styles of pork, dumplings, rice, noodles, veggies, fish and chicken. When you order a dish, you’ll notice immediately that the portion is huge – that’s because you’re supposed to share everything.

At a typical Chinese lunch or dinner, the organizer/host of the event will order many different meals. These will be brought out in a random order and placed on a rotating table. Everyone gets their own bowl and helps themselves to whatever they like. There is no Chinese saying like “bon apetite”, as soon as there’s food you can just dig in!

It is customary in China to provide your guests with much more food than you could ever eat. If you finish everything in front of you, more will be ordered. Taking leftover food to go is iffy. It can be considered rude if you’re among colleagues, for example, because it’s not fair for one person to take home something that someone else might want. This leads to a lot of wasted food.

When it comes to drinks, there is usually tea and hot water served for free. 2% alcohol beers and low quality Chinese wine is commonly available, however it is completely acceptable to bring your own drinks. We often buy wine, beer or cold water from a nearby convenience store and the locals do it too.

Communicating with restaurant staff is quite different too. It’s completely polite to yell for a waitress to come and to ask for whatever you need without saying “please” or “thank you”. Nonetheless, I’m sure they won’t be offended if you say it as long as you don’t try to tip them. Seriously, they’ll chase you down to return even the tiniest change, so don’t do it.

What’s the craziest thing you’ve ever experienced at a Chinese restaurant?

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Wasting Plastic: China & Recycling

China is ahead of the Western world in many ways but is still trying to catch up in others. Wasting plastic in combination with not recycling may be the most baffling thing about the country that is so desperately trying to improve it’s pollution situation. While China has taken many effective steps to reduce pollution, it could do so much more.

Like most people educated in west, I had “reduce”, “re-use”, “recycle” drilled into my head from an early age. When I lived with my parents, I would get scolded by my father for not taking the paper labels off plastic bottles when I recycled them. He would even scrub every glass , carton and plastic container religiously before recycling.

We were also big on re-using and up-cycling. Our kitchen counter was overflowing with bags that we could use again and again until they fell apart. My impressive collection of pens, pencils and markers was stored in cut and spruced up milk cartons and plastic containers. My father was as obsessed with buying expensive office supplies as he was with keeping anything that could be re-used. China could learn a lot from him…

Chinese stores are obsessed with plastic bags. When you buy fruit or vegetables, for example, you have to beg them not to put each one in a separate bag. If you ask for the price sticker to be stuck directly on an eggplant, they will look at you like you’re crazy. Just the other day, my husband came home frustrated for having to argue with vendors. Isaac managed to save five bags on one shopping trip. What if every single Chinese shopper did that? BILLIONS of bags could be saved DAILY.

Online shopping, which I am addicted to because of my newly discovered crafting obsession, is always bittersweet. Everything is in an individual bag, in a larger bag, covered generously in bubble wrap, sometimes wrapped in cardboard and finally taped shut in a box. Even items that are unbreakable. Every delivery results in a huge pile of stuff that could be recycled but won’t, just because we’re in China.

Fortunately, we live in a small village and a lot of people here are very poor. Some make extra money by collecting cardboard and selling it for pennies. We leave all our re-usable items, cardboard and glass next to the trash and everything disappears immediately. So I guess hope isn’t lost completely, but China could really step it up!

*The photo is from Isaac’s classroom. He’s trying to teach 26, six year old children about recycling!

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Why are there Daily Fireworks in China?

At least once a day I jump out of my skin, sometimes spilling coffee or tea, because of sudden machine-gun-sounding fireworks. These fireworks have nothing to do with holidays and don’t happen at night, so you can barely even see the pretty colors. So why would Chinese people waste their money on day-time fireworks? Many reasons, apparently.

Traditionally, the fireworks were made by lighting bamboo and the loud noise would scare away evil spirits. Even today, the purpose is the noise not the visual which is why they are set off during the day. Some reasons to set of loud fireworks include weddings, funerals, the opening of a shop or the start and completion of a large project.

Since Chinese cities have such dense populations, you can imagine why these fireworks happen at least once a day! I think the record for me has been four scares-by firework in one day. You get used to it, but sometimes it still catches you by surprise. Like when you’re running for the bus and they start going off 3 meters behind you. Does me being scared of them make me an evil spirit?

For store openings, the fireworks are obviously set off in front of the store. When it comes to weddings or funerals however, it can be done wherever. Unfortunately people’s top choice is usually the courtyard of large residential complexes. I happen to live on the 4th floor of a 17-floor building and my badly-insulated bedroom window faces the courtyard. A firework wake-up is very unpleasant, believe me.

Due to the large amounts of people traveling with fireworks, certain safety regulations are in place. Any time you go on the metro, for example, you have to go through a metal detector and your bags are scanned. All fireworks that are found, are confiscated. In case this isn’t enough, many public areas are plastered with “no fireworks” signs.

I am not quite sure about the regulations for fireworks in large cities like Shanghai or Beijing, but in our little town no one will stop you from setting them off whenever or wherever you want. That’s why you should always expect fireworks. After all, jumping every time you hear a loud noise makes you uncool!

Do you have any funny stories about getting scared by unexpected fireworks? Please share in the comment section below!

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How to Get Cash Anywhere in China: No ATM Necessary!

China is the land of smartphones and genius apps that will make your life easier. People of all ages and financial backgrounds have internet phones, since Samsung/iPhone quality alternative cost less than $150 (and the most primitive smartphones can cost as little as $15).

Everyone who has a smartphone also has WeChat, an app that acts as Facebook, PayPal and WhatsApp all in one. Most stores and even street vendors accept WeChat payments, so you’ll rarely need to carry lots of cash. Unfortunately, you may run into a place that doesn’t accept WeChat…

I happened to find myself at a Chinese hospital with no cash, no functional credit cards and no friends to lend me money. After a brief moment of panic, I started asking strangers if they had any cash and flashing my WeChat at them. The first two people I approached were cashless and very apologetic but the third had a large wad of bills that he happily gave me in exchange for a WeChat transfer that took mere seconds!

I was very proud of myself for figuring this out and showed it off to a Chinese friend. After they laughed in my face, they told me that this was very common in China. Being helpful and giving is part of the culture, especially when it comes foreigners asking for help. Also, WeChat is 100% trustworthy so it’s literally impossible to steal money this way.

The only downside to this amazing way to turn any stranger into a zero-fee ATM is that you need to have a Chinese bank account to use with your WeChat Wallet function. So this is only applicable to expats living here long-term. Have you ever tried this before and have any stories to tell? Please share in the comments below!

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China Doesn’t Sugarcoat Meat-Eating & Neither Should You

Eating fresh meat comes at a price. Can’t bear to look? Then maybe you shouldn’t be eating it.

The meat-eating industry is not pretty. We all know the horrors that go on in slaughter houses but few of us go out of our way to stop it. I’m not here to shame anyone. I happen to be a regular meat eater and a cheese addict which causes even more cruel animal deaths. Living in China has desensitized me by showing me dead animals in various stages of production and I can’t commend them enough for being so open about it.

Have you ever seen one of those videos where a child finds out that the pork on their plate used to be a cute pink pig? Chinese kids grow up knowing exactly where their meat comes from which lets them make an informed decision about eating it. There may not be too many vegetarians in China but at least no one is kept in the dark about what they are eating and how it is killed.

As I mentioned before, I have become quite desensitized and no longer look away from the gruesome scenes in the market. I have always known how the meat I eat suffers and it would be hypocritical of me to look the other way and then eat it anyway. Before you judge me, it’s not easy to change your entire diet overnight.

Seeing squealing pigs squeezed into tight spaces for transport (which is hidden in the USA and Europe but is done openly in China) has impacted me. My husband and I no longer eat pork when we can avoid it and we plan on gradually changing our diets to eliminate first beef, then chicken and finally all other meats. But it takes time.

We are also aware that simply not eating meat is not enough to make the world a better place for animals. The milk industry is just as bloody, if not worse, the medicine we take is animal-tested and all means of transportation continue to destroy our environment. It is virtually impossible to live without harming the world around us and I have so much respect for anyone who tries to do less damage to it.

Anyway, back to China… When you walk into a market you will see meat in all shapes and forms. Entire skinned animals, cut off heads, bloody hooves, duck heads, chicken feet and pig testicles are put on display for everyone to see. Sometimes you will even see live animals that can be killed for you on request. There is no fresher meat! But it comes at a price.

A few weeks ago, Isaac and I were returning home after a day of e-bike riding and exploring the neighborhood. We ran into a large crowd of people standing right by the entrance to our apartment community. We had to investigate and we were so shocked by what we saw. Hanging upside down was a headless ram that was being skinned… and children as young as two were watching!

This reminded me of Christmas in Prague where children cheer as burly men with large machetes behead carp publicly. I would always look away but this time I didn’t. The ram was already dead and the preparation process was strangely mesmerizing. Once the hooves were chopped off, the skin was stripped off effortlessly all in one piece. The men from Xinjiang (the largest autonomous region in China) placed the skin fur down on the ground and used it as a mat for the ram’s organs.

The ram was hung on two hooks by it’s feet so that it could be chopped in half with an ax. Expertly, they first cut the ball sack in half and continued hacking down until they could remove the stomach and intestines. The liver, lungs, heart and who knows what else followed. All of these were neatly laid out on the ram’s own skin. The beauty of it all? Every single organ, piece of bone, drop of blood and inch of skin was going to be used. In China, no part of the animal goes to waste.

By the time we left, the ram was no longer recognizable and was chopped into four large pieces. After spending an hour in a nearby cafe, we returned to find a long line of hungry people drawn to the delicious smell of smoked skewers of meat. We joined the line and paid 30 RMB ($4) for a generous amount of the freshest meat we’ve ever tasted.

After watching the ceremonious preparation (although we were glad we missed the actual slaughter and bleeding) we felt like eating part if it was a way of honoring the dead animal – which is not something I ever thought I’d feel or think. The ethics of the meat eating industry are definitely complex and debatable. Feel free to share your thoughts or experiences in the comment section below.

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Chinese Liquor: Never Been Sicker

Chinese liquor is strong and cheap. My favorite is a medical herbal wine that tastes almost like Czech Becherovka!

I am still completely confused about Chinese drinking habits. Chinese beer might as well be water with it’s 2% alcohol content but their hard liquor is dirt cheap and crazy strong. They sell 5 liter jugs of what looks like water (and costs almost as little) but is actually 60% liquor!

A lot of Chinese alcohol is made with rice or other grains such as millet or wheat. This goes for wine as well as several types of hard alcohol. Chinese wines taste nothing like they do in the West and typically have a much higher alcohol content (typically 15 – 20%). Although I am not a fan of rice-based drinks, I have to say that Chinese plum wine, considered a women’s drink, is absolutely delicious!

Before moving to China from the Czech Republic, I had no idea how much the doctors have in common. When I had problems with high cholesterol as a 15-year-old in Prague, a Czech doctor wrote out a prescription for some pills. After we took it he gave us an off the record recommendation: a shot of tequila ever morning before breakfast. I started hating tequila after the first month, but my blood tests quickly confirmed that it worked better than any medication.

In the past, Czechs believed that the secret to a long and healthy life was a five deciliter shot of Becherovka (35% herbal liquor) every morning and evening. Traditional Chinese medicine isn’t too different. In the past, alcoholic beverages that included extracts of minerals, herbs, plants and even animal parts were used to treat a myriad of health problems.

The temperature at which alcohol is best enjoyed is at 35 – 55°C which is said to release the best aroma without weakening the drink. This generally refers to wines and liquors. Beer is usually served chilled or at room temperature.

It is difficult to resist the ridiculously low prices of alcoholic beverages in China which is why we keep buying and trying them. However most of them are hard to enjoy if you’re not used to them and this is coming from someone who loves drinking straight vodka. The only Chinese drink I have grown to love has been the Jing brand Chinese medical wine. With an alcohol content of 35% and an herbal flavor, it is basically the Chinese version of Czech Becherovka!

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China Problems: Air Pollution & Thirst

No bottled water + bad air pollution = health dilemma.

Sometimes it feels like China is taunting me. Today I woke up coughing which usually means that pollution levels are high. Normally this is when I shut all the windows and hide in my badly insolated apartment. I don’t know why we haven’t bought any air purifiers yet… Anyway, today we happen to be out of bottled water.

No bottled water means a trek to a convenient and cheap water dispenser. It is absolutely not possible to drink tap water. It’s bad enough to shower in it, so we have special filters that make water pressure horrible but keep our skin from getting dry and my hair from falling out.eww

Going to get water is a pain in February even when it’s just cold outside. But today, getting clean water is outright dangerous. Right now the AQI is 177 which is pretty bad. An AQI between 151 and 200 is dangerous for sensitive groups and unhealthy for just about everyone.

I grew up in Prague which is said to be the most polluted city in Europe. I never had asthma or any other problems and I never even noticed when the air got bad. Since moving to China, everything changed. I got very sick with bronchitis on a trip to Beijing and although all my other symptoms got better, my cough never went away. Any time the air quality is over 150, I’m coughing and wheezing unless I drink ridiculous amounts of water.

chinaThe AQI levels in Shanghai are usually worse than in Huaqiao, and right now their pollution levels are at 190. This doesn’t seem too much higher than here, but if it goes up by just 10 more then everyone, even non-sensitive people, may experience serious health effects. At 200 you can taste that something is wrong with the air!

The highest AQI that I’ve ever experienced was 350 on a random November day in Shanghai. When we arrived in the city it was already 200 but it only took 2 hours for it to skyrocket. It was hard to breathe and almost everyone around us pulled out their masks. We went to see the famous view of the financial center from the Bund but it was barely even visible. Anything over 300 is considered “hazardous” and a health warning is issued.

This year, one city in the north of China near Beijing experienced an AQI of over 1,000. They weren’t able to see two meters in front of them: schools and flights were canceled. You can read more about it here. It must be strange growing up in China where instead of snow days, school is canceled because of pollution. Can you imagine getting excited about the air being unbreathable?

Speaking of school being canceled… one middle school principle didn’t seem to care that the pollution was so bad and he forced 400 students to take a test outside! Fortunately he was quickly fired, but some of those children may be effected by his mistake for the rest of their lives. You can read about that here.

A great pollution detecting app is http://aqicn.org/. There are plenty of mobile apps too that you can have right next to your weather app… and yes, these apps have air quality forecasts up to a week in advance. It’s pretty bizarre! But so is life in China.

This year pollution levels in the Czech Republic and several US cities reached an AQI of 200. If you’re in a city where this can happen, I strongly recommend buying a mask and wearing it. It looks dumb, but it’ll prevent a lifetime of coughing. Speaking of which, I need to stop making excuses, put on my mask and go get some water before I cough up a lung. Wish me luck!

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Getting (& Giving) Red Envelopes

Red Envelopes come in two forms: traditional paper with intricate designs and the increasingly popular digital alternative! People love Red Envelopes because they contain money. Amounts can vary from worthless 50 cent coins given to children to significant amounts of money for newlyweds. It doesn’t even have to be Chinese New Year to get (or give) them. Pretty much any party or celebration is a reason to share money with friends and strangers!

I’ve read many articles about how Chinese people aren’t generous. This has not been my experience at all! Chinese people have taken me out for fancy dinners, given me gifts and refused to accept any payment from me. Except in the form of Red Envelopes…

In the olden days people would hide physical envelopes for people to find. Today, we use apps. WeChat is a popular app that is basically WhatsApp, Instagram and PayPal all in one! Everyone in China has WeChat and uses it to communicate, share photos and pay for purchases. WeChat connects to your bank account and allows you to send money to other users, pay vendors and send Red Packets (an alternative name to Red Envelopes).

Another very similar app is Alipay. It features a particular Red Packet game that is basically a hybrid between geocaching and Pokemon Go but the treasure is money. People hide the packets in specific locations by taking a photo. Logging into the app shows you nearby locations and a distorted photo – if you find the spot and take the same photo, you get the money!

Usually, the amounts sent in digital Red Packets are small. WeChat lets you choose the total amount you’re sending and how many people can open it and share the amount. You can send amounts as little as 1 RMB ($0.14) and have ten people share it. A more common amount to send is 10 RMB ($1.4). Of course, you can send larger amounts but they will be taxed. To avoid unnecessary paperwork, leave the larger transactions to your bank.

Lighting fingers are essential to get an envelope because you need to act FAST. If you know an envelope is coming you need to prepare: stare at your phone unblinkingly, hold your finger over the spot where the next message will appear and click the second it does! You might click immediately and still be too late. Competing against locals is really hard as Chinese have perfected their envelope-clicking technique.

Getting AND Giving Red Packets is very important. It is good etiquette to send as much money as you receive. At the last party I was at, one lucky person kept getting all the envelopes! As expected, he immediately started sending out packets. Competing for Red Packets is just good fun, no one actually expects to get rich from it. It wouldn’t be polite to win large amounts and keep it all anyway.

As cool as the digital Red Envelopes are, nothing beats the paper ones. They are beautiful, usually red and are decorated in either pictures of zodiac animals, fish (they are lucky) and sometimes just best wishes written out in fancy fonts. The only catch, you are not allowed to send money in these envelopes by mail. So hand-deliver those babies and share some love and fortune with your loved ones!

The photo used is from a blog about making beautiful lanterns out of Red Envelopes! Please check it out here.

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Outsmarted by a Japanese Toilet

Japanese toilets will sing to you, clean your butt and offer you a massage! I am not even kidding.

I was ready for just about anything when I walked into the KFC bathroom in Tokyo. I brought some tissues in case there was no toilet paper, which is common in China. I gave my bag and coat to my husband because I was prepared to wobble over a hole in the ground. But despite everything I knew about Asian bathrooms, I was completely dumbfounded by this Japanese toilet.

The entire bathroom was spotless and there were dozens of buttons next to the toilet. It was an emergency, so I sat down before I could investigate. Immediately, I was surprised by how warm the toilet seat was. I assumed someone had recently spent a long time sitting on it but I quickly realized that it was actually just heated!

The panel of buttons was intimidating. There were pictures of water streaming out of the toilet with a “rear” or “frontal” option as well as five levels of water pressure. Not a fan of bidets, I stayed far away from these. I moved on to the privacy button – pressing it made a continuous flushing sound that drowned out all other noise. Interesting. There were several other buttons that I didn’t understand and avoided pressing in fear of a robotic arm wiping my butt since anything is possible in Tokyo.

Later, at our Airbnb, I discovered that we had our own high-tech toilet! Ours even had a sink on the back of it. This is done for water-conserving purposes. It automatically starts running once you flush, filling up the toilet with water for the next flush. It’s completely clean so you can use it to wash your hands AND flush afterwards. How neat is that?

I decided to do some more research. Without access to dozens of random toilets, I turned to the internet. Did you know that higher-end Japanese toilets can have up to 38 buttons? Most of them control the bidet, which offers various pressures, water pulses, soap options and so much more! Apparently the pulsating function can help you poop. However, if used often, it can also weaken certain muscles and can leave you painfully constipated. Yikes.

Okay, I’m almost done talking about toilets. But did you know that even fancy Japanese restaurants in Shanghai, China have proper high-tech toilets? Some Asian hotels have pretty nice ones too, although I’ll never be brave enough to try the massage or “penetrating” functions.

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