Thursday, October 11, 2012

National Day Crowds

The week-long holiday for China’s National Day (which has just finished) has always been the busiest week for internal tourism within the country, with hordes of visitors jostling for space at all the country’s major and minor attractions. As more and more Chinese have the money to travel internally, the number of people moving within the country during the holidays is becoming increasingly unsustainable.

This year new peaks of overcrowding have been reached. The Forbidden City received 182.000 visitors on the 2nd of October, an all time record for a single day. According to an article in Xinhua, by the 3rd of October the 119 national tourist sites under monitoring (supposedly the most important ones) had received 609 million visitors! That would be half the population of China.

Many tourist sites were working at almost ten times their optimal capacity. In Dunhuang, Gansu Province, some camels died from overwork after carrying tourists back and forth for days. On Mount Hua, Shaanxi Province, thousands of visitors were stuck until midnight on the 2nd of October, because the cable cars were unable to cope with the crowds. There were chaotic scenes as visitors were refused entry, others demanded refunds, and a few fights broke out between visitors and staff.

Personally I had never traveled during the National Day holidays, but I had the brilliant idea to do so for the first time this year, thus joining this madness (and adding to it I suppose). What’s more I had the even better idea to go to Hangzhou, one of China’s most popular tourist destinations of all (well it wasn’t really my idea, a Chinese friend who was going there suggested I come along). 
Hangzhou is a big city just south of Shanghai. The main attraction is the West Lake, a large lake at the center of the city which is renowned throughout the country for its beauty and its historical relics. The Lake has influenced Chinese poets and artists throughout the ages, and it is associated with numerous important figures in the country’s history. As the Chinese saying goes, 上有天堂,下有苏杭 (above there is heaven, below there are Suzhou and Hangzhou).

As one might imagine, train tickets for the holiday period are extremely hard to come by, even if you start queuing on the morning of the first day when the tickets you need are on sale. Flights cost double the usual amount. Somehow my friend managed to get me a ticket for the Beijing-Hangzhou high speed railway for the first day of the holiday. It must be said that the new high speed trains connecting China’s major coastal cities really are very fast. This particular train takes only six and a half hours to get from Beijing to Hangzhou, a distance only slightly shorter than going from London to Nice.

Hotels also tend to be fully booked during the holidays, and I had to settle for an expensive and overpriced room in Home Inn. What has really stayed with me of Hangzhou’s West Lake is not the beauty of the Lake, but the size of the crowds swarming around it. The Lake is kilometers long in circumference, but there were so many tour groups on site that it was almost impossible to move. I tried renting a bike, but the road around the lake was so packed with people, cars and other tourists on rented bicycles that cycling was both difficult and potentially dangerous. Honestly I doubt that I would have found the Lake as beautiful as most Chinese visitors do even at the best of times, but I was so fed up with the constant mass of people surrounding me on all sides that I really couldn’t focus on its supposed beauty anyway.

My friend and I attempted to visit the famous Lei Feng Pagoda (no connection with the selfless soldier of Maoist propaganda; the second character is slightly different). There was such a mass of Chinese humanity swarming around it that I felt dizzy by the time I got near. Spotting my friend was utterly hopeless, and we had to go to the closest bus stop to find each other. By then we both agreed that we had no interest in visiting the pagoda anymore, especially since we would have had to queue for hours to get in.

My original plan was to continue traveling to Henan Province after going to Hangzhou, but after a few days I was so fed up that I just booked a flight back to Beijing on the 4th of October and spent the remainder of the holiday in my flat.

This year many Chinese holidaymakers have also complained that the size of the crowds at the places they visited affected their enjoyment of the vacation, in spite of the Chinese tolerance for overcrowded environments. It is clear that having hundreds of millions of people traveling through China at the same time and visiting the same places is becoming unfeasible, damaging for the tourist sites, uncomfortable and even dangerous (especially for the poor camels in Dunhuang). In any case, I know that I am not traveling anywhere in China for the National Day ever again. 

(Above: tourists turning Tiananmen Square into a campsite over the holidays)

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