One of the most frustrating things about living in China is just how damn complicated everything seems sometimes. You have an idea, you want to do something, then you get online to find out how to go about this and seem to hit a brick wall. I want to go here, so which train do I take? Which bus? Wait, some hotels aren’t open to foreigners? Which ones? Oh, there’s no list, you just have to try and book and find out? Great!
And the places which are well-visited, well-worn, with lots of easily-accessible information online, well, they are crowded. And not crowded in the way that you might think of any other country as crowded, but truly crowded. I don’t think I ever really understood the meaning of that word until I came to Asia. In China alone there are 1.7 billion people, which is an impossible number to visualize until you’re at a railway station during Friday night rush hour and it feels like all 1.7 billion of those people are in the waiting room with you. (I don’t have an anxiety disorder or claustrophobia. I think. At least not yet!)
We decided to go to the Yellow Mountains (Huangshan 黄山*) for a beautiful and relaxing weekend. Information online is a bit sparse in English, but not impossible. With some intrepid planning from a friend who specializes in event organizing, and another Chinese friend who knows the area pretty well, we figured everything out. Although I shouldn’t say we, because I really did nothing. I just went along.
It turns out that about half of China has the same idea in April. With the exception of the paths that had a cable car substitute, everything was crowded (there’s that word again!). Walking up or down the mountains was difficult enough, as they have completely paved all the paths with stairs, which I’m certain is exactly 42% more difficult than an zig-zagging incline. The first part of the trail (which is actually 7 kilometers straight up a mountain) has the option of taking the cable car, so it’s not particularly crowded. By which I mean, it’s only a normal amount of crowded. But the minute you get to the main trails at the top of the park, you are in a gridlock after 9 a.m. You basically trudge along in step with the hundreds of other people on the path with you, some of whom have the excellent fashion sense to wear matching hats. (These are usually tour groups.)
There are no cars on the mountain (as I said, all the paved paths are steps), which means all supplies are brought up by people balancing giant loads on bamboo poles. One guy who had emptied his pallets was trying to get past me and yelled at me to move, to which I indicated, Where?, as I was surrounded by people on all sides. Barring jumping off the mountain (which I seriously considered), there was nowhere else to go.
Besides simply being crowded, there seems to be a vibe of just doin’ in for the vine, as it were. (Not that Vine exists anymore, RIP Vine.) Most people didn’t seem to really enjoy the landscape or the opportunity to see something beautiful. They were just trudging along as well, carried inevitably by the hordes of people and occasionally stopping for a photo. I like to think of myself as someone who likes being outdoors, who enjoys seeing breath-taking things, but I also felt swept along in this, as if these mountains were an item to check off a to-do list instead of a place to experience. I felt the same way at the Peak in Hong Kong: like the only purpose was to get the photo then wait in the long-ass line for a bus back down.
So what are we really doing here if we’re not experiencing this place? This is sometimes how I feel scrolling through travel photos on Instagram. Like, did you really walk all the way up that mountain in a flowy dress just for a picture? (I know they didn’t, they just changed at the peak, whatever.) Did you wait in line to get into a beautiful bookstore or library where none of the books are in a language you can read just so it looks like you are smart and well-read?
Or maybe some places are just disappointing because of bad luck or bad timing or simply no reason at all, and we’ll find something better next time.