Tom Fearon

Professional communicator in Canberra

Sun, Sand, and a Massive Sea of People

Apr. 15, 2012

By Tom Fearon

Crowds flock to a Qingdao beach in summer. Photo: Xinhua

Crowds flock to a Qingdao beach in summer. Photo: Xinhua

The first chengyu, or Chinese idiom, I was taught when I began studying Chinese was ren shan ren hai, literally "people mountain, people sea." One of my favorite things about Chinese idioms is their ability to convey vivid images, often using only four simple characters, and no chengyu better describes the omnipresent crush of people in China than ren shan ren hai.

Anyone who has traveled within China during a public holiday has invariably found themselves muttering this mantra under their breath at one time or another.

Mountains and seas of people can be found everywhere, from the queues at train stations to cobbled streets in normally idyllic towns that have had their silence interrupted by the sound of rolling plastic suitcase wheels.

Intelligent holiday planning involves organizing trips to less popular destinations during national holidays. However, my wife and I managed to do the complete opposite during the Qingming Festival, or Tomb-Sweeping Day, earlier this month.

Rather than battening down the hatches and locking ourselves away in our apartment for a few days in the comfort of pajamas to catch up on pirated TV shows and movies, we boarded a bullet train for a Shandong sojourn to the coastal city of Qingdao and Mount Laoshan. Like a chengyu come to life, we became mere drops in the sea and footholds in the mountain of holiday revelers.

The first two days, over the weekend, were pleasant enough. We were blissfully exempt from the wonderful system in China that requires workers to toil through weekends before getting the weekdays off for a national holiday.

Our days were spent wandering up and down Qingdao's streets, admiring its German architecture and abundant peace and quiet. A long but stunning walk following the coastline led us away from the hotels and mansions overlooking the mighty Yellow Sea and into parks where elderly local men practiced tai chi to the sound of traditional Chinese music emanating from a portable radio. At night we dined on fresh seafood, naturally washed down with varieties of Tsingtao beer I never knew existed, all brewed just a few blocks away.

Then, like a reservoir bursting its banks, the floodgates opened and the sea of people poured into the city. The tranquil sound of waves lapping at Qingdao's shores was quickly replaced by honking taxis eager to ferry travelers to their seaside hotels.

Local touts emerged like hermit crabs, flogging everything from maps to crude jewelry made of seashells. Barren beaches previously only populated by old men in (very brief) swimming briefs were now trampled by middle-aged couples wearing socks and sandals. Wedding photographers motioned passersby away as they snapped newlywed couples in strikingly clichéd poses against the ocean backdrop. Almost overnight, Qingdao seemed to have lost its charm.

The next day we took a bus 30 kilometers from the city center to Mount Laoshan, regarded as the birthplace of Taoism. However, the sounds on the mountain were more cling and clang than yin and yang. The narrow stairs leading to the summit were filled with camera-toting tourists and stiletto-sporting teenage girls stopping every five steps to pose for photos (cue V-signs) dutifully taken by their boyfriends on cell phones.

Mothers cradled toddlers, holding their child's legs akimbo while split-crotch pants widened as they relieved themselves on the mountain. Suddenly, the bottle of Laoshan Spring Water I had no longer seemed appealing.

The bullet train journey back to Beijing almost felt exciting. Sure, our return would mean dealing with the crush of the capital's subway, but we would be drops in a familiar sea of people in our own bay. Since being back in Beijing, I've taken a break from watching TV shows and movies. After all, the Labor Day holiday is fast approaching and I'll need an excuse to stay indoors.

See the original article here.