Golden week (and why you should avoid it!)

Having woken up to a message from school informing me that all classes would be cancelled today due to the arrival of Typhoon Haima, I finally have the time to write the posts I have been neglecting. We have been warned against going outside, so it’s just me and my laptop for the next 12 hours – or until the power goes down.

5 years ago, the Chinese government had the idea of inventing a week-long holiday at the beginning of October for the whole country to celebrate National Day. Yes the whole county in the same week; not just schools, but everyone. The idea was to promote domestic tourism and boost the slowing economy, hence the name Golden week. The result was the biggest movement of humans on the planet; an estimated half a billion people on the move, and 100 million train journeys taken in the same week. Safe to say that the plan worked.

Given that I was lumped in with the other 1.3 billion people taking their holiday in this week, I had no choice but to brave the crowds and join in the fun (fun?). Joining me from Dubai, one of my best and oldest friends, Maisie, arrived to Foshan on the Friday night. “How bad can it be?” we naively said as we booked flights to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan province, where we would spend 6 days. All I can say is that you don’t know what busy is until you have been to China in Golden Week. Having already encountered a mountain of visa and flight-related problems just getting to China, Maisie was definitely thrown in at the deep end (sorry Mable).

After a day showing Maze the sights of Foshan, off we flew to Chengdu, a 2.5 hour flight northwest of Guangzhou. Having successfully obtained train and bus tickets to our next destinations, we spent the first afternoon exploring Chengdu city. We visited Wenshu Temple and relaxed in its lovely tea gardens (where we were told off for ‘gambling’ aka playing rummy), and went to watch a Sichuan ‘Opera’ show, which can only be described as baffling and bizarre. On the Monday (actual National day) we got up early, thinking that we could avoid the worst of the crowds, and took the high-speed train to Le Shan where the world’s largest ancient Buddha sits. Having mastered the public transport system, we arrived to find that everyone else had had the same idea. All 71m of Buddha swarmed with Chinese tourists: spitting, pushing, yelling, buggy-carrying, and generally being annoying. Nobody else seemed bothered by the heaving crowds and tour guides yelling through their portable speakers. We battled to the top of the Buddha’s 7m ears and I pushed to the front to take a photo while Maisie took respite in a shadowy corner. It was like being on the front row for the headline act at a music festival, stuck in the mosh pit, except that this stage was a 71m cliff drop to the Buddha’s toenails. When we saw the signs claiming ‘4 hours from here’ (not even from the end of the queue) to get to the bottom, we had had enough. Disappointed and sweating, we picked our way back down the steps and opted for a speedboat trip that would allow us to see the Buddha from the water. The view was good, but I’m not sure it was worth the 1.5 hour queue in 40 degree heat with no shade. We found out afterwards that it had in fact been a 6 hour queue to the bottom of the Buddha, the busiest the sight has ever been! Lesson learnt.

The next day took us on a longer-than-expected bus journey north to where Sichuan meets Tibet. After enduring many unsavoury toilet experiences, eating our way through Maisie’s supply of custard creams, and stopping along the way to buy coats, we arrived in chilly Jiazhaigou. Nicknamed ‘Heaven on Earth’, we were hoping that the 11-hour bus journey would be worth it for a day in the national park. We woke up early to get to entrance for the 6:30am opening (in the rain) and piled in along with the 39,998 other poncho-clad tourists who had managed to get tickets. Luckily for us however, the majority of Chinese tourists are not big walkers, and only really care about getting photos in the most scenic spots, so most of the walkways were relatively crowd-free.

Being Yorkshire lasses, we were not put off by the rain, and both enjoyed actually being cold for once! We had the best day walking the two 18km trails through the autumn forest; past the many crystal clear, turquoise lakes, snowcapped mountains, and beautiful waterfalls. We were rewarded when the sun came out in the afternoon just as we reached the highest point- Long Lake. It was without doubt the most beautiful place I have ever been. The autumn colours of the trees perfectly mirrored in the bright blue lakes, we could have stayed and stared in awe for hours. I am itching to go back in winter and see it as a frozen wonderland. Highly recommended!

Sadly we had to return to Chengdu, and the heat, on the same horrid bus on Thursday. The last day of our holiday was reserved for a visit to see the most famous face in China- the Giant Panda. Getting up at the crack of dawn, we spent the day with the cutest and cuddliest of bears at the Chengdu Panda Breading Research Base. Even though we couldn’t do the volunteering program we had signed up for, due to transport and purse-theft problems, we got there early enough to see them chomping away on their bamboo stacks and playing around. The adorable baby pandas sleeping in a big fluffy heap and wriggling across the floor were too cute for words (see pics- they will not fail to melt the coldest of hearts).

Flying back to Guangzhou in the evening we collapsed into bed after 22 hours of being awake before the first day back at school. Yes, it was Saturday.

Note: In China holidays don’t actually mean holidays. They mean that the days of the week are rearranged so that you make up for the days that you had off. So, the weekend was moved to Thursday/ Friday, and we had to work 7 days straight the following week. Saturday becomes Wednesday and Sunday becomes Thursday, then we start again from Monday to Friday. Hmm ok. Makes perfect sense right? I have no idea how anyone has a clue whats going on. Anyway school started again on Saturday and Maisie came with me to watch my classes and amaze the kids with her blond curly locks.

We said a sad goodbye at the airport as she flew back to Dubai on Saturday night, and I returned home to power through the next 6 days. Despite the crowds, and the weather, and the stolen purse, and the long bus journeys, and everything else that seemed to go wrong, I had the a wonderful week with my pal and I hope that it hasn’t put her off coming to visit me anywhere ever again! I promise to be more organised for any future visits and I hope that reading this hasn’t made anyone reconsider their planned trips.

Xia xia for reading 🙂

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