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Take me home, country roads, take me home.

 

I met a friendly University student named Dawn when I was in China in 2009. Well, Dawn was her English name. She was one of my first Chinese friends outside of my co-workers. She studied at Donghai University and I met her and her BFF Monica at my German friend Harry’s apartment one Friday night. She was the most outspoken young Chinese person I’ve ever met. She was full of questions about Canada, she taught herself English despite her parents protests, and she criticized almost everything about the Chinese system. Just talking to her about politics made me nervous that I’d get deported.

When Dawn told me her favourite English songs were John Denver’s, I was impressed. From what I’d learnt from my first month in China was that for the average citizen their knowledge of non-Chinese music didn’t go any farther back than Celine Dion. Actually, Michael Jackson. But then at the end of the year I went to Beijing and discovered that John Denver is adored. I heard him in bathrooms, shopping malls, bathrooms in shopping malls…places like that. John Denver and China are synonymous for me now. When I hear “Take me Home, Country Roads” (which is usually when I’m in China, but not always), instead of cringing I am uplifted. Similar to when I eat greasy food, wait an hour in the rain for a bus, or perhaps see some poop on the street, I think of China and I’m happy again. I don’t know if that means the Mainland is my home, but it’s certainly something to question. Isn’t home a feeling you get when everything around you is a disaster but you still don’t get depressed? When everything looks terrible but you can’t keep your eyes off it? That’s kind of like love. I don’t know. I’ll have to pray to John Denver.

In March of 2012 I returned to China. I had been on the road for just over a week and I was staying in a great hostel in Nanjing when I heard a piano bar rendition of “Take me Home, Country Roads”. I sitting in the back of the hostel bar and it was part of their “Jazz Fridays”. If you aren’t a fan of that song to start with, then you must go to Nanjing to hear her version because you will most certainly…hang yourself. But the city boasts a great museum, and some juicy dumplings, so the trip won’t be a total loss.

I smiled the whole time while listening to that song. I knew I’d come back to a special place. It was the first time I’d heard a John Denver song since coming back to China, and being there over a week without that song made me sad. “Where were you John Denver! I’ve missed you!” It was pouring rain outside. I was stuck in a hostel with a great bar and beautiful terrace, but I was the sole patron. It was March and the backpackers hadn’t arrived yet. And Nanjing wasn’t exactly the most travelled place. I was totally alone, my bank account was already dwindling and I had no job prospects and no inspiration to write. But I couldn’t have been happier.

Take me home, country roads, take me home.

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Huanshan
Cloudy Huangshan Mountain

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.

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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.

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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.

 

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Crossing the Yangtze

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Huddled over binder after binder filled with Yangtze river tours, maps and price tags in the lobby of my Chengdu hostel, I knew a typical “Yangtze River Cruise” just wasn’t for me. The two Montreal backpackers I’d met that were sitting with me agreed. It seemed all too expensive, too long, too much. The Yangtze, which runs west to east is one of the longest rivers in the world and the most significant in China. If I wanted to stick with my legitimate tour of the Mainland, I had to cross this iconic Yangtze somehow. The river also led to a bunch of provinces in the middle and back east that I’d yet to see, so I really had no choice. The other Montrealers opted for the popular overnight Chengdu-Xi’an train and let that route take them east to Beijing. I did things my way.

So I waited until Chongqing where I asked the hostel staff for help. Apparently the best and cheapest way to start the Yangtze was to hop on a hydrofoil boat in this city called Fengjie. The boat drove through the gorges in the middle of the river until Yichang, home of the Three Gorges Dam, where the boat docked. A bus from Yichang could take me to Wuhan, which was the next big city I wanted to see after Chongqing. I probably had to do at least an overnight in one of those cities and had to buy my bus and boat tickets on the stop.

So I left the Chongqing Yangtze River Hostel with this brief outline, my backpack, my phrasebook ready and the hope that I’d be able to cross half of the country successfully in a few days. (Success=don’t die). That’s pretty much the line between traveler and tourist. You’ve made it as a traveler if you’re days on the road are mostly spent NOT DYING. Good for you dude, you are no longer a tourist. Girl/boy guide (scout) badge to follow.

The best part of my Yangtze adventure was the beginning, not the end. Im still not sure about the stuff in between. I would never have gotten the chance to see the town of Fengjie if I’d taken an organized tour of the Yangtze. Arriving in Fengjie I didn’t have a hotel booked, or any hotel names written down for that matter, so I was a little more anxious than usual getting off the bus and heading into the streets of a strange new town. Fengjie was one of the more chaotic places I’d seen thus far in China. Everyone seemed to be out on the dirty streets. Everyone stared. Everyone was doing something. Everyone had that rosy glow from being outside in a smoggy city all day. And everyone smiled. Even though I was offered a ride on the back of about a hundred different electric bikes I opted for a “taxi” to a hotel. I just said “take me to hotel please” in Mandarin and hoped that the town would provide.

The place I was taken to was a little over my budget (instead of 10$/night it was 35), but the receptionist was pleasant and the breakfast was free, so I stayed. A three-hour wait in the muggy Chongqing bus station (it was June, I was in the middle of China; it was a miracle I didn’t melt) and a packed bus ride made me a little tired. But I stuck to my routine of checking in, plopping my backpack onto my new bed for the night, and setting out to explore the town.

The sun was setting by the time I was on the main road. Families were strolling together and workers were settling down for a meal. I tried to wander down every side-street, stop to smell the BBQ at every food stand, and find a Fengjie flash mob. I found more epic dance parties than I did in Chongqing, met sweet restaurant owners I had trouble communicating with but who were thrilled with my being there anyway. Cute couples stopped in their tracks and waved shyly at the foreigner. Factory workers were doing shots of beer and beiju (Mainland clear liquor; basically paint thinner with Chinese characteristics) over BBQ. My favourite parts of Chinese culture all came together for me to see and experience in those few hours on the streets of Fengjie.

The thing about China is that (in my opinion) while others sit back, analyze and wonder about their next move, China just does. They go and they do. And maybe we should be more like that, too.

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