Having returned from 4 weeks backpacking China with a thousand photographs, a large Moleskine filled with a multitude of entries and anecdotes, the story of it all is only now being synthesized by my brain. I’ve attempted to put the pieces together before, but could never quite get my arms around them. No amount of effort could pull them together into something cohesive. Upon my return I swore I felt nothing. Exhaustion, jet lag, the weariness of the wear and tear of hard travel in a hard land, combined to send a perfectly targeted trajectory of flack to my brain, effectively deflecting the depth of impact upon my spirit this journey had made.
In truth I felt so much, so strongly, I was paralyzed by it. Until now. Until friends and family started asking me if I was going to ever share my experience. Yes, is the answer. Beginning with this post, I’ll be continuously documenting the trip until I’ve got it all out.
I’ll start by sharing mostly photographs, easing into more of what I’ve written as we go along.
Doug Henderson, a renowned commercial photographer/graphic designer, instructed my first Photoshop course. His photography wrings emotion from my soul and we happen to share a similar view of photographing people. His perspective is eloquent, so I lifted it — hope he doesn’t mind. “I think the average person is beautiful. I don’t see any reason to comb a little kids hair or tell them to smile. I see no reason to try to make an old person look young again, or to make a working man look like an executive.” If I ever decide to be photographed, he’ll be the person I ask.
In my own words, I find faces moving.
Backpacking China — 4 weeks of Tan Suo
I’d always imagined I’d see Morocco, or base camp at Mt. Everest way before I got down the list to China. That list of 100 things to see I compiled years ago has been veered from like a blown out tire at 90 mph. When the list was created I couldn’t have factored in my only child, a son, would inherit the adventure bug that’d been held captive on my maternal side of the family for generations. I say held captive as no one, even me until recently, has had the pieces of their life fall together such that they were able to do anything about it. Children and husbands, and crops and cattle and well, eating, have taken precedence. Other than seeing the world as a gypsy (my mother was close), exploration has just not been feasible. Nor could I have known I would indulge this child with the opportunities to once and for all put that ache to rest. Indulge is a tricky word here. And so is rest. Let’s start with indulge. If you can call instilling in him (over and over and over ad nauseum) the need to have children later in life so he could explore the world, putting him on a plane for some destination with the last money in my checking account (there was no savings account), and spending many an hour talking about Morocco, then you can say I indulged him. And that word, rest. Putting that exploration bug to rest has entailed everything BUT.
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”.
The Wild West of China
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
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!
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.
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, 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.
P.S. the sichuan peppercorns make the green bean dish what it is. Here’s where you can order them.
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.
“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 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”.
Chengdu, Sichuan Province
Leshan, Sichuan Province
Lijiang, Yunnan Province
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.