In October of 2012, I made an 18-day trip—a pilgrimage, if you will—to China. I wanted to visit my former taiji teacher, Martin Mellish, who was living in Chengdu. I also wanted to experience the country that had given me taiji and qigong. Secretly, of course, I hoped to have some sort of energetic epiphany.
But that was it. I didn’t sign up for tours or daytrips; I didn’t have a sightseeing agenda. Other than wanting to see Martin, I was just going to China to be there. I would fly into Beijing, spend five nights, take the train to Chengdu (a 32-hour trip) and then fly home. How hard could that be?
Nonetheless, I was able to find plenty to worry about.
In the weeks before I left, I amused myself by alphabetizing my fears as “A” through “E” plus “Double T.” Airplanes, Bedbugs, Centipedes, Diarrhea, Earthquakes – and Terrible Toilets.
Centipedes? They made my list after I read the following entry on a travel website listing Beijing hotels: “Do not stay at this hotel! EVER!!! I awoke in the middle of the night being chewed on by a 6-inch centipede!” It did not help that shortly before my departure, I saw the first centipede I’d ever seen indoors on the rug beneath my desk. It was only an inch long, but still…. Was it an omen? I didn’t know.
I didn’t see a single centipede in China, let alone get bit by one. My plane did not go down, I did not bring bedbugs home, Sichuan Province did not have another earthquake, and I didn’t get diarrhea, thanks, no doubt, to the diligence with which I avoided tap water, raw fruits and vegetables, dairy products and extremely tempting street food. (My HMO’s travel nurse would have been proud!)
And the Terrible Toilets? I had been warned many times that the toilets I would encounter in airports, parks and other public places would be flush-with-the-floor squatty potties, which would challenge my thigh muscles and aim and would similarly have challenged the thigh muscles and aim of those who’d gone before me. But I never sit on toilets in public places anyway; I use toilet paper to lift the seat and then I squat. The last restroom I used before leaving China had “accessible” western toilets as well as squatty potties, and I chose a squatty potty. It just seemed easier, even though it meant a more distant target to hit. Ironically, the day after I arrived home, a friend e-mailed me an article complete with anatomical drawings showing how the bowel empties more readily when you’re squatting instead of sitting and suggesting that sitting can cause constipation. Who knew….
While none of my named fears materialized, I should have been afraid of something I wasn’t:
People would tell me how brave I was to go off to China all by myself, and I would think, “How silly, what’s so hard about traveling alone?” I live alone and cherish solitude. Even if I didn’t live alone, I would need what my friend Ruth calls “cave time” to be in quiet and regroup.
However, I have traveled very little in my life: If you don’t count Tijuana or British Columbia, I’ve only left the United States twice – and neither of those times was I by myself. I did not know that traveling alone in a country where you don’t speak the language is very different from living alone in a country where family, friends and familiar places surround you.
Alone and often lost
In Beijing, because I wasn’t part of a tour group and because I prefer walking to riding anyway, I did a lot of walking—and a lot of getting lost. The streets are laid out rather like a spider’s web, with a series of “ring roads” encircling the city’s core. Arterial streets pass through the rings from outskirts to core like spokes. The chunks of city defined by the rings and the spokes—well, let’s just say that each chunk has a unique arrangement of streets. Beijing is a very old city. It grew; it was not platted on a tidy grid.
I found Beijing’s ring roads easy enough to identify because of large, overhead signs that often included a few English words. But signs on lesser streets were generally in Chinese characters plus pinyin (the official system for rendering Chinese characters in Roman letters). Or just characters. Or maybe there’d be no sign at all, at least not that I could find.
This was made more challenging by the fact that the names of the streets changed every few blocks. Perhaps the street names changed because they were describing where the street was located as it traversed the city—but since I didn’t understand Chinese, it just seemed totally random. Also, my tourist maps were small and only named some of the streets because all that pinyin and all those Chinese characters took up so much space.
So, yes, I got lost a lot. Then I would try to find someone who could understand my very limited Chinese—Chinese learned listening to language CDs in my car—or who spoke English. “Where are we?” I would ask, holding out my map. The map rarely helped—probably because when you live someplace, you can know exactly where you are and where you’re going without knowing the names of the streets or how they fit together on a map.
Most of the people I approached when I was lost in Beijing did their best to help me. Two times young women who spoke excellent English walked with me for a time to help me find my way. But when I couldn’t seem to find anyone to help me, or when I got conflicting information, or when I was just plain very, very tired, I’d be hit by a wave of “what if I can’t find my way back to my hotel and nobody knows I’m missing and I walk and walk and walk and it gets dark….”
This is the sort of thing you can get into when you’re alone. Two people lost together aren’t nearly so lost as one person lost alone, and two people together can talk about the absolutely amazing things they are seeing at every turn—not just the big, official, sight-seeing things, but the little things, like the fascinating hardware on the hotel windows or the street vendors doing land-office business selling cat-ear headbands to teenage girls.
A lifeline to home
I was sending e-mails home, pecking them out on my iPhone as I lay in bed early in the morning, which was when the Internet worked best. After I signed one “Barbara, the Unintrepid,” my daughter started sending me little pep talks. I was so grateful. She understood! She had once traveled in Spain with her brother and his wife, and she remembered how, when they left before she did, what had been fun and exciting became difficult. She described what I was feeling so perfectly, so beautifully. She became my lifeline to home.
The morning I was to leave my hotel and catch the train to Chengdu, I came back from breakfast to pick up my luggage and found another e-mail pep talk from her plus a picture of my grandsons smiling and holding a sign with a bright red heart that said “We love you!”
That’s when I lost it. I didn’t want to stop crying, but of course I had to. I had no place else to be except on that train to Chengdu, and I had to find the train station—which I suspected would be difficult—and board the train. I e-mailed my daughter, and then I sent a message to Martin. He’d offered to let me stay with him and his wife in Chengdu, but I’d said, no, I’m an introvert, I need my cave time, I’ll stay at a hotel. In my e-mail to Martin I said I was having a crying problem and wondered if maybe I could stay with him after all. And then I set out, as a traveler must do, resolute but hardly happy.
My trip to China was many, many things, but above all it was a lesson in how important we people are to one another. I couldn’t have stuck the trip out without my daughter, without Martin and his wife—and without the kindness of many Chinese people whose names I do not know and who I will never see again. People like the women who walked with me in Beijing, people like the man who stepped in and ordered for me in a restaurant where I had quite perplexed the waitress, people like my compartment-mates on the train to Chengdu.
If there is a take-home for me and for anyone else who wants one, it would be this: Be kind. Be kind and helpful to strangers who have lost their way, especially strangers who can’t speak the language of your land. Something very small on your part could be very big to them.
And, don’t travel alone.