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ALL WORK AND NO PLAY

Fools venture out during any Chinese ‘Golden Week’ holiday. But last week, millions of Chinese drove to their dream destinations during the week-long holiday to commemorate China’s National Day, October 1. What made the normal rush on such holidays worse this year was the decision to do away with toll tax for vehicles with a capacity of seven or less during the Golden Week. China imposes one of the highest toll taxes: one yuan per two kilometres.

As soon as the decision was announced, newspapers were full of traffic jam warnings. Yet such was the lure of a do-your-own holiday on the country’s well-maintained expressways that even those who set out an hour before the toll-free holiday was to begin — at 11 pm — had to wait for hours before they could start moving. The nightmare was unimaginable — 18-hour traffic jams; travellers answering nature’s calls on the side of highways as mobile toilets clogged up; people sleeping overnight in cars, mountains of rubbish.... Pictures of travellers walking their dogs, playing tennis, exercising and socializing with strangers on the highway were offset by reports of pregnant women miscarrying as they took too long to reach a hospital, migrant workers reaching home too late to see dying parents, and even violence at popular tourist attractions.

Mountains are normally very crowded even on normal weekends. Some have an hour-long wait at the base for the shuttle bus that takes you to the cable car station, and another long wait there. One such journey turned into a nightmare for one family. Having climbed up to avoid the long queue for the cable car, they took the car back, only to find the shuttle bus counter smashed by angry tourists who were waiting for hours for the buses that had not been able to cope with the rush.

Sour spot

When this family demanded a refund, the husband and wife were both stabbed. Later that night, the management sent buses to take the stranded tourists back to the base of the mountain. At the same spot, a news photographer was attacked while taking pictures of the crowds. A few days later, two “peasants” were arrested: they had been selling tickets in black, and had “confessed” to stabbing the couple, said the police. At another mountain, tourists had to wait for 10 hours before they reached the top to look at a famous glacier, and then the surging crowds forced them to move on immediately.

Like everything else in China, this holiday too was measured in terms of contribution to the economy. The loss in toll tax was expected to be offset by the corresponding rise in spending on tourism as more people took to the roads. But alongside the smug reports of billions of yuan spent during the Golden Week were articles asking for a change in the national holiday system.

The Golden Week system was started in 1999. Week-long holidays were given on three occasions — Chinese New Year at the beginning of the year, Labour Day (May 1-7) and National Day (October 1-7). In 2008, the Labour Day holiday was replaced with four short breaks for traditional festivals throughout the year. But after the chaos last week, some commentators feel it’s better to go back to the old system. Chinese New Year is for family reunions, so that leaves only the October 1 Golden Week for sightseeing.

China is supposed to be among the world’s worst countries as far as paid holidays are concerned. Employees are entitled to only five days a year if they have worked from one to ten years, and 10 days if they’ve worked 10 to 20 years. Even during the Golden Weeks, workers in hospitals and in the service and entertainment industries work double.