Steam curls from each of our cups of tea. We pass the teapot around on the lazy Susan of our round table.

Our packs are propped against the wall: my blue, Jon’s orange, Rick and Eileen’s gray ones in classic backpacker style; Ert’s blue one incongruously cubic in shape despite its Osprey branding. The packs are a weathered pile, showing dirt and wear from sweat, bus holds, long trails.

This story is the continuation of a series that begins here.

It’s a typical dinner scene. We’ve pointed at vegetables that appeal, and they appear as hot spiced dishes. We pass around rice and stir fried vegetables and local meat until we’re full.

In the kitchen, a stand near the open entrance of the restaurant, a hijabi woman runs the show. The whole family is involved, chopping, frying, steaming.

A little boy and girl, maybe five and eight, alternately pull at her skirts, read magazines, chase each other. Other family members come and go, passing around children, sitting to eat at one of the tables.

After dinner, we board our overnight train back to Kunming: one day left before we all board planes. The passage is less than eight hours, so there’s no time for convenient noodles or cards. We go to sleep early and are woken to disembark in the early hours.

The city is still asleep– the buses not running, the metro closed. Down quiet streets, we walk with our packs. The sidewalks are dark, but the billboards are blindingly bright, lighting the street.

Along the river, first signs of daylight appear: senior citizens are performing early-morning calisthenics alone. The sky begins to lighten as we arrive at our hotel. Since it’s China, check-in time is so flexible that we are allowed up to our rooms right away. We sleep a few hours, and wake still drowsy.

Our last day traveling China together is mild. We go to a nature park in the city. We see a temple carved from the marble cliff. We ride buses and walk packless.

In the evening, we exchange brief goodbyes– Jon and I have been traveling with my parents for two months, Ert with us for two and a half weeks. All three have early flights, so we won’t see them in the morning.

By the time Jon and I wake up, it’s just the two of us again. We read, practice Mandarin, eat, pack. On to the next country.

< Previous: Meat, Music, and Temples

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Photograph by Eileen Breseman

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