Among Raymond’s colleagues, the standard recommendation when talking about traveling during Chinese national holidays is to travel out of China because of the crowds. With the growing middle class in China, popular tourist spots definitely get crowded when a billion people are all on holiday at the same time. But, as for teachers worldwide, our holidays tend to fall when others are on holiday. And we want to explore as many as possible of the beautiful places in our adopted home.
So, we are learning to enjoy holidaying in the beautiful places that we most want to visit, while sharing them with thousands of others – not how kiwis are used to enjoying beauty.
So, what have we learned, and how did we apply this on our recent trip to 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) aka Avatar Mountains?
A year ago, on our first trip to a national park, 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), I was momentarily overwhelmed by the number of people. I was fine fighting my way through the crowds at the turnstiles and to get on the bus to go up, but once we got there I couldn’t cope. This was not rational – if lots of people are getting on buses, they will all be there when we get off. But, I had to throw off decades of experience of national parks being places of tranquillity as well as of beauty.
So the first thing I did differently was to expect crowds.
Stay as near as possible to the scenic spot
One thing we did well this trip was to stay at a small guesthouse just inside the west entrance to the park. From here it was a five-minute walk to the bottom of the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, where a couple of walks began and we could catch the free bus to the east. This meant that each morning, we could start early before the crowds began to arrive in cars or on the buses. It was also nice at the end of the day to catch the cable car down and not have to navigate more crowds to get ‘home’.
We also enjoyed the relative tranquillity of staying in a small settlement of only a few houses. The disadvantage was that we only had that guesthouse as an option for meals, but it simplified things and the meals were pleasant and reasonable. You can see in the photo below the simple environment in which our host family catered for the 20ish guests.
Interestingly, being limited to only true Chinese food for four days meant that our first visit to McDonalds after 15 months in China was at the top of a mountain in a stunning national park. We had walked for hours, it was drizzling and cool, and, as we walked past, we both thought that we would love a burger and chips aka comfort food.
Book tickets ahead of time
National holidays are not the time to be flexible and decide as you go what you will do and where you will stay. We booked our accommodation and transport well ahead of time, although this was not straight forward.
We wanted to catch the sleeper train there and back, but missed out on tickets both ways. A month before travel we could buy the tickets with our preferred app Ctrip, but sleeper train tickets were already sold out, as I found out too late when I was poised ready to buy tickets the second they became available. So we flew there (just over an hour), and caught two 6-7 hour day trains back with an overnight stay in 宜昌(Yíchāng). Catching the train was certainly an experience, and good for blogging – time and content. But we need to find out how to book sleeper trains before they become available! Or we might fly – not even double the price, and a tenth of the time.
We first used Ctrip to book our accommodation too, but then a friend found lower prices on another western accommodation booking site, so we cancelled and used that site for both our accommodation options. However, when I rang our place in the park to ask them to organise a taxi from the airport to their hostel, the woman commented that our prices were cheaper than their national holiday rate. I agreed to her higher price because it matched our earlier deal, seemed fair, and I didn’t want them to be upset before we arrived. Later that day, our second accommodation option cancelled because of ‘special circumstances’. I wonder if this could be loosely translated as ‘we could sell your room for a higher rate’. I suspect Ctrip with its China focus has a mechanism for increasing the prices during national holidays, so will use it for future bookings.
We could buy tickets to enter the park easily enough. Following the recommendation of our place in the park hostess, we booked tickets for a show on our third evening, which was just as well because the large theatre was packed. And, an earlier showing was leaving as we arrived – some things bring home how many people are in this country.
She also suggested booking tickets for 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain for our fifth day. This is a popular tourist spot near our second accommodation in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town. We were not ready to make that decision on day one, never quite got around to deciding while we were with her, and then missed out on being able to go up in the 天门 (Tiānmén) Mountain cable car. We opted not to spend most of the day winding up into the mist and back down again on a bus, deciding instead to visit the canyon and glass bridge a couple of hours away. But those tickets were also sold out. So we caught the bus to the museum in 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) town, but couldn’t find it, even after asking some locals. As a last resort, we just relaxed, which means Raymond went for a run and read, and I had a snooze and revised Chinese.
Dithering and national holidays do not go together.
Accept the process
The good news is that the infrastructure here is designed for thousands. As in 九寨沟(Jiŭzhàigōu), we were so impressed by the wide paths that wind through the beauty and cope with the crowds, and the many free buses ferrying people between attractions. We are experts at waiting our turn to take photos that make it look like we are the only ones there.
We stick to the paths, follow the signs (or ask for advice), and wait patiently in line to get on and off the buses. Sometimes we asked the friendly guides controlling people getting onto the buses which one goes where we want to go by pointing at the map, or where the walking path we want to go on starts. Sometimes we worked it out ourselves and got it right and other times we went solo and got it wrong. Twice other passengers helped us out. Three times I asked the bus drivers for help. Two were very helpful, said to sit immediately behind them, and then told us where to get off. The third told us to get off immediately. I think he knew he wasn’t going where we wanted to go. However, when I tried to clarify to be sure, he did that thing one does with people you believe don’t properly understand you and increased his volume – a lot – loudly shouting 下车(xiàchē), ‘get off the bus!’ – so we did.
Interestingly, it is more similar to being in a New Zealand national park than you might expect. There, one also needs to stick to the paths, follow the signs, and sometimes ask for advice. The difference is that there are no buses, guides, crowds – or shops, including MacDonalds and KFC, and monkeys, and the paths are not made of stones. I imagine it must freak Chinese tourists out.
Enjoy the path less traveled
One of the highlights of our trip was the morning that we chose not to take the 杨家界(Yángjiājié) cable car, but walk up instead. Only one other group of four was on the path for the first two hours of this walk. It was beautiful, especially because it was below the ever-present mist so we could see the stunning scenery.
Down below, there were no famous tourist spots with eloquent names such as ‘Ape afraid to climb cliff’, ‘Cat fishing’, ‘One step to the heaven’, ‘Waterfall from the sky’, ‘Regretting meeting late’, ‘Golden tortoise in the mist’, ‘Pigsy looking in the mirror’, or, my favourite, ‘Splitting mountain to save mother’.
It was easier to make this decision when the weather was so misty that the views from the top were not so stunning. But it is part of our evolving strategy to avoid the Chinese crowds who seem to prefer the famous over the serene. We can enjoy the latter while fitting in some of the former as well.
Connect with people
Rather than seeing crowds of people as a nuisance, I am learning to see them as an opportunity to connect and better understand China.
At our accommodation, we chatted with half a dozen Irish students, and four Italian students. Having just read that China is now the country with the third highest number of international students, it was interesting to put faces to the statistic.
Despite our small guesthouse being full of westerners, we were usually the only foreigners in a place. So, we stood out, children tended to stare, and parents often encouraged their children to say hello/practice those English lessons they are paying a fortune for. On this trip we developed the habit of being the first to say ‘hello’ to any interested children, which led to several fun conversations with families. One family adopted us walking along Golden Whip Stream. I had a fascinating conversation with the mum about her family’s perception of China. She had good English and works for a company doing business with European countries.
She said they are very happy. The first reason she gave was that she believes China does not have the unrest that other countries have, poignant given that we were walking together just after the Las Vegas shooting. The second reason was that their government is good at getting things done. The latter comment resonates with me. The pace of change here, just since we arrived, is mind-blowing. Democracy certainly has inherent inefficiency. In New Zealand, elected representatives spend about one sixth of their time in government convincing voters that their policy is best in the hope that they will be re-elected. And it is difficult to implement long term change projects because governments are only sure of being in power for the next three years. Also, evidence-based policy is not necessarily the one that appeals to voters, and democracy can be overly influenced by selfish voting. And then, as we are seeing in New Zealand, a party with seven percent support can have a disproportionate level of influence. I have heard that the Chinese system allows grassroots influence through local party groups feeding into higher level groupings all the way to the top. I am sure this system is not perfect, but living here challenges my assumptions that democracy is best. As well as the greater efficiency my ‘mum’ mentioned, China seems to have a baseline view of each human life mattering, a view that seems to be increasingly at risk in western capitalist democracies. I still believe democracy has some advantages, but more clearly see its disadvantages too.
My new friend also said how her father only survived because his mother sent him and his older sister to live with her parents, but his six or seven (nobody knows now) other siblings died of starvation. Her dad tells them off if they complain and reminds them how bad it used to be.
Lining up to catch the cable car down to our accommodation, I used my relatively recently acquired skill of positioning my body so that people cannot push ahead of me in the queue. It took all my skill to keep one woman, who we nicknamed ‘pushy’, behind me. So, Raymond and I were both amused when we ended up sitting in the same small cable car with her and the other four of her family. I said ‘hello’ to her child and we started talking in Chinese, and found out they are from Chengdu. Suddenly, she was not ‘inconsiderate, pushy old woman’. She was ‘fellow grandmother and shared city dweller’. The power of connection.
People watching is fun too
We never get sick of people watching and it is more interesting with crowds. It is entertaining enough in one’s own country, but even more so in another culture. Some of the highlights from our 張家界 (Zhāngjiājié) trip are
- The shoes women wear. I know the paths are paved and there are buses everywhere, but some women were on the 1-3 hour paths wearing higher heels than I wore to Aaron’s and Sally’s wedding. We saw one woman obviously in discomfort with relatively normal shoes, and another with very high heels choosing to pay the men hovering with sedan chairs to take her down. The sedan chair didn’t look such a safe option to us – the chairs were old and rusty, and we saw a cast off with one of its bamboo poles broken – presumably while someone was being carried down a near vertical slope in it. If I was the sedan chair carriers, I would look at footwear to see who to target. I did feel that a number of people looked askance at my tramping shoes, seeming to think ‘I can’t believe she is happy to be seen in public wearing those’.
- Propensity for guided tours. We are fascinated by the fact that Chinese, who speak the language and can read all the signs, like to travel with a tour guide. There were flag waving guides everywhere. By contrast, Raymond and I, and other foreigners, who are in a perpetual fog, travel alone – relying on advice in Chinglish and piecing together the puzzle from snippets that various westerners have written online. I talked to my English speaking new friend about this. She said ‘It is also our first time here. We do not know where to stay or what to see, so it is easier to have a guide organise it all for us’. We walked with their group for a while and she told me what the guide was saying. The main value add seemed to be having stories of what the shapes of the various rock formations could be anthropomorphised to be. We are happy with our system.
- Three acceptable activities on a train trip – watching videos, eating and sleeping. Raymond and I stood out with our blogging and book reading – yes a physical book.
- Standing seats. On our first train trip – slow train, hard seats, 45 kuai (NZD9) for five hours – our seats were in a row of three facing three others. We had numbers 26 and 27. While we were putting our suitcases up on the luggage rack, a young woman sat in number 27. I said ‘that is my seat’. She pointed to number 25 which was free and better because it was by the window and had a little table, so I sat there thinking we were swapping. Then she moved to sit by her friend and a young guy sat in 27. We will never know if he was the real 25 or had bought a ‘standing seat’ which is where you can stand or, if you are lucky, grab an empty seat. The two guys first sitting opposite us also seemed to be standing seat people, because one got evicted by a couple who got on later, and the other moved to 25 when it became free.
- First class travellers. On our second train trip – fast train, 350 kuai (NZD70) for seven hours – we splashed out on first class tickets, so the only standing passengers I saw were at the end of the nearest second class carriage by our toilets. Our seats were in a row of two with a power point, foot rests, reclinable seats, hook for hanging coats, convenient deep pockets in the seat in front of us and little tables hidden in our armrest – luxury! The first class carriage seemed a popular choice for mothers or grandmothers sharing one seat with a child. They filled the gap created with no standing passengers, taking their little darlings for a stretch.
Live with imperfection
It was disappointing, because of the weather, to not see the park in all its glory. It was disappointing, because of the crowds, to not travel on the longest cable car in the world or see the stunning canyon. I would have preferred not to have the guy opposite me smacking his lips quite so loudly while he was chewing on whatever he was eating. Some of the toilets could be cleaner. But if that is all we have to complain about, things are not so bad. We are having such an adventure, and feel so privileged to be seeing and experiencing all that this amazing journey offers.