"What could possibly compel them to do something so… wrong?"
This was the question posed by a group of expats sitting around a youth hostel in scenic Huangshan Mountain, China's beloved mountain range in Anhui Province, discussing the legions of tourists who had disrupted their 72-peak excursion.
As the foreign travelers retell it, what was supposed to have been a heavenly respite turned into an out-and-out circus replete with megaphones, flags and the congestion of untold numbers of tourists with the inopportune desire to see the same thing at the same time.
"We could barely walk up the narrow steps because there were too many tour groups, we couldn't see the view past their florescent hats and we couldn't even hear the birds because of all the noise," complained the foreign travelers.
Such a scene is of course commonplace in China, where 1.3 billion people must contend with both limited time and space during the country's few and far between national holidays.
But where Western travelers, not unlike their world-exploring forefathers, pride themselves on independence, requiring little more than a backpack and a point in the right direction to circumnavigate exotic new countries, the historically communal Chinese tend to have quite a different perspective on travel.
"We like to go where everybody goes," said one Chinese tourist when prompted to explain the disorder of collective travel. "If there are no crowds it means it's not a good place to visit."
An alternative explanation of the chaos that orbits China's favorite attractions is the government's authoritative instruction of where and when the populace may travel, preferring brief, intensive bursts during the national holidays rather than a steady flow.
This quarterly policy may make for impressive economic reports (though Xinhua News Agency reports a growing disfavor with the eight-year-old Golden Week holiday system), but it creates a havoc that is all of dissuading foreigners from extensive travel in China.
Indeed, every summer scores of Western backpackers are stranded in Shaanxi's provincial capital city of Xi'an, home of terracotta warriors, waiting indefinitely for train tickets back to Beijing, often resulting in missed return flights home. The blame for this calamity lies with the tour group companies themselves, who purchase large blocks of tickets (often in advance through personal connection with train station officials), leaving nary a hard seat available for the independent traveler.
And what of the more noticeable effects of those traveling en masse to China's wonderland attractions. To be sure, Jiuzhaigou National Park in Sichuan is a site not to be missed, where emerald lakes reflecting a vertical alpine forest blazing in the autumn with crimson and gold make this protected region the country's premier travel destination.
Unfortunately, what visitors will dauntingly meet with at the park's entrance is a concert of tour buses piercing the surroundings with deafening blasts of their horns and vomiting black exhaust (contributing to Jiuzhaigou's own environmental downfall), while streams of red and yellow hat-wearing, litter-tossing tourists noisily follow a flag-waving guide shouting instructions into a loudspeaker.
When pressed for an elucidation of the social and ecological consequences of collective traveling, a local tour operator rejoins fiscally, "I provide guaranteed transportation, accommodations and discounted entrance tickets, all in one package. Without tour group companies like mine, traveling in China would be impossible!"
To the foreign observer, such logic is the bane of China's heritage, with intrusive tour groups appreciating neither the splendor nor history of the site but rather in a seeming rush to take a snapshot in front of a character-engraved stone before dashing back on their buses to the next site.
But for the Chinese, the constipation and the urgency are indicative of a culture categorically limited in both time and space, where itinerary replaces independence and processed convenience is preferred over pleasure.
"The national holidays are my only chance to spend with my family and see my country," exclaims a Chinese businessman from Beijing on his way to the Yunnan old town of Lijiang, China's third most popular holiday destination. "With a tour group, I don't have to plan, I don't have to worry, I don't have to think."
American Tom Carter is currently backpacking through all of the Chinese provinces.