China is a really, really, really crowded place. There, I said it. It’s crowded.
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!
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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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Have you ever been to a place that’s really crowded? How did you cope?