I remember from my first foreign trip how often I was told that American’s are loud. Fellow travelers would even point out the rambunctious tour groups in shorts, white socks, and tennis shoes: “see? Americans.” One night in Tours, France, I was trying to sleep in my charming room with a window opening to a quiet lane of the old town. Bellowing shouts and laughter stirred me to the window to see the “Americans.” There, a large group in shorts and dark socks was carousing, oblivious to anyone around them…in German. Eventually, I realized It’s not that Americans and Germans are particularly loud, it’s that people in larger groups are loud. We don’t notice the quiet American couple watching their countrymen in horror from a distance, so they don’t count towards our quiet score. And, as Americans frequently travel abroad in large tour groups, we only notice the loud ones.
In China, traveling in large groups is even more common. My Chinese colleagues were astonished that I wasn’t planning on taking a tour. Probably not because it might be more challenging for non-Mandarin speakers, but because they couldn’t really imagine doing so themselves.
I know the Chinese like to visit their country in large groups because you can’t miss them. They don bright matching baseball caps and are proceeded by a standard bearing tour-guide urging her troops on with a megaphone. And they’re loud. The Chinese are hardly a demure people to start with. But like everyone else in the world, put them in a group and they become a swarming mass aware only of each other.
So at four in the morning, long before my alarm was set to wake me to see the sunrise on Huangshan, I was roused out of bed by tour groups passing my hotel room, bellowing, laughing and being ordered along by megaphone toting guide. I guess it’s time to get up.
The plan is to catch the sunrise at one of the nearby viewing spots. I don’t think we’ll need much time, but it’s not like sleeping will be possible anyway, so up we go, wearing bright red, hotel-issued, down coats. We start out in the direction we think the view point is and come across one of the many map signs around the mountain. Unfortunately the maps don’t jive with the version printed from the internet. It’s dark and hard to read. There are signs are at junctions in the path, there are signs where there is no need for one, and they’re as often missing entirely. In spite of custom most anywhere else in the world, the maps here are oriented so the top of the map is however you’re facing, instead of north. Sounds practical, if there were, maybe, an indication of this anywhere on the map? Or if it were consistent…? but it isn’t, and the sky is starting to brighten. After backtracking a couple of times and trying to ask other lost tourists, we follow the crowd…maybe they know where to go.
What was supposed to be a five minute walk, turns out to be a 45 minute running-hike, up and down stairs, to a lookout I-don’t-know-where in the park. The sky is still brightening, but the sun isn’t nearly up so there’s still time to find a spot. When we make it somewhere, the whole area is thronged with more people than a rock concert. Probably all the good spots are taken, as if we can tell what a good spot is, so we smoosh ourselves under a pine tree, into a group that might be able to see something and look out over the slightly overcast canyon below.
We’re packed together like canned sardines which makes the heavy down jackets we’re all wearing superfluous. Video cameras and digital SLRs jostle with point and shoot cameras flashing at the misty overcast skies. Alas, no sign if the famous “sea of clouds” we’ve come for and, while it’s still pretty, it’s not easy appreciate in the bumping mass of people. No one seems to have any sense of space. Cameras are raised right in front of others snapping pictures, and others wave hands, hats, and umbrellas in front of cameras.
6:09 am. The sun officially peaks above the horizon and a cheer rises from the crowd. They actually cheer and clap and push harder to get a better view of today’s celebrity, the sun. Except there’s nothing new to see behind the clouds. Some even giggle self-conscientiously after they realize there is really nothing new happening, but the fun is slightly infectious and no one complains. The video cameras are rolling, but having trouble focusing on the featureless cloud bank and the sky continues to brighten but with no sign of the sun. Finally, the crowd thins out and we can move around enough explore the area and enjoy misty views of the canyon. The remaining people continue to stand right in front of each other posing for snapshot after blocked snapshot and no one seems to notice or care.
After the crowd has dwindled to a few hardcore photographers, the shy sun peeps out from behind the clouds and lights up the hilltops with golden, low angle light. It’s not a perfect sunrise, but it isn’t bad either, improved a bit after each of the tour troops gathered behind their respective flags and marched off to breakfast. At last, no one is around to jump up in the middle of a photograph.