After conquering the Yangtze and five days of sickness in the village of Tunxi, one of the main town’s near the Huangshan mountain range in Anhui province, I was ready to move up and move on. Despite the thrill, the stress and the wonder of being in China as a backpacker for almost four months, I was craving another country: Different smells, different faces, different food. And some friends.
With the exception of some hardcore German hikers at the hostel I could chat with over noodles and tea, the east of China was getting pretty lonely. Maria and J.P, my good friends whom I’d met in Xian in 2009 when I came to China as a volunteer, were waiting for me in Beijing. They had a whole party weekend planned. And I still had some old towns and city walls to explore, and a not-so secret Communist village to wander around. Other than that I was ready for a break from China. And China needed a break from me.
My relationship with China is like one you might have with an ex; the one that got away. The one, when you think back on your time with them only remember the good parts, the exciting parts, the parts when you felt most alive. They’re the ones you drunk text sometimes, and they’re perfect in your mind. Once you step away from the relationship you forget it’s flaws and only fantasize about your favourites moments. They’re the one you compare every future relationship to.
It’s been hard for me to find another China. I probably never will. That doesn’t mean I can’t get annoyed at it sometimes. That doesn’t mean I don’t want to check in on it from time to time to see how it’s doing.
Before I could do all that, I had to get out of eastern China first. That meant taking a lot of trains. And wandering around under the hot Mainland sun with a backpack that was only getting heavier. And more waiting around train ticket booking kiosks under that hot sun with a backpack that was only getting heavier. No souvenirs with the exception of a few secondhand books. I even found a first edition Nora Ephron in a little shop in Xiamen.
Buying a train ticket in China is usually worse than taking the train itself (and the ride is long my friends; it’s pretty rare as a traveler to take a train ride that’s less than five hours in China with 15 being the national average. The country is huge and not all trains go fast as they go from one industrial town to the next.) Long lines on the road are one of the reasons I’m glad I travel solo. If I had to deal with someone I loved and someone I loved had to deal with me, I don’t know how much love would remain in us after a trip to the Chinese Train Ticket Booking Office together.There’s pushing and shoving. No one is calm, quiet and/or collected. Everybody stinks. And most of all you, who has probably been in transit all day with a big backpack. Everyone is yelling in a language you don’t understand. The experience is bad enough for Chinese people. They’re also more experienced at pushing their way to the front of the line. I was an amateur in this type of combat before China, and in this way as well as so many others, China made me a stronger person. By the end of my trip I was shoving people so hard on the subway and in train lines that I saw some shock and awe in my targets faces.
So I took a bus out of Tunxi and into the capital city of Hefei. It was a Wednesday in June. It wasn’t a holiday or anything. Just a random Wednesday. But thinking about the madness at the Hefei Train Station on that particular day makes me grateful that I’m not from Hefei. Grateful that I wasn’t born anywhere near Hefei. Or near train stations in China.
I used to go to a lot of concerts growing up. Lots of pop concerts, where there are crowds. Lots of crowds. I’ve stood in cues before. The first thing I felt when I walked into that train station was stress. Then it was confusion. I couldn’t comprehend how people To say it was “packed” would be an understatement. “Bursting at the seams” or completely “full to the gills” would be a little more appropriate. Hell on earth might be another. Claustrophobic is good too. Luckily, I already had my ticket so I was spared the stress of approaching any of the three dozen cues. About an hour in the station and I was able to walk up to the platform and get on the train. It’s hard to walk up stairs to a platform when there’s no less than 200 people sitting on said stairs, waiting for one of the hundred trains that were passing through Hefei that afternoon.
For all the people who criticize China for polluting too much (yes I’m one of them too), please know that most of the population doesn’t drive, with the exception of electric bikes. They use public transportation or they stay put. These are their options. What are yours? Probably more than theirs. So for all the people who squish themselves like sardines to get to where they need to go, thank you. I don’t think you need my thank you but I’m giving it to you anyway, you billions of strangers. You are one of the reasons our world has not exploded yet. We should all aspire to live like you.
As for me and China, our relationship had hit a plateau and we both agreed it was time to see other people. So after a few more amazing weeks exploring by myself; dodging electric bikes, buses, and a few weird tourists (lots of friendly ones too), not to mention one last week at Maria and JP’s with our champagne, I left China. They stamped me out at the Beijing airport on the 18th of July and we’ve been on a break since.
Will we ever rekindle that old fire and pick up where we left off? Will you ever change? Can you change a little, just for me? I know I have some sacrifices to make too. But I’m sure we can work something out, if this is really meant to be.