They looked like rage zombies.
Cast in the streetlights' eerie glow, the crowds shrieked as they scrambled toward the buses, clawing their way through the vehicles' doors, in what could have been a scene from 28 Days Later. Once inside, they dropped into their seats, as if deactivated.
The parking lot's giant wooden gate had become a floodgate for crowds. Every time a new fleet of buses arrived, the guards would swing it open and the human deluge dammed behind the fences would burst forth, whooshing out to engulf the vehicles.
Some less patient and more daring individuals clamored over the fences from their spots toward the back of the line, eliciting a half-hearted pursuit by police officers positioned along the barriers to prevent that very thing.
Some made it on the buses. Others zipped into the inky blackness of the surrounding forest, vanishing before our eyes. When the next convoys pulled up, these sprinters re-emerged from the wooded shadows in flashes of motion-blurred limbs, blasting toward the vehicles' doors.
These were the National Day holiday crowds at Hunan province's Zhangjiajie - the Golden Week mash of travelers my wife and I had been warned about but had never seen in our more than four years in the country.
Somehow, we had traveled for 13 consecutive Golden Weeks, mostly in China, without encountering the notorious vacationing swarms.
We even visited Hainan province during the Spring Festival of 2007, when it was reportedly the country's No 1 Golden Week destination. Some of the seaside strands in the tropical island's premier resort town, Sanya city, were downright desolate.
We had been worried about the throngs when we booked our first Golden Week trip out of town to Shandong province's Taishan. We'd been told this mountain would be shoulder-to-shoulder and braced for several hours of cramped climbing.
However, we were amazed to encounter only a half-a-dozen others scaling the alp. When our Chinese got better and we re-examined the map, we realized this was perhaps because we'd unintentionally scaled the less popular and more treacherous Wild Western Route, while the Central Route was likely spilling over with tourists.
The only time crowds had in any way affected our lunar new year celebrations was actually not in China but rather in Vietnam, where Tet, which overlapped with the Chinese Spring Festival, meant the hotel rooms in some cities were overbooked.
Having heard of, but never actually seen, China's telltale holiday hordes, Carol and I eventually chalked up the hullabaloo to distinct cultural conceptions of "crowded".
It did strike us as peculiar that we Americans would be less sensitive to being crunched among legions of people than our Chinese friends but didn't give it much thought beyond that.
That is, until our trip to Zhangjiajie.
Our host family, who graciously spent their time off escorting my parents, my wife and me around the scenic spot, despite having been there dozens of times, had tried to warn us.
"You should know it will be very busy and crowded during Golden Week," I was told before our departure. Again, I presumed this cautionary e-mail hinged on the aforementioned culturally subjective conceptions of "crowded".
Oh, but what we experienced in Zhangjiajie that day would qualify under any society's objective definition of the word.
The rage zombie scene was but the winding down of a day spent in the close quarters of far-reaching lines.
At the apex, we spent more than four hours squished in a crush of bodies, waiting for a cable car to Huangshizhai scenic area.
By the day's end, we were actually happy to have had such close encounters with fellow travelers. As our host and biological families agreed, it was a "true China experience".
But while we're grateful to have actually witnessed this previously elusive societal phenomenon, perhaps going through it once is enough.
So this Spring Festival Golden Week, we plan to make tracks in the silver sands of overseas beaches. Malaysia, here we come!
(China Daily 01/27/2011 page20)