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…
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.