For a city of 20 million people, Beijing in late September is eerily calm. As dreary-eyed workers hum by on motorized bikes and old men trade dusty mahjong pieces, they offer the occasional nonchalant glance to the red and golden stars of the Chinese flag hoisted above them. The imminent display of patriotism can wait. The mahjong game cannot.
This is Beijing shortly before Golden Week, a national holiday where the displacement of over 150 million people will temporarily cripple the country’s travel infrastructure. That’s like all the people in Russia simultaneously deciding to go on a fun week travelling. In a country half the size.
Most often, they take to the trains. My previous Chinese rail journeys had left me, destitute in sleep, but rich in enduring back problems. But travelling in Golden Week is an experience like no other, one that would leave Bear Grylls cuddled up in a fetal position, spraying hand sanitizer on his immediate surroundings. Without assigned seats, my friends and I remained locked inside the smoking area of the train, seated on cardboard strips, chewing on a questionable concoction of melon seeds and Oreos (one that would haunt me later).
At such desperate times, with sugar-levels peaking, conversation is the only option, and it’s something at which train-riding experts excel in China. We would regularly find ourselves surrounded by an audience of all ages, eyes alight with fascination for our various musings. With a tepid Qingdao beer in hand and travel stories at the ready, our seating area ignited with conversation, in a way that a British train, sadly, never could.
Yet Golden Week isn’t all about packed trains and spontaneous friendships. It’s meant to be a time of patriotism. China is the “workshop of the world” and if there’s one thing it will tirelessly try to manufacture, it’s pride. As I walked to university on the first morning of Golden week, meticulously arranged in front of phone shops and estate agents, were regiments of store staff. The manager marched up and down in front of his team, giving a motivational and overtly patriotic speech, as the staff replied in perfect unison. Whether a genuine socialist spirit can be instilled in staff about to flog iPhone 5’s, I will never know.
So, much as I appreciate all the thrilling military displays, stirring speeches, and generic nationalist films of Golden Week, that’s not where solidarity is found. If a bonding experience is what you’re after, book yourself onto a hard-seat train journey. And make sure it’s a long one.