As an ancient Chinese poem says: "On festive occasions more than ever one thinks of one's dear ones far away." And this is especially true during chunyun－the Spring Festival travel period.
This traditionally busy season sees millions of Chinese travel across the country amid congested traffic to attend family reunions during the holiday, which runs from Jan 24 to 30 this year.
However, for some young people like Zhou Xiaoli, the weeklong holiday is a rare opportunity to take a long trip on her own to relax after a year's hard work.
"While traveling on my own, I enjoy the freedom to arrange my itinerary as I like. I often stay in hostels and chat with young people from all over the world," says the 30-year-old office worker from Beijing.
Since February 2016, she has traveled to Japan on several occasions and plans to visit Xi'an, Shaanxi province, and the Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region later this year.
She takes her annual leave over the Spring Festival holiday so she can enjoy a two-week vacation, her only long break of the year since she works during the National Day holidays.
As a gourmet, she often visits food markets to observe the local dining habits and finds tips on where to sample the most authentic dishes.
"It's important to rub shoulders with other people, locals and tourists alike. It helps to break stereotypes about each other's countries and cultures," she says.
"The people I meet are part of my travel experience. I like to make friends and keep in touch with them on social media."
She once joined a matcha (powdered green tea) ceremony in Japan, where she made friends with a young local man who spoke Chinese. The two met up the next time she traveled to Japan and visited Uji, a city famous for matcha, and visited local matcha masters to learn about the industry.
"For me, the most essential ritual is to eat dumplings during Lunar New Year when I'm traveling. I also send greetings to my family and video chat with them," Zhou says.
People like Zhou tend to travel alone since it's not easy to find a travel companion during Spring Festival holiday. Most of her friends still spend the holiday with their families.
As a sign of filial piety, the younger generations would traditionally return home to be with their grandparents during Spring Festival. But things are changing, and if their older relatives have died, younger people are free to make other arrangements for the period.
For the past seven years, Shen Huilin has traveled on her own during Spring Festival, visiting countries like Japan and the United Kingdom.
"Since my grandparents passed away, my relatives now spend the holidays with their children separately. My parents come to stay with me in Beijing from time to time through the year," she says.
"During my childhood, I enjoyed the rituals of Spring Festival, such as getting new clothes and receiving 'lucky money.' But as a grown-up, these are now just fond memories."
As living standards continue to improve for many Chinese people, more options are available. Her parents have gradually accepted her new way of enjoying the holiday, and intend to travel to Hainan Island to avoid the colder weather.
It's also a way for Shen to ease the pressure to marry. Unwed daughters often remain the subject of talk among relatives－and these "concerns" make her uncomfortable.
During the first week of January, searches for Spring Festival holiday destinations tripled on the travel platform Mafengwo over the last week of December, while searches about solo travel doubled, especially among people younger than 30.
The most popular destinations were Bangkok, Osaka, Tokyo and Macao.
As diplomatic relations continue to grow with Russia, so has interest in travel there. With the country's geographic proximity and marvelous winter scenery, cities like Murmansk, St. Petersburg, Vladivostok and Moscow are the most popular destinations.
"The tradition of family reunions during Spring Festival … has weakened over the years," says Ma Yiliang from the China Tourism Academy.
"The needs and motivations of young people have changed－they are more focused on the holiday as an opportunity to enjoy themselves. And the older generations are becoming more open-minded toward this."
According to him, the options are endless. Some choose to enjoy beautiful winter landscapes or seasonal sports such as skiing, while others enjoy cultural activities like temple fairs. Others travel to warmer climes in Southeast Asia to enjoy beaches and nice hotels.
For individual travelers looking for more immersive experiences, Ma suggests safety should remain the priority, especially for female travelers, and people should choose destinations with good public order.
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