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Cabbages and culture for the Chinese New Year


The worst snow for 50 years starts to melt and I am invited to spend Spring Festival with my friend’s family in Chungchen. I get a sleeper ticket for the 14 hour journey but then find that the train is delayed eight hours by the weather on its twenty-three hour journey from Guangzhou in the south. I am taken to the ‘soft sleeper’ waiting room and take up residence in a huge soft armchair where I can see the television. Like the many Chinese families I settle in to wait patiently with packets of nuts, seeds and various odd (but tasty) dried fruits. Instant coffee always comes with me and hot water is available everywhere. I call everyone to tell them what is happening then find a plug to re-charge my complaining cellphone and settle down to the first of many coffees.

Chungchen is cold and wet, but still warmer than when I got onto the train. I slept all the way on the hard but warm and comfortable bed, gently rocked by the always quiet and smooth train ride.

She is flying toward me on her bicycle. We meet near the middle of the long narrow bridge surrounded by blue misty mountains, high above the wide glassy river. She is always beautiful and here she radiates happiness and excitement, even with cold red nose and frozen fingers.

It is already New Year day and fireworks are crackling everywhere as we walk through the village; set off before every meal outside every house in this festival time they are a constant background noise. The tatters of paper from the firecrackers cover the street and sweep damp, blood-red, drifts around trees and in corners. Red lanterns hang at every house and red paper banners are pasted above and each side of every front door keeping out the bad spirits and ushering in good fortune. We get home in time for lunch and are sent immediately up to the roof with a basket of food, candles and incense sticks. There is a window-less little room at the end of the roof, made for the purpose with a concrete table presided over by a small, porcelain, earth-mother figurine; a Mary. But this figure has no mystic accoutrements or stylised hand positions, and no female head posture with cast-down eyes. She looks directly at us holding a small vase or pot, a cornucopia. Milky white, plain, she is the simple idea of Nature as Mother; rather than compounded with complex references to veiled mystery. The food is arranged on the table, little cups are filled with red rice wine. Incense sticks are lit in front of the figure, and then at each side of the outside door, and we are out on the roof surrounded by stunning views along the wide river that mirrors the high mountains with their misty peaks.

Downstairs we gather at the big round dining table when the courtyard outside erupts staccato explosions; clouds of smoke rise quickly showering red fragments long after the echoes have subsided. The impressive mountain of food confronting us is for the whole coming period. All the relatives will visit, clamours of thirty or more people at a sitting.

We have a little time and I am shown the three storey house, the fish pool and chicken pens behind, and always the stunning views all around. At the far end of the fish-pool someone has dumped a truck-load of vegetable waste, cabbage leaves litter the water. Immersed in the challenge to all my senses I forget that the fish are carp; understanding surfaces later. Every pool has its own pile of cabbage leaves.

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