China is famous for its mass holiday migrations. The holiday effect is stronger here because usually everybody in the whole country (which, as they are so fond of reminding us, has more everybodies than any other country) takes exactly the same precise days off.
I usually don’t travel during the holidays here for reasons of claustrophobia, but I made an exception this weekend. It was a three-day weekend, Thursday-Friday-Saturday (which makes Sunday a non-weekend day).
I figured It would be safe to take a day-trip to nearby Beijing to see an old friend and spend the day at the zoo, especially if I went on Friday, the middle day of the holiday, since most people would presumably rather travel on Thursday or Saturday, so they could visit family and friends on Friday.
The picture above, taken last night at the train station in Beijing, Friday night, shows the folly of that assumption, and makes me more than glad that I didn’t try to go on Thursday or today. Could they possibly have been more crowded? Maybe so.
Well, as my friend pointed out, now that those wonderful high-speed trains are running all around the country, more people than ever can visit Beijing on holiday.
Indeed, I was not totally surprised by the human crush. I had almost canceled the journey, in fact, when I looked online and discovered just how few seats were available for any weekend trains. Still, a Chinese friend succeeded in snagging me tickets online so at least I knew there would be a seat waiting for me on the train each way.
And by the way, the train system really is wonderful. I didn’t get a photo of the interior this time, but the shot above comes from three years ago, when my dad came to visit. I think that if we had high-speed trains this nice in America, particularly along the northeast corridor, but also in other places, we wouldn’t have such jammed airports, and more of us could forego the incredible hassle that airports have become.
And like here, high-speed trains just invite people to move for whatever reason, whether business or pleasure.
The day started really early on Friday morning, since that’s when the train seats were available. This picture shows the current early-morning state of the riverfront in Tianjin. The train station and its plaza are out of frame to the right. Most of the large buildings in the picture have appeared since I got here six years ago. The sky, one should note, is blue.
The price of the 70-mile half-hour trip, by the way, is the equivalent of $9.50 each way.
Of course, the train has an assigned seat for each passenger.
When I got to Beijing, the subway had no reserved seats, and no seats free, for that matter.
But for the equivalent of about 35 cents for a trip of any length, it’s a pretty good deal, even if you have to stand.
From the train station you can reach any part of the city by subway. And on a weekend like that, half the world seemed to be riding. The zoo was only six miles down the line – no transfers necessary.
Advertisers are really clever. They have even found a use for the darkest portions of the subway tunnel. They line the tunnel walls with the electronic version of those old animation flipbooks. In other words, they hang a row of a couple hundred flickering computer displays.
Each screen down the line displays the next frame in an animation. The flickering is keyed to the normal cruising train speed, so when that speed is reached, this blurred colored line of lights suddenly consolidates into a row of identical animations, each one shifted one frame in time from the one next to it.
Anyway, the photo shows what it looked like through the windows in the doors. At the next stop, so many people got in that it was no longer possible to see that view.
The zoo itself proved to be just as crowded as the rest of the tourist infrastructure. One advantage to the huge crowds, though was that you never had to walk up to a cage or enclosure and be disappointed that the animal was asleep and out of sight, because from a distance you could tell if there was anything living and breathing within sight.
Any visible living creature, no matter how ordinary, attracted a mass of photographers wielding everything from cell phones to tablets to high-end digital single-lens reflexes sporting several pounds of glass. I had brought my Olympus OM-D, perhaps the nicest camera I’ve ever owned.
Take a look at this crowd, which fills a space within the popular panda exhibit, but it’s not even the panda enclosure – it’s just a cage full of pheasants and peacocks. The crowd at the actual panda enclosure was too thick to get an overview picture.
This was my fourth or fifth trip to this zoo, and in case anyone’s wondering, the crowds are not normally so crazy. Yes, it’s a popular place, but next time I go, I think I’ll use an ordinary weekend or even a weekday instead.
That said, the animals were still present and impressive. In fact, the animals often had more room to move around in their cages than the onlookers did on the footpaths.
And since this entry is really meant as an excuse to post pictures, I think I’ll break from the writing and put in a row of photos, most of them standard 1920 by 1080 if you click the thumbnails.
This zebra picture highlights one aspect of this zoo that, for better or worse, you’re not going to find anywhere else — the high degree of interactions between the exhibits and the public.
Much of it is not sanctioned, such as the kids feeding zebras above. On the other hand, it’s not aggressively discouraged, either.
Some animal interaction is organized, though, such as the giraffe-feeding exhibit, where you can buy special giraffe food and walk inside to feed it to the giraffes. I still remember seeing this 15 years ago on my first-ever trip, though I’ve never tried it myself. It just seems too out-of-place, I guess, though I do remember feeding giraffes in a less-sanctioned manner at the Portland zoo, a practice that is now not possible.
Sometimes, the commotion from the tourists is so great that the effect on the animals is almost palpable, such as the older male chimp who had climbed to a high point of his enclosure, and remained standing there with his face to the wall and his back to the crowd. Not all animals are so viscerally sensitive as chimps, but those animals that were must have appreciated the crowds that day even less than I did.
Additional interactive exhibits can be found at the children’s zoo, including farm animals for petting. This area is fenced off from the rest of the zoo and in fact requires a separate admission price (equivalent of about $1.50)
However, there were also several cages of pure-bred dogs. Some, like the mastiff, lay in a cage behind glass just like so many wild creatures. It gives one pause, in fact, to see such a familiar animal as a dog in the same surroundings as a bear or lion.
Dogs, of course, were forbidden in Beijing for a couple generations, up until about ten years ago. So lots of Beijing people have little-to-no experience with them. Some of them think of dogs pretty much the same way as they might think of wolves. So having dogs in the children’s zoo, to breed some familiarity with Canis familiaris, seems to me a good idea.
And in fact, there’s a dog-walking area within the children’s zoo. You can rent almost any size of dog and try it out to see how it feels next to you.
Mostly it was little kids who took part in this, and most of them took out small dogs like toy poodles. However, other dogs were available, including afghans, dalmatians, huskies, corgis, and golden retrievers. The largest dog that I saw get a walk that day was a Bernese Mountain Dog. It was pretty excited, I can tell you.
The children’s section closes earlier than the rest of the zoo. One time I was present near day’s end, when all the people had left that section. I could still see over the fence, though, as those caged dogs were let out to run around and play with each other for a while. A happier group of animals you’ll never see.
I’ll end this piece with a couple non-animal pictures. First off is the huge tiger sculpture located near the lion cage by artist and environmental activist 袁熙坤 (Yuan Xikun). I took a picture of it three years ago, but an update with a blue sky seemed desirable.
Tigers are a particular interest of Yuan’s, and this one started out as a small bronze piece entitled “Patron Saint of the Forest.” The more recent version is slightly larger.
And finally, despite the immense Labor Day crowds, the zoo is big enough to include some areas, off to the west from most cages and animals, where people can go and just enjoy the air. This spot is one that I photographed three years ago, and the printed result hangs on my wall here in China. It was a pleasant surprise to stumble upon it again, this time much earlier in the growing season, before the pond surface is smothered over by a mass of giant lotus leaves.