By CHRIS SCOTT
NANJING — On Oct. 1, as China celebrated the founding of the People’s Republic, millions of tourists flooded the many hallowed historic sites, mystic mountains and breathtaking scenic wonders across the country.
The legally mandated three days off, coupled with rescheduled weekend days, gives everyone in the country a full seven days intended to encourage tourist spending. This respite from the daily grind, also known as “Golden Week,” is an opportunity for multitudes of Chinese to make pilgrimage to national treasures. While the Great Wall has long been a bucket list must-see for travelers from abroad, it was until recently a bridge too far for the many of China’s emerging middle class, once without the resources to spend traveling.
The holiday schedule and accompanying explosion of travel have for some, however, become far more of a hassle than a break. The seven-day schedule was implemented in 1999 during the Asian economic crisis as part of an economic stimulus plan, and the travel surge has evolved year after year. Increasingly, it is characterized by transportation chaos, extreme overcrowding, and degradation of historic sites and natural wonders at the hands of massive foot traffic and littering. Many who have experienced the National Day madness have decided the travel experience is not worth the headache, and those who need to travel for other reasons have to grin and bear the suffocating crowds.
Having experienced the Golden Week travel rush firsthand, National Day sightseeing certainly lost its appeal for me. Over the holiday last year, I decided it would be a good idea to visit the Yellow Mountain, one of the most popular tourist destinations in China. By the time my friends and I were on the bus, heading across Anhui Province to the mountain, we began to realize we were in for an exhausting trip. The bumper-to-bumper traffic nearly doubled what should have been a six-hour ride, and the elation felt arriving at the base of the mountain soon gave way to despair as we sat in an unmoving line of dozens of buses lining up the mountain for hours on end. Buses trying to maneuver their way up the lanes of narrow winding mountain roads created an impassable roadblock. Incessant honking ensued.
We eventually did make it to the normally sleepy village that serves as basecamp for travelers. We woke up at 2 a.m. to be the first in line for the buses to the mountain trail that run from 3 a.m. As we stood in line under the moonlight, a crowd started to fill into the parking lot. The line quickly gave way to an amorphous mass of people growing by the minute in volume of murmur and anxious anticipation for what would come next. With no semblance of a queue and hundreds pushing up against each other to get to one of the several dozen seats on the first bus, the situation looked bleak. When the attendants opened the chain leading to a fence-lined zigzag path to the buses, people started shouting at the attendants who were trying to coax people through the path. The crowd proceeded to jump the fences and push their way onto the buses. The scene was strangely grave in tone for a holiday excursion, and everyone seemed to be experiencing a great deal more stress than relaxation. We did manage to push, or be pushed, onto a bus and we were on our way to the trail up the mountain.
A fast pace up the trail was rewarded with a quiet commune with the natural surroundings. Other tourists followed far below or camped on top through the night. We made it to the top just in time to see a sunrise more beautiful than I could have imagined. The fleeting moment of beauty was no sooner enjoyed than it was disturbed by the approaching onslaught of fellow tourists coming up the trail and waking from their slumber already on the mountain. As crowds closed in on all sides, still early in the morning, we decided to hurry back down before we drowned in the deluge of people.
The voices of discontent maligning the disruptions caused by the holiday have grown in recent years, and some in China are calling for an end to the current scheduling of days off. Some critics would like to limit the National Day Holiday to a three-day weekend, apportioning the additional two days to other traditional cultural holidays such as the Yuanxiao and Chongyang festivals. Another option I personally support would be to add the additional two days onto the existing Chinese New Year holiday. This might allow more flexibility for travel times to help alleviate the chaos associated with this most important of Chinese festivals.
Supporters of the current scheduling note that it would be harder to regulate employers allowing the full vacation under a revised system. New campaigns to keep sites clean and more orderly have also shown some success. Perhaps the most important point to keep in mind is that if it keeps people spending, which by all accounts it has, it is probably going to stay the way it is. The cringe-worthy Black Friday shopping madness that floods American malls the day after Thanksgiving is not going away anytime soon. Neither is China’s Golden Week, although it may continue to feel a little bit more black than gold sometimes.