At the top of the mountain, we walked past a pavilion next to a picturesque meadow and then saw the lineup looming ahead, snaking up the next peak. A guard patrolled the meadow, preventing people from jumping the queue. A man in front of me in line was playing terrible Chinese music on a stereo. We arrived at the top of the peak after about forty-five minutes of slow progression.
I noticed there was a cleft ahead that the path turned into. Certainly this was the bottleneck that necessitated this line-up. At the bottom end of the cleft, the stunning scenery of the mountain was on display: jagged peaks, gnarled pines, and a lineup that stretched way out into the distance. Far from being the natural retreat I thought it would be, Huangshan, one of China’s most famous mountains, didn’t seem much different from the crowded cities on the plain below.
The National Holiday takes place in China every year during the first week of October. Everyone gets three days off; weekends are moved to create a seven-day holiday. As one of the longest holidays of the year, many Chinese see tourist attractions. In a country of 1.3 billion people, even if a small proportion travels at the same time, chaos ensues. Train tickets sell out practically the instant they go on sale ten days beforehand. Hordes crowd popular sites.
In China there is an expression: ren shan ren hai which literally means "mountains and seas of people". This is the perfect description of what happens on the National Holiday, in particular at premier tourist spots like Huangshan.
I have traveled during short holidays in China before, and have never had any problems, so I also naively believed there would be few problems this trip. I did not have any difficulty getting my initial train ticket, or traveling to Jiuhuashan, a Buddhist mountain near Huangshan. Hotels seemed to have lots of space; most of the people traveling were students, who get nine days holiday. I had really enjoyed my trip up until I arrived in Huangshan City. I should have realized something was up when I visited the world heritage listed village of Xidi.
Xidi is a delightful village, built in the"‘Huizhou" style, an architecture particular to a small region of central China near Huangshan. The houses are stone, and have intricate carvings above the door along with beautiful sloping roofs.
After a short half-hour bus ride from the city through the verdant countryside, we arrived at Xidi. There were people wandering directly outside the entrance to the village, but it was only once we entered the narrow streets that we had to deal with the crowds. There were so many people, that at times it was hard to move. I really wanted to take a photo of one of the beautiful doors without anyone obstructing my view; it was only with great difficulty and extreme patience that I succeeded. The village was full of folks selling fake antiques and expensive food from their ancient homes. The whole experience was a disappointment, especially after visiting the nearby village of Nanping.
Nanping is not a world heritage site like Xidi, and receives fewer tourists. When we arrived there were a handful of travelers, strolling through the quiet streets. We were assigned a mandatory tour, with a megaphone-wielding Chinese guide, but we quickly fled to more peaceful confines. The village was a great contrast to Xidi, not totally dependent on the tourist trade, and thus, still had a semblance of the China that existed a hundred years ago. I saw men playing cards in the narrow lanes, and women hanging up their laundry. Would this peaceful place avoid the tourist stampedes long, though? Considering the huge parking lot, the authorities seemed to be expecting many visitors in the future.
The next day we set out at six in the morning to visit Huangshan Mountain. Blissfully unaware of the chaos that would soon meet us, we rested on the hour-long bus ride. At the mountain entrance we were let out of the bus to a scene of chaos. The bus could only take us as far as the base of the mountain. From there, we had to take a second bus up to the start of the path. Unfortunately, the vast numbers of people visiting the mountain had completely overwhelmed the shuttle buses; even with buses departing every minute, there was still a disorder. To make matters worse, there was much pushing and shoving. I frequently saw people duck underneath the rope to jump the queue. About an hour later we came to the front of the line, where an employee gestured to us. She pointed at a sign next to a final lineup to board the bus. It read: "Foreigner Friends Entrance" – foreigners still do get some privileges in China!
We chose to walk up the easier, but less scenic path, and to descend the mountain from the more difficult, and more scenic route. We were greeted by a a writhing mass waiting for the buses. After an hour of extreme discomfort, being prodded by millions of Chinese people, we reached the front of the line and got on a bus. The climb up was actually quite pleasant. There were a lot of people to be sure, but we were still able to weave our way around them, and there was always space to move.
It was only after reaching the top that things changed. At the Beginning-to-believe Peak, so named for its stunning scenery, it was a bit trying to navigate the crowds and get photo opportunities. The true test came with the infinitely long lines to go down. We moved slowly amid stunning scenery for over three hours, listening to the incessant chattering of the Chinese complaining about how many people there were.
What a liberating experience when we reached the end of the line; we could finally move freely without bumping into someone. We bounded down, eager to get back to our accommodation and rest after an exhausting day, both mentally and physically. Next year I will be sure to avoid the crowds by leaving the country. My travel companion told me he would probably go to Korea. Since holidays should be relaxing, I think he has the right idea.