When things go wrong in daily life, a good hug will usually fix it. Unfortunately, strangers in foreign lands probably wouldn’t be that pleased by a panicked Brit launching herself at them for the sake of human comfort.
No one talks much about the other side of travelling and I totally get why. There’s this implicit rule that you ought to be having an awesome time, constantly, and letting that slip can feel almost like a failure. I also recognise that I’m privileged to be able to travel at all.
So when I talk about my brief trip to China, I’ll try not to focus on the fact that everything went not-so-sunny side up. Instead, I’m going to talk about how it was saved by some pretty great human beings.
Popping over the border into China
Really, when I think back, an unplanned detour to China was maybe not the wisest decision. Ok, I had to plan a little, as the visa takes a week and several Embassy trips to complete, but I decided not to take a guide book as Lonely Planet China is roughly the size of the Bible and I would only be ‘doing’ Yunnan province, just north of the Vietnamese border. ‘I’ll just research as I go, since I have this handy laptop,’ I thought to myself.
Mmm (more on this later).
I noticed straight away that I must have been on a very touristy trail in Vietnam. By contrast, South-West China is not set up for overseas visitors. No reason why it should be; as long as you have ways and means of getting around, this shouldn’t be a problem. Not in the age of Google maps and Kindle.
What I forgot was the fact that Communist China is run very differently to a lot of countries and all kinds of Western websites are inaccessible in China, including Google, and even Facebook (the horror), banned a couple of years ago when the government decided it was too useful for anyone wanting to organise a mass protest. And when my own computer broke down, I couldn’t even find an internet café, since every place I asked in Kunming needed a membership card.
The final whack from the hammer of fate was an ATM in Lijiang swallowing my debit card, leaving me stranded in a country where Western Union is unheard of. And you know you’re within sight of rock-bottom when the only English reading material at the hostel is an inexplicable copy of ‘A Gravity’s Rainbow Companion: Sources and Contexts for Pynchon’s Novel’ (seriously, why would they have this?)
The people make the place
Before this starts to sound like a big fat moan, I’ll move onto to the nice positive bit. Because when all your material resources do get taken away, you have to rely on good old humans. Travelling old school, you could say. Or in real terms, lots of writing down addresses in bad Mandarin, finally making use of that Observer ‘Point at it’ picture-book I’d been carrying on every trip abroad for the past ten years and gesticulating in the street like I’d also lost a few marbles along the way.
I am enormously grateful to everyone who helped me. The students who Baidu’d (Chinese equivalent of Googled) my hostel on their phones and gave me directions. The hostel-owner who invited me to a home-cooked dinner and made me feel like one of the family. To the lovely couple, David and Luo, who actually drove me to a computer shop to get my laptop fixed, (and listened incredulously as I explained that the reason there was rice coming out of the keyboard was that I thought it might have got damp, so I’d tried that old phone-drying trick, only on a larger scale. It didn’t work.)
From a travel point of view, what I saw of China was beautiful. I mainly went to see the Yuanyang Rice Terraces (top image) and they were absolutely worth it. In between the crises, I also ate some really good food. It’s not that I blame an entire country for everything going wrong. (Ok, there was a point where I was irrationally angry at China.) It was just a very difficult place to put things right.
It’s also a place I’d love to visit again one day, especially as I originally knew it was way too big to try and see Bejing and the north or walk a stretch of the Great Wall in my two-week time slot. Time I think is the key I could have done with, to getting a handle on a culture and communication system so different.
So I’ll be back, China. But next time, I’ll be a bit more prepared.