It stops like it started—the butterfly effect of tragedy. Last April I was halfway to Kathmandu when the Nepal earthquake stranded me in Europe during a stopover. Then a few weeks ago I cancelled a flight to Bangladesh after the mass killing of foreigners in Dhaka’s diplomatic quarter. Rather than follow an alternate route into South Asia, I took stock of my situation and perceived a waning enthusiasm for life from a backpack. So I booked a ticket home to Maui (via Beijing), in pursuit of a different sort of challenge. Until then I glide around Chaoyang District on Brett’s bike while late afternoon sunlight bleeds through willows and Chinese traffic swirls around me. In the closing chapter, as my mind searches for lessons from this vast matrix of codes and colors, I wonder how authentic I have become. I eventually realize the fallacy of this query, because all my faces have always been me: one fully realized being slipping between expressions amidst the changing depths of human experience. Nevertheless, a question remains: upon which version of the self do I choose to focus energy, understanding that visualization shapes perspective to form reality? Behind open eyes 16 months of travel coalesce into a pulsating mass of blurred backdrops as these video game worlds break down into waves. I slip through haze and yellow splotches on an open road, and think about those who wandered with me for a bit under a dying sun.
The Old Guard grips tighter in the throes of a losing battle, but this is not a celebration because we are not the heroes; glory belongs to those after us. Shackled by the legacy of our forefathers, we will not save the world. But the world will be saved because we opened the floodgates to a life properly lived, in deep valleys and unexplored channels of goodness. Us wayward souls stumbling through a wasteland drenched in the rays of an unpleasant sun. Irreverent jesters dancing without shame in this mad kingdom. It is all so fucking hilarious and beautiful and tragic at once. This is it. This is IT. This is it! And I am here—along with others—which makes you far less special, but an indispensable part of something far, far greater. So treat me as if we are gonna die (because we will). Treat a stranger the same. Look into our eyes, those mini-portals to the universe, and see we are all lost in this together, making it up as we go along. Lean into the discomfort; pledge allegiance to the process; and communicate on the wavelengths, man! I can feel you.
My head hurt. That was the first thing I noticed. The second was that I was lying on the floor. Alone. I lifted my head, groggily, then sat up and looked around again, slowly registering how exactly I came to be at this specific place at this specific time. My phone—still alive—read 8:09 AM. No wonder my head hurt. I stood up, stumbled down the steps, and sidestepped a squirming litter of pups on my way to a hut across the street, where Ty casually sat with a group of villagers around a table. He was wasted.
“I woke up at 7 and they were already going at it,” he shrugged. Someone handed me a seat, then a clear liquid that was to become my first sip of the morning. I winced ever-so-slightly as the ring of smiling faces looked on. The mountains all around us were still draped in early morning fog, but the air was warm, so I leaned back and melted into the chair. We weren’t going anywhere for awhile.
I had met Ty about two weeks earlier at the entrance of a motorbike dealership in Hanoi, along with a couple Israeli guys who knew him from China. That afternoon, we all rode bikes down the street and drank beers furnished by the shop owner, a guy our age whose breath smelled of alcohol. At first blush this struck me as irresponsible, but in hindsight I appreciate his business acumen—what could be more enticing to young, testosterone-filled men on a backpacking jaunt through Southeast Asia than a don’t-tell-mom combination of booze and bikes?
Things are still cheap and relatively unregulated in Vietnam, where a bowl of pho costs a buck and a half; a beer at a street-side bar goes for as little as a quarter; and a 110 cc Honda Win—the standard backpacking motorbike—can be purchased for 220 USD and ridden all over the country’s well-paved roads without a license, insurance, or registration papers. In a land where everyone travels around on two-wheeled rides, it is easy enough for a foreigner get his hands on one, from guys casually standing on street corners (“Hello! Motorbike?”) to the the dealers who advertise on craigslist and set up small shops in the bustling Old Quarter. I visited a few places and settled on the third, where the bikes ran the smoothest and the proprietor seemed honest, but that counted for only so much—it was impossible for him to know everything about my pre-owned chopper. I just hoped it didn’t break down in the mountains.
I had traveled to Hanoi with the intention of riding up to the terraced rice fields of Sapa, but immediately nixed those plans upon stepping off the plane into an unexpectedly cold Southeast Asian winter. A few days after our first beer, Ty and I agreed to head south together in this thin sliver of a country, towards the direction of warmth, down intriguing backroads as they appeared. Of several main arteries that cut across the territory we chose the two-lane Ho Chih Minh Highway, part of which meanders through rural, mountainous regions along the western border. Neither of us knew exactly where we would end up, but these things would work themselves out in time. We left the first dry day after a string of rainy ones, during the final breaths of 2015.
The internet is inundated with accounts of foreigners describing the traffic in Vietnam—the most typical refrain being that things are “fucking insane”—but it’s really not that bad, and certainly doesn’t reach the level of anarchy that reigns on the streets of China. Nevertheless, even countryside riding demands vigilance, mainly of the small men driving big trucks that barrel down the middle of narrow roads in a lopsided game of chicken. We also faced slower obstacles—namely cows, water buffalo, and dogs—which claim as much of a right to the road as the humans who built them. The animals are everywhere, often unaccompanied by their owners as they saunter down the highway or lounge right in the middle of it, practically daring drivers to ride over or through them. I have yet to see a leashed dog in the countryside, illustrative of the simple but practical methods used to control domesticated creatures, which possess the intelligence to not abandon the hands that feed them, but lack the ability to understand that those hands will convert them to food in due time.
Aside from familiarizing myself with the everyday sights and sounds of rural Vietnam, I spent the first few days of the trip replacing faulty bike parts included with a motorbike recycled several times over. Repair shops pop up every few kilometers in settled areas, and anyone with a basic knowledge of bikes can fix a Win. But there are also dead zones—stretches of undeveloped land without a mechanic in sight—and I found myself in one of them on the second day when my chain slipped off the back sprocket, rendering the Win inoperable and un-rollable. Ty rode to the nearest town for help, but the mechanic there refused to leave his shop. I stayed put, looking to flag down a trucker with space in his cargo, while Ty sought out other options. It wasn’t long before he found the solution in the form of a sugar cane farmer riding his tractor down the road. The guy was a genuinely happy being, and ecstatic to join our adventure. In exchange for a full tank of gas—just over 2 USD—he drove me and my bike to a small village off the highway. Along the way, we passed through a street lined with fellow cane-hawking farmers, who cheered on their friend and his unusual load.
This episode became part of our journey rather than a hiccup in it, joining an endless stream of unanticipated occurrences that inevitably flow from a brand of tourism for which there is no strict schedule, or any guarantees. Ty and I found ourselves along the same road because we opened ourselves to a real world filled with real people living real lives. For it is one thing to believe in our interconnectedness, but it is quite another to feel it through an interaction with a complete stranger who occupies a universe that, up until a moment ago, you never knew existed. Guidebooks were useless out here, but smart phones (with offline gps functions) and common sense took care of the basics. We chose restaurants according to customer count, and specific dishes by gaining access to the kitchen and pointing at raw materials. Many of the towns on our route went unnamed on our map apps, but we could tell when settlements lay up ahead, as well as their relative size, based on concentrations of interconnected black lines—denoting streets—surrounding sections of the highway. When the skies began to darken, we aimed for a web of streets large enough to support the existence of a “nha nghi” (guesthouse). If none existed, or the town gave us a bad vibe, we pressed forward.
An experience would transpire, instantly, then immediately give way to the next, folding into an extended sequence of memories too fast to process. Lest living presently was that easy, beneath the hair blowing in the wind lay an anxious mind manifesting itself in all the hypotheticals, some more realistic than others. Assuming a Honda Win is bound to break down, does it matter whether I consider those circumstances before they occur? Sometimes, such as the day before our trip into a dark green patch near the border with Laos, an area as picturesque as it is lacking in gas stations and mechanics. After exploring a world-class collection of recently discovered caves, we hired a guy in Phong Nha to inspect our bikes for anything that could possibly fail us.
The western section of the Ho Chi Minh Highway (the road bifurcates for a couple hundred kilometers below Phong Nha) is practically deserted, which makes sense: unless someone has reason to wind through the untamed mountains in this largely uninhabited area, there are more efficient ways to cross the country. We followed the highway as it sliced through dense jungle carpeting rolling mountains. For the first time in days even the sun joined our journey, smothering us in warm rays as we flowed with the pattern of the landscape: rise for awhile; curving descent; repeat.
Signs of civilization appeared farther on when the jungle opened to broad plains surrounded by forested mountains. We crossed a narrow suspension bridge leading to a village on the other side of a river and encountered schoolchildren who were equally fascinated and mortified by the sight of us. Amidst the commotion, an out-of-town government engineer doing inspection work walked over. Before the bridge’s construction six months earlier, anyone traveling to and from the village needed either a boat or the strength to wade across the flowing water, he explained. I noticed that the straps on the kids’ book bags doubled as life preservers.
Later that afternoon we passed the first guest house to appear all day and took a break to assess the situation. According to our offline map, Tang Ky seemed reachable with the remaining sunlight, so we set off for the town, which presumably offered accommodations if the app deemed the place important enough to name. Our actions reflected full faith in the process; our intuition; and maps.me, which, if it was an actual human speaking from personal knowledge, would have warned us that Tang Ky is nothing more than a collection of shacks individually resembling the clubhouse you built out in the woods with your friends during middle school. Fuck.
We would prevail, of course, but our error nevertheless stuck us in an unenviable position: hours from the next major town, but too far from the guest house to turn back. Ty pulled over to refill his tank with a water bottle containing gas while I shot forward into the darkness, racing through options that soon became decided by the bugs: too small to be seen on a speeding bike, they materialized out of thin air every evening, colliding with my face like bits of airborne sand and sticking to my eyeballs until forceful blinking shed the pests. But at that point it was too late—the toxin from their bodies had already been released, and several minutes after contact my eyes burned as if exposed to that blue chemical under the sink. The situation was becoming untenable.
I slowed while passing through another small village. Kids played in the street, and waved as I rode past. Up ahead on the right a group of people chilled around a table in front of a shack. From the roadway they seemed friendly enough; there was just enough light to see a few smiles. I pulled over, dismounted, and approached them as Ty rolled up with a trail of kids in pursuit. A middle-aged man rose to greet me. He swayed in the dusk. These ethnic minorities didn’t speak Vietnamese, but perhaps they understood it? Through google translate, I asked whether a guest house was nearby, knowing full well the answer was no. The man, both drunk and the guy in charge of making decisions, shook his head and laughed. Then, as if to deftly preempt the potentially awkward next question, he pointed to a shack across the street and made a sleeping gesture.
Our presence had generated quite a stir, which began to swell with the prospect of us spending the night in the village. There was only one hater: a guy around my age who stood and raised his voice in protest. It immediately became clear that he was the prince of this fiefdom: No. 1 Son of the Village Leader, and petulant objector to our proposed stay in what I figured was his residence. His voice sounded authoritative, and surely mattered, but it was summarily dismissed by a chorus of groans about being such a hard-ass. The people had spoken. No. 1 Son scowled ever-so-slightly and returned to his seat at the periphery of the group, resigned to let the events unfold as they were.
And so it was decided. We rolled our bikes over to the house across the street and returned with a bottle of alcohol that my travel companion had stuffed in his bag a couple days earlier for a moment like this. In spite of his North American roots, Ty kicks it with the Vietnamese like a native, so I let him handle all matters of diplomacy while I decompressed in the background and waited for my eyes to stop hurting. A small camping lantern—our sole light source—illuminated a circle of inquisitive villagers and a small cup of rice liquor that was making the rounds amongst the men. We worked our way through their stuff then ours, then back to theirs, occassionally turning to google translate but mostly just laughing at the serendipity of it all. No dull moments or awkward silences, and it wasn’t just the alcohol. These people lived simply but fully; offering everything they had; needing only one cup—hallmarks of the poorest. Even No. 1 Son, always in the background with a watchful eye, cracked a smile as the sky around us went pitch black, turning the lantern into the center of our solar system.
Food eventually appeared, as well as more liquor (where was the water?), followed by music from my bluetooth speaker and accompanying dance moves—a cultural exchange. The night ended with five of us on the floor of the Village Leader’s hut, sharing blankets and body heat. One of the guys cuddled up to Ty; I couldn’t tell if he was fucking with him or just getting warm. Either way, it was too weird for Ty, who dragged the Village Leader out of bed for a late night joyride in the mountains. My final moments of consciousness were punctuated by grunting from behind the curtains, where No. 1 Son scrambled his wife’s guts as an unsubtle reminder that I was a visitor to his kingdom.
People were in high spirits when I returned to the drinking table the next morning. The Village Leader’s neighbor made everyone laugh. He seemed funny, like a Vietnamese Chris Tucker. After sucking down an inappropriate amount of liquor for breakfast, the two of us took off on a tour of the neighborhood. We waded through a river that feeds the village, scoped out Chris’s prized pigs, and pestered his mother, who gave him a look he has undoubtedly seen for several decades.
By mid-day the scene had descended into another drunken mess, and I decided it was pointless to try and figure out how these people earned a living. I put in some face time at the table before excusing myself for a walk—away from the never-ending cup of rice liquor; past the rickety huts and unshackled water buffalo; through the forested hills; towards a new reality.
The territory appears unfamiliar, but I know I have been here before. In this reality, everyone looks like everyone else, taking different paths to find the same things. It logically follows that if everything is the same, then no answer is right, so why not mine? Shifting understandings of the world shift energetic will to the creation of a progressively doper experience. Yesterday’s achievements become old news, but they always were, because by definition potential was already written. The new normal—crazy at the time—is emotionless now. And even that changes. Time passes, eyes blink, things happen. And suddenly I find myself riding into Laos, through vast stretches of red dirt and nameless towns, all the way to the Cambodian border, where I sell my bike after (corrupt?) officials reject its passage to the other side. I look around and again I am alone. Away from something, towards another. And so it was.
What happens here reverberates everywhere, but in many ways the District of Columbia operates as a self-contained society with its own set of rules. The capital city of the most powerful country on the planet hums with relentless intensity, fueled by a population of perennial overachievers who were drawn from all over the globe by the steadfast belief they could rise to such great heights, and then did so. Once an abstract idea—little more than faded childhood memories and a background to newscasts—Washington D.C. became home after graduate school when a multinational law firm hired me to work in its white collar crime and government investigations practice group. I returned to the Northeast for a couple months during a vibrant fall, revisiting the faces and landmarks that inhabited my life for four years, all the while thinking about how I see the world because I saw this one.
Zhangjiajie faded into the distance as I returned to Changsha and jumped on a plane bound for Chongqing, a place often touted as the Biggest City You Never Heard Of, although that’s not exactly accurate: Chongqing as a municipality encompasses 30 million residents, but the urban population is somewhere closer to seven million, a rather unremarkable figure in the parallel universe that is China. Still, people are everywhere, which I discovered while riding the metro from the airport into town.
In the heart of the city, roads curve over and around the mountainous geography, precluding a grid-like urban layout. Best to read between the lines, in the maze of alleyways that climb hills and snake through hidden neighborhoods. Take a path and see where it leads—past the food stalls, shops, and locals carrying out their respective lives, never to be seen again, yet always to be felt.
Half a year on the road, and the earth continues to spin on its axis in a steady orbit around the sun. But my eyes open, and patterns appear. We are molecules in motion, a complex tapestry of individuals woven from the same cosmic dust. Energy attracts without sight or touch, while the senses confirm what was always known. As the mind expands, it ascends to a heightened state of consciousness that can never be forgotten or unlearned, if not consistently achieved. I challenge myself to fight the fears that blind, and to develop habits that reflect universal principles revealing themselves in my ever-changing backdrop of places and people. Can I walk down the street with my head raised—unafraid of eye contact—and gaze with non-judgment at all that is brought to my attention? Can I talk to a stranger as if I have known him forever? Can I enter any environment, read the vibrations, and immediately sync with my surroundings? Can I be simultaneously aware of everything happening around me? Can I facilitate the flow versus inhibit it? Can I embody love: the one, incontrovertible truth that emerges from this organized chaos?
My two months in China were anchored in Beijing, where I stayed with Brett, a former classmate in my study abroad program who now works at the embassy as a Commercial Policy Officer. This was my opportunity to dive into the 3000-year old city, which ripples outward from the Forbidden City in concentric ring roads. The Shanghai-Beijing debate rages among all who have spent time in this country, and for good reason: both cities make strong cases in different ways. China’s capitol is filled with a swirling air of history, politics, and culture that emanates from the ancient landmarks and narrow hutongs, where traditional residences and hip nightlife venues stand side by side in harmony that would make Confucius proud. This air also numbed my mouth on bad pollution days while I darted around the sprawling metropolis on Brett’s 150 CC moped.
You could spend a lifetime in Beijing and would die of lung cancer before you had the chance to explore every nook and cranny of this formidable city. But then you would miss out on the rest of China, in which adventure lurks around every corner, no matter where you turn. So after a few weeks I set off hitchhiking southwest towards Chongqing, where Brett and I agreed to meet a couple weeks later for the National Holiday. I began my trip at the periphery of the city, which took an hour to reach by subway. From the station, I walked several kilometers to a highway on-ramp that a fellow traveler had marked with a green dot on the hitchwiki map. The toll booth operator pretended not to notice as I took a seat on a nearby guardrail and waited.
As with many aspects of life in the Middle Kingdom, I figured hitchhiking would involve a unique set of obstacles, especially in light of the fact that this is not a common practice in the country, where hostility to strangers is an unfortunate social norm. The universal gesture, a protruded thumb, was meaningless out here unless I felt like communicating to random drivers that everything was going swell. Hitchwiki’s China posting listed several alternative methods, one of which was to just wave people down. So I tried it, and sure enough, the first car stopped. In it sat a middle-aged guy driving to his home 30 kilometers down the road—not the distance I was hoping for, but I was down to see where this went. He was talkative during the ride, laughing occasionally when he could sense that I was unable to follow his rapid delivery. We carried on for about 20 minutes, then parted ways at his off-ramp.
Stepping out of a car without a proper hitchhiking location in sight always causes my stomach to drop for a few seconds, during which the rational mind rushes to restore order in the wake of the abrupt realization that I am completely alone in the middle of nowhere in a foreign land. I liken the feeling to jumping into a cold body of water—you know it’s coming, but can do nothing avoid the shock that prefaces the gradual adjustment to your circumstances. These types of experiences undoubtedly make me a stronger person, but as I learned that day, there can sometimes be too much of a good thing. Chinese highways are very much unlike the European highways I encountered this past summer, in ways that I found exceedingly unhelpful as a hitchhiker. Whereas on-ramps and off-ramps often come in pairs on European roadways, entry-exit points are separated by vast distances in China, requiring me travel on foot for up to five kilometers at a time until I arrived at an appropriate location to hitch (usually a rest stop or toll station). The lack of parallel roads next to the highway also left me with no choice but to walk on the shoulder, which is dangerous anywhere, but especially in a country that manages to rack up over 200,000 deaths annually in traffic accidents.
The view was nothing to write home about either. Gone were the lavender farms and rolling hills of Europe, replaced by infertile farmland struggling to sustain the life around it. And I was smack dab in the middle of Hebei, the most polluted province in one of the most polluted countries in the world, a place remarkable only for the sheer number of environmentally unfriendly factories powering an economy that grows at a staggering seven percent per year. A hellish gray smog hangs over everything, like Mordor. Only instead of Orcs there are people, who go about their daily business as if the sky is supposed to look like that, because IT ALWAYS DOES.
My drivers were cool, though—genuinely nice people who didn’t think twice about stopping for a guy with a smile and a wave. I secured all of my four rides that day within a few minutes of posting up at each location. My travel companions included an architect or construction engineer; a manufacturer of children’s backpacks; a group of four young men heading somewhere to do something; and a guy in the window business. Needless to say, my Mandarin could use some work. But we all vibed, and by the end of the evening I arrived at the city of Shijiazhuang, about 300 km from my starting point. My last driver, Window Guy, could not keep from smiling during our entire 100 km ride. He spoke about his wife and kids, all the while sucking down cigarettes and exhaling a plume that blended into the sky around us. The pollution was pretty bad, he admitted.
A few kilometers from the city center, we agreed that he would drive me to a guesthouse run by somebody he knew. But a few seconds later a light bulb flashed in his head, and he dialed a number on his phone. “I will be back later tonight,” he said politely but firmly. “I am gonna have a drink.” Window Guy made one more call, then turned to me and smiled.
15 minutes later, we pulled up to what looked like a shipping container sitting in an abandoned lot. A gleaming Mercedes stood out among several cars parked out front, but no sign indicated what was happening inside. Upon entering the box, we encountered a couple groups of drunk blue collar workers drinking beer and letting loose. A pudgy, affable-looking man wearing a Santa Monica Track Club t-shirt rose to greet us from a nearby table. This was Friend of Window Guy, also in the window business, and owner of the Mercedes. Chinese all pretty much dress the same and eat at the same establishments, regardless of their economic situation, but a nice car is the status symbol of choice, something that can be proudly displayed wherever you go, including a dumpy looking restaurant under a highway in Shijiazhuang. I asked for directions to the facilities, and Friend of Window Guy walked me outside and pointed to a cluster of weeds.
We eventually sat down and were joined some time later by Friend of Window Guy’s wife and another associate. I hadn’t eaten all day and was starving. But this gathering was not about the food, which, incidentally, was delicious—a fusion of Sichuan and generic Chinese cuisines. No, this was about the baijiu, or rice liquor, that we would toast with to celebrate this serendipitous occasion. Clear in color and high in alcohol content, it is the centerpiece of every banquet, a liquid tool for forging business and personal relationships. Hosts offer it to their guests to give face, guests pour it for their hosts to give face, young people serve it to their elders to give face, and everyone shoots it to give face. There is always more face to give, and any number of ways to give it. It is a game that no one loses. The bad stuff tastes like kerosene mixed with cheap perfume. Ours, brewed in Inner Mongolia, was smooth with fruity textures.
So we drank, and kept drinking, exchanging energy while discussing the subtle differences between 干杯 (gan bei: drink the entire glass), 喝一口 (he yi kou: drink a mouthful), and 随便喝 (sui bian he: drink as much as you wish), short phrases announced by anyone, at any time, as an invitation to partake. We called it a night several hours later when Friend of Window Guy’s wife carried him out of the restaurant, rendered unable to give or receive any more face, much less speak. Window Guy—still smiling—paid for everything and drove me to a small hotel, where he negotiated a rate of about 7 USD for the night then drove off into the haze, but not before cautioning that house rules forbade me from bringing a prostitute to my room.
The following morning, I checked the map on my phone and found myself on the east side of the city, a couple blocks from a highway interchange. I guzzled a two-liter bottle of water then walked to the on-ramp as large trucks rumbled past, kicking up thick clouds of soot into the air. Last night’s high quickly turned to uneasiness as I looked around at gloomy Shijiazhuang—what I could see of it, anyway: visibility in every direction was limited to only a couple hundred yards. There is something deeply unsettling about the all-enveloping aura generated by an unnaturally grey sky. A couple hours rolled by, but no one slowed or even seemed to notice my presence except for a large group of construction workers ambling over to the next job site. The sparse traffic did little to improve my deteriorating mood.
At noon I walked over to a taxi driver parked nearby and presented my problem. After a quick strategy session, he drove me to a toll booth at the entrance of a highway heading south in the direction of Henan province. Vehicles were plentiful there, and came to a standstill near the ticket collection points—an ideal scenario for finding a ride. I walked past the gates to the back side of the toll station and set my bag down on the shoulder where the lanes bottlenecked to form the start of the highway. To clarify my intentions, I pulled out my notebook, wrote 河南 in bold characters on a blank sheet, and assumed the position. A few inquisitive drivers pulled over over the course of an hour, but all were either staying within the city limits or joining another highway at an interchange up ahead. I eventually drew the attention of some cops, who drove up and explained that I couldn’t stand behind the gates. It seemed reasonable enough; I was just glad they didn’t kick me out of the area altogether.
Near the front side of the booth, I wedged myself between a couple lanes of traffic and smiled at every car that passed, attempting to make eye contact with the individuals in the cars. Some smiled out of curiosity, while others scowled at a sight they most assuredly had never seen before. Hours passed, perspiration built, and my will slowly crumbled as car after car unsympathetically rolled past in the stewing heat. Late afternoon rolled around, and when I found myself able to stare directly at the sun without shades, I decided it was time to escape. There was too much beauty out there for me to spend another minute in this wretched city, or anywhere wretched for that matter.
There are a couple things I did not know about Shijiazhuang before landing there. The first is that it is the second most polluted city in China. The second is that it is home to a large railway junction, allowing for easy exit once the first fact makes remaining there untenable. At the train station, easily the largest I ever encountered, I scanned the departure board and found a train leaving for Xian in an hour. I purchased a ticket from a clerk and slumped against a nearby wall, taking a seat for the first time all day. While boarding a short time later, I discovered that she had slipped me a first class ticket, my consolation prize for all the trouble.
Six hours later I was in Xian, home to the Terracotta warriors and a sizable Muslim population whose history traces back to the the city’s Silk Road roots. I visited this place in college, and wasn’t overly enthused about coming back for round two, but its central location in China made it an ideal location to map out my next moves. I mulled over my options the following day while roaming around the bustling Muslim quarter, where residents carry out their daily lives amongst throngs of tourists eating skewered lamb and shopping for the kinds of things you gift friends after traveling.
In the evening I found refuge from the crowds in the Great Mosque, the oldest of its kind of China, and chilled on its grounds while members filed in for evening prayer. A serene energy hung in the air. Even the cats living in the compound exuded a quiet spirituality as they sauntered about. A lot had happened, and a lot more was around the corner, but first decisions would have to be made. With long-term travel, or any travel for that matter, there are no rules; no best things to see or experience; no right way to do things. You really can do whatever the fuck you want, which, though nominally liberating, leads down the philosophical rabbit hole to fundamental questions about self and purpose.
What was the ultimate goal: Happiness? I have grown to distrust that amorphous word, which is tossed around so casually these days. What is happiness in a world where pain and discomfort will always be present? Recently, I have begun asking myself a more practical question: Is what I am doing authentic? Because the more authentic I become, the better I feel, and the better I connect with the world around me. Sitting on a bench in this mosque, my Chinese hitchhiking adventures behind me, no bosses in sight and travel partners to consider, I leaned inward to hear an intuition that speaks without words.
After some reflection it was decided that I would head to the mountains, where I have always found my inner strength, since a childhood spent at the base of the West Maui Mountains. Huashan, one of China’s Five Great Mountains, rises a short train ride to the east of Xian, and seemed like an appropriate venue to host my return to nature. I checked out of my hostel the following morning alongside Flip, a Dutch national wearing a pair of hiking boots and a look of adventure on his face. A quick chat confirmed my suspicions that he was heading in the same direction. We agreed to make the ascent together, selecting the traditional six-kilometer route that runs from Huashan village to the North Peak. It was a grueling climb, made even more difficult by heavy rain that pelted us for the first half of the hike. We occassionally took breaks in shelters that dotted the path, but it was impossible to avoid getting soaked.
We reached the North Peak in the late afternoon, and after sundown arrived at the West Peak, on which perches a temple that now operates as a lodge for those wishing to spend a night on the mountain. I was cold, wet, and exhausted from seven hours of climbing. But we had made it to the top, and were rewarded the next morning by a majestic view of all that was scaled the day before.
We spent the next day hiking the other peaks, then traveled back to Xian for the night. Flip made his way to Shanghai the following morning, while I boarded a plane bound for Hunan province. I had heard that Hunanese are less polished than their countrymen from other regions, a stereotype reinforced shortly after arrival when I encountered two guys sharing a urinal in an airport bathroom. But I wasn’t there to cross swords. The mountains of Zhangjiajie (technically: Wulingyuan Scenic Area) were calling. I saw pictures a few days earlier while researching my options in Xian, and immediately knew I had to go.
I spent my first night in the capital, Changsha, then took a five-hour bus ride the next morning to a small city about an hour from the park. From there, I jumped on a small commuter bus used primarily by locals to ride to and from their homes scattered throughout the countryside. There were no designated stops; passengers simply yelled out to the driver when they wanted to disembark, and he pulled over to the side of the road. It seemed like an efficient enough system. I hopped off at the last stop with plans to find a reasonably priced guesthouse in the area, but was immediately approached by a persistent woman offering to rent out a room in her home. This is a common practice in rural China, a preferable alternative to labor-intensive income streams. She seemed aight, so I agreed to her proposition after bargaining down the price a couple bucks (rates were negotiable because this was China, and because I arrived right before the National Holiday). Her daughter picked us up in the family car, and the three of us traveled back to their house in a nearby village. The place was essentially run like a B&B, with individual rooms upstairs, and a common area downstairs that functioned as the family’s living room and guest dining room. The woman’s husband cooked all my meals, usually involving some form of pork, the meat of choice in the countryside.
The creators of Avatar supposedly looked to Zhangjiajie for inspiration, and it is easy to see why. This part of the planet feels otherworldly, mysterious. Throughout the region, thousands of rock pillars climb into a sky perpetually shrouded in fog, while exotic birds and monkeys clamber around in the forest below. Inside the park, I found little used trails, away from the cable cars and major pathways, and pushed to my physical limits, seeing how far I could go. Often, I was completely alone, climbing through valleys and up mountains for up to eight hours a day.
On day two, I rode a bus to the west end of the park and followed a trail leading back into a narrow valley. I continued along until I crossed paths with an old farmer cutting wood. His bowsaw consisted of a long blade attached to both ends of a curved branch, leading to me to believe that this guy had been living here for awhile, and was probably here to stay. We were the only two people around. Through a thick Hunan accent, he suggested I keep going: “It is beautiful that way.”
I soon entered a lush forest, which was silent save for an occasional monkey swinging through the branches. As the valley narrowed, the path turned up the side of a mountain, which I climbed for an hour until I reached a plateau overlooking a city of sandstone skyscrapers scattered across the horizon. As with Huashan, and all the major mountains in China, the trail was either paved or built with stone, making it easy to move through the perpetually damp landscape, and allowing me to feel gratitude for a life in which I wasn’t one of the laborers thrown on this backbreaking project. Farther down the path I ran into my second OG of the day, a guy in his 80s slinging snacks from a simple wooden shack that he appeared to live behind. I purchased a bowl of instant noodles and sat down for a quick chill. Decked out in a Mao suit, he smiled at me while rolling a fat cigarette. We got each other, although his accent was too thick for me to understand most of what he was saying. I imagine he spoke about the mountains, what lay up ahead.
After a couple hours spent roaming the plateau, evening approached, and the skies began to darken. I walked to a bus stop, but none was heading in the direction of the park entrance closest to my place, a two-hour hike from where I stood. Some older local ladies sitting nearby figured out my problem and started pestering me to stay in their mountain shacks for the night. It was too late to make it back to Senlingongyuan before nightfall, they claimed. I declined their offers, stuffed my shirt in my backpack, and started running down the mountain.
Initial concerns that I overestimated myself slipped away as I fell into a rhythm on the trail. I felt comfortable in the shadows, alone with nothing but my thoughts and a dark undercurrent of energy that inhabits this surreal world. For all three of my days here, without conscious planning, I found myself roaming the park long after most visitors had left for the day. This was not a search, but a journey into that which lay beyond the fog, on the other side. It was always right there, that ancient wisdom, waiting for me to connect. I reached the bottom of the ridge, where the trail joined a major path about five kilometers from the entrance, and kept running.
We are shaped by our travels, bent by the visceral reactions, exotic sensations, and serendipitous occurrences that can never be adequately captured in written or pictorial form. You really had to be there, which is never an easy feat, because a journey often takes us far outside the world where everything we know resides. There is a freedom in solo travel, but also a joy in hitting the road with old friends in new lands, where relationships deepen through powerful shared experiences. So I welcomed the opportunity to explore a bit of China with Mike, visiting from DC on his first tour through Asia and ready to get it in.
We met in Beijing, home to our mutual friend Brett, and after a couple days roaming the town set our sights on the Great Wall. No trip to the capital city is complete without a visit to this popular attraction, which, despite the ubiquitousness of its image and the fact that it is just that—a wall—, is truly awe-inspiring to behold in person. Impossibly long, snaking from one end of the horizon to the other, this anointed Wonder of the Medieval World has commanded a reverence throughout the centuries from barbarians and tourists alike.
To spend a night on the Wall is to properly experience it, as I had first done in 2003, but the government complicated things a few years ago by outlawing camping on certain sections, making such an endeavor tricky but not necessarily impossible. After researching several options and gathering supplies, we decided to start our trip with an organized hiking group, which provided us with a guide to consult and transportation to Gubeikou, a historically strategic (and less touristed) section located a couple hours outside the city. Mike and I remained with the group for the first few hours of the hike, then split off when they turned around to head back to the starting point. Our guide, a British guy about my age who works full-time leading tours on the Wall, sketched a rudimentary map of the path ahead and sent us on our way. We would figure out how to return to Beijing when the time came.
A military base runs adjacent to a portion of Gubeikou, requiring us to descend the Wall at one point and take a several-kilometer detour through Hemp Village, a narrow valley lined with strips of farmland and overgrown vegetation, but nary a hemp plant (or human, for that matter). The single-person path twists past an abandoned farmhouse, runs alongside fields of corn, and eventually cuts through the backyard of a local farmer. The guide had mentioned that the farmer occassionally requests a nominal payment in exchange for an easement through his property, but he was nowhere in sight.
At the edge of the farm, a steep switchback trail led us out of the valley and onto the ridgeline, where we reascended the Wall and found shelter in a guard tower moments before a severe thunderstorm and hail—unusual for this region—rained down from above. The tower was occupied by the first person we had seen in hours, a local woman charging approximately 10 USD to cross over into the renovated Jinshanling section, one of the off-limits areas for camping. We paid the gatekeeper, engaged in small talk, then sat around scheming our next move as the downpour continued. It so happened that this woman was perched in an ideal tower for camping: built in the 1300s (historic chic); restored in the 1600s, meaning no gaping holes in the walls and roof; and situated at the far end of Jinshanling, where only the most vigilant security personnel would venture during the cold, damp night. Rather than fess up to our intentions, we decided to wait it out and see what happened, a strategy that ultimately proved successful when she grabbed her belongings at around 5 PM and left without saying a word.
Mike and I set up camp and assumed duties at the guard tower for the evening, keeping a watchful eye for marauding invaders as the rain clouds drifted away and a bluish-gray dusk settled into the mountains. We sank into our surroundings, the only souls for miles, sharing breath with this indomitable temple that lords over the earth with stoic indifference to all the life and death that have visited its steps.
Spend a night on the Wall and its silence speaks, telling a story that resonates with the deepest part of you, that which is everything and nothing but something worth being, if only for this beautiful moment. A truth in a series of truths revealed, a step deeper into the universe.