Tens of millions of people took to China's roads, railways, and air routes over the three-day Labor Day holiday this weekend, causing traffic gridlock and packing tourist spots to capacity—prompting calls for a change to the way Chinese take vacations.
Railway stations and long-distance bus stations in several major cities across China were full to bursting on day one of the traditional holiday break, while major expressways near Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou were at a standstill, official media reported.
Photos posted online showed desperate passengers jumping over ticket turnstiles to escape a potential crush in the eastern city of Hangzhou.
"I went on a trip during the last ... three-day holiday, and it can take half an hour or an hour just to buy tickets for the subway in Hangzhou, with the lines wrapping round the ticket hall several times," Hangzhou-based writer Zan Aizong said.
"The place gets totally packed out."
On railroads and highways
There is no sign that the crowded conditions are deterring domestic demand for travel in China, however.
Traffic on China's high-speed bullet train network from April 30 to May 3 rose by 36 percent compared with the same period last year, while overall train traffic rose by 16.5 percent to nearly 37 million trips, the China Railway Corporation said on Sunday.
Rail passenger volumes aren't the only concern. Even China's newly built network of expressways linking major cities regularly grinds to a halt when traffic increases beyond its capacity.
On the G6 Beijing-Tibet expressway, traffic queues reached around 55 kilometers on the way out of Beijing, while authorities in Guangdong province reported severe jams on eight major highways, the China News Service reported last Thursday.
China's most popular tourist spots are regularly swamped with people on national holidays, with the Leshan Buddha in southwestern Sichuan province visited by 25,000 people on Friday alone, many of whom had to line up for four hours to get a view of the statue.
On the tiny island of Gulangyu, once a peaceful relic of colonial times off the southeastern city of Xiamen, 60,000 visitors packed the narrow streets, which have an estimated capacity of around 17,000.
Part of the problem lies with the ruling Chinese Communist Party's policy of granting everyone the same days of vacation in the calendar, commentators said.
"Most of the time, people don't go on vacation, but they all take it at the same time, and everyone heads out at the same time," Liu Kaiming, head of the Institute of Contemporary Observation in the southern Chinese city of Shenzhen, told RFA. "There is a limit to the number of available destinations, which leads to severe overcrowding at scenic spots."
"This also has to do with the fact that Chinese people like a crowd; they like bustle," he said. "They all know it will be crowded, but they pile in there anyway."
He said better management would likely improve congestion at peak vacation times.
"A lot of it is caused by people not obeying traffic regulations," Liu said.
Call for greater flexibility
Zan called on the government to make better preparations for huge upsurges in tourism at peak times in the year, or to change the system of vacations altogether.
"I think they should cancel these short and long national vacation weeks, and use a more flexible salary and vacation system," he said.
"That way, people would decide their own vacations, and we would avoid these massive peaks."
He said recent scenes in the Hangzhou subway underlined the potential dangers of overcrowding in public places.
"There is no way to form a line when everyone just surges towards the ticket gates ... so a lot of people just jump over the gates," he said.
"What else are they supposed to do, faced with 10,000 people bearing down on them?"
"It's uncontrollable ... and all sorts of emergencies happen."
Hundreds of millions of Chinese take to planes, trains, and roads during the world's largest mass movement of people at lunar new year, but the massive and predictable demand has also spawned a huge market in black-market tickets for those who don't have time to line up for hours or days at a time.
The railway bureau has responded to criticism in the Chinese media over a thriving black market for hard-to-come-by rail tickets by expanding the country's high-speed rail network, pledging that the new services will relieve pressure on existing routes by 2015.
Tickets are commonly believed to find their way into the hands of railway bureau employees, their family, and friends, and thence to the racketeers who line the station forecourts, offering coveted tickets and prices many times the official rate at times of peak demand.
Reported by Lin Ping for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.