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.