Friday, February 7, 2014

Welcoming the Year of the Horse...

Xin nian kuai le!

Hard on the heels of the 'regular' New Year comes the Chinese New Year - this lunar new year usually falls somewhere in the last week of January or first week of February. Barely 3 weeks separated the 2 New Years this time, and although the Chinese New Year is the longest holiday here in China, and is usually a perfect time to go away on vacation - we still hadn't really settled back fully after our December vacation, so this year, we decided to stay in Suzhou! Besides, everyone gets time off - including our driver and aayi - so if we travel, our little cat has to go to a kennel, and that does not make him very happy!

The story goes that every year, a monster named Nian would come to terrorize the villagers - eating livestock, and sometimes, even children! To scare this monster away, loud firecrackers were set off, and houses decorated with red lanterns and scrolls - the fierce monster was afraid of the color red! This tradition continues to date - most places you go to in China will be a sea of red at the time of the New Year! Houses are decorated with red paper cutouts, and streets are festooned with red Chinese knots and lanterns! The 'fu' character - which kind of looks like a wine bottle - symbolizes luck or prosperity, and is seen everywhere! Now, I can recognize the fu, but what baffled me was that it seemed to be stuck upside down on our Chinese neighbour's house - any guesses why? Well, the Chinese character for 'upside down' sounds very similar to the Chinese character for 'arrive' - so upside down fu signifies arrival of good luck! An 'aha' moment, if ever there was one!

The tradition of setting off firecrackers continues as well! With pollution levels always hovering at 'Unhealthy' levels, I don't know if this really makes sense anymore - but, tradition is tradition, and must be followed, come what may! So New Years Eve is one of the loudest nights here, and the smokiest! The fireworks go on till the wee hours of the morning - and while I was expecting it to bother me, the noise brought back strong memories of Diwali in India! Totally unexpected were the fireworks at midnight on the 5th day of the New Year - these sounded even louder than the New Year ones, and went on until late in the morning! The 5th day is the Money God's birthday, and firecrackers are used to attract his attention and welcome him home - sounds a bit like our Laxmi pooja, doesn't it? Still not done - the 7th day of the festival is the birthday of the Jade Emperor, who is the ruler of the heavens - birthday celebration, bring on the fireworks, of course!

Canals of Suzhou
With the aayi on vacation, a large chunk of my time was spent in the kitchen - but thankfully, that was not all that I did! We got one really, really beautiful day here - almost felt like winter was over - perfect day to explore the ancient district of Suzhou, specifically Shi Lu and Shantang Jie. In fact, Shantang Jie is known as the No. 1 Ancient Street in China! Like many places in China, this area is a curious mix of the old and the new! Newer malls, the ubiquitous McDonald's and Metro stations rub shoulders with stone bridges and houses that look like they are centuries old! The famous canals and waterways of Suzhou are also found here - and a boat ride is among the top attractions, even though the water is indescribably filthy! The usual silk and souvenir shops line the narrow streets, as well as plenty of little tea houses and eateries! There is plenty of history here, and I would definitely like to go back when it's a little quieter, to appreciate the beauty a little more!

The Shanghai Science and Tech Museum has been on our list for the longest time - so one day, we took the train to Shanghai, and spent a day at the museum! It is really convenient to take the train from Suzhou to Shanghai - trains run quite regularly, every hour or so - and the journey is really short, a mere 25 minutes! Once in Shanghai, the awesome metro connectivity will take you wherever you wish to go! The Science and Tech Museum in Shanghai has a little bit of everything - younger kids will enjoy the Spectrum of Life and Animal Kingdom exhibits, especially the African animals exhibit, which was really awesome! The Light of Exploration section had some interesting displays about quantum theory and nanosciences - but Manasi was quickly bored here! To commemorate the Year of the Horse, there was a special exhibit to learn about everything equine - that I really enjoyed!

Where's the water coming from?
Most other sections - including the much anticipated World of Robots and Space Exploration - were kind of flat, except one! We all agreed that this section was the best of all - the Light of Wisdom section! Here a variety of interactive experiments had been setup - what a fun way to learn basic principles of Science! The displays were all innovative - my favorite was the giant faucet apparently suspended in mid-air, with water gushing out into a sink! Where is that water coming from? Put your observation skills to the test - the solution is actually quite simple! This was the last section we visited before the museum closed, and I really wish we had gone there first - would have made the day so much more interesting! The museum also has 3 Imax theatres - even a 4D one - but all shows are in Chinese! That was a bit surprising - I would have expected at least a couple of shows in English! The added attraction at the museum is actually not in the museum - rather, right across from it! AP Plaza, a huge shopping complex located right in the Metro station for the Science and Tech Museum. The perfect place to get all souvenir and gift shopping done, AP Plaza also has some good clothing stores and tailors (in the market for a suit?)! Real easy to spend a couple of hours, or even the whole day here! Be prepared to bargain hard - the asking prices are way beyond ridiculous!!

The rest of the week passed surprisingly quickly - a lot of puttering around the house, huge meals, and of course perfect for rainy days, afternoon naps! Ajey and I spent an afternoon figuring out travel plans for the rest of the year - looks like it's going to be another exciting year! School will start in couple more days, and soon this lazy week will be but a memory! So before we all get back to our routines, a New Year wish - may the Year of the Horse bring you joy, prosperity and good luck! Xin nian kuai le!!

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