Given that we’re in the midst of Chinese New Year Extravaganza 2013, it seems only right that I should tell you about how Tony & I handled the last major Chinese holiday, one we actually had to face while we were in China proper. Although Chinese New Year is celebrated on something of an international scale (heck, there’s a large enough Chinese community in Toronto that you can ring in the year of the snake half way around the world in Canada!), Golden Week is a 7-day holiday that occurs in the autumn and is a special brand of hell inflicted on those in China proper.
Instituted in the year 2000, Golden Week is a national holiday that was dreamed up by the government to encourage domestic tourism and further family togetherness. Because, I don’t know if you knew this, but China is kind of enormous, so you need at least a week to make a vacation anywhere within its bounds worthwhile, even if said vacation is simply schlepping yourself back to the family home to reunite with your kin. Give them less than a week and they’ll probably just stay home, which is no boon to the economy. But give them more than a week and they might actually go overseas, which is effectively the same problem. So, one week it is!
Of course, China isn’t just known for having a large land mass. It’s also known for having a massive population. And for one week in late September/early October, that entire population is pretty much on vacation. Meaning they are moving about the country, by planes, trains, and automobiles, flooding the hotels and guesthouses, and inundating the most popular of their homeland’s tourist attractions.
You will read warnings from travel bloggers, cautioning you against traveling to China during Golden Week at all costs. We read these warnings, but figured that travel during the summer Oban festivities in Japan was also supposed to be terrible and had never proven as such, so how bad could it be? Maybe we would be lucky and catch a cool festival or parade of some sort!
We were wrong to think this way. There is nothing cool about Golden Week, certainly nothing of the festival variety. There is a world of difference between Japan and China, one far greater than the narrow swath of water that makes up the Sea of Japan might have you believe. Perhaps most significant is that Japan puts orderliness above all else, whereas China is a hot chaotic mess at the best of times. I mean, this is a culture that will shove at any opportunity and has no qualms about defecating in public, so whatever tenuous “system” they may have in place to govern transportation and travel swiftly falls by the wayside when the entire country is on holiday and anarchy reins supreme. Essentially summon to mind the dread you feel when it is time to face traveling during any of the Western hemisphere’s holidays—like Christmas or Thanksgiving—and then multiply that by a gajillion. Only then will you begin to know the pain and horror that is China during Golden Week .
In the weeks we spent in China when Golden Week was nothing but a blip on the horizon, we had piss poor luck making our way around the country. In the past year the entire system (and I use that term loosely) for purchasing train tickets has been updated and while it may make life easier for a large segment of China’s residents, it has made this agonizing ordeal all the more so for those of us not “lucky” enough to live there. In short, now you can buy tickets online, and what’s more, can even do so several days before tickets go on sale at actual train stations, meaning that you can show up in person to buy tickets the very day they go on sale at the station only to find they are all sold out. Trust us, this happened to us several times. So, why didn’t we just buy the tickets online? Because you can only do so if you have a Chinese bank account. Check and mate, foreigner. All to say, that our dealings with China’s transport system had been abysmal well before there was a mass migration in the works, so it shouldn’t have been at all surprising to find we were going to be well and royally screwed once Golden Week finally materialized.
Like most tourists who find themselves in Guilin, we arrived with the intention of visiting the nearby rice terraces for a few days before making our way to the backpacker central of Yangshuo to bask in the beauty of its otherworldly limestone karsts. The only problem with this plan is that these karsts are popular with the local population as well, and come Golden Week, they are inundated with visitors. And since all the hotels, tour operators, and restaurants know that this will be the case, what do you think happens? If you guessed “prices skyrocket”, pat yourself on the back. When we began investigating accommodation options in Yangshuo during Golden Week, we found that beds in hostels that would normally go for $8 USD per person, were suddenly up to $30USD. I’m sorry, but I’m not going to pay the same price we would pay to stay in a dorm in Japan while in China. We also worried that if prices for lodging were so inflated, would we also see restaurants rolling out special Golden Week menus (with prices double or triple the normal ones)? And would what about the river cruises and bike rentals? Chances were that everything would be vastly more expensive during this time.
We realized that not only would we be overpaying for the privilege to visit Yangshuo during Golden Week, but a trip there would guarantee that we’d be lost in a sea of tourists to boot. China’s not exactly the kind of country you visit if what you’re seeking is a healthy dose of solitude, but that said, we didn’t relish the thought of actively gravitating toward a place when crowds were guaranteed to be at their peak. Our trip to Yangshuo would have to wait.
So we put on our thinking caps and tried to come up with an alternative solution. After polling some of the friendly locals we had met in Guilin, we ascertained that Shanghai is one of the cities least affected by Golden Week. As most people in Shanghai are transplants from smaller towns and villages, they use the holiday just as the government hoped they would and return home. As Shanghai is not really seen as a tourist destination to most Chinese people, we were led to believe the city would be largely abandoned during the holiday. That may not be much of a lure for most travelers, but it was exactly what we wanted to hear. With the clock ticking on our 30-day visas, we really didn’t want to “waste” a week hiding out in Shanghai, but as our only other option was inflated tariffs that would break the budget and the risk of being stranded somewhere (with our without accommodation) if we ventured elsewhere, we had to play the cards we were dealt: Shanghai it would be!
The prospect of catching a 24-hour train from Guilin to Shanghai did not really appeal, but we figured we would give it a shot: if we could get tickets, we would take the train. For once, the universe was on our side, as naturally all trains were fully booked (so much for not being a tourist hub!), which was actually a blessing in disguise. For only about $10USD more per person, we were able to get a direct flight instead and shave 21.5 hours off our journey in the process. Lord knows we love us some trains, but in a place like China, sometimes it really is just better to fly.
Our destination sorted, we still had to solve the issue of where we would stay for the week. With that amount of time at our disposal, although we did consider several hostels, we ultimately latched on to the notion of renting out an apartment for our stay. A quick search on AirBnB (that’s not an affiliate link, by the way — it just happens to be the resource we used) turned up a charming flat in the French Concession that looked to be the answer to our prayers. Better yet, the owner was traveling for Golden Week and was hoping to rent it out for the duration of her trip. It seemed like all the stars were aligning, and after some annoying rigamarole in which we had to purchase a SIM card for our phone so that AirBnB could confirm our identity and authorize our profile on the site as well as pay a ridiculously exorbitant booking fee, we had a home to call our own on the horizon!
(As for what we actually did with our week-long sojourn in Shanghai, you’ll just have to wait for our next post to find out!)
It pained us to pull out of Guangxi province so soon, especially when we had just had a taste of a China that not only blew our expectations out of the water, but really seemed like a place we could unreservedly love. Then again, although this retreat to Shanghai was not ideal, it certainly turned out better than it could have, and was infinitely preferable to rigidly clinging to our original plan and obstinately sallying forth. Still, that’ll show us for forgetting what China is all about, where a proclivity to roll with the punches is prized above all else, and all that is golden most assuredly does not glitter.