Welcome to the first installment of my travel diary. Once a month I'll bring you insights and stories from my life on the road. Lets share the adventure...
China had never been high on my list of places to travel. Not because it is isn't beautiful, it is. Perhaps it was the images and stereotypes I had conjured up in my mind along the way. When I thought of China, I thought of overpopulated, smog-filled cities.
But I would never refuse a chance to travel the world so when the opportunity arose, I was all in. This time I'd be leading a small team of teenagers for 3 weeks. An experience that would be their first time abroad (at least for most of them) and away from their family.
The trip was loosely structured and mostly styled by the team. We had an idea of where we were going, but what we would do and were we would stay along the way was designed by the team. It was their trip and I'd be there helping them through. I knew it wouldn't be easy but I knew it would test me and push my limits. Here is what I learned along the way.
The language barrier is real
Probably my biggest concern before arriving in China. How would I ever negotiate the language barrier, especially in a world were people didn't speak English and their written word was symbolic characters? I've travelled to non-English speaking countries before, but there was something about not being able to read the language that made it that little more complex. This certainly was a REAL challenge from the get go.
I had hoped that the international airport of Kunming where we first arrived would ease us into its foreign world. I was wrong! There were moments we felt like aliens from a different planet trying to get from A to B. But as they say 60% of communication is body language and before too long we were on our way.
What did surprise me was 'care-factor' levels when I spoke to some locals. One of the first things I ask someone is 'do you speak English?', that way I know how I can proceed communicating. On this occasion they shook their head bashfully and said no. However communicating you need to use the bathroom can be universal and pretty obvious. I think we all know how that can be done! So I was a little surprised when I couldn't even squeeze out a pointed finger in the direction to the nearest bathroom and was left holding on until I could spot the next sign of a lady in the dress.
I couldn't have too high an expectation though, since what 'you get out what you put in' and I must admit that my attempt to learn Chinese was pathetic. Even after 10 days there all I could confidently say was 'Hello' and 'Thank you.' So I am also to blame!
Despite the firewall mobile phones are still an addiction
I'd been told in China we would not be able to access most social media, as in 2003 the government had begun to enforce a firewall banning sites like Facebook, Google and Instagram in an attempt to regulate internet usage.
The first hostels we arrived in had special VPN computers for travellers. This meant they could somehow negate the firewall to access social media and Google. As soon as we were out of the cities however, there was none to be found. I wasn't too bothered, after all social media can become a bit of an addiction, one you don't need when you're travelling.
What did surprise me though, was the enormity with which people use their mobile phones. Everywhere we went people were either on or within arm's reach of their phones. Perhaps texting, gaming or on some other form of app getting lost in the world of nothingness. The tourists would carry their phones on selfie sticks, forever prepared to capture of photo of themselves should the right occasion arise. Even without social media, people still seemed to be addicted to their phones.
You will be tested
Perhaps the part of our trip I was looking forward to the most was our trek at Tiger Leaping Gorge. On day 4 we left the hustle bustle and headed for the gorge. The scenery was beautiful, snow-capped mountains, rice fields and rivers flowing through the valleys. We spent some time at the view point of the Tiger Leaping Gorge marveling at its spectacular shear cliff faces and the gushing water in the rapids below. The sun was out and it was a beautiful day despite the icy crisp mountain air.
After lunch we made our way up to the Naxi family guest house, the views grew more amazing the higher we got. The afternoon sun was now hot as we lugged our packs up, still dressed in thermals from the morning's chill. The team was eager to get to the top and the fit bunch soldiered on. The ascent was steep, at least 10%, and my calves were burning. Even our guide commented on how fast our team was moving, compared to other groups. We stopped for water and caught our breath and we were off again.
Everyone was so happy when we reached the guesthouse, we'd made the first leg and we were excited to rest. Just when you think everything is running smoothly, you'll turn 180 degrees and the moment will be flipped into chaos. As it did, as a medical incident started to unfold.
I'd recently trained in First Aid in remote locations. But nothing will ever test you as much as the 'real' event. Your senses kick into overdrive as you become the First Aider, the communicator, the delegator and the problem solver while maintaining your face as the leader of the group, calm and in control. Yet underneath the adrenaline is pulsating through your blood vessels to the point where your hands and voice are shaking as you can only put faith in the decisions you make and back yourself 1000%.
We were crammed in the mini bus on our way back to Lijiang in China as the hot sun belted in through the window and over my tired body. I reflected on the past 24 hours. This was day 5, I wondered what on earth was coming for me in the remaining 16 days.
Border crossings never get easier
I wasn't too concerned about crossing the border from Hekou, China into Lao Cai, Vietnam. I'd been given a brief run down on how it was done in reverse and I'd done my research substantially before arriving. There hadn't been all that much detail on this crossing, but it seemed fairly straightforward. Yet no matter how much research you do, border crossings can still be...well, gross!
Having six teenagers and a teacher in tow only made me feel like I had to know what I was doing, which I was confident I did. We'd been on the sleeper train for eight hours and another six and a half in hard seats. Our patience was wearing thin as the seats around us were never vacant for very long. We were crammed in like sardines and to add to the stinky, squishy, weary energy we had to put up with the smells of homemade Chinese lunchboxes, cigarette smoke and the constant train infomercials were conductors sold everything from plastic credit card holders to waterproof shavers. There was never a quiet moment, just to hear yourself think.
To add to this a strange man had been hanging around our team, I was clued into him but had no idea what he was doing. He didn't speak a drop of English but seemed oddly interested in who we were and what we were doing. Alarm bells rang in my mind as I warned the teacher to keep his eye on him. This guy also seemed connected to the taxi drivers at the station as he hung around like a bad smell continually looking back at our group.
The station wasn't in town and the only way there was in the taxis. The drivers continued to heckle us in Chinese, not caring one bit that we had no idea of what they were saying. They just wouldn't stop talking. We figured at most only 3 per taxi and this was not an arrangement we could manage. No one knew what to do, and I didn't expect them to - would we have to walk there? Soon I found myself talking to the uniformed police into their phones and some app that translated what I was saying to them. Thankfully after they realised our situation we were able to negotiate the transport that we needed. It still felt sketchy, but there was no other way. Thankfully it paid off and we arrived at the border and into Vietnam.
This trip had served up an entire feast of learning and more. More lessons to show me that not everything will go according to plan. The travel was the easy part, this trip had stretched me well outside comfort my zone into areas I never knew existed. It had shown me that some things you think are impossible, become possible and your imagination and tolerance can dramatically expand if you are open to the challenge.
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