How to Avoid the Crowds in China

China is a really, really, really crowded place. There, I said it. It’s crowded.

avoid crowds China

Life in Crowded China

With 1.3 billion people and counting, there’s a reason (however controversial) the One Child Policy is in place. China’s largest cities are called “mega-cities” with tens of millions of people. For example, Shanghai has over 20 million people. Twenty million!

China’s crowds sometimes prevent people from wanting to visit. If you’re claustrophobic, don’t like random people touching you, or have an aversion to being “jostled”, you might find it hard to visit China’s cities. Crowds are just something the average visitor or expat in China has to get used to.

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Don’t ever expect to get a picture of something without other people in it. It’s just not going to happen. Personal space is a luxury for the rich, and pretty much nonexistent in Chinese culture.

Sometimes the crowds get to me in China. I’ve been living here for years, and I still can’t handle it all of the time. It’s not just the crowds that get me, it’s the pushing, shoving, yelling, and lack of deodorant that really makes it much worse. China is a crowded place, and sometimes the only way to get from point A to point B is to literally shove people.

China bus crowded

Your average bus in China

Pushing and Shoving are Part of Life

If you apologize to every single person you accidentally bump into in China, you’ll be constantly apologizing… so Chinese people don’t say sorry. It may seem rude at first (heck, it still feels rude to me), but it’s just part of the culture, and one of the things you’ll have to get used to if you travel in China.

While it may seem like I’m trying to dissuade you from visiting this wonderful (overpopulated) country, it’s quite the opposite. I make it a point to be very honest on this blog, and I want people to be prepared before visiting China. If you come armed with the idea that China is very crowded, you can mentally prepare yourself and have a great experience.

There are so many things you need to know before your visit China, and avoiding the crowds is right at the top of the list.

Chinese New Year crowd

The Ningbo train station during the Spring Festival

Avoid the Chinese Holidays

Oh, the Chinese Holiday. My absolute least favorite time in China.

Unlike a lot of places in the world, most Chinese people don’t get salaried vacation days. Instead, there are massive public holidays, in which every single person in China gets time off. Since most Chinese people can’t take a vacation whenever they feel like it, everyone vacations at the same time. 

Spring Festival – Actually the Best Holiday

You may have seen pictures of the mass migration during the Chinese New Year (Spring Festival), where train stations are packed to the brim as Chinese people head home for the holidays. The Spring Festival is bad, but it’s definitely not the worst holiday in China. Since Chinese people are heading home to their small towns and villages in rural provinces, this leaves the cities open for you to explore.

Don’t get me wrong, Chinese people do travel during the Spring Festival holiday, but since most people get two weeks off, and students can get up to a month off of school, the traveling is spread out. Do expect trains to be sold out, and flights to be more expensive, though. So be sure to book everything in advance.

I know what you’re thinking: What could possibly be worse than the pictures you’ve seen of the Chinese New Year?

Oh, it gets so much worse.

Xiamen crowded

People, people everywhere. – Xiamen during May Day

National Day

National Day is literally the bane of my existence. National Day is absolutely the worst time to visit China. While most guidebooks suggest a trip to China in the fall, be sure you avoid the first week of October like the plague.

National Day is China’s Independence Day. Rather than getting one or two days off to visit family, watch fireworks and flip burgers on the BBQ like we do in the USA, everyone in China gets a full week off. 

Why is this any worse than the Chinese New Year? Well, National Day is not a family holiday. Since many Chinese people don’t have paid vacation days outside of the public holidays, everyone uses this time to travel while the weather is still nice.

Picture this: every single person in China using the first week of October for their yearly vacation. All 1.3 billion of them. Where do they want to go? Literally everywhere you would ever possibly want to go. 

Shanghai crowded

Want to go to Shanghai? You and 5 million other people.

The Guilin Disaster

For example, last year my friend and I went to Guilin and Yangshuo for the National Day holiday. We were English teachers, meaning our breaks are the same as everyone else in China (yay….) We planned to visit the rice terraces, ride a bamboo raft down the Li River, explore the beautiful mountains and soak up the sun in Southern China. We first encountered problems when all of the trains and hostels started selling out at unprecedented rates.

Since all of the trains were sold out by the time they went on sale at the train station (they go on sale a few days earlier online), I had to fly to Guilin for a ridiculous amount of money. To avoid having to fly home, I asked a teacher at my school to help me buy a train ticket home from Guilin online since I didn’t have a Chinese credit card. All three trains sold out within 5 minutes. FIVE MINUTES! Thankfully I was able to get a ticket. It was a miracle.

The first half of our trip exploring the rice terraces was free from crowds since most people had to work on Monday, and weren’t able to start their holiday until Tuesday. Unfortunately for us, once the real holiday started the crowds came in full force.

My friend and I were visiting Yangshuo, a touristy town on the Li River. We stayed at a cute hostel in an alleyway off the main tourist thoroughfare, and it was a battle just to make it to our hostel. We waded our way through the meandering Chinese tourists, with our giant backpacks, pushing and shoving our way through the crowd. It was a nightmare.

Yangshuo crowd

Welcome to Yangshuo!

The streets of Yangshuo were so packed, it was impossible to see anything. The cute cobblestone streets were lined with shops, street food, and souvenir stalls, but you wouldn’t know that from wading through the crowds.

Our worst experience came when we tried to visit the mud caves. All of the outdoorsy tourist activities in Yangshuo are off of one main road outside the city. My friend and I rented bikes, expecting a leisurely bike ride to the caves, but once we made it to the main road, we were in for a surprise.

The road was about two miles long, lined every so often with popular outdoor attractions. What would normally be a casual 15-minute bike ride, turned into over an hour of weaving in and out of thousands of cars, all honking, stuck driving 5mph.

On top of this, there were hundreds and hundreds of people walking, biking and riding e-bikes. I’m pretty sure I almost died five times, and I may have come close to maiming three or four pedestrians. The ride home was even worse, to the point that we had to walk our bikes back because there was no room to ride them.

While I had a great time in Guilin, my friend and I both agreed that we’d like to visit again, not during the holidays.

Yangshuo crowded

Casual nighttime stroll in Yangshuo

May Day Holiday

While a little less horrible than National Day, May Day is another crazy holiday in China. Most people in China have the first three days of May off, which they’ll use for a small trip. Since I had a combined five days free, my friends and I went down to Xiamen, China’s version of Miami. While the first two days were okay, once the holiday started the crowds swarmed the city.

The worst experience I’ve had with Chinese crowds was waiting for a ferry in Xiamen. Since China doesn’t believe in lines, we were stuck for an hour waiting for a ferry in the sweltering sun, surrounded by people pushing and shoving their way to the front. I actually thought I was going to die.

Xiamen crowded

Just the “line” for the ferry

Here’s a quick video of my experience attempting to board the ferry:

Chinese Holiday Schedule 2018

Chinese New Year: February 15th – 21st

Tomb Sweeping Day: April 5th – 7th

May Day: April 29th – May 1st

Dragon Boat Festival: June 16th – 18th

Mid-Autumn Festival: September 22nd – 24th

National Week: October 1st – 7th

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Hong Kong Avenue of Stars

Don’t forget Hong Kong!

Oh no! I planned my trip during one of these festivals!!!

If you’ve already planned your trip for one of these dates, there are a few things you can do to get away from the crowds. Remember, I only get to travel during Chinese holidays.

1. Get off the beaten path

Consider exploring Yunnan, Sichuan or Gansu. While they’ll still be crowded, these places will be much less packed than Shanghai and Beijing. Consider using the holiday to do something most Chinese people won’t do, like riding horses on the Tibetan Plateau, or hiking the Tiger Leaping Gorge. Visit a Chinese village, or find a homestay with a local family and celebrate the holiday with them!

Looking for some off the beaten path destinations for your next trip? Check out my Post: 10 Best “Off the Beaten Path” Places to Visit in China.

2. Explore Outside of the touristy spots

So you’re visiting Xi’an, and the Terracotta Warriors are packed. Afterwards, wander the local streets and grab some noodles from a vendor. Get off the main thoroughfare and explore where the locals live. If you’re in Beijing, wander down a residential hutong. Find a way to detox after dealing with the crowds. I normally find a good place for dinner, which helps me calm down.

Tiannanmen square

Just everyone and their mother trying to get a picture of Mao

What about the places that are always crowded?

There are some places in China that will just always be crowded no matter what you do, but there are usually ways to get around this. Chinese people always go to the same places, and the tours follow a predictable pattern. Sometimes you may have to suffer through the “best parts” with all the tourists, but other times you can avoid them altogether.

Here are a few examples of things you can do to avoid crowds in China’s most famous places:

The Great Wall Off the Beaten Path

The Great Wall is a prime example of how the insane crowds can be avoided. There are three sections of the Great Wall that most people visit: Badaling, Mutianyu, and Jinshanling.

Do not go to Badaling. This section of the Great Wall is so packed it’s not even worth seeing. Instead, get off the beaten path and visit a section of the Great Wall not officially open to tourists! I absolutely love the Wild Great Wall, and I highly recommend it.

Not your cup of tea? Head to Gubeikou for a Wild Wall experience that is officially open, or take the public bus to Mutianyu for a more touristy experience without all the crowds.

Zhangjiajie

The Zhangjiajie “Avatar Mountains”

The Zhangjiajie “Avatar Mountains”

Famous for inspiring James Cameron to create the floating mountains in the movie Avatar, Zhangjiajie gets more and more crowded every year. Fortunately, there are many ways to avoid the tourists.

The most crowded section is considered the “best”, and is also the most accessible. To be honest, it was my least favorite section because it was so crowded.

My favorite part of the park was an area that could only be reached by climbing up stone steps for over an hour. There were barely any other people there, and I could really appreciate the view without people screaming, elbowing me or trying to sell me things.

Zhangjiajie crowded

The version of Zhangjiajie that no one shows you…

Jiuzhaigou in Sichuan

Jiuzhaigou is a beautiful nature park in Northern Sichuan. Famed for its crystal-clear lakes, Jiuzhaigou is a must-see on your China Bucket List. My pictures don’t do it justice! I really need to go back with my DSLR.

Jiuzhaigou is a stem of streams and lakes that start from the mountains and continue through the park. There are buses that take you from one major sight to the next, so you don’t have to hike the entire thing. My friend and I quickly learned that the Chinese tour groups only stop at the most beautiful and popular locations, leaving everywhere else completely deserted.

We suffered through the crowds at the most popular destinations and spent our time leisurely enjoying the less popular areas (which were still stunning!) We also decided not to take the bus, unless the distance between two sites was over 2km.

We ended up having a great time and avoided the crowds for most of the day.

Jiuzhaigou

We were the only people in this part of Jiuzhaigou and it was great!

Avoid the Chinese Tour Groups

Chinese tours can be extremely obnoxious, with guides screaming into megaphones as they explain each and every detail about how this mountain looks like a happy Buddha, and that stone looks like two lovers quarreling.

Meanwhile, the massive group of 50+ tourists clamor to get a good photo of Jade Stone Buddha Mountain Rock with their iPads, whilst talking over the tour guide in rapid Chinese. I can’t handle it. When I see a Chinese tour group I literally run away.

Sometimes I sign up for day tours in the hostels I stay in because it’s the only feasible way to visit a location outside of the city. While some tours have a special English-speaking guide, others lump the foreigners in with everyone else.

When this is the case, I usually break apart from the group, and do my own thing, since I can’t understand the guide anyway. I keep tabs on them so I don’t get lost, but I use the tour more as a shuttle service than an actual source of knowledge.

Xiamen beach

When it comes to beaches, the more crowded the better

Embrace the Crowds

Experiencing claustrophobia is one of the many delights of China. No matter what you do or where you go, you’ll be sure to end up in a giant crowd at one point or another. The main thing to remember is that the crowds are part of the experience.

You haven’t been to China unless you’ve been jostled, herded, pushed and smashed.

Remember, this is everyday life for most Chinese people. Try to embrace the experience and don’t let the population keep you from having a good time.

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Beijing

I <3 Beijing (even if it is ridiculously overpopulated)

Have you ever been to a place that’s really crowded? How did you cope? 

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About Richelle

Expat, traveler, and spicy food lover, I've spent the last few years living in China and traveling around Asia. In my spare time I enjoy salsa dancing, exploring night markets and stuffing my face with street food.

38 comments on “How to Avoid the Crowds in China

  1. My boyfriend only has the public Chinese holidays, like you, and it is the only moment we can travel together. What we try to do is… get the hell out of China hahaha. But it is a pity the Chinese holidays are so badly organized, this makes a lot of people stay at home for fear of the crowds and they never get to travel (for example, basically all of my colleagues). If they could take turns it would be even better for the economy I think, as companies wouldn’t need to close during those days, and tourism would be spread along the year and not concentrated along a few days.

    Last year for CNY we went to Xiamen. It was awful. Gulangyu almost sank with the weight of the visitors haha. The queues for the ferry were a nightmare, yes.
    This year for May holidays we went to Wuyuan, it is an area in Jiangxi province full of small beautiful old villages. There were not many tourists but on the way there we had to endure one of China’s awful traffic jams in Hangzhou. The drive was supposed to be 6 hours and it took us 10…

    • I’m getting out for the Chinese New Year! Hopefully Thailand won’t be too packed with Chinese tourists (and other foreigners looking to escape). Thankfully I’ve been to most places I want to see in China at this point, so I don’t really feel like I’m missing out by leaving. China should definitely consider lowering the public holidays, and adding mandatory vacation days or something. This would solve the problems of businesses all closing at the same time, as well as the overcrowding.

  2. Ever tried swimming through the crowds? literally putting your hands together and weaving and when you want to get out open them and push people behind you. yeah.. haha I had to do that when I went ot the markets which were honestly the only extremely crowded places in China in the early 2000’s. I also traveled during Chinese holidays but am thankful to say that it was never as horrendous as these pictures I’m seeing! I mean, don’t get me wrong, China was crowded, but it was nowhere near this bad. I think I would’ve remembered not being able to walk around at all haha. I think it’s only gotten worse as the years have gone by

    • That is the best advice I’ve ever heard Cat, and I’m pretty sure I’ve done that at one point or another! You’re probably right about the crowds getting worse. I think it’s a mixture of population growth and financial gain, allowing more people to spend money on travel.

  3. This is such great advice, Richelle. Thanks for sharing it with us!

    I’ve been to the Zhangjiajie mountains before, and they’re absolutely beautiful. The elevator ride up was particularly memorable. Even though I went during a “non-busy season,” there were still thousands of people in the park. That was one of my first experiences during the touristy thing in China, and it was also one of my first introductions to Chinese crowds!

    Because I’m Asian, I pretty much just blend in with everyone else. And because of this, I will sometimes conform to Chinese behavior in certain circumstances. For instance, I’m not afraid to get in the middle of a crowd of people waiting for the bus to pull up. I’ll even push a little if I need to do so!

    • I don’t look Chinese and I still push and shove. When in Rome….

      China has so many places to visit, and so much history and natural scenery, but everything is always so crowded it almost ruins it for me! I’d like to think I’m getting used to it after almost 2 years, but it does detract from the experience.

  4. Sounds like you would need to push and shove to get through the crowds. I can do that but tend to be a bit claustrophobic if there are lots of people in my personal space. Not sure how I would feel being around that many people.

  5. Really good suggestions, I’m definitely bookmarking this to save for later! I will do anything to avoid large crowds, especially when they involve a lot of bumping into other people. These tips are great to keep in mind when planning future travel to the area!

  6. We went during Mat day this year. and OH MY GOD! it was like you cant even move. Im pretty sure I was lifted from the floor when we were on the trains- I couldnt even stand! And you are definitely right- China is a big culture shock, but its not like theyre being rude, its their culture! It was an experience for sure.

    Here was our experience in Beijing http://www.whoneedsmaps.com/lively-city-beijing/

    • Awesome post! I lived in Beijing for a while and it’s one of my favorite places in China (aside from how ridiculously crowded it is). I always have to keep reminding myself that Chinese people aren’t being rude when they “bulldoze me” over. I’m glad you had a good time despite the May Day ridiculousness.

  7. Great advice!

    I went to Hong Kong for China’s National Holiday last year and it was surprisingly not as crowded as I thought was going to be. Honestly, people in Hong Kong were more paying attention to Halloween, anyway. Mostly we stay home during the holidays in Shanghai which surprisingly is pretty good. If you stay out of the Bund and other tourist spots in Shanghai, it was actually pretty quiet. We both walked around, went to Costa (which was pretty empty) and we had a blast. I am very good at timing and avoiding crowds. I can go through the whole day without getting into them. My husband, on the other hand, has to go to work during rush hour. On the number 2 train at that. We no longer live in China. We’re now in my husband’s home country. :) We did love Lunar New Year because the streets were clean with very little people. Then again, we stayed away from the Bund. ;)

    Oh, I went to THE famous watertown http://bedtimestoriesbetweenborders.wordpress.com/category/a-day-in-zhouzhuang/ and it was so empty. What luck. Even the locals there were saying, “It’s soooo empty!” and it was. It can happen. If you’re lucky.Yay.

  8. Great tips (wow…those national holidays = yikes!). I was last in China 2 years ago in August which was sweltering and pretty busy, but I think you just have to go in with the mindset that you are, afterall, in China!

    • Exactly Emily! It’s always pretty busy in the summer, but it’s nothing compared to the holidays. The crowds are part of the experience, but it’s important to get around them a bit if you can.

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  11. I am not sure how much I would agree with statement that in china it is too overcrowded. Now, I live in shanghai. I use metro every day, walk around most frequent places and Its same as in any other big city. Times when it gets overcrowded more than is sane is during special time – New year, when 30 people died in crowd. In ordinary day its okay.

    • I definitely agree that a lot of times and places in China aren’t crowded. I live in Ningbo now, and the only “crowds” I hate are bad traffic. I’m sure it’s the same with Shanghai in most areas of the city, although in Beijing, taking the public bus or subway during rush hour was always a horrible experience for me. The main crowds tend to appear at the tourist destinations, for example: the Bund at night is always ridiculous, especially when the weather is nice. This post is more written for tourists in China, and how they can avoid the huge crowds that amass around all tourist destinations in China :)

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  13. Ohhhkay, I was fine with everything until the very end where you mentioned being jostled and smashed. I can’t even handle that in Canada. this country has the unjust rep of being polite, quiet and reserved…or something. Hell to N-O. Yes, there are pockets where you can find these fabled creatures, but more often than not, I have to duck, walk on smaller streets, take a bus simply because it gets me off the street, etc. People here are generally rude as f–ck. So, I’d probably be okay to handle China’s crowds, except that I’m partially disabled, and cannot BE JOSTLED AND SMASHED. In Canada, I tend to look for walls or other obstacles I can lean against to avoid being pushed or knocked, especially in my spine. And people are even ruder when I dare react to being smashed in any negative way. Like it’s their right to shove me around, and they don’t KNOW I have a back problem. Ah, the fun of having invisible disabilities!

    So now the big question. As you probably noticed from my previous comments, I’m debating between Ningbo and Shanghai as a stopover. I’m not traveling during any Chinese holidays, but I ask you this. In terms of the hustle and bustle, is Ningbo any better than Shanghai? I would expect so, am I right?

    • Ningbo is definitely less crowded than Shanghai, but it really depends on what you’re doing in Shanghai. If you’re trying to get the perfect photo of the bund at night, or hopping on the subway in rush hour it’s going to be packed! In Ningbo I almost always got a seat on the bus and never had to worry about getting jostled. Can I ask why you want to visit Ningbo exactly? I mentioned in one of my previous comments that there isn’t actually much to see in Ningbo and a city like Hangzhou has the relaxed vibe with more things to actually see and do. That said I will always love Ningbo <3 Is it possible to do both Shanghai and another city? I think it's worth stopping by Shanghai for a day or two and Hangzhou is only an hour train ride away.

  14. Wow! I should have written your post before booking my vacation to Beijing on May day :( Can I ask you please when exactly is the May Holiday on 2016? You say its the 3 first days of May, but I read that its going to be from the 30th of April till the 2nd of May. If thats true then i think i can handle it, cause I’ll have 2 days in Beijing free of crowds (3 and 4 of May). Once again thanxs for the great info!!! :)

    • I just checked the official schedule and it’s the 1st and 2nd of May, which is a Sunday and Monday. Since there are no make-up days, that means everyone in China has the 30th-2nd off just like what you found! I think you should be okay though, especially if you go to a far out section of the Great Wall one of those busy days, since not many Chinese tourists go there.

  15. I’ve booked a trip to Shanghai for the 2nd-6th October not knowing it was the ‘Golden week’
    We would love to still visit all the main tourist spots. Would the mornings still be as crowded? Also, would taking a train or taxi better to travel around?
    Wish I came across your blog before booking :'(

    • Don’t worry too much- it’s going to be crowded at the main tourist spots either way! The Yu Yuan gardens are going to be insane, and I definitely recommend pre-booking a ticket if you want to go in the pearl tower or one of the other towers. Also, the bund during the day isn’t so bad but at night it’s a mess. There’s not too many touristy places in Shanghai to be honest, so maybe look around the expat websites and check for some off the beaten path stuff that Chinese people normally don’t do. You can also take a cooking class or something that will be less likely to be filled with Chinese people.

      I hope this helps!

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  19. I had the same problem often in China. But as soon as you become aware of the problem, it’s easy to adjust your plans accordingly. For example I would never again visit a famous national park in China. Unless for the hell of it. After all it says much more about the culture than to visit some museum about old clay statues. How the chinese view nature, how the chinese view crowds, personal space etc. It’s really quite interesting. But only once in a while!
    I recently wrote a post about disappointments about travelling in Inner Mongolia. One of the things mentioned was crowds of chinese tourists. Anyone else travelled in Inner Mongolia and found the crowds more or less bearable than elsewhere in China? There were loads of people from all over China there when i was there, but it was during the chinese new years and it was not comparable to the stuff described above where it was almost not possible to walk in the street. And again: it’s just to go somewhere they wouldn’t and you will have an equally pretty place but with none of the people and natural paths instead of concrete walkways lined with touts.
    If you are curious you could read the post here: http://anthropolodgy.com/index.php/2017/05/08/a-few-things-that-could-disappoint-you-about-inner-mongolia/
    What bothers me more than the crowds are how they view nature. Only in china did i find scenic reserves. I think they are more concerned with the views than the nature. At one place in Yunnan i visited a waterfall. Beautiful place. No road leading there. A small path, and then just walking on the rocks in the river. But a few kilometers downstream they were building great big hotel complexes and i think if i came back now to that same waterfall, there would be merchants, crowds and designated walkways made for the tourists. In such a crowded and communist place, i guess they are so used to sharing things that it doesnt even bother them anymore.

    • I completely agree with a lot of your points. It’s so sad to see people throwing trash down mountains in Zhangjiajie, or clambering to all get that one special photo with a view so that you can’t even enjoy your hike! I’ve been working really hard to avoid the crowds whenever I can, but sometimes you just can’t avoid them. A part of me wants to scold Chinese people for ruining their own country, but then I have to take a deep breath and realize I’m a guest here.

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  21. I personally know Chinese people and these facts are so true! If it weren’t for the one-child policy, Chinese people would already be overcrowded into oblivion by overbreeding. But long before that, they would have starved to death as it takes more land per capita to farm than to house. Even before that happens, they would suffocate as the country would mostly be deforested as farmers clear more land for farming. EVERYONE MUST remember that Earth’s resources are finite, not infinite.

    Not only are they blind to their own problems, but they do not accept it even when presented with strong evidence. So much for “traditional values”. Such IDIOTS! The same also applies to Indians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, Indonesians, and Filipinos.

    • While the crowds can be intense in many of these countries, I don’t think it’s necessarily idiotic to be born in a country with too many people that all need to work and be fed. I recently watched a really interesting video about WHY China and India are so crowded, and a lot of it comes from historic advantage: natural borders, many rivers with fresh water, easily farmed land, warm temperatures, and rice. While I’m not a huge fan of the One Child Policy, the Chinese government realized this problem in the 1980’s and has been working to fix it ever since. It just takes a while to bring the population down, especially with the now massive artificial aging population.

      I can’t speak for all of the other countries, however, I did definitely notice that the large Filipino population comes from a mixture of poverty and adherence to a strict form of Christianity that doesn’t believe in birth control. As in most cases all over the world, the poorer you are, the more likely you are to have many children.

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