Vagabonding in China

My personal mantra even way before I ever started traveling has been: Always go where the action is.

Love it or hate it, China is by far the place to find some serious action for your vagabonding needs.

I was lucky enough to spend three adventurous months there in 2007 and left roughly around this time last year. As my wheels left the ground for the last time in Beijing, my feelings were so mixed up that I didn’t know what to write in my journal. All at the same time I felt joy, stress relief (China can honestly wear on you after a few months), sadness at leaving a mysterious place where I had spent so much time trying to figure out, and a loss of something.

Like an ugly, air-pollution-induced tumor, China had started to grow on me and I hated to see it go.

Chinese Man Drawing on Sidewalk

Just for fun, here are some of my personal notes from this impossible culture:

Communication: Forget about it! Never have I been somewhere with so many challenges to communicate. Because of the tonal language and the Chinese refusal to take context into consideration, even if your pronunciation sounds perfect to your Western ears, you’ll likely receive only a blank stare.

Despite my studious efforts, the only place my Chinese was remotely useful was around Beijing or in tourist places where people are used to hearing foreigners butcher the Chinese language. Even traveler’s charades don’t work. Mimic a spoon in mid air and you will probably be brought a cigarette. Flap your wings trying to describe chicken in a restaurant and they will probably call an airport taxi for you. You get the idea.

China air pollution

Pollution: Breath taking, literally. Eye watering. Apocalyptic. I wish I was exaggerating! The air is so poisonous that many times you literally cannot even see the sun in the middle of the afternoon. You can only assume that the brightest point in the glowing white sky is the source of all life in our solar system. I was actually advised to stay inside on certain days when particulate matter reached even more dangerous levels.

Sometimes the pollution literally looks like fog and you can only see a few meters in front of you. To give some sense of how dire the situation truly is, anything above 50 micrograms of particulate matter — little pieces of unwanted stuff that get stuck in your lungs — per cubic meter is considered unsafe in the United States. A sample in Beijing taken on any random day will average around 140 micrograms! Which leads to the next note:

Litter in China

Cleanliness: If you want to travel China, you have to learn to clear your sinuses and spit. Or at least get used to other people doing it around you. On sidewalks, trains, buses, even around street-food carts and inside of restaurants, it is a common sight to see someone bend over, cover one nostril and empty green mucus onto the floor. I refused for one month to join the sticky madness, but thanks to all the happy little particulates lodging themselves in the deepest crevices of my lungs, I was soon publicly hacking and spitting yellow stuff with the best of them.

Not just spitting either. Public urination is common, and to avoid having to buy — and dispose of — diapers, toddlers are dressed in split pants and simply crap on sidewalks and streets like nasty little animals. People of all ages simply drop their rubbish and plastic bags on the streets on a whim. China is a litterbug’s paradise. There is no wonder this was the birthplace of SARS and countless other viruses. There is no doubt in my mind that the next great supervirus is quietly cooking away in some dark Chinese market somewhere as we speak.

Still, despite everything listed above that sounds like a complaint, I couldn’t get enough of China! It was like being glued to some gruesome, brain-chomping zombie flick that you just can’t turn off despite the gore. Every day was a new discovery, a new adventure, and a tiny, ever-so-small glimpse into a place that is having a huge impact on the world as we know it.

Kung Fu: I spent one month of my time in China studying Kung Fu at the famous Xiao Long Shaolin Temple school in Henan province.This place was so bizarre, so inhumanly disgusting, so interesting that I have still yet to figure out how to write about my experiences there. An entire book could be put together just with what I lived for one month in this place. But every time I start to it, my fingers cease to move around the keyboard and I find myself drooling unproductively. I’m starting to wonder if the school gave me a touch of PTSD.

Tiger Leaping Gorge in China

Tiger Leaping Gorge: The next two months of my visit were spent recovering from my various Shaolin kung fu injuries, exploring Beijing, and traveling around the southwest part of China near Tibet. I wore the same frozen pants literally for several weeks in a row because it never stopped raining or sleeting and no one could dry their clothes (laundry dryers have not found their way to this part of the world yet.) I teamed up with some friends in Lijiang and we hiked the famous Tiger Leaping Gorge, which was one of the most memorable treks of my life. The mountains were so breathtaking –both with beauty and high elevation — so snow-covered, and magical that sometimes I felt like I was standing on the set of some fantasy movie. But this wasn’t fake; China does it big and beautiful.

A Frightening Government: Walking through this fascinating place where I watched melting snow give birth to the Yangtze River, a huge source of life throughout Asia, I also felt a terrible sense of dread. At the time, the Chinese government was planning to dam up this majestic gorge. That’s about the equivalent of the U.S. damming up the Colorado River and sinking the Grand Canyon in order to produce power for T-shirt factories. Devastating.

Chinese policeman

They were planning to do dam up the gorge to provide more power to the factories busily producing lead-based toys, poisonous toothpaste, and cranking out the cheap export fodder that we Americans just love to snatch off of Walmart’s shelves. As we hiked, gravel trucks rumbled by on the road a thousand feet below us. Work had already begun at displacing thousands of minority — mostly Bai and Naxi people — residents who were simply told to leave their ancient homelands or drown. Luckily, due to such tremendous public outcry, the Chinese government has halted the dam project. For now.

The halt was monumental, and in my opinion, had something to do with the Olympics bringing the world spotlight to China. Public outcry does not usually go over very well in China. Think June 4th, 1989, when around 3,000 students were gunned down or crushed by tanks in Tiananmen Square for protesting government corruption. This wasn’t very long ago, yet it cannot be found in a single book, on the internet, or mentioned above a whisper in China.

The Olympics: As I sat on the curb in front of a small bus stop in the south of China, a white unmarked bus rolled to a stop in a belch of diesel smoke. Two men in uniforms began unloading dozens of scrappy looking passengers with green duffel bags. I found out later that these were homeless people from Beijing being forcefully relocated before the Olympics. After all, the world would be watching, right? Never mind the fact that this was nearly winter and most of these guys were going to be screwed in this part of rural China without a job or home. I still wonder how the Olympic Committee can sleep at night.

Chairman Mao Portrait

Chairman Mao: I spent a lot of time walking around that same enormous square in Beijing where tracks once crushed students, under the watchful eyes of a giant Chairman Mao portrait hanging on the Forbidden City. You have to hand it to Chairman Mao. Most guys who are responsible for the butchering of an estimated 10 million human beings would probably be less than popular with the locals, but for some obscene reason he is still worshiped! Despite his death way back in 1976, I would say on an average day you will see his face at least 20 times in China — not counting on currency. His bald head graces the money, calendars, shirts, and can be found in any public square. The Chinese even line up for hours to view his preserved body in his tomb in Tiananmen Square and shed actual tears for him! Why won’t this madman simply go away?

Park in Lijiang, China

In conclusion: Many things have changed in China; some thanks to the awareness created by the Olympics and some because of the new surge of relentless capitalism that is now tolerated in a communist government. There is a buzz in the air (no, it’s not just the particulate matter) and you can feel that China is a place of energy, change, and momentum. Standing in a large provincial city in China, you feel like you are on an out-of-control ride that is exhilarating but bound to explode at any minute.

Luckily, China is still extremely cheap for budget travelers and you can certainly get a lot of adventure, culture, and excitement for your vagabonding dollar. I highly recommend it. Go spend a few months eating the dumplings, hiking the mountains, spitting on Beijing sidewalks, and savoring the pollution…you will never forget it.