From Travel

Traveling solo

The first time I traveled alone, I took a train from Florence to see the frescoes at the Basilica of Saint Francis of Assisi.

I had been studying in Florence for the semester and traveling on the weekends and holidays was a competitive sport. My classmates traveled to a new city or country every weekend, taking off Fridays or Mondays to extend each trip. The one with the most stamps in their passports (or different currencies in their pocketbooks — this was before the introduction of the Euro) won.

I had yet to convince any of my classmates to skip a trip to Paris or Prague or London to visit a tiny town known only for a large church with some paintings on the walls. So when I had a few days over spring break on my own, I got on a train on my own and headed south.

Nearly 15 years later, the day is mostly memorable for the feeling that I could do what I wanted and see what I wanted to see in my own time. When I was hungry, I found a restaurant. When I wanted to rest, I found a bench. When I wanted a little more time to examine a work of art I had seen only in a text book, I took as much time as I wanted.

This summer I traveled solo by bike through southern France for a week. I had done short bike trips before, but never anything longer than two or three days, and never on my own. I signed up for a group tour, thinking it would be fun to meet new people while traveling by bike through the French countryside, drinking pink wines, eating baguettes with brie and picking out fresh fruit at markets.

But two weeks before the trip, I was informed that the tour was canceled because there weren’t enough people signed up. I could take the “self-guided” tour or I could cancel. I hesitated, uncertain I wanted to travel nearly 200 miles by bicycle on my own. I thought maybe I would be better off traveling to one city in France and taking day trips, safely grounded in a home base. But a few days later I decided I had to do the bike trip. It was why I was going to France and not doing it would be a disappointment. And after a crazy couple of months at work, I needed a break from cities. A week in the country was exactly what I needed.

My coworkers’, friends’ and family’s reaction to my decision fell into two camps, divided entirely by generation. Those over the age of 45 were horrified that I would even consider doing a trip like this alone. Even the feminists in the group discouraged me, likely frightened by the dangers I could encounter alone on the road. The reactions ranged from “you can’t do that alone” to “what does your mother think?” After explaining my rationale to one surprised coworker, she finally admitted that she wished she had the courage to do something like this when she was younger.

On the other end of the spectrum, friends closer to my age all encouraged me go for it and thought it was a great idea.

Just like I would have on the group tour, I enjoyed the wine, the food, the markets, and the scenery. I packed picnics for lunch and ate four- or five-course meals for dinner. The only time I missed being with someone was at dinner, but on the road, I felt free and unencumbered. I could stop whenever I wanted, sometimes a few times a mile to take photos of the beautiful scenery. I took my time on the difficult hills, sometimes pedaling so slow I was amazed my bike was standing upright. But it didn’t matter because it was just me.

When I got back, I read an article by Glynnis MacNicol in the Guardian about the need for more stories of women on road trips—stories that negate the stereotypes of women in danger or along for the ride as a sidekick. She sums up the experience of freedom on the road best:

There is something intensely clarifying about being on the road. One day on the road feels like seven or eight at home. Life, regular life and all its restrictions recede; as though your former self is separating from you, pushed upwards and out by the increasingly big sky you are driving under, until it becomes a thin distant reality that hardly seems connected to you at all. You are suddenly able to see yourself as an individual, disconnected from your life and the people in it. You become whatever is happening in that moment.

The freedom that comes with traveling alone is like nothing else. There is no other situation where I can just be a human without the social influences that can bring so much stress and angst to my daily life. It’s that feeling that I will probably remember more vividly than any glass of wine or five-course meal. And that freedom is what I will think about the next time I hesitate before taking another trip alone.

Anhui in Photos

Since I’ve waited a month to post something on my trip to rural Anhui, I’m going to stick to posting photos for now. I’ve tried a couple of times to write about the crazy, unexpected, exciting and down right funny things that happened on that trip, but every time I sit down to write I don’t have enough time to do it any justice.

Xikou, Anhui — the base of operations for a weekend in the sticks — your average, dusty, small town in China, population 20,000.

Xikou

Xikou is famous for its green tea, which was being sold by the pile in a market right underneath the window of the room I slept in. I can say with authority that the market opens at around 3 a.m. with lots of honking, yelling and bell ringing.

Xikou

One afternoon I started wandering around the old part of Xikou (what self-respecting Chinese town doesn’t have a new “developing” portion with buildings decorated in fake Greek-like columns?). It reminded me somewhat of the old west — and I love the hand-painted signs on every building.

Xikou

After a stop at the opening ceremony for Xikou’s “Tea Culture” Festival, we stopped by the local school to meet up with our host’s family. My camera was spotted by a large group of drum-beating girls, who were very excited to have their pictures taken.

Our host, Xiao Wei, introduced us to his family, who let us stay in their homes for the weekend and were all around wonderful hosts. Behind the two kids is Lao Yezi, Xiao Wei’s father.

I traveled to Xikou with my friend Eliot, fellow Nanjing resident and NYU alum. While we were in Xikou, some of the English teachers asked us to speak to their classes. Apparently their town doesn’t get many foreigners passing through. The kids were nervous, but there was one hillarious kid up front who kept blurting out random English phrases like, “I’m 40 years old!”

English Class

English Class

On our second day in Anhui, Xiao Wei and his friends took us out into the wilderness to climb a mountain. Because I’ve been in China for a while I was expecting stairs and lots of tourists. But I was pleasantly surprised by our rough drive over a river bed to the base of the mountain. I knew that without a road it was pretty much guaranteed that hoards of tourists and their bull horn equipped tour guides would be no where in sight.

The climb was pretty rough, but we took breaks on the way.

At the top of the mountain was a magnificent view…

and a monastery.

Temple

We spent the night in the monastery and woke up early for a sunrise that never materialized because of fog.

We talked to this old monk who told us the story of the monastery’s fate. He told us that the temple, which was once made of iron, was dismantled during the Great Leap Forward. Xiao Wei promised to help the monk by writing a letter to the government asking for compensation for the iron.

We started our trek early and got back to Xikou in time for one last lunch with Xiao Wei’s family and friends.

When life imitates textbook

rnGreat Wall
My view of the Great Wall on a trip to Badaling in March.

While I was reading a wonderful book called Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach (also the author of the equally fascinating Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers), I experienced what one scientist who studies the afterlife described to Roach as a “dazzle shot.”

You see, this scientist, Gary Schwartz — a psych professor at the University of Arizona and the founder of a lab that does research on mediums, including Alison DuBois, the inspiration for the American TV series, Medium — has asked dead people a lot of questions. And since Gary Schwartz is not himself a medium, he uses mediums to ask relatively mundane questions about the afterlife. Do you eat? Can you see me when I’m in the shower? He’s also conducted studies that asked people to rate a medium’s accuracy in describing a loved one. They had four rating options: hit, miss, questionable, or “dazzle shot” — in other words, so accurate it was spooky.

Although my experience with the “dazzle shot” did not involve dead people, or the afterlife or mediums for that matter, I still think “dazzle shot” is the perfect phrase to describe the accuracy with which my Chinese textbook portrayed my very own life one morning not so long ago.

As usual, at 7:40 a.m. I walked downstairs to the bike parking area in front of my building. I tried to unlock my bike, but couldn’t. I stood there and scratched my head for a second. Wait. That’s not my bike. It’s silver like my bike, but not mine. I have a different basket. I stood there gaping at the five or six bikes locked up in front of me. I didn’t want to believe my bike wasn’t there, so I just kept staring. When I realized how incredibly late to class I was going to be if I didn’t immediately head for the bus stop, I snapped out of it. I had just bought that bike two weeks before. I seethed on the bus on the way to class — it was the second time this year I had had a bike stolen.

I arrived 20 minutes late to class, opened my textbook to the day’s lesson and started reading the text with the class. Halfway through I realized that the character Da Shan (hopefully no relation to the Canadian Da Shan of CCTV9) was living my life. In the text he explains to his friend that he’s been having a lot of bad luck lately.

Here’s a rough translation of the part of the text that would have made me check “hit” on a Gary Schwartz medium survey:

Da Shan: Someone “rode away” on the bike I just bought, and until now he hasn’t returned it.
Ai De Hua: And you’re still waiting for him to return it? (Read this with a sarcastic tone and the whole text makes much more sense).

And here is where the “dazzle shot” comes in:

Da Shan: Last week I went to the Great Wall with a friend. When
we left the weather was so beautiful. As soon as we arrived, it started to rain really hard. We hadn’t brought an umbrella and were completely soaked.

The week before that fateful lesson I had in fact been in Beijing and attempted to visit the Great Wall. And while I succeeded in making it to the well-touristed Badaling portion of the wall, I felt like the trip was such a failure that I should immediately start planning another trip to Beijing just so I could actually see the Great Wall the next time I visited. The weather, as it was on Da Shan’s trip, was terrible, except even worse. It was snowing. And just like Da Shan, it wasn’t snowing in Beijing when I left in the morning. It was a little overcast and grey, but I did not expect snow. The fog was so thick I could barely see 50 feet in front of me, so although I was standing on the Great Wall, I did not actually get to see the Great Wall.

All of this of course means nothing. My textbook is about as psychic as the gold fish that swim around in a tiny bowl in my living room. It just shows the obvious: that bikes are stolen often enough in China to warrant a chapter in my textbook (the same textbook that had a chapter devoted to diarrhea and food poisoning). But just for a moment, before the “dazzle shot” wore off, I imagined Gary Schwartz starting a new study that measured language textbooks’ psychic ability.

Great Wall Painting
Maybe I’ll be lucky enough to see something more like this on my next trip to the Great Wall.

Trouble in paradise

One of the best — and most horrific — travel experiences I’ve been lucky enough to have in China was a trip to Jiuzhaigou, a nature preserve in Sichuan Province. I’ll never forget Jiuzhaigou’s stunning beauty, crystal blue waters and stunning alpine scenery. I’ll never forget being there with 20 thousand other people. I’ll never forget the tour bus stops at stores that sold things like yak bone carvings, yak meat, costume jewelry, honey and tea.

And I’ll never forget our tour guide, to whom someone mistakenly gave a microphone that she would use precisely as I was about to fall asleep. She woke us every morning before 6 a.m. She took us to restaurants that served only pickled vegetables and fatty pork. Oh, and did I mention the yak bone carving store?

We stopped at so many souvenir stores on the way to and from Jiuzhaigou that I lost count. After the first few I started to pretend I was asleep on the bus so I didn’t have to go in and pretend to look at stuff I wasn’t going to buy anyway. Little did I know that I was taking my life into my hands by ignoring my tour guide’s only source of income.

According to a recent China Daily article about a disturbing attack by a tour guide — who stabbed 20 people — most tour guides in China aren’t paid. Instead they earn a living by taking their clients to overpriced souvenir stands that will pay the guide a commission from every purchase made by a person in their tour group.

Xu Minchao, 25, was leading 40 tourists through Lijiang, a World Heritage-listed tourist destination in mountainous Yunnan province, on Sunday when he suddenly ran into a souvenir shop and demanded a knife, Xinhua said. “Not realizing the man was ready to kill, a girl in the shop gave him one and was stabbed immediately in the arm,” Xinhua said.

The China Daily and the ever-entertaining Xinhua News Agency also mentioned the guide’s “troubled” background.

Police were also investigating whether the attack was linked to an unhappy childhood, Xinhua said. “Xu … broke down in tears when talking about his parent’s divorce and how it overshadowed his childhood, according to local police,” it said.

When I got back from Jiuzhaigou I had already made up my mind never to take another tour in China again. This story, not surprisingly, only cemented my bias against the Chinese tour group and its souvenir stops. I imagine that for the unlucky 20 tourists Lijiang, a nice little town also surrounded by stunning scenery, will forever be inextricably linked to a commission-hungry, knife-wielding tour guide who lost it over his childhood and, possibly, a yak bone carving.