The Great Wall. Tiananmen Square. The terracotta warriors. Over the time I’ve spent in China, I’ve had many opportunities to see the best of what China has to offer. But when friends and relatives ask me that toughest of questions – “What was the coolest thing you did in China?” – my response is almost never the name of some famous spot. Instead, I think of the experiences I tag in my blog as “Random China Adventures” – because there’s really no other name for them.
October 2008. I’d hardly walked around Lijiang for an hour when a middle-aged woman called me over. As I listened skeptically, the mountain of a woman standing before me motioned at the mountains in the distance and explained, in English, that she was of the Naxi minority and would like to take me on a private tour of the local countryside. At first I demurred, not wanting to go anywhere alone with a stranger, but I was quickly put at ease when her husband led over two other Westerners. The three of us conferred briefly, haggled over a price, and before I knew it, I was heading up a dirt road in a rickety old van. We visited a family’s dirt-floored abode, exploring their pepper crop and playing with their baby goats as the mother cooked corn for us over an open fire; I chatted with twelve-year old monks whose parents had given them to a temple because they couldn’t afford to raise them; and I learned how to play Mahjong over traditional Naxi lunch. It was a day that I will never forget.
August 2010. To save money on our trip to Qingdao, my friend Karyn and I decided we’d take the ten-hour train – but by the time Karyn was able to buy tickets, all the seats were sold out. She was only able to buy standing-room only tickets. Still, armed with mini stools and bags of snacks, we kept our spirits up. After boarding the train, we settled ourselves in the “spacious” section between train cars, near a young mother and her precious eight-year-old daughter. During the course of the ten-hour journey, we practiced English with the little girl (and looked through her proud collection of photos of foreigners). We chatted with a man who left his seat to come show us the copy of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech (he had looked up the definitions of every word he didn’t know). And when our 2-dollar stools cracked halfway to Qingdao, a man and his son insisted that we trade our flimsy stools for their sturdier ones. For ten hours, these kind people cared for us and made sure our journey was a happy one.
January 2011. A typical Sunday in Beijing – I was bored and it was too cold to go out. But I’ve never been one to succumb to ennui, and I finally decided that I would go to my gym to try one of their free classes. I settled on belly dance, and arrived at 3:00pm sharp. The Latin Dance class in the studio was running late, and I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place, so I asked another confused-looking woman standing nearby. She assured me she was there for belly-dance too, and we started chatting. Within five minutes, she asked if I would like to set up a regular Chinese-English language exchange, and if I would like to do the first one over foot-massages – her treat. I readily agreed, since that first night, she and I have also met up for Italian food, Macau-style hot pot, and karaoke (but I don’t let her pay for both of us anymore!). She is an intelligent, interesting person and a friend I am growing to value very much!
So what’s the point of these anecdotes? Just this: while in China, there are a lot of famous sites, and they are definitely worth seeing. But my advice to a traveler here is to go with the flow and don’t be afraid to meet people, talk to them, and let them help you see a more personal side of China. It has helped me that I speak some Mandarin, but language skills are hardly a prerequisite for a Random China Adventure. Of course, you should always keep your wits about you, and trust your instincts – I realize now that going off with two strangers in Lijiang probably wasn’t the smartest decision. But China is one of the safest countries on earth for foreigners, and as a woman, there are few places I would rather be on my own. So don’t be shy, smile and talk to strangers, and let your own Random China Adventures happen to you.
To read more about Kate’s travels in China, visit: http://katesyearoff.blogspot.com.