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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.

China with company

When I set out on this adventure, I said that I was doing it alone not because I have some deep desire to be on my own in the world, but more because it’s hard to find someone crazy enough to match your particular travel style and intentions who also has the budget and time to join you.

So imagine my joy when, along the way, I stumbled upon the absolute perfect travel buddy. I’ve never made such fast friends with someone. I’ve never wanted to bear-hug and strangle someone with equal ferocity in one day (or even in the same five minutes). I have never put my full faith into someone so quickly.

Well, except when it comes to hostel booking.

Felix and I ended up sticking together for nearly two weeks. From the minute I entered China, I didn’t have to worry about navigating it alone, which was such a relief, because I was getting to the point where I really appreciated the backup. Being on my own is totally doable, but extra exhausting. Having someone to balance my crazy, split costs with, and order extra amazing food to try was just The. Best.

Throughout this trip, I’ve felt a pretty good split of emotions on being on my own. About 50% of the time, I’m pretty neutral about it. 25% of the time, I really wish I had someone with me, and the other 25% I’m quite happy I’m alone. The way I knew I’d found the perfect companion was when I realised that regardless of him driving me up a fucking wall sometimes, I don’t think there was ever really a point where, in my head, I was like OK I WOULD PREFER TO BE ALONE NOW PLEASE GO AWAY. We seemed pretty well in tune to when it was just time to be quiet and read a book. Or in his case, go to sleep, as he seemed frustratingly able to do at any time in any place. (WHERE DO I LEARN THIS SKILL, UNIVERSE? I thought for sure that three months of traveling would teach it to me, but thus far, NAE LUCK.)

So after the madness of Harbin, we took the bullet train back down to Beijing. We got to enjoy some first class seats because everything else was gone by the time we’d decided what to do, so we paid through the nose but at least there were big comfy seats and free (weird) snacks. Beijing was mercifully low on smog. We got really lucky with the wind and the sunshine that way. On the first day, we wandered around Tienanmen Square taking goofy pictures, then got an overview of the Forbidden City from hill in the park behind it before indulging in another massive hotpot dinner.

The second day was for seeing the Great Wall. I hadn’t wanted to go to the really touristy bit at Badaling, but it was the easiest option, so in the end I lost. But it was fine. It was still too cold for massive crowds and we had a good long walk before catching a train back to the city where we met up with Galaa (from the New Year train!) and some of her friends to get REAL Peking Duck in a super fancy restaurant. (We had a booking she made in my name, but they’d misheard, so it was under ‘cake’.) The place even had crazy Japanese toilets with heated seats that opened for you when you walked into the stall and all sorts of spray functions I was too intimidated to try. But it was the polar opposite of the squat toilets everywhere else, so it was almost equally as impressive as the duck we’d come to eat.

That night was also my night to try dancing in Beijing. It ended up just being a taster lesson in 20s Charleston, and there weren’t many Lindy Hoppers about, but it was a cool bar and I did get one or two dances in. The others sat upstairs and watched for a bit.

We did some walking around the hutong district and shopping on our last day before getting the night train to Xi’an, on which we downed a bottle of delightfully cheap Great Wall wine and I did a lot more not sleeping. Xi’an was full of smog, but we got some breakfast, soldiered on and got the bus out to the Terra Cotta warriors, which is every bit as impressive as you hope it would be. There are just SO MANY. And the place is a working archaeological site, so I thought it was really cool to see piles of clay appendages with what were more or less giant post-it notes on them as some kind of sorting system as well as things in varying stages of restoration. We spent most of the afternoon looking at clay men and watching most of the very old 360 degree film about the site whilst providing a ridiculous running commentary under our breath, then we headed back to town.

On the bus ride back, we could actually see the smog get heavier the closer to the city we got. This put Felix in a particularly foul, depressed mood. I was mostly trying to ignore it (the smog and the mood). But Xi’an soon redeemed itself, at least a bit, by having the best street food EVER in the Muslim Quarter. Stalls and stalls and stalls of different barbecued meats, tofu, fried dough filled with greens and spicy lamb, sweet sticky rice cakes, flat bread with seeds, more hawthorn, nuts, fruit, candy – all KINDS of amazing things. We didn’t get quite enough for dinner so we went back for breakfast and lunch AND a stock of snacks the next day before getting on yet another night train to Shanghai. (On which we also downed a bottle of wine, naturally. And I even managed to get a bit of sleep this time.)

By the time we got to Shanghai, I was so burnt out on cities – and Shanghai is basically a mashup of London and New York only Chinese – that I just had no desire to do anything other than eat and dance. We got a really good hostel again and did a lot of wandering around and eating, but we really didn’t do any sightseeing at all. I’m not even sure what sightseeing there is to do in Shanghai because I didn’t bother looking. I did spot a Tesla showroom in the fancy downtown bit of the city which I think may have made Felix’s year. And I found some Couchsurfers to meet for dinner, so it was really good to get to speak to someone local and share some food.

Dancing was the main reason I wanted to go to Shanghai at all, so I was really happy when it turned out to be the best Lindy night on this trip yet. And I even managed to teach Felix the basics when it turned out there was no beginner lesson. I am not a good teacher, particularly when it comes to teaching the lead side of things, but I shuffled through 6 and 8 beat steps with him off to the side. And then the man got on a crowded social dance floor multiple times without ever having danced a step of Lindy in his life. Mad props. I would not have been able to do that. And he did really well!

We checked out the roof terrace before we left to get the full panoramic view of the city and then we ended up AGAIN at McDonalds because it was one of the only things open and we were hungry. I couldn’t actually believe it. I’ve avoided the place for over a decade and I hit it twice in as many weeks in China. Personal food fail. But it’s all part of the experience in the end.

The next day we did a bit of shopping and drank one last bottle of crap wine as a goodbye toast before I joined Felix on his trek to the airport to see him off. I hate goodbyes, and losing my travel partner-in-crime made me quite mopey. China would have been very different for me without him. I definitely think I got more out of it with someone to share it with. Certainly in terms of food alone, but also in terms of a recharge from someone who’d been traveling for much longer and understood where I was with things, both in my head and in the world.

I went back to the hostel bar and had a drink, but no one there was being sociable (which would turn out to be par for the course in China as I’d soon find out), so I gave up and went up to pack and get ready for my early morning train to Guilin.

Start as you mean to go on

We were standing around drinking near the toilets at the Erlian border station shortly after midnight when Wayne asked what everyone was doing at this time last year. It seemed like a simple question but it took me ages to remember because it felt like so much longer ago and further away.

Last New Year, I went for a curry with Kate and Steve, then we hung out with Fred the greyhound watching the hootenanny and jeering every time anyone but Paolo Nutini came on to play. New Years Day I went home in the morning by way of a coffee at Casa Amiga, then I took my quiet hangover to see The Imitation Game (because Finn Polmar) and went home to bed. This year was so incredibly different it may as well have taken place in another universe.

But I’ll start at the beginning.

The plan ended up being that I would be on the train on New Years Eve. From Ulaanbaatar to Beijing. I booked this before most of my Russian trains because I needed to show my entry to China for the visa, and this was pretty much the only real thing I included on that visa application.

In any case, my plan was to make the best of it, Scotland style, and force a party on whomever may find themselves in my compartment. And when I met Felix and he ended up booking a ticket to join the train from Sainshand (halfway from UB to the border), I was OVERJOYED because I was finally sure I’d have at least one person to celebrate with. Lucky me, I ended up with him plus three more.

The train left UB at 7.15, so after meeting my compartment-mates Galaa (from UB and visiting home, now returning to Beijing to study) and Emma (from the UK, a lawyer who retired early, currently seeing the world), we all promptly went to sleep for a few hours.

I woke up before everyone else because I never sleep and stared out at the vast passing Mongolian landscape for a bit. Emma and Galaa slowly emerged from sleep and I told them to expect Felix at the next stop. Emma mentioned that Wayne, a guy from England she’d met while in UB, was also on the train in another compartment and would probably also join the party later. We stopped in Sainshand and gained our German just about 3pm and the epic, 12-hour, New Year train party began.

We started drinking the beer we’d acquired almost immediately while Felix shared Dinner for One with us. It’s this English short play that was originally aired in the 60s and has somehow become a German New Year tradition to watch. It’s actually hilarious. Apparently the thing to do is drink every time the butler trips over the tiger’s head. So of course we did. And now I have a NEW New Year tradition to add to my repertoire.

We ran out of beer quite quickly (completely underestimated ourselves) so Felix and Emma gathered up the rest of everyone’s Mongolian cash and trekked off the the restaurant car, making it just 5 minutes before they closed it and bought all the beer they could afford. This added to our stash of fizz for midnight and a whole bottle of Mongolian vodka did us well for the remaining hours of 2015 and the first few of 2016.

Chinese tracks are a different gauge from Mongolian, so when you go through the border, not only do you need to clear customs and immigration, you need to wait while the wheels on every carriage of your train get switched. According to the interweb, sometimes they let you off while this happens, sometimes they don’t. It seems to depend on the whims of the conductors. We were hoping they’d let us off so we could have a party somewhere the toilets were not locked, but once we got to the Chinese side and they gave us our passports back, Galaa, who had done the route a few times by now, said that things did not look good for us getting off before they changed the wheels.

So Felix and I sat in the corridor of the carriage with our vodka putting the world to rights to pass the time while we all got shunted back and forth and up and down during the wheel changing. And after about an hour or so of this, we got a small window where they were letting people off the train for the remainder of the border station stop. We threw on our shoes, gathered up the booze, and ran out to the station building where there were mercifully open toilets and even a wee shop upstairs.

This was about 30 minutes before the end of the year, so we readied our fizz and I queued up ‘Auld Lang Syne’ on my phone and the corks popped at midnight on some rubbish, too-sweet fizz when I made my favourite New Year toast (‘Start as you mean to go on’, of course) and there were hugs all around. We rescued Wayne from the train about 15 minutes later so he could rejoin the party, and we goofed off outside for another half an hour before taking the party back on board, watching Dinner for One again, and yammering into the wee hours.

The next morning, we all emerged an hour or two before pulling into Beijing and said our goodbyes. I was fairly certain I’d see Emma, Galaa, and Wayne again though. And Felix was now stuck with me for at least a few days at his own suggestion. So we went off to secure our tickets to Harbin, and ended up eating at McDonald’s in the train station (I know. I KNOW. Not my choice!) because entering China was far too much for our brains to handle unfamiliar food with a hangover, both from the festivities and the being so used to things written in Cyrillic.

We then spent another 8 hours on a bullet train north, by the end of which I think we knew each other better than I know most people after months, or even years. And it’s a good thing we found how incredibly well we got on, because our arrival in Harbin was, I would say, less than smooth.

I am used to organising everything for myself (and everyone else), so when a few days earlier this man I had only met once said, ‘Hey I’ve booked us two beds in a hostel in Harbin, it’s all sorted’ I was like, hey, someone else is doing some sorting out of things FOR me for once! Enjoy the luxury, Kate! And I just trusted that is was all dandy.

Then we got in a taxi and he didn’t have the address in Chinese. After a very confusing (and probably maddening for the driver) 10 minutes, we finally got the driver to call the phone number we had and listed to what seemed like one side of an overlong conversation for the purposes of finding out an address. But then he drove on. And we got to the place (its around 11pm at this point) to find out they’d given up our beds.

This is where the benefits of having a travel buddy became truly apparent, because one of us got to freak out and one of us got to remain calm, and things are just a bit more balanced when those two things don’t have to happen in the same person. I was actually the calm one this time around, but we tended to swap off in that respect over the following two weeks.

This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.

This is where we ended up. Could have been worse, I suppose.

With the help of three girls staying int he hostel who had a bit of English, the receptionist managed to communicate to us they’d found us another place to stay. We just went with it because at that point we had little choice. There are a bunch of hotels and hostel in China that only take guests who are Chinese citizens, and I believe the place we ended up was one of those places. It was… mildly terrifying. I’m sure I was the only woman on the premises. They put us in a room all the way at the back. It dingy and cold and not very comfortable and everything smelled of smoke. There was one very dirty squat toilet for the whole place, and no shower (and ALLLLLL we wanted after being on trains for 48 hours was a friggin’ shower). But the people who worked there were really just trying to be helpful in a bizarre situation for everyone, and there wasn’t much else we could do but go to sleep and solve it in the morning.

When I woke up, I WiFi’d up and found that there was an Ibis hotel in the city centre that was not exorbitantly priced and insisted we would be staying there for the remainder of at least MY time in Harbin. This was not met with much protest, particularly after throwing my ‘you best believe I am in charge of this decision’ look. So within the hour, we were in a room with a western toilet and a proper hot shower and it was probably the most relieved I’ll ever be to be in a soulless budget European hotel chain in my life.

From then on, things got much better. We had some absolutely incredible food. We hung out with an American couple we met randomly in the street. They were teaching English in China and were on a weekend trip to the city. (And were also Lindy Hoppers!) We walked on the frozen river and took a ride in some tubes pulled by a snowmobile. I discovered a love for hawthorn berries dipped in sugar. We wandered through the magical ice festival in awe despite our fingers and toes being completely numb just about the whole time. And somehow, rather than getting entirely sick of one another, we decided to stick together for the next 10 days until Felix headed back to Germany from Shanghai.

But only after agreeing I would be in charge of hostel booking duties from now on. Of course.

Harbin was probably the most expensive leg of this trip, what with the hotel and the ice festival tickets and the last minute train bookings. I never would have gone if it weren’t for this dude I jumped in a freezing cold lake with convincing me to freeze a little bit more to see some lights in some ice. And despite the massive added expense and the numbing cold and the slightly shady first night of the year, I’m so happy I agreed to give it a go. Because I mean, just look at the pictures!

And, as I wrote in my notebook while this was all happening, what a fucking way to start a year.