There are several experiences in China that were perfectly summed up by Norwegian tourist Martin, whom we met near the end of our trip in Yangshuo, when he described them as ‘conga line sights’. Like the elephant parade in the jungle book, these ‘must see’ attractions were characterised by the fact that you featured as part of the extensive stuffing in a massive human sandwich. Three locations particularly stand out in my memory as prime examples of this. The first was the terracotta warriors, as already documented here. The second was the breath-taking Juizhaigou national park, and the final was the Great Buddha in Leshan.
Juizhaigou is an area of incredible natural beauty, characterised by some tall, rocky mountains, forests holding onto the side of these cliffs, and lakes that have taken on the colours of precious stones due to the sediment and minerals which get deposited in them. It is also possibly the world’s most expensive national park (you get to pay for a ticket, a bus ticket and insurance), and domestic tourists flock here, particularly in August. Yes, we were there in August. The bus drops you off at the northernmost point of the park and you then begin to walk south along boardwalks and concrete paths. Apart from being stopped to take photographs with tourists who have not seen many foreigners before, progress is slow because the paths are only so wide.
You progress from lake to lake, from lake to waterfall, ever following the swarm of people. When you are lucky (or cunning) you can find a short path to yourself. We developed a system where we would take the turning to the bathroom: apart from giving us a toilet stop, there was usually a second, less frequented path that looped around to re-join the main boardwalk later on. I do love my photographs from this park, but the memory of having lunch sitting on a corner of boardwalk facing forest in an attempt to forget about all of the people walking past behind me lingers over them like a dark shadow. Perhaps it was simply the wrong time of year to visit the park, perhaps it’s one national park that is simply not worth it.
However, if I thought Juizhaigou was a great example of the “Tourist Conga Line”, I was not prepared for the literal queue we faced when we visited the Great Buddha in Leshan. We had chosen a weekday, it was the end of the tourist season, and we left early, and still we queued for around three hours as we tried to get from the top platform down along the cliffside to the bottom platform to stare up at the patient Buddha. It seems that this was not unusual, as the polite signs marked the remaining waiting time in both Chinese and English. The experience could have almost been a fun people watching experiment, if we had not been shoved, cut in front of, and otherwise annoyed by our fellow waiters. Queuing in an orderly fashion was too difficult for many of them. I decided that I had taken another step towards a British identity when I realised how much this annoyed me.
After distracting myself by reading a book for the majority of the waiting time on the top platform, the queue actually felt like it progressed rather quickly and we conga-ed down the stone steps for this view.
At both of these ‘attractions’ the Conga line won in the end and Chinese claustrophobia meant that I ended up seeking to evacuate the two sites as fast as possible. We sped past additional lakes and ‘traditional’ villages which had been turned into shopping centres for t-shirts, hats, beef jerky and colourful plastic objects, ignored additional temples and monuments and made bee-lines for home (dodging fruit sellers and rickshaw peddlers), only breathing a sigh of relief when they were far behind us.