National Holiday remains the superstar of Chinese holidays. Although the “Chinese Christmas” of Chinese New Year with its mandatory family gathering, feasting, and uncomfortable family questions is a close second, October Holiday is the only large National Holiday in China that doesn’t have an expected way for you to spend it. Sure your family may pressure you into visiting them but all you need is the excuse of a mild amount of inconvenience before you’re off the hook and onto a plane heading to a beach somewhere in the South Pacific, a train to a site you’ve always wanted to see, or a bus to the locus of some heavy duty R & R.
But the devil is in the details more than most people realize. An estimated 750 million people (That’s 7 zeros!) took trips during last year’s “Golden Week,” (Figures by IBTimes). also known as the the greatest annual human migration around the world (Time). This increased 10% from 2014. The result this year? What Fortune recently called “The Greatest Travel Nightmare of 2016.”
So what do you do about it? Absolutely nothing. You’re stuck with it and will have to hold your breath while the terrifying march of the masses passes. Me? Overdramatic? You don’t understand.
The fates decided that I should share a birthdate with the People’s Republic of China. Lucky me.
My first year in China I figured that I’d just take it easy by having a birthday picnic at a large local park (Yuexiu Park - the largest public park in China as it would turn out). Nope – Tens of thousands of people had the same idea as me and it was packed. There was no grass to sit on, trash cans were overflowing, and park entrances were forced to create a que to control the flow of people going in and out.
The next year, I thought it would make more sense to stay away from the big public places and organized an outing to a local arcade. Nope – thousands had the same idea. I did get to play a few games but the popular ones were mobbed with what I’m sure started as a line and quickly transformed into a mosh pit annoyed of patrons unable to even sway to the 17 pieces of music simultaneously playing.
The next year I’d learned my lesson, I needed to get out of the country. So I headed to Thailand. Nope – millions had the same idea as me. Hotels and hostels had all jacked up the prices, servers and salespeople had stopped trying to please their customers and more stood apathetically at the cash register as a machine gun of purchases ran past them, the decision clear on their faces – the extra business wasn’t worth this.
The flip side of everyone heading out is that there’s no one in to help you nationwide (only a slight exaggeration).
In 2010 my partner and I had planned to run as far away from the Chinese whims of travel as possible by meeting up with my parents in Vietnam for a full month of site-seeing continuing onto Cambodia, Thailand, and Laos (Supposedly we’d be well away from the Chinese tourists during peak times). We’d dutifully prepared months in advance our visas for respective countries, bought our plane tickets, and booked our hotels for most the entire trip.
At Baiyun Airport the person at the counter matter of factly informed us that our Vietnamese Visa was invalid as it was issued for the previous year. We looked aghast and laughed telling the attendant that it was clearly an error. The print day was nearly a year after the period of validity. It was obviously a mistake. The attendant shrugged and ushered on the next customers.
Now we were in an interesting position. We were desperately trying to find some staff in this skeleton shift of airport workers who could tell us what was going on and what we had to do. Eventually, we discovered that we needed to get a new visa from the Vietnamese Consulate. But missing our flight to make a trip to the consulate was the least of our worries – Vietnam celebrated Tet.
That meant that nearly all government workers in the country we were trying to leave and the country we were trying to get to were both off for the holidays. Lesson learned… and then some.
We eventually made friends with a savy backpacker who also had no valid Vietnamese visa and with his quick 3G searching found out there was an on-arrival visa available with overnight processing. Thankfully we got our ducks in a row and ironically arrived in Hanoi before my delayed parents did the next evening. But that’s not the point. The point is that unless you’ve seen the mass exodus there’s no way to comprehend the simultaneous gridlock and ghost city producing circus that is National Holiday. And if you haven’t, well with zero cynicism whatsoever, it’s probably for the best. It’s like how people say don’t knock it until you’ve tried it, but still somehow think they’re fine without trying heroin. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, sure. But this just might kill you. Hey, just kidding… or am I?...
Doomsday heralding aside, there is something legitimately eye-opening about experiencing it all. It’s incomprehensible madness and suffering when you’re in the middle of it all. But when you squeeze your way out, take a few deep breaths, and delightfully find that you made it one piece with all of your belongings, you can only but look at your friend and smile. You share a bond with them now that you can never break. You made it, and you’ll forever be able to say, “Man, I’ve seen some shit.”