There were a few reasons I wanted to go to China. One is simply that it’s a large country I’ve never visited, but I wanted to see the Great Wall and take the train to Mongolia from Beijing. Additionally, I wanted to visit a National Park, Zhangjiajie, in Hunan, a province in South Central China. I stumbled upon this park while scrolling through Instagram well before I planned this adventure and filed it away in my memory, simply noting that it was somewhere in this big country. When making plans to visit China, I googled “Chinese Rock Structures,” and found out more about the park. I knew it was a must see. I had been part of a group on Facebook for people in Beijing. I posted about my upcoming travels to Zhangjiajie and wanted to see if anybody was interested in joining me. A few people bit, but only one seemed serious. We stayed in touch, but I had my reservations as he was a young 21 year old student studying in Canada, but home in Beijing for the summer. “We’ll split costs,” and “He does speak Chinese,” I told myself, but I was hesitant… We met in Beijing once I arrived. We bought train tickets first thing in the morning (through his dad’s recommendations instead of flying), which saved me about $280 but cost nearly 4 days of travel. It’s hot and humid in Beijing, and he was sweating profusely, coughing, and moving slowly. All red flags to my extremely active self, but I felt like I couldn’t back out. We made the 26 turned into 31 hour train ride and were greeted by our Air BnB host at the train station. The two bedroom apartment was great- spacious, cool, and with a kitchen, full bathroom, and a washing machine!
In total, we would be together for 8 days on this trip. That was a tough notion for my independent personality. There are few people I can spend 8 days with, never mind a young 21 year old who didn’t like to be alone. We did not purchase round trip tickets from Beijing as I wanted to possibly make it out to Xi’an, where the terra cotta warriors are. The train schedule didn’t work out well for that and I wanted to get back to Beijing to catch the twice weekly train ride to Ulan Bator. I hadn’t bought tickets yet as I’d been redirected to a few different places and simply decided I would reserve them on line. My first workaway host has had me in his calendar for two months- I couldn’t be late. Xi’an was a no go, and furthermore, the soft sleepers back to Beijing were sold out for Sunday, the day we planned to return. I was not sitting in a seat for 30 hours, especially not next to someone with whom I had just spent 7 days. No. I would fly back, it was more expensive but worth it for my sanity. But then, my 21 year old travel companion, who I later dubbed my Chinese child, did not want to travel alone. I was stuck… An extra day in Zhangjiajie- until there were soft sleepers available back to Beijing. Not only did I lose a day in the city because of this, I felt I was cutting it too close to take the train to Ulan Bator, one of my main reasons for visiting Beijing. The Monday night train back to Beijing leaves at 6:16 pm, arriving at 8:00 pm the next night, if there are not any delays. We were 5 hours late to Zhangjiajie. I did not have my ticket to Mongolia in hand, and it would leave at 11:22 am the next day (Wednesday). What if I didn’t get my tickets in time, what if I got more run around? What if we were late to Beijing and I had even less time to prepare for this next leg of my journey? It felt too risky. I bought a plane ticket for the only flight on July 21st, the day I’d planned on arriving for quite some time. 2:00 am departure, 5:30 am arrival. I outta be in good shape by the time I find my host’s ger somewhere outside of Ulan Bator. ?
Even though I don’t speak Chinese, I think I could have figured things out eventually on my own. It’s easier though with a translator, right? Except my travel companion was kind of aloof, or maybe absent minded. He didn’t pay attention to stuff and often times he’d translate or point out the obvious. “The bus station is this way,” when I could clearly read the sign in English for myself. The first day was spent on Tianmen Mountain. It’s home to the longest cable car ride in the world, which we took to get to the top. There was an east and west path and I wanted to take both. He said we couldn’t. I didn’t buy it, but gave him the benefit of the doubt. Later, I saw where the two paths connected and I think he simply didn’t want to do the extra activity. I lost out of seeing the “East Side.” Shortly after, I appointed myself as the guide, Chinese speaking or not, I could navigate to where I wanted to go. I can read a map. The mountain was beautiful, but foggy. Maybe I’d go again if the sun came out.
Day two would be spent in the National park, about an hour ride from the city. I told my travel companion he did not have to do the same things I did. I wanted a three day pass, more expensive, but worth it to me. I would see as much of the park as possible. He insisted on getting the same, although I knew he wouldn’t want to do it physically. He was definitely not as into nature as me, and I later learned he wanted to take the trip to get away from his parents in Beijing. I bought a map and directed us to where I wanted to go. It wasn’t that he didn’t have a say, but he didn’t make many decisions and furthermore, he made me feel he couldn’t be alone, nor did he want to. At one point, he even said he was afraid to be. Yikes, that’s tough for me because now I don’t have a travel companion, I have a responsibility. Later that day, he lost his cell phone. We didn’t find it and when we got back to the city, he didn’t remember the short way back to the apartment. Paying attention in a new environment is key- he was not doing this. Again, I now had a responsibility on my hands. By the time I was 21, I had traveled alone to Europe 6 times and spent a semester studying there. Having lived in Canada for the last 5 years, I thought he’d be a little more independent than he was showing to be. That evening, I needed a break. I rarely spend that much time with anyone. I told him he’d need to do something on his own for the next two days. I wanted some solitude.
Day three we headed out together. I had a plan for myself, but he did not. I don’t think he realized I was serious when I said I needed a break. The park entrance I wanted to start at was apparently closed or inaccessible due to a landslide. We had to start where we left off the day before, the same spot where the cell phone was lost. But, it was a $10.50 cable car ride to the top or a hike up endless steps. I was frustrated as I wanted to do my own thing, but feared he wouldn’t make it physically. He was running out of money, so the cable car ride was not an option. He asked for the apartment key. I was disappointed, but couldn’t expect someone to want what I do, so we parted ways. I found a bite to eat and prepared myself for the hike up. It was hot and humid and I was already sweating. A few minutes in, I see my travel companion, my Chinese child… I told him I was proud of him for pushing forward and staying at the park. I finished the hike up and waited for him at the top. Based on where we were in the park, we had limited options. I told him he could hang with me for the rest of the day. Because a lot of the day consisted of stairs, I was able to hike ahead and wait. That way, I was able to be alone. All in all, I had a good day, but he was running out of money. Shortly after, he realized he left his ATM card somewhere. He also lost his water bottle. The guilt sank in. I took a kid who was not ready to be out in the world this way. He lost his phone, his water bottle, his ATM card. I felt horrible for the decisions I made. “Never again,” I thought… I’d need a vetting process from here on out for any potential future travel buddies.
We had a lot of talks. I had to shift my mindset and assume my mentor role at some point. It’s not what I’d planned on, but I had to get through the next few days. I told him he needed to learn to be more independent and less afraid, to push through and challenge himself, and to also learn to budget!! I have a “No bull shit” attitude sometimes and told him when things get tough, sometimes you just have to suck it up and put one foot in front of the other. He felt accomplished when he made it to the top of the mountain and later said he’d gained a lot from this trip- stuff he’d file away in his memory bank likely for the rest of his life. Perseverance, and pushing himself, even when it was uncomfortable… Yes, those ARE lessons that last a lifetime, so that is a good thing, but it came at my expense in some ways. BUT- we both learned. Different things and in some ways, some of the same things. He learned to push himself and that he can accomplish more than he realizes, have faith in yourself and you can achieve a lot, this is something I know well, yet did not apply it in this situation. I felt like I’d be better off with a travel companion, especially a Chinese speaking one. But the reality is, I could have done this trip on my own. Everything happens for a reason though, right? So, at the end of the day (or in this case, the end of this trip), I saved money, taught somebody some life lessons, and in a lot of ways, taught myself to navigate through some parts of China. I shouldn’t have doubted myself. I know from prior experiences that I can get to where I need to go. I did it in Korea, and I did it in Thailand, so I will keep that in MY memory bank. So, rookie mistake or life lesson? Maybe a little bit of both. I didn’t get to do all I wanted in China, but I saw some beautiful places and for that, I’m grateful. Everyday is a new adventure and decisions must be made along the way. As long as you learn from them, mistakes aren’t always a bad thing.