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China alone

Perhaps the best course of action when going it alone in China for the first time was not to go to a tiny town off season where I was unlikely to find many other travelers to buddy up with. But then, I also found that hostels in China weren’t as full of camaraderie among solo travelers. Or even full of solo travelers for that matter. But perhaps that’s the season or just bad luck.

Guilin was rainy, but delightfully less smoggy, so I had a good walk around there and some more great street food, but I was mainly using it as a stopover to get to Xingping. I ended up in a 6 bed hostel dorm completely alone both nights, which was great for the space, but also a little sad because it meant I really didn’t meet anyone at all. The other people staying in the hostel were couples and families and just keeping to themselves, and the common area was too cold for anyone to hang out because they kept the doors open all day and it was still about 12C or so. So I just stuck to myself and wrote some emails when I wasn’t out buying random street food and ashamedly having the thought, when looking at the pagoda towers on the lake, ‘wow, this looks like Epcot Center’. (That’s either bad for Guilin or good for Disney, I haven’t quite decided.)

I took the bamboo raft down the river to Xingping. Four people on some little benches on a few bamboo pipes strapped together with who-knows-what. It was cloudy and rainy, but still pretty stunning and relaxing. My friend Rick had told me about the hostel in this little town nearly a year ago and I wasn’t sure I was ever going to make it. My original plan involved going further West in China and getting to Vietnam via Kunming and through the mountain town of Sapa, but when I decided it was time to seriously slow down, I picked the easiest route south that involved the least amount of time on trains (and no more overnights), and that put me in Xingping.

Adjusting to being on my own again was made slightly harder by feeling completely out of my depth and grasping for someone to take a goddamn walk with. I do not regret my decision to spend 3 nights there. It revealed the bizarre, otherworldly wonder of China to me in a way I didn’t fully see in big cities or with a friend for distraction. Especially the local market. But it was really hard sometimes. Particularly because of the rain that kept me from doing as much as I might have in better weather. I had a lot of idle hours and a lot of people staring.

I will never really get used to people staring at me like an oddity. I mean, I’ll grant them, I AM an oddity to most of them. They probably don’t see a lone white girl wandering their wee town very often. In the cities and some highly touristed spots, Felix and I got used to people taking pictures of us, either on the sly (which was always totally obvious) or straight up asking us if they would get a picture WITH us. Simply because we’re giant, white westerners I guess? But here it’s totally the whole STRANGER. FROM THE OUTSIDE. OOOOOOOO. thing. No pictures, just looks of disbelief.

Like, for example, when eating my dinner, I am totally happy to go eat somewhere by myself. I do it in the UK often enough, and it’s no big deal. Sometimes it’s quite nice! But in Xingping, I wasn’t only alone, I was THE ONLY PERSON IN THE RESTAURANT. Aside from the family who owns it. Who are sitting a few tables away eating their own dinner periodically looking over at me in what was possibly disbelief. This happened both nights I went to find something to eat in town. I imagine in summer it’s not like this, but I don’t know where the other people staying in the hostel were eating dinner (or even hanging around) because I never saw any of them anywhere but as passing ghosts in the hallway. The town is not that big! They must have been somewhere.

It was worth seeking out the local restaurants rather than wimping out and eating pizza in the hostel or noodles in my room, but it never got any less strange regardless of how incredibly tasty the food was. I had a spicy aubergine dish one night that was insanely wonderful, but sitting there eating it was so awkward I’m quite happy I had some (very strong) Chinese osmanthus wine to distract me.

Also, before that particular dinner, I was literally chased down in the narrow streets by a group of student-y looking people with a camera and a box of oranges. They insisted I try their oranges and react to the taste of them on camera. (They asked for my ‘advice’ on the orange, but some stumbling over translations got us to what they really wanted.) I cannot make this stuff up. Somewhere I will appear very deer-in-headlights on a video, perhaps on some Chinese website, saying the orange I’m eating is the best I’ve tasted in this country. It was not a lie, but I was so baffled by the request I just kind of went along with it.

I have had to do a lot of ‘give yourself a break’ pep talks here, because I’ve spent a lot of time lying around planning the last third of the trip or writing or just staring into space. And somehow that makes me feel I’m doing something wrong. But I’m not really. And sitting slightly cold with my beer on the roof terrace alone playing music from the tinny speaker of my iphone staring into the dark, punctuated occasionally by a floodlight from a bamboo boat on the river, was pretty nice. I had been wishing there were people up there with me, but about every five minutes, I decided it was maybe better the way it was.

I really wanted to do some cycling and walking around the countryside while I was there. The weather and the crap state of the bikes prevented me cycling, but I was determined to get out for a good long walk. I had to wait for the last day when I was promised some sun by the weather report. I was also sort of waiting to see if I could meet someone in the hostel who wanted to go with me, but the same non-social atmosphere prevailed, so I set out on my own and headed for a scenic viewpoint up a hill on the other side of the river about an hour and a half out of town.

This was quite possibly the scariest part of the trip so far. I’m not scared of hikes or walking on my own, I do it plenty, but the ground was super wet from all the rain and the traction on my shoes is a bit worn down. I slipped about three times on the rocks, and I just kept thinking the last thing I need is to crack my head on one of these rocks or slip right off the edge when there’s no one here to help. There were locals walking back and forth on the path the whole time, so it wasn’t like I was in a place completely devoid of civilisation, but it did make me decide not to do the bigger hike up the really steep, rocky hill to see the sunset. (I opted for the roof terrace again.) And when I ran into a wee hiking tour on a weekend away from Hong Kong, I joined up with them on their way back to Xingping, happy to have some people to talk to. They even asked me to join them for lunch which was fantastic.

Getting from Xingping to Nanning was a relatively dull, long-winded affair involving many buses, both local and long-distance, a bunch of traffic, and an exhausted, slightly frantic search for an ATM that took something other than a Chinese bank card for a frantic hour in Yangshuo, because there are none of those in Xingping and I needed to get cash for my next ticket. And OF COURSE the bus in from Xingping arrives at the station across town from the station where the Nanning bus departs. Of course.

Anyway. Nothing much happened in Nanning. It was warmer. I walked around and watched people doing dancing lessons and various exercises in the park. I ate more food. I think the last street food I ate was probably responsible for the only stomach upset I’ve had on this trip thus far, but as travel illness goes, it wasn’t bad, so, I wrote it off as world travel health tax and got on with life. I went for one last bowl of DIY soup and picked so many things to put in they had to make it two bowls. WHAT A GLUTTON.

Buying my bus ticket to Vietnam was a bit of a palaver. I tried to book it through the hostel, and they said it had been done and all I needed to do was arrive an hour early to pick it up the next morning. Seeing as how the bus left at about 8.20 and I had nothing better to do the day before, I went that evening, and man am I glad I did. First of all, massive queue (which persisted the next morning). Second, when I got up to the counter and tried to show the girl the thing the hostel had written out for me so that I could pick up my ticket, she had absolutely no idea what it was on about and also insisted there was no bus at 8.20, only one at 8.50.

I gave up trying to figure it out with her – because there was a huge, increasingly restless queue behind me – and went to talk to the other women at the info desks. They agreed there was no 8.20 bus, only an 8.50, and said to just buy a fresh ticket (since I never paid for the first one this wasn’t really an issue). So I got back in the queue and when I got to the front pointed to the 8.50 that the girl had initially wrote on my bit of paper, but then she circled my 8.20 and was like, you want this one? Somehow magically within the last 15 minutes, the 8.20 existed?! So I just bought it. I think my original ticket was still booked as the seat number was lit up in red on the screen, but whatever. I had an actual ticket now despite how little sense the entire situation made. I double checked it with the info desk girl who seemed as baffled as me that there was now an 8.20 bus, but she confirmed the ticket did say it left from that stop, so after my frustrating hour at the station I finally went back to find some food and get my last sleep in China.