Time for tourists to learn spirit of adventure

By Xue Guangda Source:Global Times Published: 2016-2-15 19:18:01

Illustration: Shen Lan/GT

As Chinese have turned toward tourism, Spring Festival, once a time just to get together with family, protect against the cold, and watch the Spring Festival gala on CCTV, has started to heat up popular sites. Of course, days out were always a part of the festival, except in the worst days; temple fairs, mixing religion and entertainment, are an old tradition. But it's only been in the last decade, with access to cars and cheap flights, that their reach has extended enough to be annoying.

Take a friend of mine in Beijing, who comes from Sanya, the beautiful city on Hainan island far to the south. I asked him if he'd be going back home this year. No, he explained, he almost never goes back home nowadays, because Sanya swells from its normal hundred thousand people to a population of over 2 million during the festival. These aren't returnees but tourists, who make it almost unbearably crowded, wildly overpriced, and impossible to get anything.

Or think of the famous Ditan temple fair in Beijing. I can remember going to it as a child, when it was crowded, but not overwhelming, and I could still see the stalls and shows hoisted onto my uncle's shoulders. But now everyone drives there, traffic is backed up for miles around, and even when I eventually made it, by subway, to the temple fair itself the only thing I could really see were the crowds.

Some might say that this is an inevitable by-product of too many people in too little space. But the truth is that even given China's massive population, there are more than enough beautiful and interesting places to potentially accommodate everyone. Despite all that we lost in the last century, the countryside is still littered with ancient buildings and lovely places. But instead of seeking out unusual spots, everyone flocks to the same places that millions of others are going to.

Take last week during the holidays, when I decided to drive out to the Great Wall at Badaling with my wife and daughter. This was dumb of me. Like many an invading horde of the past, we got held up at the pass. As we drove along the highway, we rapidly ran into the massive crowd of cars heading the same way. Soon we were making our way along at a crawl barely faster than if we had walked. My daughter began to get bored and need to pee, and my wife and I grew increasingly frustrated.

Then my wife had a stroke of genius. Pulling up Baidu maps to look at the traffic, she noted "Wait, there's another part of the mountains marked near here as a scenic spot? Why don't we just go there instead?" We didn't know anything about where we were going, but anything was better than grinding through the traffic and then pushing through the crowds, so we turned off at the next exit.

Within a few minutes we were alone on the road. Twenty minutes later, we were in beautiful, deserted mountains, all by ourselves. I won't tell you the name of the place, because now I don't want everyone else to go there, but it was marked on the maps and easy to find; just not famous. And so, while tens of thousands of people headed to Badaling, we had it to ourselves.

That goes for great stretches of the Great Wall. Everybody goes to the places where the tourist buses run, but head out to lesser-known patches and it will be just you for miles. 

What makes us head only to the same places as others? Maybe it's because tourism was packaged as a group process for decades. The last decade has seen a big growth in independent travel, but many people seem to feel more comfortable going to the same old spots. Or maybe it's because a few places get trotted out again and again by the media, so that you might not know anywhere else existed.

But with maps and other information the press of a mobile phone button away, there's no excuse anymore to press like lemmings to the same locations. Instead, we can improvise our own trips, finding places once-deserted and spreading out the burden of tourism. Scholars in the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) used to think nothing was better than finding an old temple untouched by the crowds; if we can rediscover that spirit of adventure, even the people who want to go just to the famous sites will find them less crowded.

The author is a commentator on current affairs based in Beijing. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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