By LIZ WITCHER
NANJING — On September 30 at 4:20 p.m., Kate Hill, a graduate certificate student from Albany, New York, left from class, hailed a cab and headed for a train station across town. Her high-speed train (known as the gao tie in Chinese) was scheduled to depart at 5:00 p.m. and she still needed to pick up her ticket. In making her train with little to no time to spare, she joined the millions of people traveling during Golden Week, an annual week-long celebration from October 1 to October 7 which celebrates the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
Golden Week affords not only the students of the Hopkins-Nanjing Center (HNC) a week off from classes, but also the majority of China seven work-free days. As such, the train stations become crowded as tickets quickly sell out. Airfare rises and tourist destinations can best be described using the Chinese phrase ren shan ren hai, literally mountains and seas of people. Thus, everyone faces the question, to travel or not to travel? To brave the crowds or stay home instead?
At the HNC, there was no consensus about what to do. Some students, like Xing Li, a first year MAIS student, chose to go home for a couple of days to visit family before returning to Nanjing to work additional hours at her part-time job. She belongs to the camp that believes traveling during Golden Week is “crazy.” When asked if she would consider travel during Golden Week her response was clear: never.
She elaborated that she has no intention to ever travel during the national holiday. She cites concerns about the crowds and steeper travel prices as a barrier to entry. Xing Li does make an exception for international travel. When she can afford it, she would like to travel to Europe, the United States or Japan.
Another student who chose to stay in Nanjing was Robert Loweth, a certificate student. Although he had originally considered traveling to places like Wuzhen, a scenic water town, by the time he went to buy train tickets he found that there were none left and that the bus fare was “insanely expensive.” While Robert says that he did “basically next to nothing” during the week, he did find time to explore the city wall and cross the Yangtze bridge. Most of the time, though, he opted to stay at the HNC because, much like Xing Li, he wanted to avoid the sea of people.
Other students, however, did use the time to travel. Jake Gunter, a second year MAIS student, took advantage of the week off from classes to go hiking in Anhui before flying to Taiwan to take the Foreign Service Officer Test. Having taken a bus from Shanghai with twenty-four other people as a part of a hiking group, at one point, they were stuck on the same stretch of highway for forty minutes. Many others might have reflected on this with negativity, but Jake chuckled. He mentioned how lucky it was that their bus stopped outside a rest stop, providing an opportunity to walk around and buy things to eat.
With the exception of the increased traffic, he was not overwhelmed by the amount of people. He attributes this to his predilection of venturing to places less traveled. On this specific voyage, his time was spent at an out-of-the-way mountain and a little-known cave system. Perhaps by a stroke of luck, the only big tour group they encountered entered the cave system at the same time as their group was leaving.
For Chinese students, Golden Week presents an opportunity to go home to visit family and friends. Pi Jingyun, a certificate student, traveled by train to her hometown in Hebei. Securing a soft-sleeper ticket — the most comfortable bed available in a small cabin — she was able to skip the crowds at the train station. Much like how a first-class plane ticket grants access to many airline lounges, the soft-sleeper ticket also includes a private entrance into the station and place to relax before boarding. As such, Pi Jingyun was uncertain if the crowds in the train station exceeded normal size.
Despite her soft-sleeper ticket and lounge privileges, she also shares the common anxiety of traveling during the holiday. Like many others at the HNC, and to a larger extent in China, she also fears the crowds and higher travel costs. In fact, she only went home to visit a relative in the hospital. Luckily, for students at the HNC, November will bring a week-long holiday. At that time, unlike Golden Week, the students will be able to visit scenic places without the mountains and seas of people. In fact, nearly everyone I spoke with has already made plans or is currently booking tickets.
Still, others encourage traveling during Golden Week. Kate Hill spent her week in Hebei; among the various things she saw and experienced, talking with a Chinese fan calligraphy artist stands out in her memory. She also found the gravestone of Hua Mulan by reading a paper stuck to a telephone pole. Much to her her surprise, Kate’s Chinese character surname, Wei, is also the same as the historical heroine — not Hua or Fa of the folk and Disney fame. Through serendipitous adventure and elation, and despite returning to Nanjing on a nine-hour over-night standing room only ticket, Kate encourages her fellow students to travel: “I mean, don’t be afraid to get up and close with people. It’s still a break. If you’re in a new country, just go for it.”