Zai Jian, A Sad Good-Bye to China

Wow, I find it hard to let it go, sad actually.  A few tears just hit my keyboard. I’ve poured my soul along with immeasurable hours of time into the documentation of the trip; this trip prompted so much emotion! I close the book for now on my backpacking journey to the People’s Republic of China. My disappointment at the closure of Tibet due to the riots that began March 15, 2008, days prior to my arrival in the country, just means one thing. I’ll be back.

For the entire saga, click here, or go to the Trip Journal tab and choose “China.”

Xie xie (thank you!) for all the precious time you spent reading these posts and for the time to comment. It’s been my pleasure to share the journey with you.

Zia Jian to China


China’s Interior

“It seems to matter not the quality or amount of a night’s sleep. We are tired. It’s beginning to feel a marathon of the spirit. It is both the physical exertion of exploration but I believe more than that the mental/emotional exertion of days filled with frustration, misunderstanding, dashed hopes, and a perpetual string of things unexpected. Although constantly on our toes, we are continually off-balance. One moment leads to the other as opposed to one moment leading the other. It is a never ending chess match.” –Personal Journal entry, April 15, 2008

Personal Journal Entries: I wrote a lot on this trip — an entire Moleskine was filled with thoughts, simple here-to-see-this-and-there-to-see-that, and a lot of reflection.  More than I thought upon reviewing the entries. And more of it negative than I thought I was feeling at the time.  The trip was physically challenging.  Four weeks of carrying heavy backpacks, staying in hostels, eating sparsely, utilizing squatter toilets, unable to drink the water, wearing dirty clothes, cold at times, constantly struggling with the language barrier, it was the adventure of a lifetime and one of great personal insight. Throughout the month I struggled with the lack of smiles and the absence of small kindnesses.  Being born and raised as a Southern gal, a ready smile and a certain degree of helpfulness has been bred in.

“I am more susceptible to bad vibes than to good. I would like to say I ‘seem’ to be more susceptible, but that would just be being nice to myself and a waste of words. It’s been said that I go from shit-to-sugar quickly and I accept that as a compliment. The truth is my sugar-to-shit fuse is a shorter one. I am not proud of this trait and work hard to head it off. Much of the time I am unsuccessful. Point being I have become rather short on smiles as the days have worn on. There have been few smiles (but a lot of stares) directed towards us.  Of course I could excuse my growing surliness on the fact my normal chipper attitude has had far greater pressure on it (from the great populace of China) than I have been able to singly exert upon them. But that’s just an excuse. I am a visitor on their turf and feel I should be ever-pleasant to be here. I will work on it for the remainder of my stay.” — Personal Journal Entry, April 18, 2008

My entries are chock full of wonderful human interest stories that filled pages. One in particular stands out involving a young Chinese man on his first plane ride with whom we shared the row of seats.  With this one incident I journaled this revelation: “In the span of a only a day I’ve gone from complaining of the lack of kindnesses from the Chinese to the slap-me-in-the-face reminder that the best kindnesses ARE THOSE YOU EXTEND TOWARDS OTHERS.” — Personal Journal Entry, April 20, 2008

Just prior to this incident, I’d written: “…David, the Australian, said he was noting in his journal all the kindnesses directed towards him. He is a better human being than me. And his journal will be far scarcer than my own for that.”   LOL!

Here’s a smattering of other entries: Driving in China: “I have been astounded at how things seem to magically fall away just as we are to collide with them. It is as if slow motion is invoked when anything gets within an inch of something else. I’ve tried closing my eyes but my curiosity gets the better of me.” — Personal Journal Entry, April 9, 2008

“We are one-half through our journey. It is everything I expected, hoped for, and more. There have been moments, even entire days of frustration, fear, exhaustion. But even in the midst of this discomfort, **** and I have reveled in the joy of discovering the unknown, overcoming the obstacles, and feasting our eyes, ears, touch, taste and smell on China.” — Personal Journal Entry, April 14, 2008

“For most of the trip, I’ve been excited, when I haven’t been scared. And **** and I have had quite a few laughs. Many at the expense of the Chinese people. Some truly unkind. Maybe we really are arrogant, American asses.  Maybe we’ve just been straining for something to freakin’ laugh at.” — Personal Journal entry, April 19, 2008

“Confusion, sincere concern, unabashed fear, dread, panic…” — Personal Journal entry, April 11, 2008

China is known as Zhongguó in Mandarin. The character zhong means “middle” or central; the letter, guó means land, kingdom or country. An appropriate English translation would be “middle kingdom”.

Being transported from China’s Wild West to China’s interior involved my first sleeper train adventure. Fourteen hours of cramped existence, in a top bunk at that, from Dunhuang to Lanzhou was initiated by an “incident” in the train station at Dunhuang. It’s a Chinese phenomenon apparently, one with which everyone who’s traveled to China is painfully familiar. It’s the “stampede to cut in line” or let’s-push-and-shove-’cause-we-might-not-get-a-seat-even-though-we-have-a-reserved-ticket syndrome. Having a 50 lb. backpack strapped to my back didn’t help my balance. Had it not been for the crush of others, I would have taken a sidelong dive from the platform. Isn’t this what we adventure travelers live for?! The momentary fear passed quickly, exhaustion set in making it a quick night, and we disembarked into an exquisite land of temples, pandas, limestone formations, glorious music, and Sichuan food.

Chengdu, Sichuan Province

14 days after my return home, Chengdu was hit by a 7.9 earthquake -- the worst in 3 decads. Tens of thousands died. Much of what we saw was likely leveled.

Chengdu, Sichuan Province  —  14 days after my return home, Chengdu was hit by a 7.9 earthquake — the worst in 3 decades. Tens of thousands died. Much of what we saw may have been leveled.

Monks at Monastery of Divine Light

The Monastery of Divine Light is 18 km (about 12 miles) north of Chengdu and is an active temple.

Monastery of Divine Light

Leshan, Sichuan Province

Grand Buddha, Leshan, Sichuan Province.  The 80 year project to carve a Buddha into the cliffs of Leshan in 713 A.D., resulted in the largest Buddha in the world. Sitting in an alcove of sorts, he guards boatmen at the confluence of 3 rivers. A World Heritage Sight, he’s 71 meters high, 233 feet. His ears are 7 meters long!

Lijiang, Yunnan Province

Lijiang’s old town is a World Heritage Sight and has been the base of the 286,000 strong Naxi tribe for the last 1400 years. They descend from ethnically Tibetan Qiang tribes and lived until recently in matrilineal families. There are strong matriarchal influences in the Naxi language. Nouns enlarge their meaning when the word for ‘female’ is added; conversely, the addition of the word for ‘male’ will decrease the meaning. For example, ‘stone’ plus ‘female’ conveys the idea of a boulder; ‘stone’ plus ‘male’ conveys the idea of a pebble.

Naxi Gentleman, Lijiang

“The traditional Naxi Orchestra was amazing. Being tired, I initially did not think I could sit there for an hour-and-a-half when we took our seats at 8:00 p.m. But the strangely beautiful music and the faces of the musicians (mostly elderly – many 80 and older) were captivating. Several of the instruments were original, very unusual in China. The owners buried the instruments during the Cultural Revolution in order to preserve them.” — Personal Journal entry, April 19, 2008

The picture says it all

The picture says it all

Guilin, Guangxi Province.  The karst topography/lime formations along the Li River made me think we were floating down a stream running along the ridged backs of ancient dinosaurs. At any moment I expected our boat to be catapulted above the water as one decided to come up for air.

The day the picture below was taken was dreary. The light was drearier.  So I played around with Photoshop and finally achieved a result with some degree of appeal. And this depiction is actually a decent representation of the images my mind registered that day.

Yang Shuo, Guangxi Province


Backpacking China — 5 weeks of Tan Suo

Actually China wasn’t even on the list. But the adventurous son upon graduation from OU, decided to pursue his fledgling Mandarin. In China. So when the opportunity arose for him to take a month off from school and my schedule became such that a month was possible as well for me, we began to plan. Bigger backpacks were purchased. Squatter toilet techniques were reviewed. Immunizations. Visa. Maps, maps, and more maps. We nixed all the big cities. If I’m going to see something, I want to SEE something.

Something is not the interior of a city hotel where everyone speaks English and really, you could close your eyes and sense you were in any city of the U.S. No. What’s the point? I’m still young enough (recall the ad nauseum part? the women in my family have all been teenage mothers, including myself) to want to experience the places I go. That means hiking as opposed to a tour van, being exposed to uncomfortable physical conditions and intermingling with the population. I figure I can go back someday when I’m too old for REAL exploration and see Beijing, Shanghai, HongKong. And when I get really, really, really old, I’ll shop. Until then, exploration means occasionally being dirty, tired, and hungry, and some amazing captures on “film”.

For this trip, my son asked if I’d be willing to blend in a bit more. No one believed I’d do it. Well who can resist a huge dare? A lifetime of long, blonde locks were carried away by a broom and replaced with a dark brown color. My son didn’t recognize me at the Beijing airport!

The Wild West of China

Karakoram Highway Camel

This ain’t Beijing. It’s on the opposite side of the country, as far away as you can get from the major Chinese travel destinations. And if you managed to get here (a feat my friend), without knowing where you were headed you wouldn’t recognize it, or anyone living here, as being associated with China.

Machine guns and outdated airport equipment were in our face as we timidly looked around the tiny Kashgar (Kashi) airport in XinJiang Province. Not far from Afghanistan or Pakistan, the security was tight. In the Urumqui airport they’d flagged my backpack and after removing every single item comprising its 50+ lbs., determined the X-ray machine had not liked the looks of my water filter. The carbon filter looked menacing I suppose. Got to keep the water filter, but not before lots of time was lost trying to explain what a water filter is. My son’s fluency in Mandarin was not completely useless, just almost (they speak Uigher here). I didn’t want to look anyone in the eye for fear Urumqi had called ahead regarding the water filter incident. They hadn’t.

No Man's Land Map

We spent about half of our 4 weeks in China in the West. It is still marked as a No Man’s Land on a few maps.

We embarked from the airport into a land that time has forgotten. Kashgar is a time warp that could just as easily have been the set of a Star Trek or Twilight Zone. It was indeed just as exciting as stepping through that portal opening. The Han Chinese are minorities here. Uigher is the language. The people (Uighers, Tajiks, Krygyzs, and Uzbeks) seemed the happiest and were indisputably the kindest we encountered during 5 weeks touring the backcountry of China.

Woman of the House

Chinese-Kyrgyzstan border, Kyrgyzstan Woman of the House

The West of China, specifically the provinces of XinJiang and Gansu, had beckoned to me when my son and I planned the month long backpacking excursion, just as the Western United States has always enticed me. There are many similarities in their appeal. Still considered a no-man’s land (and marked so on a few maps), Kashgar is a fixture in time on the 6,000 year old Silk Road. In the XinJiang Province, 8 nations border to create a collision of people/culture/language, giving XinJiang’s capital, Urumqui, the title “most land-locked city in the world.”

Yak Dung Nan

Yak Dung Bread. It was served dipped in Yak Milk Chai Tea by the lady of the house (above). It was delicious!

Located in the Taklamaken desert, homes of mud and grass have stood for centuries. Sand storms are frequent. Coming from Beijing, or any of the larger cities, you see what you think is the same smog choking the air. But if you’re so lucky to find a shower, you realize once the water hits you, it’s not smog, rather sand. And regardless how new something might be in XinJiang, the sand ages everything quickly. Including humans.

Westernmost Section of the Great Wall -- no stone work, just straw, mud and small rocks

Only in their most recent version did Lonely Planet make any mention of this portion of the Great Wall. My son had heard about it and so we asked around. A guy offered to drive us – 4 hours one way outside of Dunhuang and worth every shockless inch. My first Great Wall experience was at the section of the wall few people get to see. In the middle of the desert I glimpsed it. The magnitude of what I was seeing with my own eyes in the the middle of a wasteland moved me to tears. The Westernmost section of the Great Wall lies in the Gobi desert, is still VERY discernible, very viewable, and very mind blowing. It’s unrestored remnants from 101 B.C. were impressive – no stone work, just mud, grass, and small stones. The joy at sharing this sight with my son will be with me always.

Transaction for a Milk Cow

Going Grocery Shopping

Going Grocery Shopping

She was a yurt dweller off the Karakoram Highway not far from the Pakistan border. It was impossible to tell her age. Brightly (and warmly) dressed she had the features of a beauty queen, the movements of a model, and the smile of a joyous existence. Yet she was gathering water that weighed approximately 10 pounds on each shoulder. Then she balanced it with practiced skill. Having some distance to transport it back to her home meant any spillage would have been a tremendous loss of time and effort.

Id Kuh Mosque, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Id Kuh Mosque, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Uigher Musical Instrument Factory

Uigher Musical Instrument Factory, Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

Outside the Uigher Music Factory

The Sound of Music

Grainery Warehouse -- Gobi Desert

Yumen Pass, aka Jade Gate Pass

Yumen Pass, aka Jade Gate Pass

Dunhuang is southeast from Urumqui in the province of Gansu, just south of Mongolia. Also on the world’s first information superhighway, the Silk Road, Gansu is a treasure trove of Buddhist paintings and sculptures, and the Buddhist grottoes of the Mogao Caves. The arid land and harsh climate has made the land barely inhabitable. As such, the Gansu Province is one of the 5 poorest provinces in China. Dunhuang may be poor, but when we pulled into downtown in a “taxi”, we were instantly transported from weary travelers to starry eyed tourists. The town is alight at night with magical colors and we were gratefully rejuvenated by the sight. The light of day replaced the magic with a sobering reality. Yet even that meant 3 days of adventure we’ll never forget.

This picture of grottoes is on site of the Mogao Caves. There were no cameras or recording devices of any kind allowed inside the gated and heavily guarded caves. Filled with art and sculpture of a quantity and often of sizes that strain our modern brains to comprehend, the caves were exquisite. I’ve dreamed about what I saw in there several times since arriving home. Impossible to describe, breathless to behold, it was one of my favorite ancient sites. To quote Lonely Planet “The Mogao Caves are, simply put, one of the greatest repositories of Buddhist art in the world.” At its height the site had 18 monasteries, 1400 monks and nuns, and numerous artists, calligraphers, and translators. Generally agreed to have been founded in AD 366, the collapse of trade after the Yuan dynasty left the 1700 meters of grottoes and  millennium of art untouched for centuries as the Gobi desert took hold. It was only in the 20th century that the massive, priceless troves of art and remnants were rediscovered.


The Grand Climb


Tammie DooleyAbout SRT... I’m a traveler, writer and photographer for whom the open road frequently summons. Adventurous solo road trips are a staple for me, and a curiosity. So I created this website to share them and inspire you to step out and give them a try. Welcome!

A soul that sees beauty may sometimes walk alone – Wolfgang Von Goethe

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