LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
When the Chinese have a weeklong vacation, just like Americans, they hit the road and the rails and, more and more, they take to the skies. During the recent Golden Week, more than 500 million Chinese took at least one trip, overwhelming tourist sites. In this essay, Frank Langfitt, NPR's Shanghai correspondent, explains how traveling in China is not for the faint of heart.
FRANK LANGFITT, BYLINE: Traveling here used to be fun, sometimes even relaxing. Back in the late '90s, you could go to a Tibetan monastery out west that your Chinese friends had never even heard of, hang out with nomads, chat with monks, no crowds. Those days are mostly over. China's rapid economic rise means many people now have the money to travel, and that's a good thing. Chinese should get to know their country better.
The problem - there are just too many people. I want my kids, Katie, she's 14, and Christopher, who's 11, to know China better, as well. So in August, we flew to Jiuzhaigou. It's a narrow valley in the mountains of Sichuan province where the lakes are so clear, you can see all the way to the bottom. Unfortunately, on the day we went, more than 50,000 other people had the same idea. Now, I don't want to sound like a whiney ex-pat, the kind of guy who says everything was better 20 years ago.
It wasn't. Most things in China are a lot better now, but not tourism. A shuttle bus took us to a mist-shrouded lake and we were immediately swallowed up by the crowds. The staircase leading to a waterfall was so jammed, my wife, Julie, stayed behind. She was afraid of getting crushed. Julie didn't get to see the falls, but she didn't have to stand in line to take pictures of them either.
Katie and Chris quickly announced they wanted to go back to the hotel, but we toughed it out. To escape the deluge of people, we left on a shuttle bus and got as far away as we could. We crossed the river and soon we were wandering in a quiet forest. The river poured through groves of pine trees, tumbling down rocks and bending the light as it dropped into turquoise pools. It was a spectacular site, but getting there was tense and stressful.
Now that places like Jiuzhaigou have become so popular, the government is trying to control crowds. During the holiday week, tourism officials set visitor limits for the first time at more than 100 attractions. The fact is braving the swarms that now engulf China sights is the price of prosperity, which anyone who really wants to see this country just has to pay. Frank Langfitt, NPR News, Shanghai.
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.