How Traveling In China Went From Adventure To Ordeal
Traveling in China used to be fun, sometimes even relaxing. As recently as the late 1990s, you could go to a Tibetan monastery out west that your Chinese friends had never heard of, hang out with nomads and chat with monks. Crowds were rare.
Those days are mostly over. China's rapid economic rise means many people now have the money to travel. And that's a good thing. Chinese should get to know their country better.
The problem: There are just too many people.
Over the weeklong holiday that just wrapped up here, more than 500 million people hit the road, taking at least one trip and jamming tourist sites. Images online showed crowds swamping the Great Wall outside Beijing and inundating a glass bridge suspended over a gorge in southern China.
I want my kids, Katie, 14, and Christopher, 11, to get to know China as well. So in August, we flew to Jiuzhaigou, a narrow valley in the mountains of Sichuan Province where the lakes are so clear, you can see all the way to the bottom.
Unfortunately, on the day we went, more than 50,000 other people had the same idea.
I don't want to sound like a whiny expat, the kind of guy who says everything was better 20 years ago. It wasn't.
Most things in China are a lot better now — but not tourism.
A shuttle bus took us to a mist-shrouded lake, and we were immediately swallowed up by the crowds.
A staircase leading to a waterfall was so jammed that my wife, Julie, stayed behind because she was afraid of getting crushed. She didn't get to see the falls, but she didn't have to stand in line to take pictures of them, either.
Chris and Katie quickly announced they wanted to go back to the hotel. I didn't blame them, but I didn't want the trip to be a failure and leave a bad taste in their mouths, so we decided to tough it out. To escape the deluge of people, we leapt on a shuttle bus and got as far away as we could. We crossed the river and were soon wandering in a quiet forest.
The river poured through groves of pine trees, tumbling down rocks and bending the light as it dropped into turquoise pools.
It was a spectacular sight, but the effort to see it outside the tourist scrum was tense and stressful.
Now that sites like Jiuzhaigou have become so popular, the government is trying to control crowds. During the holiday week, tourism officials set visitor limits for the first time at more than 100 attractions, according the Communist Party's People's Daily Online. But those caps are still very generous and many sites were overwhelmed. At Beijing's Forbidden City, which put limits in place earlier this year, the daily allotment of 80,000 tickets sold out one morning before 9:30, according to state-run China Central Television.
The fact is that braving the swarms that now engulf China's sights is the price of prosperity — which anyone who really wants to see this country just has to pay.
Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.