After seven weeks we finally came to the end of our trip through China. We had spent a week in the busy capitol dodging killer electro-bikes, hiked the world’s ‘most dangerous mountain’, taken in history and history in the making in Xian and Datong, and found refuge from it all in Xingping.
Our journey was completed by air, bus and train, with the train probably being the most memorable form of travel. We took high speed trains, in awe at our short journey time and the luxurious comfort of the seats. We also experimented with normal trains, but these memories are tainted by a particular experience on ‘hard seats’ on an overnight train, which took ten hours. I was thankful we had seats, but given any other option, I would have jumped ship within a few minutes of getting on the carriage. The place smelled strange, a mix of human, food and animal smells. This was made even more revolting though the individuals smoking. (It did not surprise me when the BBC recently published a report on the problems China is facing with smoking- smoking is very present, especially outside of larger cities). Sleep was practically impossible as we were all on top of each other or bags, the seats were nowhere near comfortable, and the decibel level was somewhere between a nightclub and a concert. It was a journey we vowed not to repeat.
Our habit of walking without a map or a plan continued from Russia and Mongolia, as the maps provided were not fit to be called maps, and more than in Mongolia, we got hands-on with the countryside. It usually went well, even if Ruth, Laura and I all took turns being sceptical about Luke’s decisions out of fear we’d end up on another ‘death bimble’. Visits to national parks usually involved taking endless photos with locals or domestic tourists, fighting off souvenir vendors and trying to be clever to find some serenity and savour our experiences. Particularly difficult was the experience on the Great Wall, where a man went to push Luke off of a ladder because we refused to pay our way to opportunistic individuals. Similarly, an encounter in the bamboo forest where the ‘help’ we received came at the cost of being yelled at for money, left me seething. But we found people who were wonderful, and scenery which was breath-taking.
We also took special care to look out for animals. We sent home several images of domestic dogs and cats to the animal-lovers we know, took endless pictures of pandas in Chengdu, and found egrets and water buffalo amongst the rice paddies and fields. We finally saw dinosaurs (fossils) and watched the turtles and in some of China’s many ponds. Although so much of our time in China was in cities and towns, there were also an abundance of (caged) birds and sparrows to be watched when relaxing in a park. And the parks- the parks were an incredible opportunity for people watching! In the morning they hosted people exercising and practising musical instruments, in the afternoons they became places to meet to drink tea, play cards or mah-jong, and even have your ears cleaned. This act itself was fascinating, as men went around with what looked like surgical instruments, carefully removing the wax from their victims – um- customer’s ears.
Like the activities in parks, the people in China I want to remember are diverse. The woman who gave us mandarins several to try, then selected the best of her stock to proudly sell to us when we came back. Our bicycle guide in Xingping, and the local villagers where he had us stop to rest. The groups competing in the regional dance competition in Nanning. Some of the hostel and hotel staff who also really helped make our lives easier, and children tentatively asking for our photographs that always made us smile.
Travelling in China was definitely difficult- from the lack of information about the things that were somewhat off the beaten track, to the language barrier, to the lack of privacy when it came to having your photo taken. Things did build up and get overwhelming and extremely frustrating, leading to several times where I blew up or broke down. It didn’t help that about two weeks into the trip our joy of eating anything other than mutton decreased and we began to be slightly unhappy with the constant stream of fried food (noodles, stir fries, you name it, you can get it fried) and began to long for bread. But overall the experiences we had were incredibly diverse and once again taught us so much about travel, our own limits, and finding moments of peace.