China, 2016: A Trip Through Travels Past
In the fall of 2016, I went on a trip to China. It was my first time in the country, and despite its position as second-to-last country in a year-long global itinerary, it impressed me deeply.
China was extraordinary to me, compelling and confounding. There’s an industriousness, an entrepreneurial spirit that pervades: if you can find some tiny town with one car, someone in that town will be happy to drive you where you’re going, if you’re willing to pay. If you want dinner, you’re surrounded by street vendors with fresh steamed buns, long un-sweet donuts, stinky tofu on charcoal grills– or walk in somewhere and point at things in the glass fridge– they’ll show up steaming-hot and delicious on your table in minutes.
In public spaces, there are people everywhere– especially the old. Everyone is engaged in exercise, but it is rarely a solitary sport. Every public square has lines of choreographed dancers moving to the shrill music of a boombox. Women spin tops with other women; serious-faced old men hackeysack feathered beanbags with other men.
Outside the city, the land is visibly shaped by human hands. Rice and corn terraces span entire vistas. Solar arrays cover entire hills. Progress is rapid; the edge of every city is a construction zone.
In villages, elders sit silent at mah jongg tables, communal and focused in the middle of the day. Young people are in the fields or manning shops or butchering animals in the public street. Coal smoke rises in the morning, filling and flavoring the air as cookstoves light. It ebbs in the day, then rises again at night. The more rural the setting, the harder people work– old women, barefoot, carry sacks and bundles of sticks up dirt roads.
My college friend Ert has spent a lot of time in China, and on this trip graciously served as guide for me, my parents, and my then-partner Jon. Ert wanted partners for a particularly physical adventure through China– backpacking treks on challenging trails and still-more-challenging speculative paths through rice paddies, and we were all game.
Ert greeted us at the hotel he’d picked out in Kunming with a folder apiece: a spreadsheet for each day detailing location, sleeping place, mode of transit, corresponding map. And a thick sheaf of maps, which he had drawn himself by tracing satellite imagery. “I think we should be able to get through this way,” he explained, pointing at the red line he’d drawn over pixellated green. “But we might not.”
The objective, as stated, was to hike hard, multi-day trips in order to get tired and hungry and eat as much delicious food as possible. Kunming, known for its relatively low population and surfeit of wild mushrooms, would provide.
In this blog post series, I’m revisiting and revising my blog posts from that 2016 trip. I think I’ve become a better writer since then, so I’m using the posts to return me to the sensations, emotions, and flavors, and write them again.
May it inspire and excite you, as it does me.
Next: First Morning in China >