The Chinese character for “alone” is the same as that for “lonely.” In Chinese culture, it is hard to differentiate between the two meanings.
For those of us who come from more individualistic Western cultures, there is much to learn about the value of community from the Chinese. That being said, there are periods when we crave alone time — solitude, quiet contemplation, an escape from the insistent press of humanity.
For travelers to the most populous nation in the world, it is possible to find pockets of seclusion for your own “just me” moments. But realize that, even for the most introverted, you can’t gain a deep appreciation for China without interacting with its people. So, think of the following suggestions as respites from the crowds, ways to recharge and gain perspective — not as complete withdrawals from the wonderful people that make China so special. Though, if you want to avoid people in general, I hear Antarctica is nice this time of year…
Go where others aren’t
Most people in China congregate in the same few areas, so step off the main drags. Want seclusion at Beijing’s Summer Palace? Don’t hang out at the top of the most popular temple. Just down the hill, you’ll find numerous courtyards where fewer travelers venture.
In tourist towns like Yunnan’s Lijiang, the main thoroughfare may be so packed that a snail can make better time than you. But go a few blocks over and you’ll find alleyways devoid of other humans. Also, in Lijiang, learn to look and listen. For example, while others clustered around the popular lakes at Black Dragon Pool, I heard an interesting sound coming from a nearby building and decided to investigate. Behind a fairly empty gallery of paintings, a group of older Naxi (a minority group in the region) men and women were practicing a call-and-response form of singing traditional songs. Three other locals sat nearby chatting, but otherwise, I had a lone front row seat to this surprisingly beautiful concert that, in a few generations, may never be heard again. So, always listen.
Go when others don’t
Wherever you’re going, get there early or late in the day. I have to admit, I was surprised to encounter a Chinese tour group at the top of Beijing’s Jingshan Park at 7:30 a.m. But that was the only exception. Most tour groups hit the main sites later in the morning. At neighboring Beihai Park, for example, I only encountered a few elderly men doing their morning tai chi during my 7 a.m. stroll. Otherwise, I had the place all to myself, including all the empty duck boats on the lake.
Evenings are trickier because more people stay out late. But, if you visit places like the water towns around Suzhou after 6 p.m., all of the tours will have departed and the only people you’ll encounter will be locals. This can also be seen in Tongli. Domestic tourists crowd the canal-side walkways during the day, but at night, I crisscrossed the canals alone, unsettled not because I felt unsafe being the only person out but because it was so unusual to wander by myself at night and not worry about safety.
Understand the cadence of the herd
In China, domestic tourism has become a major industry — most of the tourist groups you’ll see will be Chinese. But you can use that to your advantage. Unlike Western tours where stragglers meander away from the group, people in China typically stick with their pack. Knowing this, you can just wait out the group. The same place that is packed one minute can be virtually empty a few minutes later. And, you may even have the place to yourself until the next group comes through. So, when you see a crowded space in China, don’t assume it will always be that way.
I witnessed this in the town of Nanxun, not far from Tongli. I visited one of the many ancient mansions that line the various canals there and felt as if I owned the place until a group of Chinese tourists entered and clustered together, listening to their guide. That could have taken away from my meditative-like experience — but, instead, I waited. Ten minutes later, they were gone and I was back to imagining what it would be like to live there amid quiet courtyards lined with intricately carved wooden doors, panels, and shutters.
Ignore the weather
As an elderly woman in Ireland once told me, “There is no such thing as bad weather, just inappropriate clothing.” So, wear something appropriate and go outside — even if it is raining. You’ll likely be one of the few people who does. You might get a bit wet, but oftentimes, the weather will clear up, and then you’ll have free reign of the place before other visitors realize the rain has stopped.
In normally busy Dali in China’s Yunnan Province, I wandered, virtually alone, along rain-drenched streets. Because of the area’s semi-tropical climate, the temperature never dropped too low, so the rain was, at most, a minor nuisance. It allowed me to meander down streets that would be crammed with people just a few hours later. It also made for a lovely experience in a different part of town, as I stood atop one of the city gates, watching the multi-hued parade of umbrellas beneath me.
Go where the tourists are
This may seem counterintuitive, but in China, sometimes the easiest way to be alone is to be in the midst of the crowd. In particular, as a Westerner, you’ll stand out less in places where people are used to seeing the “big noses” or “outside country people” (both common terms for foreigners and neither, in itself, derogatory). If you get off the tourist map, though the crowds will be less, the few people you do encounter may gawk, point, or, at least, observe you in ways that can make you feel self-conscious. It’s mere curiosity on their part, but if your goal is quiet contemplation, you might actually find it easier to explore in places where your appearance is more familiar.
You can’t find a much more crowded spot than Shanghai’s Bund (the promenade that lines the river) on a warm evening. But, as I found, when everyone is out and about, no one pays you any attention. So, that notion of “being lonely in a crowd?” It can definitely work to your favor in certain locations in China.