Last Days In China: The Highs And The Lows

The thing that amazes me about traveling in China is the roller coaster of emotion that it evokes. I mean, it’s like cramming a life time of weird and wonderful experiences (no wait, ten life times)  into a short space of time and pressing ‘spin’. Yes, I’m comparing China to a time capsule washing machine, but that about sums it up. China has built me up and brought me down without warning, when I least expected it. It has thrilled me, warmed my heart, and just about killed me with its oxygen-deprived mountainous air and exotic foods.

And here’s how…

The Highs

Obviously I loved Beijing. The vibrant capital splashed in red impressed me beyond belief with its cosmopolitan feel and ancient wonders. Plus the people we met there were beyond friendly. From strangers who stopped to chat on the street to the people who worked at our hostel, we were bowled over by kindness and hospitality.

Xi’an was like the chaotic, younger cousin of the capital. A little more crazy and unpredictable, it provided me with the most memorable meal I ate in China thanks to its lively Muslim quarter, as well as a glimpse into China’s Imperial past via the Terracotta Army. I really enjoyed Xi’an, especially zipping across the city on dirt cheap public buses.

Kangding provided a much-needed respite from China’s urban sprawl. Though a good-sized town in its own right, its mountainous location provided our first experience of Tibetan culture, and was literally a breath of fresh air.

Then came one of the highlights of my trip, the grasslands of Tagong, stretching out as far as the eye can see at 3700m. The rolling hills undulated into the distance as though it were emerald velvet draped over a curvaceous figure.  Tibetan monasteries dotted the expanse along with a few nomad tents and the odd herd of yaks.

And then there were the wild flowers. Puffs of purple and yellow and blue covering the grass in a delightful hyper-coloured fuzz.

“I wish that I’d come here when I still believed in fairies,” I said to Tyrhone one day as we hiked over the grasslands. The tiny ecosystems under our feet, complete with low-flying butterflies, were about as close to fairy land as I could imagine.

The town itself was like stepping onto the set of a Tibetan western, if indeed one was ever made (anyone interested, I’ve already scouted the location). Men straddling hefty motorbikes rolled through town, wearing wide-brimmed hats and heavy cloaks of hardened self-assurance.

Instead of gun-slinging and drinking, however, spinning prayer wheels and chanting were de rigueur. One day after a long hike over the grasslands to a nearby town, we hitched a ride back on a motorbike trailer. An elderly woman also hitching a ride chanted Buddhist prayers into the wind, and looked at me with the kindest eyes that brought tears to mine.

Hitching a ride

We sat in the town square one day next to two elderly men who chatted sporadically and thumbed prayer beads worn smooth with time and use. In between conversation, one repeatedly chanted “Om Mani Padme Hum” in a hushed, barely perceptible tone. Tyrhone has had the phrase tattooed on his chest for many years, and was the first person to introduce me to its meaning of all encompassing compassion. Hearing it from the mouth of that man will now forever be etched in my memory.


We spent the day after the hike hanging out at a cozy cafe, drinking Tibetan tea from ceramic bowls and chatting to a new friend  from Israel. From the second story terrace, we had a great view of the adjacent monastery nestled at the foot of a prayer-flag covered hillside. It was a wonderfully relaxing day. Then over a dinner of yak steaks and mashed potatoes, we toasted to the wonderful experience of Ta Gong and its people.

The Lows

We hadn’t slept very well thanks to the high altitude of Ta Gong, but it hadn’t bothered us too much. Until, on the morning we were due to leave, we both woke in the early hours with…er…stomach rumblings. Immediately I knew it was the yak steaks. My body told me as much, and my mind couldn’t even think about the previous night’s meal, without wanting to bring it up.

Thankfully I didn’t. Though I did visit the bathroom repeatedly. Tyrhone did too, but seemed to be in better shape than me when it came time to get in the mini-bus bound for Kangding. Though I knew we needed to get to lower ground, the bus ride was nothing short of excruciating, as I clenched a plastic bag in case of vomiting, and my nether regions in case of…well you know what. I wedged my face in the small crack of the open window, sipping cool air.

Perhaps this gag days before evoked some sort of yak-curse?

I wasn’t in a great state when we arrived two hours later. I should have been relieved, and half expected the lower altitude to magically heal me, but I just felt worse: dehydrated and very, very weak. We traipsed to a guest house by the bus station where we planned to crash out until our bus back to Chengdu the following morning. It was full. We checked out a neighbouring local hotel, but rubbish lined the corridors and it smelled.

On then to our last resort, a simple hostel down the road. To say I was a little sensitive by this stage would be an understatement. I’d endured the bus so that I could get a comfy rest, but when the kind lady showed us to a room that hadn’t been cleaned, it was the final straw that broke this camel’s very weary back.

As Tyrhone went downstairs to check in, I dumped my bags and went and sat in the hallway whilst the young cleaners prepared the room. I slid down the wall, put my head in my hands, and sobbed.

Back to The Highs…

A young cleaner was obviously disturbed by my uninhibited wailing. I honestly felt so bad I wasn’t even trying to stop. Crying was the only thing that felt any good. It wasn’t just my poisoned stomach, it was the altitude, the cramped bus ride, and traipsing through town with my backpack, wishing someone else could do this for me. Just this part. The shitty part, when all you wanna do is sleep and relax and not carry your frickin’ life on your back.

But how could I explain my world traveller’s first-world problems to the Chinese cleaner? I couldn’t, so I pointed to my paining stomach.

She immediately began poking around my abdomen, then whipped my bottle of water from my hand. She returned, with it filled with hot water, as well as a glass for me to drink. She dragged me by the arm, along with my bags to a nearby room that had just been cleaned. And she sat me on the bed like a child and began to massage my back. Chinese style. Which meant she pinched me, hard. So much so that I stopped my crying.

I felt like a kid who had been distracted from their wailings by a fluffy toy. Only my fluffy toy was in the form of a Chinese cleaner doing weird things to my body. She started pinching the inside of my elbow, then scratching it till blood rose to the surface. Then the other arm. And though I was a little concerned by her methods, I let her scratch and pinch me because she seemed to know what she was doing.

And after she pressed the hot water bottle to my stomach and encouraged me to lie down, I did actually feel better. Whether it was her weird-ass Chinese chi manipulation or just plain old ‘watch the birdy’ psychology, I’ll never know, but I do know that I’ll always be grateful to that girl for making me feel better.


After a good night’s rest, I faced the crisp morning a new woman. The world was a beautiful place again. I gave some bracelets I had bought to the girl who had helped me and boarded the bus to Chengdu. I felt good again. When we arrived, after eating or drinking very little during the long journey just in case, I was ready to eat. I ordered a simple vegetable fried rice, and only ate half. As we retired to our comfy room that night, I was looking forward to our last day in China and exploring the city I hadn’t had the energy to see on my last visit.

The Lowest of The Lows

I woke up to an all-too-familiar wave of discomfort writhing through my body.

Oh no.

Within ten minutes I was in the bathroom again, but this time the pain was worse and a fever ran through me. Soon I was vomiting. After a round of this I returned to our room where the wooden floor provided the only comfort available to me. Tyrhone lay down a blanket and placed a waste paper bin nearby in case I was taken unawares.

I woke again with strong urge I could not suppress. I panicked. The toilet was down the hall. So I did what any self-respecting girl would do when faced with a crisis; I pooped in the bin. And though I was vaguely aware of the state I had been reduced to, the evil demon inside me continued to wage an excruciating war with my insides that overrode all notions of pride and self-respect.

Food poisoning is like that. You feel like you’re dying, because you are. If not for the efficiency of the amazing human body, I’d be dead ten times over.

Soon, I found myself seeking comfort on the tiles of the very public shower I had previously refused to enter without flip-flops. I couldn’t stand up, so I lay hunched over on the floor and let the water cleanse me of the evening’s exorcism.

As luck would have it, there was a pharmacy just across the road and as soon as it opened, Tyrhone went get me some medication (I would’ve loved to see the game of charades that went on whilst trying to explain that one if I wasn’t so busy dying). The tablets worked, and after a few hours sleep I finally felt like a human being again.

One that poops in bins, but a human all the same.

And I leave you with that image, because it’s the last one I have of my time in China. Tyrhone’s second Chinese visa was about to expire, and though we had wanted to get to Shanghai, it was just too far. So we found a good deal and hopped on a flight to Bangkok.

In a week, we’re heading home to Perth for a few weeks. After that we’ll be heading to South America, if the current plans we have pan out. The last few weeks in China have been quite a ride, let a lone the events of the last six months. It’ll be nice to take some time to process it all and reflect. It’ll be interesting to see how I feel once I get home, but one thing’s for sure, I can’t wait to give my nieces huge hugs.

My 3-year-old niece is way over toilet training by now, but perhaps the ten month old and I will have more in common than we did before I left.

:) :) :)

Thank you for subscribing to my posts and for your comments, tweets and support over the last six months. I hope you will all continue the journey to Somewhere with me.


Last Days In China: The Highs And The Lows — 38 Comments

  1. I have so enjoyed your posts. Have a good rest at home, give your clothes a good wash and enjoy your family. I’ll look forward to your South America posts.


  2. I’ve sooooo enjoyed reading your tales Sar. I love the way you write and I love being reminded about the big, wide world out there!! T reckons I’m obsessed with your blog… Ha ha… Olivia and Sophie have got even cuter and you will love your special Aunty cuddles. Let us know if you’ve got time for a catch up when you are in P town x

    • You can be obsessed with my blog any time Eggy, it’s a true compliment!!!!!!! Will definitely be seeing you soon and look forward to seeing how cute your lil’ man has got… and your son, he he…

  3. Oh Sarah, I feel your pain! Food poisoning is the curse of the traveller and I have been violently ill more times than I care to remember. Not looking forward to that part of being back on the road, but it’s still always worth it. And your story of taking a crap in a bin is definitely worth it – you’ll be telling that one for the rest of your life :)

    • Ha! I wasn’t sure I ever would tell it, but it’s too funny… And an unfortunate bi-product (okay, that was a wrong choice of word) of travelling to exotic locales… Never got sick in India so I am SO touching wood on that one xxx

  4. What does Tyrhones tattoo and the saying mean??
    You poor sick thing, I feel for you darling and it reminded me of the time years ago when Bec once said at your house my bottom just did a wee. I’m sure you could relate x

    • Yes I thought of that too! It’s a Buddhist chant that is said to encompass compassion for all beings. There’s no direct translation, the power is thought to be in the chant. Thank your for your compassion sweety, all good now, though when I was sick I thought “I’m never getting pregnant because I couldn’t handle labour!!!”. So I’ll be sending some serious compassion your way soon… :)

  5. Well, thank you for giving me a laugh first thing in the morning. You poor thing! Having grown up with many intestinal ailments, I can really feel for your situation. I haven’t had to crap in a basket (yet), but I have a feeling my time will come. My stomach is still rather sensitive, but I don’t let it stop me from eating basically whatever I want.

    What a ride these last 6 months have been. I’m glad you get a chance to go home and refresh a bit. I bet that will make a world of difference. Any chance you’re ever coming to NORTH America?? 😀 I hear there’s a bed in Portland, Oregon with with your names on it….

    • Ha! Glad I could oblige, your time will come, don’t worry :) North America will definitely be on the cards at some stage, in fact I have been hearing so much about Portland and Oregon recently it seems the universe is trying to tell me something, thank you Carmel!!! :)

  6. Sara, thanks for sharing your highs and lows, especially the lowest of the lows. Not a lot of people would be brave enough to share their “poop in a bin” experience. Sorry you had to go through that; sounds terrible. Wishing you a wonderful visit with your family and a fun reunion with your nieces. I look forward to your South American adventures.

    • Thank you Marisol, it was hellish at the time, but so glad I can laugh about it now. I am just so grateful to feel well again!!!!! Thanks so much for reading and for your comments and support :)

  7. You pooped in the bin!!!!!!!

    Sarah, I have so loved following your journey. It seems that you meet some of the most amazing people, like you just draw them in. Food poisoning aside, your adventures make me look forward to my own adventures.

    • Unfortunately yes! But the alternative would have been much worse! Thanks for your supoort Kim, I’m excited for what’s on the horizon for you, hang on tight and enjoy the ride xxx

    • Hi Gillian! Yes, when I started writing this blog I never dreamed I’d be writing about such an episode, believe me, but you know, it’s all part of the story!!!!

    • Hi Lela, China is so HUGE that it could be several countries in one, with so many varied landscapes and cultures. We only scratched the surface, but I’m so glad we got to see Tagong, so peaceful and magical!

  8. Sarah you need to write a book…. I have loved reading all of your blogs and they never fail to impress me! You have a wonderful way of painting a picture of where you are (yes even the poop on the bin) and I can’t get through reading without having a great little giggle :) even your time home in Perth, I’m sure all the home cooked meals and family love will get you set up for your next adventures! Xoxo

    • Thank you Kirstin, it’s been so lovely having you along for the ride! And perhaps if you are still in Perth you could squeeze me in for a coffee?? XXX

  9. What a beautiful reflective post. Oh the highs and lows. I’m sure pit stopping back home will be a nice break, catch up with family and friends and give you a little breathing space and down time before your next adventure. Smart travelers, I say.
    I look forward to seeing where your adventure and curiosity leads!

    • Thank you so much Lauren, I guess you are experiencing a time of ‘recharge’ at home too. It feels strange going home but I know it will good for us. Thanks so much for following along and inspiring me with your own adventures!

  10. Oh Sarah, so sorry to hear about the lowest of lows, but just remember: without pain there can be no pleasure. I really think that travel is one of the things that highlights this best… we are constantly breaking ourselves down in order to be born anew, slightly stronger, slightly wiser, always changing. This is why we travel.

    Thank you so much for sharing your stories, both the good and the bad!

  11. Really good photos. I feel that part of it is that your picture taking ability is improving, the other part is that China, like India, is a photographer’s dream. Your posts have reinforced the fact that I’d love to get over to that behemoth land.

    • Or could it be that Tyrhone is a much better photographer than me?! He he, thanks Mike, “Behemoth” is just about the best word to describe the scope of that country! I’ll definitely need to go back :)

  12. Sarah, have really enjoyed being on the journey with you (that’s how it feels anyway) I agree with Kirstan, definitely a book, maybe even a movie

  13. I was drinking my tea at the exact same time as I read the part of you pooping in a bin & I laughed so hard that the tea came out my nose, funny!! I know how you felt as I had a similar episode of cheek clenching in Hue Vietnam after eating fish, I thought at the time that Hue was far to far from the coast to have fresh fish!! lucky for you there was a chemist handy, love your posts they bring a smile to my facec and sometimes a great laugh!!

  14. Very interesting post of highs and lows for China — very extreme high and lows to say the least. Thinking about your food poisoning just make me feel truly awful — I can’t even imagine how good it must have felt when it was over! We are currently in China as well, experiencing our own set of highs and lows (current low – our hostel room is at most 40 degrees and I literally have 6 layers on and under the blanket with my hat on and am still losing feeling in my fingers as I type this) but it definitely is quite the country!
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    • Hey Vicky, wow, when we were in China it was the heat that was the problem most of the time!!! It certainly can be a challenging place, that’s for sure, but I’m so glad we got to experience it. The people were amazing! Thanks for reading, safe travels (and stay warm!) :)

  15. Is it bad that your suffering is amusing? I loved reading this post. Lucky you had someone with you to get you medication. Imagine if you had been travelling alone?
    I feel lucky not to have endured food poisoning just yet… Fingers crossed it stays that way!

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