What Spending Chinese New Year in China Taught Me About Indonesia

I spent the holiday fighting the crowds to reach a city that was partially flooded and built next to a shrine complex modeled after the Chinese version of hell. And it felt just like home.
January 28, 2017, 10:00am
All photos by author

Indonesians tend to think that mudik is a uniquely local tradition. But anyone who thinks that never spent Chinese New Year in mainland China. Back in 2013, I was living in Chongqing as the region was choking on one of the worst "airpocalypses" in years. Chongqing quickly became a dystopian hellscape as the smog blanketed the low-lying megacity, shrouding the constant construction in a veil of murky haze.


Chongqing was one of the fastest-growing cities in the world. But as Chinese New Year approached the city emptied out. The holiday sets off a mass exodus much like mudik in Indonesia, only bigger. The number of travelers reaches the hundreds of millions. The number of individual trips the billions. And here I was, a veteran of the Lebaran travel crunch, sitting right in the middle of one of the few mass migrations that could legitimately challenge Indonesia for the crown.

I would've stayed behind and relaxed through the holiday if it wasn't for one little problem. Yes, it was Chinese New Year. But it was also my birthday, and the last thing I wanted to do was turn 21 alone in a strange city. So when my best friend asked me to tag along to her hometown of Fengdu I jumped at the chance.

Fengdu is a historic city in Chongqing province that's one of the country's oldest places. But it's also one of it's newest. When the Chinese government built the Three Gorges Dam, it flooded the city, submerging sections of the old town in the water of the Yangtze River. On the opposite riverbank, a new city rose up, a place of apartment towers and new fancy roads. On the old side, sat the Fengdu Ghost City, its statues and shrines modeled after the mythical city of Youdu—the capital of Diyu, or the Chinese version of hell.

It's easy to feel homesick when you spend a long time abroad. But celebrating Chinese New Year in Fengdu made me feel right at home. The holiday was so similar to Lebaran that it made me feel a little closer to Indonesia, despite the fact that I was nearly 4,000 kilometers away. The trip to Fengdu felt like mudik, the firecrackers exploding in the sky reminded me of takbiran, and the food, the amazing food, left me stuffed and sleepy.


It ended up being my most sentimental birthday. I would joke that it felt like the whole country was celebrating alongside me, laughing about how the fireworks, everything, was all just part of a giant birthday blowout. But in reality, it was the trip itself, the reminder of things I left behind in Indonesia that struck me the most. It taught me that even here, in a city next to hell, it was possible to experience something that felt like home.

Chongqing. All photos by author


The crowds


The Chinese New Year feast

Eating in the countryside

So much food

And gambling