Eleven weeks in China? Why?

Trip Start Sep 04, 2007
Trip End Nov 20, 2007

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Flag of United States  , Washington
Thursday, August 30, 2007

My mother has spent the night outside the city limits of Marshalltown, Iowa once in the last ten years. My father last took a vacation outside Iowa when he went on a honeymoon after marrying his second wife; they've been married for (if I recall correctly) 43 years. I'm about to spend eleven weeks wandering from one end of China to the other and back again, mostly on my own. Surely I'm adopted.

Admittedly, this is a bit of a stretch for me, too, but I'm single, I don't have kids or pets, and I work for a company that gives employees a three-month paid sabbatical when they've reached the ten-year mark. I've also spent way too much time in the last, um, let's call it several years renovating my house, sometimes treading the same path to the hardware store three times in the same Saturday. I need an adventure.

A few years ago, I saw an article in National Geographic's Adventure magazine about a tour to Shipton's Arch, the world's tallest known natural stone arch, in far western China. Like lots of other folks, I've been to Arches National Park and thought the arches were remarkable, but the experience didn't make me an archophile, chasing all over creation collecting arch sightings. (There's an organization of those people, in England, as you'd expect.) The tour went other places, too, though, including Beijing, Xi'an, Dunhuang, Turpan, the Urumqi airport, and Kashgar, which appears to be less that 100 miles from the Tajikistan border. To me, this sounded like a fun adventure and, at the same time, a not-too-challenging way to get to a place where I don't speak or read the language much beyond "ni hao" and can't readily wing it as I have in places where I could at least decipher the alphabet, fergodsake.

When you get the chance to do (almost) anything you want for three months, you think about it a lot. I considered and rejected a number of possible travel destinations because I wanted to do something with the three months that I couldn't readily do in a three-week vacation writ large, as well as something that was truly new to me. I considered living in Paris for the duration and working on my French, but I've been to Paris, and I don't see that many Francois Truffaut movies anymore. I considered Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Scotland, and England, but they're too easy-they speak my language, more or less-so I could go there practically on a moment's notice. I considered the Czech Republic, in part because I was there last fall with my friend Pete and had a great time, but I was there last fall. I considered South America, but my interest didn't extend much beyond Machu Picchu, and that wouldn't fill three months. Time and again I reconsidered the tour to Shipton's Arch plus something else, but I couldn't figure out what the something else was. Perhaps because of some accidental reading on China, Simon Winchester's The River at the Center of the World (I was on a Winchester jag at the time), the idea of spending more time in China started to take hold. At the same time, the dollar was plummeting against every currency in the world except the yuan, and while the company is paying my salary for three months, they're not paying for my trip, and I didn't want to take out a second mortgage for a vacation, not even for a really long vacation.

I'm not sure what the tipping point was, but in January or February, I called the tour company that did the Shipton's Arch tour mentioned in Adventure magazine and signed on. Then I started buying books and maps and more books and more maps until I had more books than I could read in six months and more maps than I could carry with me. I bought a digital camera (and a book on how to use it) and took a couple of classes. I read the tour company's list of stuff to bring (mostly hiking and camping gear and first-aid supplies), re-read parts of Colin Fletcher's The Complete Walker IV, and started going to REI about twice a week. (I should be able to buy an entire wardrobe of flannel shirts with my next REI dividend.) I've talked with friends and with friends of friends about their travels in China, I've trolled through a foot-tall stack of old National Geographics for articles on China, I've spent countless hours online trying to find hotels for the beginning of my trip (in Hong Kong, Ulaan Baator, and Beijing) and the end of my trip (back to Hong Kong), and more hours searching for just the right device on which to save the many digital photos I hope to take. I tracked down the book in which Eric Shipton, "discoverer" of Shipton's Arch, described the task of getting to the arch, as well as the book in which Shipton's wife's described the same journey. Yes, I'm a fanatic.

Despite all the preparation I've done, I'd still like another week or two, or maybe a month, or perhaps two, to read more of the books on China that are sitting on my shelves, "improve" my Chinese-language skills (which implies that I have Chinese-language skills to improve-in truth, I'm still standing firmly on square one despite a couple of classes and the efforts of Yale at work), compare the recommendations in the three China travel guides that I bought, ... you get the idea. However, come 11:45 am or so on Tuesday, I just have to close the zipper on my backpack and walk out the door. Wish me luck.
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jackgt on

Guts to go
You've got guts Scott! You've left your gene pool far behind and you are about to take a bunch of us on an adventure of a lifetime.

That's a great description of why. Good for you recognizing and honoring your incredible opportunity of being paid for three months to leave the bounds of your life as it's been so far. I can wait to see the pictures and hear the stories.

Best of luck to you. May your adventures enter your mind and kick out the walls for another remodel. You're going to like vegetables after this; I just know it.

Your friend, Jack

tfranko on

What about the part...
... where you asked your doctor if there were any countries you could visit where you'd be prohibited from eating the vegetables? That can't be mere coincidence!

Have a fantastic trip. Looking forward to following your adventures over the next 11 weeks!

scottk on

Re: Typhoon and Hong Kong

That's great, I'm looking forward to exploring Hong Kong with you.

I hope you guys came though the storm OK.


scottk on

Re: Thank god for Kralik!
Conrad, you are so full of it. Thanks, though, for being full of it on my behalf. ;-)


scottk on

Re: Biker gang
Hi Nan,

Yup, I did a short bike ride with the tour group in Beijing. No helmets to be had. Boy, was that weird. I'm not sure I've even seen a rickshaw since I arrived. Apparently they've all been replaced with big tricycles that have a seat facing backward for a passenger. The passenger area is sometimes covered with a little box, so you don't get wet in the rain.

I'll comment on traffic at some point, but the short story is that it's much worse than anyplace I've ever been. If I moved to Beijing, I'd sell my bike or put it in storage.


scottk on

Re: scott
Hi Aunt Pauline,

All I can say is 'it seemed like a good idea at the time.' ;-) In truth, it still seems like a good idea, even if I have to admit to certain trials from time to time, like showing up in Tunxi at 11:30 on a Monday night only to discover that my hotel reservation had gone missing, and the hotel staff spoke zero English.

I'm doing my best to keep China-made toys out of my mouth and stay out of taxis, none of which seems to have seatbelts in the back seat.


scottk on

Re: world traveler....
Hey, Deb,

Chinese food in China bears a strong resemblance to Chinese food in America, which means that I see vegetables with almost every meal. I've become quite adept at eating around them (it's easier with chopsticks), but every now and again some roughage passes my lips and I haven't died yet.

If only my problems with Chinese were limited to dialects. :-)


scottk on

Re: I hope you'll still like rice when you're done
Hi Brender,

Having rice with every meal is a lot like having a glass of milk with every meal: innocuous, nourishing, white. If I had to eat rice by itself, I might get tired of it, but there's always something interesting on the plate to spice it up.

If I've lost weight (and I have lost a smidge) it's because of all the walking I've been doing and my reluctance to interrupt a day of exploring with time finding something to eat. I often have only a snack for lunch and then a big dinner.

Ahhh, for a good chocolate truffle right now.


scottk on

Re: Dont they have egg rolls in Seatlle?
Hey Biddy #1,

My wardrobe (high-tech, quick-drying, moisture-wicking hiking clothes) seems to attract much less attention than the mere sight of a western face, especially in places like Tunxi (gateway to Huang Shan--the Yellow mountains), where westerners are a rare sight. Huang Shan is a much-revered mountain range, my Rough Guide tells me, but word doesn't seem to have gotten much beyond the borders of China. The plane I was on last night from Shanghai had only a few faces not Chinese.

Biddy #2

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