China is a traveler’s paradise. Being one of the world’s oldest civilizations, it’s definitely a place that every travelista should explore, at least once in her life. Walk through clouds of incense at the Lama Temple, run your hands amidst bright red prayer wheels, wander along the glistening Kunming Lake of the Old Summer Palace or climb mist strewn mountains to visit the Tian Tan Buddha statue on Lantau Island. There’s something for every traveler here and whilst all this is fascinating, with a population of over 1.3 billion, exploring the vast expanses of this Asian civilization can become a daunting experience for anyone. Peak holiday seasons are chaotic, more so since the Chinese government introduced the concept of ‘golden weeks’ back in the 1990’s, in an attempt to boost local tourism. This essentially means that the entire country takes a vacation at the same time, so expect claustrophobia, photos with backgrounds of random strangers and endlessly long lines. Being pushed and shoved by everyone around you as they rush past is not really an experience we want to remember so if you’re travelling in China during peak times, here are some facts and tips to help you along the way.
AVOID CHINESE NATIONAL HOLIDAYS
Since pretty much every single Chinese person is vacationing at the same time, Chinese national holidays have become some of the busiest travel times of the year. Chinese Lunar New Year celebrations – often referred to as ‘chunyun’ or the ‘spring migration’ – are now known globally as the largest human migration in history, lasting approximately 40 days. With flight and train tickets being sold out weeks in advance, this is one of the busiest times of year to travel in China as many migrant Chinese workers head back to their hometowns. There are three major national holidays to avoid:
- Chinese New Year (January – March, depending on the Lunar Calendar)
- National Day (September 29 – October 10)
- Labor Day (April 28 – May 4)
MAKE ALL RESERVATIONS IN ADVANCE
Make bookings well in advance as higher prices for flights, train tickets, hotel accommodations and attraction entrance tickets are usually the norm around this time. It’s best to avoid public transport at this time of year too as pushing, shoving and cutting in line are common. Use a reputable travel agent if this is your first time here.
EXPLORE SOME OF CHINA’S LESS POPULAR SPOTS
Whilst popular mega cities like Beijing and Shanghai are must-sees, consider exploring some of the smaller cities too. These will be less crowded and much cheaper to visit. Southern China is well known for its hidden temples and warmer climate so head there if you’re travelling during the winter. Visit ‘The Red Lands’ in Yunnan or the quiet town of Zhenyuan where ancient buildings line the river. Visit Bama in the Guangxi Province, which is famous for its peaceful landscapes or the Danbas County in Sichuan Province, which holds hundreds of Tibetan stone towers.
EXPLORE THE AREAS AROUND THE MAJOR ATTRACTIONS
If the bigger cities are a must, remember these are often peppered with tiny alleyways where you can escape the crowds. Visit the little hutongs, or sit at a street-side restaurant and grab a quick bite to eat while catching your breath. Do your research and find out where the quieter areas to explore are. The Great Wall for example, has three major areas that most people visit: Badaling, Mudanyuan and Jinshanling. Most tourists usually go to Badaling so perhaps try visiting the latter two. Mudanyuan is much less crowded since it’s further from the city whilst Jinshanling is a more strenuous hike along mountainous terrain and parts of collapsed wall.
JOIN A GROUP TOUR
Sometimes, joining a reputable tour group may be an easier option than visiting famous attractions and learning the history of the bigger cities. Granted, many of us like to explore at our own pace but with an average of 70,000 people visiting The Forbidden City daily, sometimes a tour group may be your best bet. You’ll be able to avoid long ticket queues and may even be able to enter through different, more quieter entrances.
Be sure to do extensive research about the tour groups, and make sure they have English speaking guides. Many local companies often group foreigners with local Chinese tourists and rush through explanations in rapid Chinese. You’ll want to avoid these at all costs. Remember, tour groups tend to follow predictable patterns at major attractions so if you prefer solo travel, use the tour group as a comfortable, convenient shuttle service. Do some research of your own and look for the quieter spots, breaking away from the group for a while, if you can.
China is a beautiful place and if you’re mentally prepared, most things won’t come as a shock. Read as much as you can beforehand, try your best to embrace the shoving and staring crowds and remember, you don’t always have to apologize. It will almost always be frustrating but immerse yourself in the new culture, keep an open mind and you will surely have a great time with wonderful stories to tell.
What are your tips for avoiding the crowds in China?