There are 2 ways to experience domestic travel during public holidays in China. See a famous destination and risk getting stampeded over by the crowds, or escape to a random, unknown spot to enjoy some peace.
Let’s start with my trip to 黄山 Yellow Mountains.
I knew it was a pretty famous tourist spot and was mentally prepared to jostle with crowds there. But what I didn’t expect was how inconvenient it was to do the non-touristy thing in a major tourist destination.
We booked a hotel nearer to the mountain as the village there looked nice and quiet. But we didn’t realise how remote it was. There were no bus stops within walking distance, and we had the bad luck of getting a horrible cab driver. There was a miscommunication about the address, and we engaged in a heated argument as he raised the price after realising that our stay was an added 15 minute drive away. He also tried to convince us to cancel our booking and get another room in the bigger touristy town that had buses up to the mountains.
The tourism infrastructure here is rigid, and doing anything else outside of it baffles most locals. But we decided to just get to our hotel first before making any changes. And it proved to be a good decision.
It may be inconvenient, but it was exactly what we wanted – peaceful, unspoiled, with a majestic view of the mountains. And the service was wonderful. The owner greeted us warmly, briefed us on how to plan our day trip in the mountains, and also settled the transport on the day of our departure.
And, the in-house restaurant served up amazing farm-to-table dishes. Hairy tofu 毛豆 (top left), a local specialty, has an interesting dense, cheese-like texture. And the mushrooms (right top) which were gathered from their own garden, were simply cooked to bring out its freshness and original umami flavour.
The following morning, we set out at 5:30am in the hotel owner’s car, as he kindly offered to drop us off where the busses depart for the Yellow Mountains. First we had to buy bus tickets to get to the entrance. Then cable car tickets (which I thought included the entrance pass), and then entrance tickets which cost another SGD40 (a rather big amount for China).
The view was stunning, and thankfully the crowd was manageable. But the paths were narrow at some viewpoints and that caused a small human jam, making it not very conducive to experience the mountain’s calming energy.
As we had plenty of time, we set off on a tougher route. Most visitors either take the train or cable car to skip this area. It was surprising that every staff we asked along the way discouraged us from taking this lengthier path. It almost convinced me that this route was really a bad idea and we’d get lost and hate ourselves for choosing it.
But our instincts were right again, and it turned out to be the best part of the hike! It was much, much quieter, and took us through steep declines and narrow, hair-raising walkways that snaked around the cliffs.
The mountains were rugged, and the peaks spread out into the horizon. I’ve never seen anything quite as vast as this!
The toughest bit, however, was 2 hours of steep stairways. Stairs just make ascends so much tougher. (This caused my legs to ache a whole a week.) It was gruelling! That, and mild dehydration (was trying to ration the little bit of water we had) caused my thighs to cramp up a few times as well. But it was worth it! Just to be able to sit up high in the mountains and enjoy its views in peace and quiet. This is what we came for.
The way back down the mountain was… also quite a sight.
Most visitors began their day late, and we ran into the real public holiday crowd at midday. We got stuck in a handful of major jams, but at least it was always moving. We shuffled along like penguins, and all the while I was thinking about how disastrous it could be if there was an emergency. Hundreds of people, stuck on 1 path, high up in the mountains…
On the way back to Hangzhou, we were again reminded of why we shouldn’t visit popular areas during public holidays. We arrived at the bus station at 9am, but all the morning buses were booked out. The earliest one was at 1pm, which was too late to catch our train, so we had to take an expensive cab ride out.
There’s simply too much uncertainties and inconveniences to visit famous places during the holidays! The other alternative is to seek out a less spectacular but more comfortable destination.
That’s how I ended up in 绍兴 Shaoxing, a small, non-touristy city known for its waterways and old towns.
The best thing about Shaoxing? I had a friend living there. And that means a better knowledge of how to avoid crowds.
Unlike the journey from Yellow Mountains, I didn’t need to worry about securing a seat to Shaoxing as nothing was selling out. It helps that there are buses departing from Hangzhou every half an hour. So besides the jam on the highway which delayed my bus and extended its journey, I got to Shaoxing without any major obstacles.
It’s a fascinating town that’s a more authentic version of what Suzhou’s known for. There are many old towns around the city that are lived-in and still pretty much untouched by mass tourism.
We also did half-day trips out of Shaoxing on our amazing e-bikes, which enabled us to experience truly local sights. Around 40 minutes out and we were on empty roads, zipping past vast plantations backed by beautiful mountains.
We were heading towards 青龙山水库 Qinglong mountain reservoir, which I was determined to swim in.
While it was an amazing view, the water was too cold and the weather wasn’t hot enough for me to brave it. So we spent a long time there soaking our feet, talking, and enjoying the silence.
To be honest, I’d rather be in a regular place without people than squeeze with hundreds in a well-known spot. People ruin EVERYTHING!
The next day, we lunched at the top-voted restaurant called 寻宝记 Xunbaoji for local dishes.The famous Shaoxing wine is probably too strong for my liking, but some genius decided to mix it with milk tea, and it was superb. Smelly tofu is also a must… While it’s horrible having to smell it often along the streets, its taste is pretty acceptable!
Then we headed south on our bikes into a quiet village, hoping to hike through the mountains to a neighbouring village.
It was a fairly long ride, but I always enjoy travelling amongst nature on bikes. I just love villages. It’s interesting to see how people live, tend to their gardens, and hang out with their neighbours.
We strode bravely into the woods, but ended the hike prematurely as the mosquitoes and heat really put me off. So we found another small reservoir, and chilled out there in the shade.
On the last night, we strolled through yet another tranquil canal town.
Shaoxing’s quiet charm really appeals to me, and I’m lucky to be able to see this side of China. Definitely gonna seek out more random local towns and villages for the next few holidays!