His First Flight


NOT the big one.

Upon boarding the plane we discover our window seat on the Chinese tin can we’d elbowed and leaned our way into, taken. My son and I are 3 weeks into a backpacking trip of rural China, weariness having degenerated into truculence  at the point in the last train station when I landed on my backpack during the trample that commenced when the conductor began taking tickets for reserved seats. Being an upside down turtle didn’t leave me warm and fuzzy.  In Mandarin my son boots the man out and we reseat – John at the window, me in the middle, the Chinese gentleman on the aisle.  I’m proud my son’s Mandarin instructors hadn’t neglected to teach words that facilitate ideas other than pleasantries and how to order food.  At the mercy of a nation that’s yet to grasp the concept of waiting in line for your turn, the ability to defend oneself is a critical life skill.  As the plane careens down the runway, the man strains to see out. Moments into the flight I’m sharing half my seat so he can have a better view. Flight attendants bring food and for the first time, overcoming the desire to shove back, I take notice.

Western china white

Western China

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Western China

He doesn’t lower the tray, he’s fumbling with everything, clearly uncomfortable; out of sorts even. One glance at my unwrapping a plastic fork and he quickly shoves the entire meal into a tiny cloth knapsack under his seat.  So wanting to lean over and tell him “that’s going to leak all over your stuff”, instead “this is his first flight” spews from my mouth as my head spins toward my son. John’s face registers and we communicate over the roar of the engines. Leaning over me John begins speaking Mandarin. The gentleman’s face lights up indicating he understands we want him to have the window seat. He grabs the knapsack and begins to clamor over me. Laughing, John gently pushes and signals for him to step into the aisle so we can all stand and reverse our seating order. There’s a stir behind us. I catch snippets of people in various English accents saying nice things, surprise in their voices.  The Chinese passengers must have been shocked speechless. Reseated after John unsuccessfully attempts to communicate a joke about musical chairs, the man reaches into the cloth knapsack and pulls out a bundle of flat, amber sticks, offering the entire bundle to us. Convincing him no gift is necessary he shoves one at me. I plop it into my mouth lollipop-like. He snatches it out and over our laughter gets the point across to John that it’s meant to be boiled, maybe tea?

The flight ends. The stampede commences and we get separated but not before I see the gentleman is traveling only with the tiny, crude knapsack, the bundle of sticks projecting out the top. On the tarmac John whispers “he’d never seen Western flatware; he didn’t know what to do with it – that’s why he didn’t eat.” I’m so moved by this man I begin looking for him.  We rush to his side in the small terminal. He’s surprised to see us, as if there was no connection to our being on the plane with him and our being here now. He wastes no time however, and begins the attempt to communicate something.  John struggles to reciprocate the conversation and before I know it our last image is of his back walking into the night towards the taxi stand. He disappeared and we never knew why he was on the first flight of his life with not even a change of clothing. Had there been a death in his family? Was someone in the city ill?  Was he here for a job interview?

As we walk to our backpacks in luggage claim, I ask John what was said.  “I think he was trying to thank us by extending an invitation to his room, his hotel room, the place he’s staying, but I wasn’t sure”.  Being two unescorted foreigners on very foreign soil unsure of where we were spending the night, we likely would have still declined even if the offer had been fully understood.

I’ve never forgotten this man. He invariably comes to mind when the political articles hammer China on some new grievous shortcoming. That rural Chinese man’s human drama that day reminds me we’re talking about people with stories of tragedy and celebration and the firsts that can accompany those events.  And he reminds me of an important human-to-human rule of engagement.  I commemorated him in my journal with this entry. “In the span of only a day I’ve gone from complaining of the woeful lack of kindnesses during this trip to the slap-me-in-the-face reminder that the best kindnesses ARE THOSE YOU EXTEND TO OTHERS.” – Personal Journal Entry, April 20, 2008

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Journal entry & the tea bark

Is it possible to go and return without photographic regrets?  Not for me.  On the China trip I came back to see I’d captured my son and I in China, the Chinese in China, but rarely the two together.  This is one I cherish.  My son has a few as well, but I can’t find them.

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Uigher Lady at her home in Kashi's Old Town


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

To My Son and China Travel Partner

This post is dedicated to my son, with only pics of him from the 4 week backpacking trip. Were it not for him, I likely would have never seen China. A tall, mid-western young man in China speaking fluent Mandarin through a bit of a Texas drawl deserves his very own post. He paid the price to live in China for a year-and-a-half to learn the language. He lost 100% of his hearing in his right ear 3 weeks after arriving in Beijing, which is tragic enough, but he’s a musician and was attempting an almost impossible task in the learning of a tonal language. He knew no one, couldn’t speak the language, was completely alone and yet weathered the event, triumphing over all the barriers in the end. He’s said since that he so wanted to come home, but he stuck it out. Maybe with a stem cell miracle someday, he’ll regain the hearing.

Dear Son,

This trip, the memories, the photographs, journal entries, public stories, private stories (that we’ve sworn to the other to never tell), the fantastical peregrination would not have been possible without you.  While I’ve enjoyed my day in the sun from the attention garnered from my documentation of the trip on this website, the writings, the photos shared with anyone and everyone, the ooohs and aahhhs from friends and family, it all really belongs to you.  Thank you for what you’ve given me — the gift of a lifetime.



P.S. I’d travel with you again, anytime, anywhere, for any length of time. And I hope that someday, we can again.

We made quite a spectacle that day traipsing to the Kashgar post office with my son carrying the beautiful Dutar, the proprietor carrying packing supplies, the helper carting a large wood box fitted to the instrument for shipping, and me. Two hours later, my son handed over the carefully packed instrument to the lady behind the postal counter. The Dutar arrived home before I did, completely intact. My son is a musician -- a talented guitarist. While I love to tell the story of him picking up my red Fender at a young age and never putting it down and of turning him onto Stevie Ray Vaughan (which he says changed his life LOL), the guitarist he is today is solely because of his tenacity in the pursuit of a passion. May your next instrument be that Taylor of your dreams!

Skipping rocks on Karakul Lake just off the Karakoram Highway near Pakistan.

Monastery of Divine Light

Monastery of Divine Light

We observed that most every Chinese posing for a picture, threw up the double Peace sign. When in Rome...

In-The-Moment Pause.

On the Wall of Simatai

A couple

A couple we met at the restaurant in Lijiang. They loved my son and wanted to party the night away with him. Even he was tired by this point and chose instead to call it a day after the early dinner we shared with them.

In the Gobi Desert

In the Gobi Desert

The Thinker?

The Thinker?

The Tall Midwesterner with the Digital Camera, was a hit with the kids!

The Tall Midwesterner with the Digital Camera was a hit with the kids!

The Tall Midwesterner got a lot of stares. He'd gotten used to it by the time I came over.

The Tall Midwesterner got a lot of stares. He'd gotten used to it by the time I came over.

He kept me laughing.

He kept me laughing.

Looking KEWL in Urumqui

Looking KEWL in Urumqui

Near an Ancient Grainery Warehouse

Near an Ancient Grainery Warehouse

With David, the Australian, whose contact information I lost before getting home.  If anyone seeing this knows David, please tell him to contact me through this site!

With David, the Australian, whose contact information I lost before getting home. If anyone seeing this knows David, please tell him to contact me through this site!

Towards the end of the trip. LOL

Towards the end of the trip. LOL

Self portrait

Self portrait after we'd parted in the Beijing airport. I was heading home to the U.S. while he still had several months to go. We were both sad -- I cried as the escalator took me to the tram. This is a photo no Mother wants to see.

This next set of photographs are ones taken either by him or of him during his stint in China before and after I visited.  They were worthy of being included here.

Self portrait taken at

Self portrait taken at the Hanging Monastery of Datong

At the edge of a rural section of the Great Wall

At the edge of a rural section of the Great Wall

Taken in

Taken on one of his Solo Road Trips. Like Mother, like son!



One of his favorite restaurants

One of his favorite restaurants

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

What the H*** Did You Do To My Quail!?

As a kid I remember being told if we dug a tunnel through the earth, we’d come out in China. That intrigued me. But not enough to be much inspired to do so when it was just my Dad’s admonition to dig harder in order to get those post holes finished. Those post holes were quite enough for me but I wondered if those fancy-schmancy mechanical diggers sitting in the show room of the implement store would do the trick.  I didn’t dare ask, but I thought about it.  Based on my Dad’s consistent “they sure think a lot of these things” every time he looked at one and saw the price (which was every time we went in), I thought for certain they should at least be able to get a person half-way.  At age 13 when I knew just about all there was to know about the world, I realized the earth was a really big hunk of dirt and those mechanical diggers could not land me anywhere near China. Boy was I glad I never inquired of the salesman about their capacity to handle such a task. And if my Dad had known the question dancing on the tip of my tongue every time we went in, he’d have been glad too.

It was about this time we studied China in Social Studies. All I remember is the amount of people the teacher drummed on about, and the food. The food intrigued me. We didn’t eat much rice. I painfully recall an incident whereby my Dad brought home quail for dinner. As I stood over the sink carefully digging out the pellets so no one would break a tooth, I had a flash of Home Economics genius. Tonight instead of frying it, I’d bake it nestled onto a bed of rice! I served it in a nice Pyrex pie plate — all golden brown and bubbly from the Cream of Mushroom soup I’d brilliantly used — Betty Crocker would have been proud.  “What the heck did you do to MY quail?!” He didn’t say heck.  And he was not impressed one bit by the presentation.

While I managed to slip rice into our meals on occasion after that (I frequently was the family cook), it was many years before I experienced Chinese food.  I loved it and therefore was under the notion I knew a few things about the cuisine. Until I actually went to China.  As is so often the case with my knowledge base, I was in for a few surprises.

Yak Dung Nan

Yak Dung bread. Someone asked if I really ate Yak Dung bread. The Yak Dung was not an ingredient IN the bread, rather the "wood" that held the heat that baked it in the pan on the ground. You can see the dried Yak Dung smoldering. We did however dip the bread into Yak Milk Chai Tea. I fantasize about that culinary experience and have weighed the cost of a ticket to procure a slab of that bread.

I won’t laugh out loud if you tell me you’re a vegetarian or a vegan headed to China, but I will tell you if a trip to China is in your forecast, be prepared for some foot work before you eat. They’re way behind us in the area of privileged non-meat food availabilities (so Americans be thankful for the food choices we have), so meat and meat products are staples. Even bowls of noodles frequently contain tiny chunks of meat. So if you’re a vegetarian or vegan, you might want to pack a smaller size pant for the return trip. How bad is that?!  P.S. I am not a vegetarian or vegan.  I was raised on a cattle ranch. In my opinion, it would be a rather arrogant stance for me to take considering I’m not even one generation removed from living off the land. My Dad would say something like “who do you think you are”? Besides, I LOVE beef. Today my Dad holds down the fort even though his 3 best hands grew up and moved away.  Now we all buy our beef from him!

This photo always makes me laugh. Mouths full, happy tummys, with an entire lamb hanging over them.

Peking Ducks

Peking Ducks

Sunday Kashgar Market

Sunday Market in Kashgar, Xinjiang Province

The basic procurement of meat that was so blatantly visible didn’t faze me. Growing up we raised our own meat — chickens, rabbits, pigs, cattle. I know the entire process well of getting something from the “hoof” to the table. It was the FISH “slaughterhouses” that got me.  Squiggling buckets of slithering inky mounds of unidentifiable objects that belonged back in the water, unsettled me.  My son and I entered one not realizing once inside we had to walk all the way through as we couldn’t stomach the thought of taking the time to turn around.  People sitting over buckets “skinning” what appeared to be the tiniest of eels had the tune of Psycho screeching through my head.  I tried to not look, but the concrete floor was even more unsettling and to  make matters worse, the stall proprietors held things out for us to examine as we passed.  The irony here is I know I ate some of their wares in restaurants, and went on and on about how delicious it was. Whatever IT was.

Noodles #2

I perfected my chop stick technique on noodles in an alley of Urumqui.

The ratio of noodles to rice was great. The noodles were sublime and were on several days the only food we had.  My son, there for approximately 18 months, ate noodles every day. While there are many variations, the general class of noodles is called La Mien.  To see them “thrown”, a process whereby a huge chunk of the dough is twisted, pulled, whipped into the air like a circus act until the tiny strands magically separate and get tossed into a boiling pot of water with your name on it, was a highlight.  My hands-down favorite dish? Boiled octopus and squid with bamboo shoots and other vegetables in a fiery sauce — Shuizhu Yu. Very Sichuan! And the dish I loved and could actually replicate at home?  Ganbian Sijidou, Sichuan Green Beans — check out the recipe below.  Other unusual things I ingested?  Donkey Meat — to die for good, pan-fried Lotus flower — delicious and I regret terribly not taking a photo of it as it was a beautiful pinwheel of sorts, Boiled Pigeon — would die to avoid, mainly because of the gray, pallid, overall color, and skewered Lamb intestines cooked over a spit of sorts. Was a very big hit with the locals.

To Die For Green Beans

Sichuan Green Beans: Ganbian Sijidou. RECIPE: fresh green beans, garlic, peppers (of any sort or heat), more garlic, garlic salt, sichuan peppercorns. Heat wok until VERY hot. Add sesame oil. Then green beans. Stir fry until blistering. Add the garlic, garlic salt, and peppercorns for a moment at the end. Enjoy!

P.S. the sichuan peppercorns make the green bean dish what it is.  Here’s where you can order them.

Hot, Hot, HOT

Looks like rice, but it's noodles.


Chicken Feet, A Delicacy. For me? No thank you.

The rice was cooked in a slice of bamboo over an open fire.  In the middle of the rice roll was meat and a slightly sweet chutney of sorts.

The rice was cooked in a slice of bamboo over an open fire. In the middle of the rice roll was meat and a slightly sweet chutney of sorts.

These were prevalent on the streets and corners and used to grill meat skewers -- very popular with the locals and were fired up most all the day long. We didn't know what to order and so got Lamb Intestines. They were rubbery but we made a gallant effort on them. Didn't learn unti llater what we'd had. The light breading was tasty.


Look closely without looking too closely. See the sign? It says "Uigher Fast Food" LOL

Noodle Smorgasbord. Just walk up and point.


Lots of veges and decadent, exotic spices. Almost always cooked with meat.


My favorite Beijing restaurant. In an alley, up a tiny flight of stairs, through the kitchen past the cook, and into a 10 person dining area. There was no front entrance. The front window overlooked the street. We watched people wondering how in the world we got in there. My son had discovered it on his first stay in Beijing. The picture of Sichuan Green Beans came from this restaurant.


All cans were still pull-tops.

The food advertising was, ummmm, unusual.  Here’s a few examples.  I believe the disconnect evident in these posters was due to the fact fast food is a relatively new phenomenon.  Additionally, they’ve learned Westerners love burgers and pizzas.  They just don’t have the targeted message down pat, yet.


This was an advertisement in a fast food restaurant at an airport. Camel burgers, anyone?


This advertisement was for chicken. But a pizza is shown. And it's not a chicken pizza.

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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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