3 weeks were nowhere near sufficient to enjoy the gorgeousness that is Mongolia, but as the temperatures started to plummet in early September, I decided to leave. From Ulan Batar I took a overnight hard sleeper to the border town of Zamyn Uud (20000 tugrik, approx 14 hrs), and from the Mongolian side of the border there were buses direct to Hohhot for 120yuan thus saving me the trouble of bargaining a price with the jeep guys.
Day 1: Ni hao China! Zamyn uud to Hohhot
And so with some sadness I left Mongolia behind. The friendly chinese immigration guy stamped me in, and my bus took me to the city of Hohhot, which felt insanely crowded/busy/modern after 3 weeks in Mongolia. I was meant to couchsurf that night but had no chinese sim card, had no credit in my uk sim card and so I went to kfc in search of wifi. Couldn't get the wifi to work so started asking random people having fried chicken to help me out. Everyone came together and did try to help but without a chinese sim card i was stuck without a login. So I took a taxi to the couchsurfer's address, hung out outside carrefour and accosted random strangers until i found someone who spoke english.
This kind beautiful lady got in touch with my host for me and hung out with me until he got there. I was starting to really like China.
Day 2: Hohhot
This day was filled with so much good food that I drool on reflex just thinking about it. Went for breakfast with my host, we had the best dumplings I would ever have in the 30 days to come. Went to the museum, walked about the center, went to the muslim area, some random tourist street then we went out for dinner and we had the most kickass noodles I would have in China. This two meals and the countless snacks I had more than made up for my 3 weeks of not-so-great food in Mongolia...
Day 3: Hohhot to Jiayuguan
1st Chinese train ride, many more to come. Buying tickets were straightforward. Couldn't reach the luggage compartment so a Chinese uncle standing and a xinjiang lady lying on the top bunk put away my bag for me...teamwork! Fell sick on the train. Vomiting and diarrhoea in a squat toilet on a moving train? Unforgettable...
Day 4: Jiayuguan
This was my first acquaintance with that great Chinese law of not accepting foreigners into local hotels. I had all sorts of trouble finding a place to stay and my non-existent Mandarin skills did not help. After asking countless hotels around town I find one that would take me for 120 a night. Exhausted with D&V and lack of sleep, I take it! After a shower, I head out on a mission to find my way out of there. Had all sorts of difficulties finding ticket office for train tickets so a security guard uncle walks me all the way there. It took a good 15minutes and he helped me without looking inconvenienced at all! So grateful. Get my train tickets (straightforward again) then I find my way to the Great wall Fort. Not bad for a tourist attraction, a little interesting even. Got stopped for pictures by random Chinese people - i obliged but found it a little strange.
Day 5: Jiayuguan to Dunhuang
Just a short train ride so took a hard seat ticket. It wasn't bad at all and I regretted wasting money on the sleeper train. Dunhuang train station is way out of town, so I got on the bus which turned out to be 3 yuan (not the 8 yuan mentioned everywhere), promptly got off at the wrong stop, walked down the wrong road and turned left instead of right. Needless to say I ended up at the wrong hostel from the one I intended. I thought I was asking for a dorm so bargained (begged) the price down to 50yuan a night. Then when lovely but defeated Annie, the girl who runs the place, shows me the room I realize it is actually a triple room. Oops! Walk around Dunhuang, which turns out to be a great little town, relaxed vibe with cafes etc. Saw a little booth selling peanut butter milkshake and made a mental note to come back tomorrow.
Day 6: Dunhuang
The initial plan was to go check out the sand dunes. But due to a combination of waking up at 12.30pm, difficulty finding the bus stop, difficulty finding the train ticket office, difficulty buying tickets at the first office who refused to sell me tickets, difficulty finding the other ticket office which was hidden in plain sight next to the mosque, queuing up for ages at this second office, and then spending more time searching unsuccessfully for the peanut butter milkshake shop, I ran out of time to go to the sand dunes. Had a lot of ice cream instead to make myself feel better.
Day 7: Dunhuang
Since Hohhot, I didn't have opportunity to have an english conversation with anyone so I was starting to feel lonely. I check out early and head to Mogao caves where I run into two Australian retired radiologists turned chinese wine importers. Felt so odd to talk! Loved the caves anyway, way more interesting than I expected. I then head back to my chinese hostel, take my bag, get fed grapes by Annie's mum, then get walked to the bus station by Annie. I needed to buy a ticket to Liuyuan train station but the bus station ladies were refusing to sell it to me! I kept asking, using different translated words and eventually overhear a guy buying a ticket for Liuyuan. Gesture that i want to go there too and they sell me a ticket for 7.45pm. I head back to town, end up in a cafe and order myself chicken and rice with a ice latte. I settle in comfortably, reach for my phone anddd.... it is not there! Boom.
Food and coffee arrives. I gulp it down feeling miserable and rush back to the bus station not expecting to find it. But as i walk in to the ticket office the lady waves me over and gives my phone back to me, laughing! that moment. I could have kissed her.
But I didn't kiss her, mainly because there was glass separating us. Got on my minivan, the ride turned out to be more than 3 hours and I arrive in Liuyuan station just in time to get off the van, rush through the station and board my train.
Note - after this point it becomes a lot less about China, and a lot more about a person I grew to like very very much despite my better instincts, someone whom I was subconsciously about to get very attached to against my own conscious wishes. Sure, I learnt about China a lot less after this point, but also I think I learnt more about my own inner self, and to a certain extent such emotional journeys are good for understanding my own emotions/behaviour better.
Day 8: Turpan
I meet L!!! (a bit of background. L is a guy i met 4 weeks prior at the Russian town of Ulan Ude prior to crossing the border to Mongolia, we kept in touch and decided to meet up again in china) This was a very exciting morning. I got off the train, into a shared taxi to Turpan, found my way to L's hostel and chilled out in his bunk chatting to his roomate who knew more about me than expected. L had headed out to hunt for a nest I was told and I melted just a little to hear that. Then L walked in and boom. It was brilliant. It was also a little awkward but mostly it was brilliant.
Had a great afternoon, and then had another kickass dinner - tofu dish, rice, beer - what a perfect combination, I could have subsisted on this combination forever. We walked around after dinner and chance upon a local uyghur club, banana club. Walked in and it was people everywhere, pounding music, people dancing. It was too much for me, I started to feel really nervous/stressed out and i realized maybe im not over my social anxiety yet. However L seemed like he wanted to stay there for a bit but I was feeling uncomfortable so we left. Felt a little bad as it seemed like I was holding him back from something he would enjoy. Also it started to sink in at that point that maybe we like different things after all and this may not have been a very good idea...
Day 9: Turpan
We went to the grape vineyard place in turpan as it was free. Had to get directions to get there and we asked two girls. One was prettier than the other and L basically ignored the other girl and chatted up the pretty one. That was fine until he wanted pictures and only wanted a picture with the pretty one. He had enough tact to include me in the picture although not enough tact to not say 'im with two pretty girlsss' as the picture was taken. The pretty girl was smart and kind enough to push her friend into a photo with reluctant L although even she seemed uncomfortable by L by that point. Once they left L even mocked the pretty girl's friend for being ugly.. I started to feel quite uncomfortable with L at this point but we got on the bus and the feeling faded. Personally enjoyed the walk to the grape place and didnt mind the place too much but L seemed agitated by the chinese tourists taking photos which seemed slightly ironic to me. Walk back was enjoyable at first then L went crazy with his camera, taking pictures of every single thing and every single person. I started to feel stressed again but dismissed it as a one off occurrence. Little did I know at that point...
Day 10: Urumqi
Long, long day with many stressors (hostel search, train ticket office search, train station search, etc)..A few positives: the beautiful deep fried meat filled pastry from the cart near the train station, delicious baozi for dinner
Day 11: Urumqi
Again a cloudy day - rain from the sky, rain in my heart and some rain from my eyes. Contemplated leaving L at the bus station. Didn't do it. Not going to write much as I would rather forget about the whole Urumqi mess
Day 12: Urumqi to Zhangye
A sunnier day. We talked in the train station queue. I was happy to leave the place. Long train ride - 18hrs in a train that looked older than me. Secretly I enjoyed the ride but L hated it. Complained about everything from beginning to end. It felt great for me to have some company on the ride but towards the end it got increasingly tiresome to remain positive in the face of such pessimism.
Day 13: Zhangye
We arrived into a warm sunny town and both our moods perked up. We found a great place to stay, had the cheapest noodles ever for lunch and things were going well at first. Things don't go so well after awhile, and I start to feel the heaviness of having a roommate. Things then get positively cloudy at night.
Day 14: Zhangye
No idea what we did during the day. Fooled around with exercise equipment in the park at night - a bit of lighthearted fun! Still can't do monkey bars. Mental breakdown later at night. I start to wonder if it is time to let him go. Tentative, unsure, upset I try to suggest we go separate ways. He didn't want to surprisingly. Ok i thought, let's see how this goes.
Day 15: Zhangye
After last nights drama, L and I were walking on eggshells. Had lunch at the cheap noodle shop, walked around some nice areas, had some laughs together, walked around a park and then I head off to the bus station to visit Danxia mountains. L offered to lend me his camera, which was a kind offer and hinted at the existence of a pretty nice guy underneath all that. He couldn't come along because of budget reasons but at that point I really wanted to see it so off i went. The mountains were simply beautiful, something I'm acutely grateful I did for myself. I get back to the room eager to talk about it and share pictures with L but he was in a grumpy mood, probably from being left behind, so we never talk about it.
Day 16: Zhangye to Xining
Great day actually! Found a smelly wet market, weighed ourselves, more playground fun, more walking around. Surprisingly fun afternoon, decent train ride, good movie that I really enjoyed, and in Xining, a room with a view at night. Despite the great day we had I was aching for some alone time so I escaped to the grocery shop for 20 minutes at night. Found being with L much more enjoyable if I get some time away.
Day 17: Xining
I wake up, look out of the window, see the brown river, odd bridges, the market spread out underneath me looking all rough/crowded/messy/asian and my heart swells with happiness. Feels like home. L picked out a hostel on wikitravel and after being rejected by a chinese hotel in town he was hellbent on finding this hostel. I tag along for the walk as L skulks up and down the street like a madman, we eventually find it and surprise surprise it is full. So we end up staying in the room near the train station. There was a fantastic market in the city though so the day wasn't a total waste. I try to watch a movie alone in the afternoon while L teaches but unfortunately L gets offended. Later L showed me some videos hinting at his needs. In the evening we changed rooms to a smaller room for 80. Better view but less space so you win some, lose some I suppose. I tried to get an extra blanket from the other room but unsuccessful. L became quite tense as well and told me to 'calm down' when i kept asking about the blanket. It began to dawn on me that he is keen for me to respect his boundaries and fulfill his needs but he wasn't prepared to do the same for me. I felt quite trapped in that little room up in the sky and desperately wanted to get away from L but wasn't sure if i should tell him that night. I decide to wait until morning as to prevent an awkward night. But I fall sick that night with diarrhoea and vomiting. Puked 4 times, with the 3rd time narrowly missing L's head and still landing in the plastic bag. Not sure if it was food poisoning or just emotional stress making my body go mental.
Day 18: Xining
We packed to go to Tongren. L leaves the room to go to the toilet. As I sat alone on that chair the feeling of panic rose higher and higher in my chest until I felt I was drowning. I couldn't do it anymore, so when he came back from the toilet, I tell him that I can't do it. I can't go to Tongren with him. I try to leave L. He was surprised. I was shocked that he was surprised. He was sad, I was surprised that he was sad. I started to feel like shit for making him feel like shit. As someone who has been dumped before but never the dumper, this opened up a whole new perspective. Suddenly I felt bad for my exboyfriends who had to do the unpleasant job of telling me it was over. Anyway, we make it to the morning market as it was closing up. Had fried long dough sticks for 1 kuai each. Great lunch - baozi with red bean soup. Suddenly L and I had things to talk about again, now that we were separating. Suddenly I wasn't so invisible to him... We went to the rooftop of the apartment building. I loved it up there. So much air, so much space to breathe. I regret not going up there more than once. I didn't know where to go next and neither did he so we stayed another night in Xining.
Day 19: Xining
We go to the market again in the morning. Had some dumplings that were fried and steamed - both beautiful and cheap. I started to really like the little area we were in. Can't remember what else we did on this day but in the evening we bought train tickets to Xian together. Had stuff on a stick and we had ice cream too. I think this was actually a pretty good day with no minor or major incidents between L and me.
Day 19: Xining to Xian
Good start to the day by going to my beloved market, the earliest I had been there yet so it was lively and full of activity. Went alone as L didn't want to come since he had stuff he wanted to do online. Had a nice walk, got some food for L and came back to find him napping. L woke up and when he found out I booked a hostel for Xian without telling him he got annoyed at me. Then he lost it at the chinese people talking loudly outside and started yelling at them. I go to pieces and the baozi I was eating suddenly didn't taste so good anymore. I packed my bags and contemplated spending the day without him. Changed my mind after a while - realized that while he was acting like a spoilt little white boy, i was also overreacting - and we ended up having a great day out in Xining. Went to the park and the market and the mosque and the etc etc etc. We took the night train to Xian - it was meant to be our last train ride together so we both behaved ourselves. L even put his arm around me surprisingly and it was all very romantic in a way only a hard seat compartment on a chinese train can be.
Day 20: Xian
We arrive in Xian. Wasn't sure when L was planning to leave so I awkwardly posed the question as we were crossing the underpass. He wanted to walk to my hostel. Felt too rude to say no, but it turned out to be an annoying walk, with L asking for directions repeatedly even though I had the directions written down and knew where I was going.. We get to my hostel, I check in, L uses my phone and then it was goodbye L. Part of me felt relieved to have escaped emotionally unscathed but part of me felt extremely guilty because he looked so sad. I did laundry, took a long nap and met a CSer for dinner. Had great food actually, a proper meal after so long (since dunhuang)- chicken curry, rice, street food, beers. Enjoyed myself and enjoyed the city until I got back to my hostel. And then boredom set in and I started chatting with L on skype when he mentioned heading to Vietnam the next day. Suddenly I didn't feel like losing him then so we agreed to meet again the next day.
Day 21: Xian
Woke up feeling excited, nervous and a little hopeful. Checked out of See Tang hostel, went to find the train ticket booking office and found out that it is closed for 7 days!!! Then I meander south to the the area where L was staying, spent money on an overpriced fancy hazelnut caramel ice blended latte. Wait by the bank, and L shows up! Felt happy to see him. There was none of the 'boom' effect when seeing him like in Turpan, but it was like seeing a good friend walk around the corner. Warm feelings all around. We walk to the hotel we booked online, which took us a good few hours. It was a great walk, interesting and with good company. We had lots of laughs, I think L too was glad to be back together. L was being extra nice to me which was very sweet and it also broke my heart a little bit to think I had in me to hurt this boy yesterday. We get to the place we booked (online for 100) where after watching L go back and forth in chinese with the lady, we manage to get the room for 30 a night. It was truly worth no more than that anyway so I sucked it up. What followed was a very uncomfortable and awkward shower where it hit me that I may have made a big, big mistake by coming back. I get emotional and L doesnt help matters by showing me pictures of his ex on fb. Wasn't sure why he would want to show me her pictures at that exact moment, when him and I were having so much trouble connecting. Anyway I manage to settle down, we go out for dinner, and suddenly don't have much to talk about. I was tired of always initiating conversation so we wandered in silence. Had food on a stick, dumplings and eventually an omelette for dinner which felt so, so satisfying!
Day 22: Xian
We change rooms to a slightly better hotel for 50. Today we discovered the mixed rice shop across the hotel. It is like the heavens opened up and the angels started singing... delicious, cheap, filling, awesome food. After much thinking, I bit the bullet and asked him to come Guilin with me. He says yes to my surprise. Then we go to town, buy train tickets and walk about for the rest of the day. Lots of walking. Quite liked some parts of the place although many spots felt too touristy and crowded. Visited the night market again but it had gone from Dr jekyll to Mr Hyde, super crowded with too many tourists. Bought a persimmon pastry thing for 2.5. L obviously didn't approve of the price and complained that he could have it in one bite. A little annoying but I let it go. He kept eyeing the yellow cake thing that is dipped in syrup and sold for 3 each, but refused to buy any all evening because he felt it was too expensive. Either way I let it go, it was not my budget nor was it my desire to buy the cake. Felt quite nice to have company to walk around the market. Told L about my previous misadventures with not buying food when I see it but saving it for later then coming back and finding it gone, and that earned me an impromptu hug from L. We turned a few heads at the market and I wasn't sure if he was kidding but it was still a nice part of the day. We head back to our area at about 8 or 9pm, and L seemed truly tired on the bus. Bought fried rice with an extra egg for dinner.
Day 23: Xian
We do nothing... Wake up late, joke around, L heads out to get breakfast without me, it felt great to have the room to myself for a bit. We then have mixed rice for lunch and walk around the local market. I buy a pastry for 3 which was like a doughnut filled with pork floss despite L wrinkling his nose at the price although he wasn't paying. He then takes a bite of it and loudly pronounces it 'too bland'. It starts to rain, so we head back and watch movies. L struggled with internet for teaching purposes but seemed to get it sorted out in the end by sitting in the corridor and using my 3g as a hotspot. I got time alone in the room to relax and eat and watch my tv show, when L barged in and decided to take a picture of me chilling out. Killed the chilled out vibe a little. Anyway it was a still a Great day, enjoyed the relaxation, enjoyed the company.
Day 24: Xian
Last day in Xian. I felt too lazy to trek out to see the terracotta warriors, something I regret up to this day. L asked for a late check out, we had lunch at the mixed rice place opposite and take a nice walk around. Enjoyed being with L that afternoon, we both behaved ourselves. Ended up in a supermarket where L was being really sweet by buying an extra cup, carrying the basket etc etc. I gave in to temptation and bought some overpriced durian. We rush back to the room, book rooms for Guilin and Xingping, pack bags and head to the station with baozi in our backpacks. While we wait for the bus, L takes a sneaky picture of a lady waiting for her bus. She seemed uncomfortable when she realized and I can understand her discomfort. For a moment I had the impulse to ask him what exactly he does with these pictures but knowing it will spark off another conflict, I ignore it anyway. I was getting used to the picture taking by this point and I was in a good mood. We make it just in time for the train. We get settled in, no problems. Night on the train. Looking back, this day was actually a pretty enjoyable day.
Day 25: Guilin
Most of the day was spent on the train. L and I had a nice fun talk till about mid afternoon where there was a moment of tension over movie selection. End up watching the wolf of wall street - typical american feel good movie that i didn't like because of the way it objectified women although I realized with some discomfort that that aspect of it (girls = toys that exist to please men) is probably appealing to L.. Also realized that for all we have in common, he won't appreciate my somewhat feminist POV because for him, women are meant to be demure feminine and sweet to him. Something I observed was that he gets annoyed at rude women a lot more than rude men, and reacts by taking a sudden picture of women who annoy him like a little punishment or evidence or whatever. Rather conservative and backward ideas of gender equality, that of women being submissive little things. Anyway the later hours of the train journey was filled with awkward silence which carried over to our little chinese hotel room. I was too tired to care anymore by that point. I was feeling moody and tired, unable to sleep so I put on earphones, blasted music into my ears with a towel over my eyes. Insomnia that night. Stayed up till 3am frantically looking for ways to get to south america.
Day 26: Guilin
L loses his phone. We try to get to the end of the line to look for it, but go to the opposite end of the line. I buy my ticket to Guangzhou which made me feel relieved. We are too late to get to Xingping. Suggested a hostel but ended up in another cheap chinese motel near the bus station for 50 a night.. Mixed feelings upon seeing the room, felt relieve at the 2 single beds but negative feelings about staying in yet another dingy shithole when we could have been staying in a decent hostel dorm for just a little more.. Felt isolated and stressed again, and contemplated moving to a hostel that very night to get away from L. Contemplated just forgetting about Xingping. Then we got out of the room, we went for a little walk around town and around the lake, it was fun hanging out with L in a friendly sort of way. Also had grilled octopus on a stick, delicious stuff, again L didnt seem to approve of the price but whatever really. I was starting to feel better and thought maybe I can handle just one more day in Xingping with him. But then L took picture after picture of every single girl by the lake (of course only the ones that qualified for his standards of 'beauty') and I felt like I was going to be sick in my mouth.. nauseated both by his photos and by the jealous monster i was morphing into, We then took lots of selfies. I really don't like taking pictures of myself and have made that clear before but again L gets what he wants. I smiled along in the spirit of not being a total bitch but secretly felt relieved that soon I won't have to take another selfie for awhile.
Day 27: Xingping
Woke up feeling cheerful and well rested. Had a greasy breakfast of some chinese sticky rice thing that I used to have as a kid, a little bland admittedly but the nostalgia made up for it although L as usual openly showed distaste for it. We then got bus tickets to Yangshuo, met a Hungarian girl at the bus stop. Moment of the morning, she asked L with great surprise - 'so how come you were in the phillipines for so long?' Even L looked a little bewildered at the naivete of the question. Anyway, had a nice chat with L on the bus about daddy issues etc. At Yangshuo we changed to another bus to Xingping. Beautiful scenery along the way. A hot chinese girl gets up the bus at some point dressed to the nines, L checks her out openly while holding my hand. He lasts all of two minutes before he took his camera out and took her picture somewhat subtly while still holding my hand... I suddenly could not wait to get away from him. The scenery seemed less beautiful. We get to Xingping, walk to the hostel, where after a minor scene with the receptionist - basically L insisting to see the more expensive room when the receptionist was refusing, another girl who refused to follow his every command hohoho - we get to our room, the one we originally booked. Beautiful views. Hot shower. We walk around town and Xingping really was a beautiful place. In the evening we rush off for a hike. I struggle up the hill and halfway through we stopped, didn't go all the way up due to the fading daylight. We find a nice spot, sit down and look at the view for awhile. Enjoyed those moments with L, then the camera comes out. I was feeling cooperative so after a standing awkwardly for a few pictures to make the boy happy I try to sit down and enjoy the view. Unfortunately L kept demanding I take more selfies with him and then started insisting that we start walking down although I could have enjoyed the peaceful view for a few more minutes. Whatever, I gave up by this point, we head down, walk around town, I get moody again and when I walk back into the hostel that was full of people my heart seized up in pure fear. Social anxiety attack. I flee up to the room, L joins a while later. I get emotional again, this time bitter with anger and disappointment and sadness that we had turned out this way. We go out for dinner - I had some fried noodle thing and some fishballs. Interaction with L gets weirder and weirder, and I could not stand to even hold his hand by the time we got back to the hostel. We come back, I try to speak honestly to L about why I think we were not working out and the discussion doesn't go well, as expected.
Day 28: Guilin
Rough start to the morning. Didnt sleep much at night, try to sleep in the morning but L plays a video on youtube right next to my head. I snap at him to keep quiet, he snaps at me to 'go to fucking hell', all sleep leaves my body. That's it then I thought, it was finally time for me to pick up what little self respect I have left and leave. I wake up, shower, have a coffee and then it was goodbye, L. We hugged goodbye and both of us didn't seem too sad, which was ideal. It was the end of a journey and the end had been going on for a while. I left my bags at the hostel, walked by the river, found a quiet spot and I just sat there for awhile watching the water flow.. feeling very appreciative of my solitude. Feeling relieved. After all that reflecting that I walked to the viewpoint of the 20 yuan note, went to the market near the bus station, bought some chinese fried doughnut and fried pastry thing and then I got the bus to Yangshuo. The scenery was absolutely beautiful. At Yangshuo I had the bright idea to walk between the 2 bus stations and ended up schlepping my stupidly heavy backpack all over town for almost an hour. Jumped on a bus to Guilin, found my hostel easy peasy, and got settled in. Met 3 other solo girl travelers at the hostel, all very cool independent ladies. Woke up in the middle of the night looking for L. Maybe I miss him.
Day 29 Goodbye China: Guilin - Guangzhou - Shenzhen - Hong Kong
Long day of travel. Bus from hostel to train station, had a coffee in the yellow mug - thought of L - at the station, train from Guilin to Guangzhou. Long wait at Guangzhou of 3 hours for my next train. Get on the train to Shenzhen north station, metro from there to the Futian checkpoint. Cross the border, essentially stamp out of china, walk on travelators for 5 minutes then stamp into hong kong. Got on the MRT, three changes later I found myself in causeway bay and found my descriptively named Hong Kong hostel.
Solo traveler solo once again.
And then there was Hong Kong. but let's save that for another post.
Themes from china... or rather, themes from being with L...
-objectification of women vs appreciation of beauty
-overspending while travelling vs not missing out on what you really want
-being alone and lonely vs being with someone unsuitable
-total honesty vs respecting the other persons feelings
-chemistry in a relationship - cultivatable or a necessary preexisting foundation
-actions vs words, making and receiving empty promises