My three-week, life-changing trip to China, which spurred a year of travel
(CNN) — I cried big tears of joy at the airport in Beijing when my sister Stephanie picked me up a few days before Christmas 2008.
My little sister! Living and working in China! Speaking the language!
I was proud and impressed and also pleased with myself: I was the first person from home to make the trip, to see her brave new world on the other side of the world.
I loved hearing my little sister speak Mandarin to taxi drivers and in restaurants and at bars.
I loved being taken around by her as she pointed out this or that building, place or monument and explained to me the bargaining process in the markets and showed me where to fill our bellies for only a few bucks.
A 2008 visit to China ultimately led to the author’s decision for a lengthier journey to see the world.
A highlight was the hotel we stayed at in Beijing those first few days. In what I know was a bit of a splurge for Stephanie at the time (and she insisted on paying), we stayed in a Chinese hotel on a hutong (or alley), where the heat worked just fine.
Double Happiness was on a hutong full of street food stalls, restaurants, lower-class housing and public toilets.
The breakfast buffet, included in the stay, was traditional Chinese.
I loved it.
Our first couple of days in Beijing are a bit of a blur as Steph introduced me to a couple of her expat friends and bottom-shelf Baijiu, a potent spirit that smelled like gasoline.
But it did the trick. And did I mention it was dirt cheap?
When we weren’t getting drunk on low-quality Baijiu, we were eating until we felt we’d burst.
We ate and drank our way through the capital city before eating and drinking our way through Jinan, a city of about 8 million people, some 250 miles south of Beijing, where Stephanie was teaching English at a university.
A fearless eater, I went amiably wherever she wanted to take me. I declined the skewers loaded with bugs like cockroaches, which apparently are crunchy and salty, but I tried everything else I could, including chicken hearts.
We ate on the streets and in sit-down restaurants, where I quickly learned it was customary to refill your friends’ glasses with beer (nearly always Tsingtao) before filling your own, a sign of respect for your dining companions.
Steamed pork dumplings eaten in a nondescript Chinese restaurant.
Stephanie would order for the table and heaping bowls of noodles, eggplant, chicken and rice would be plopped down in front of our wide eyes.
We went out for hotpot and Sichuan so spicy my eyes watered for hours afterward.
We ate pork dumplings in what could have easily been mistaken for someone’s home but which I guess was a type of very low-key restaurant.
The floors were concrete and we sat on cold concrete benches, the only heat from the steaming dumplings themselves.
We ate piping hot sweet potatoes on the street, so hungry for the sweet orange flesh we bravely took our gloves off to coax the meat from the hot skin of the potatoes.
I can still see the steam rising from the spud, naked and perfect.
After that, we looked for more sweet potatoes, so satisfying was our street snack find, but we were unsuccessful.
In Qingdao, a town on the sea, where I ventured on a day trip from Jinan, I ate fish on the street. Freshly caught and fried and presented on a table outside, it was one of the best things I’ve ever tasted.
Qingdao’s location on the sea meant freshly caught and fried fish.
Except for the duck dinner.
On my last night in Beijing at the tale end of my journey, I found myself with about $20 and an appetite for duck.
My lifelong obsession with Peking duck was born that night.
When we weren’t washing down all of the incredible food with Tsingtao, we were drinking tea.
Stephanie had become a big tea drinker and carried her hot water and tea leaves with her wherever she went. She promised me I’d become hooked, too.
I didn’t have my own tea on the day I ventured to The Forbidden City in Beijing on my own. The day I fell victim to the infamous tea scam.
It was cold that day in December, and my 5-foot-8-inch frame was bundled head to toe. But I still stuck out as a foreigner, my dirty blond hair falling to either side of my shoulders beneath my wool hat.
Visiting the Great Wall in China was on the author’s list of must-see things.
So far, I hadn’t heard a lot of English spoken, so when the Chinese girls, who introduced themselves as Lucy and Helen, told me they were working on their English and wondered whether I would be so kind as to let them practice with me, I got a little excited.
One moment I was taking in the historic structures and snapping photos, the next, I was talking to locals, making new friends.
When they invited me for tea nearby, I accepted.
Off we went to a cute little tea shop where the three of us were seated in a room with a tea server.
As we sipped tea after tea — there were eight total — I learned Lucy and Helen adored the movies “Forrest Gump” and “The Lord of the Rings.”
“Pretty Woman” was one of their favorite songs, they declared Angelina Jolie too “sexual” and expressed adoration for Kobe Bryant.
They complimented my green eyes and height, like a supermodel, they said.
A woman prepares tea in a Beijing tea shop.
I had a lot to learn about Chinese customs, but one thing Stephanie had drilled into me surfaced when we’d finished drinking our tea and it was time to leave. In China, typically the person who does the inviting pays.
(Stephanie no longer lives in China but goes on business frequently, and she confirms this practice is still popular, though less so among younger generations living in big cities.)
So it struck me as odd when the server placed the bill down on the table, and neither Lucy nor Helen scooped it up. I waited a beat, swallowing an uncomfortable lump in my throat.
I realized I was on the hook for part, if not all, of this little outing, and I had no idea how much it should cost. I suspected we might be getting ripped off.
Steph had warned me about taxi cabs and the market; she had not said anything about navigating my way out of a suspicious tea situation.
Fortunately, Lucy eventually picked up the check, and after quickly consulting with Helen, informed me what I owed.
I was used to splitting the bill — it was what my friends and I always did back home — but this didn’t feel right. Thirty dollars for a few sips of tea (OK, eight, but still!) felt like highway robbery.
I had no choice but to pay my fair share — even if it didn’t feel fair at all. Besides, if I felt uneasy about the amount, I could only imagine how Lucy and Helen felt.
I had no other choice but to put down my Amex and deal with the unforeseen expense.
Steph and I laughed about it over beers later when we realized it was all a big scam. Chinese locals approach naive-looking foreigners and, in cahoots with the tea shop, lure them into an expensive hour or two of “practicing English.”
The unsuspecting foreigner pays (usually the whole bill, not just part of it), and the scammers return to the tea shop to collect their cut.
Typically, the foreigner is out more than a hundred dollars, we learned. It appears I may have gotten off easily.
And besides, “You had a good time with them though, right?” Steph asked me pointedly.
I had to admit that I had.
We agreed in that moment I was sufficiently prepared to continue on with the rest of my journey alone. It had always been the plan, and now it was time.
The 22-hour cheap seats
Steph had shown me it was incredibly easy to eat well in China on not a lot of money, procuring maximum enjoyment without much means.
The country was a budget backpacker’s paradise.
It would be years before I graduated to five-star hotels and business class seating. Years before I desired any kind of travel other than the frugal one I’d come to know so intimately.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Days before I treated myself to the epic Peking duck dinner, I took a very memorable train ride.
The 22-hour slow train ride in the lowest class section was excruciating — and also fun.
It was a K train, a slow-speed Chinese train before bullet trains showed up in the country, slicing lengthy journeys by more than half.
To be fair, the 22-hour hard-seat back train from bustling Shanghai to scenic Yangshuo, with two guys from London I’d only just met wasn’t part of the plan.
Originally, I wanted to go to Yunnan but determined it was too far away and hard to get to. I considered Chengdu — mainly for the Sichuan cuisine — but the train routing made for a complicated itinerary; a stop in Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Army made the most logistical sense.
That was, until I met Ajay and Ritesh, who suggested an alternative.
I had the money — maybe $10 to $15 extra bucks if I recall — to spring for a sleeper berth to Yangshuo by way of Guilin, but I decided to spring for the adventure instead.
“C’mon,” they said. “It’ll be fun,” they promised.
The 22-hour hard-seat, no recline was the only option the cousins, on a year-long trip around the world had budgeted for, and I agreed to join them.
My sister and I rang in the New Year (2009) in China.
I emailed Steph my plans.
“Dude, are you crazy? You don’t want to do that,” she said, attempting to dissuade me.
It would turn out to be the most uncomfortable, sleep-deprived 22 hours of my life.
We were the only three foreigners in the section. We were the only English speakers in the train class, but we were not the only people to board armed with bags full of libations to lubricate the long journey.
It was impossible to get comfortable (in spite of the booze). I’m talking seats that do not recline, have an inch of padding, no armrest in between them and which face three other seats, so you are practically on top of the people sitting across from you, all the while wrapping your legs around your bags or trying to sleep on a bag on your lap.
I probably slept a total of one and a half hours throughout the 22-hour journey.
We ate Oreos and oranges and got to know the Chinese men sitting across from us even though verbal communication was impossible. I learned I could go to the bathroom anywhere.
The car started to smell after a few hours, and it only got worse every time the food cart rolled around and Styrofoam containers heaped with garlicky food was doled out for pocket change.
As soon as we got off the train in Guilin before hopping the 70-minute ride to Yangshuo, I went straight to the ticket counter and bought myself a sleeper berth for a 27-hour train ride to Beijing leaving in a few days.
Running out of time
A few days of relaxing in low-key Yangshuo before ending the trip in Beijing.
Ajay, Ritesh and I passed a few mostly uneventful days in Yangshuo, a sleepy tourist town with a mountain backdrop. We played hacky-sack in the street, went for rides on the river, rode bikes along the beautiful winding roads and fell in step with other backpackers.
In less than 10 days, I’d be back home in New York City. A little homesick for my creature comforts, I was also more than a little jealous of my travel companions’ extended journeys.
They had months left to travel. I had less than a month total. They had not a care in the world. I had responsibilities. Obligations.
I traveled when I could, but, uh, no, I couldn’t just bail on my life back home because I felt like It. I tried explaining this to my new friends, who just shrugged in response, as if to say, if you really wanted to, you would.
After I graduated college, my friend Paula and I, instead of lining up jobs, planned a trip to Europe.
For five weeks, we backpacked around Greece, Italy and Spain while our friends back home started jobs in finance and started 401(k)s.
But even then, I feared I was missing out — not on the whole work thing my peers had embraced but on seeing the world. Five weeks scratched an itch but didn’t get rid of it for good.
I knew I didn’t want to get married and have babies and take two-week vacations every summer. I didn’t not want a career, but I also refused to come up with a five or 10-year plan or make work, in my mid-20s, my main focus.
I bought a round of beers on my last night with the backpackers. I headed back to Beijing and back to Brooklyn a few days after that.
Five months later, I boarded a flight to South America.
The plan? To travel for a year or until I ran out of money.
China made me do it.