I celebrated my 39th birthday yesterday. That’s 14,246 days (including leap years and today) or roughly 1 billion 230 million 854 thousand 400 seconds on this big blue planet (for those of you who were counting).
So what does this mean? Really not much. Thirty-nine is just another number. I don’t feel any different from what I did at 38. Perhaps I look slightly older, but given that I was ID’d when I ordered a beer when I was in Owen Sound yesterday I think I’m doing alright.
But, 39 also means that I’m in the final year of my thirties – the end of my 4th decade . With less than 365 days remaining, I’ve been wondering how best to celebrate. Parties? Amazing adventures? Crazy stunts? Shenanigans? Scotch? Pie?
Yes. All of that. Definitely all of that.
Anyway, to keep myself organized and on track I’ve decided a list was in order. So, for your reading pleasure, I present to you in no particular order my list of 40 things I want to do during this my 40th year on earth.
Go on an epic Christmas adventure.
Go on an epic 40th birthday travel adventure.
Climb Mount Temple.
Climb 4 new mountains with Rick.
Swim in (at least one of) the Indian or Pacific oceans.
Run 5km in less than 20 minutes.
Run the equivalent of 40 5km runs in 40 days.
Run at least 40 10km runs.
Run at least 4 half marathons.
Run at least 1 marathon.
Host another scotch tasting night.
Expand Farm To Fork beyond Guelph and Kitchener-Waterloo.
Launch the Farm To Fork mobile application.
Skydive again (or solo for the first time).
Host an epic 40th birthday bash at Baker Street Station.
Buy a fancy new suit/outfit for hosting my epic 40th birthday bash.
Raise money ($10000) for a charity or not-for-profit as part of my epic 40th birthday bash.
Raise $40000 for charities or not-for-profits.
Go to a shooting range.
Try 40 scotches I’ve never tried before.
Try 40 beers I’ve never tried before.
Try 40 wines I’ve never tried before.
Try 40 foods I’ve never tried before.
Eat 40 pies. Mmmm, pie.
Publish at least 100 posts on ConsumedByWanderlust.
Before I left for my epic adventure to China I was asked by several people about the possibility of experiencing homesickness while I was away. Given the length of my trip – approximately 5 weeks – the question was a valid one. The question was often repeated while I was away – from friends and family, and even by my hosts in China.
Having the opportunity and luck to have travelled a lot (although not nearly enough in my opinion), I wasn’t exactly worried that I’d suffer homesickness. I’ve been on longer adventures; sometimes with friends, and sometimes solo – and I’d never felt homesick before. Why, I thought, would China be any different?
And truth be told – it wasn’t.
Sure, I was in a completely new world that seemed to offer new experiences and adventure with every corner I turned. I didn’t speak or read the language, and the culture was often very different than home. The food was different, the air and sky were different, the traffic and pedestrians were different. Every experience, every visual, every smell reminded me that I wasn’t home. It makes complete sense that I should have been homesick. But I wasn’t.
After so many people asked the same question, I got to wondering if maybe it was odd that I wasn’t (nor have I ever) felt homesick. Don’t get me wrong, there have been many adventures where I’ve experienced something new and thought so-and-so would love this. There have been many moments when I’d hear a friend’s voice in my head, commenting in the way that only they could, about something I was about to experience. But none of this led to homesickness.
Perhaps my lack of homesickness is related to the fact that I know that I’ll more than likely see everyone again (unless, you know, I die in some gloriously magnificent adventure-gone-wrong spectacle1), or perhaps it’s because so many people come to mind while I’m travelling. I guess in some way I never really feel apart from the people who matter. While some might call this missing people, I don’t perceive it as something negative. Quite the contrary – the image of these friends in my minds eye is nothing but positive.
What I find interesting, however, is that I tend to feel homesick after I return from my adventures. Maybe this has to do with a reduction in adrenalin. Maybe this has to do with returning to the real world and the reality of bills and reports and meetings. But honestly I think it has more to do with missing the people I’ve met along the way. In most cases the friendships burn short and bright because they are usually built on intense experiences. But there are also those people who I’ve met on my travels that leave an indelible mark. I miss them the most because I’m not sure – despite our stated commitments to keep in touch and meet up again – if I’ll actually see them again. And because there is an unknown element here, the missing comes with a sense of sadness and loss.
So to those friends I made while I was travelling China, know that I miss you, and in some weird way I’m homesick.
1 If I do die in this way, know that I’ll die happy. Also, know that with my last breath I’ll be cursing Rick for not being there to prevent me from doing something stupid. Ha!
It’s strange to think that I was in Beijing China less than a week ago. It’s especially strange to think about it given that I left Beijing at 1:50pm Thursday July 31st, flying 12+ hours through daytime to night time and back to daytime again, and landed in Toronto at 2:10pm Thursday July 31st. Clearly I must have encountered some ripple in the space-time continuum, since I was technically travelling into the past, yet landed 20 minutes in the future.
Obviously my grasp of quantum physics and space-time is limited.
Regardless, having returned to Canada, blue skies, water that doesn’t need to be boiled, personal space, and a very affectionate kitty, I figured I should jot down some of the observations I made while exploring China for the past 30+ days.
Before I start listing off these observations, let me be clear that I’m not writing these as criticisms or to poke fun. They are simply things I saw that were outside the realm of what a westerner might consider normal. I by no means imply any judgement.
With that in mind, I now present my list of observations in no particular order:
The social faux-pas that is digging for nose-nuggets at home doesn’t quite evoke the same reaction in China. Got a nose-nugget? Dig that sucker out, anywhere, anytime.
Seeing a child walk down the street bare-ass naked from the waist down also doesn’t evoke the reactions that it might should one see that in Guelph. Even more surprising is the complete lack of concern when said bare-assed child squats to pee anywhere, anytime.
Spitting seems to be a past-time activity here. And not the spitting that you’ve probably heard from teens and smokers. This is a full on, lung and throat clearing, oh my lord you are probably suffering from black lung hork. Again, anywhere, anytime.
No shirt, no shoes, no service seems to be a mere suggestion. I was a bit surprised during several meals in what would be equivalent to family friendly restaurants at home (read, better than fast food, but not too fancy that one might require a tie or jacket) when a larger man would come strolling in off the streets, no shirt, no shoes, and sit down to eat. Don’t get me wrong, the human body can be a beautiful thing, but even if you’ve got abs of steel and a body that any of the Greek gods would envy, I’m just not accustomed to eating in a restaurant with shirtless people.
Smoking is another major past-time in China. Anywhere, anytime. And no-smoking signs appear to be purely for decoration. Having lived in a city that has banned smoking in restaurants and bars for a very long time, it was odd to be exposed to so much of it while exploring the country. Between the smoke and the smog, I’m betting my lung capacity had been diminished. I’m also really curious if China doesn’t now have, or will soon have, a major public health crisis on their hands.
Personal space isn’t of interest to anyone it seems. That likely comes from living in a country and in cities with so many people. Shanghai and Beijing have about 50 million people in them; compare that to the entire population of Canada spread over all the land we have. Regardless, it’s a bit odd the first time people push you without apology, bump into you with a complete disregard for you, and stand in your personal space when you’re in the middle of a meal.
The idea of a queue is also a suggestion. It was amazing to me to line up for a ticket for anything, only to have people walk up and stand in front of me, or to demand service while I was in the process of being served. Again, I think this had to do with living in a country and cities with as many people as they do. With that many people, you have to speak loud and push forward if you expect to be heard.
Drivers appear at first to be insane. But, having watched them negotiate the tiny spaces they did, and having watched them handle the traffic (including thousands of tuk-tuks, scooters, cyclists, buses, cars, and pedestrians), I have to say they’re actually damn good drivers.
The drivers love to use their horns. But it’s more in the sense of “hey, I’m on the road, watch out for me” instead of “hey, asshole, get the hell out of my way”.
Community is extremely important. The number of people who I saw gathering in the evenings to share food and drink, or to get together to waltz, hip hop, line dance, or perform any number of other dance types was amazing. Every city had something, and the community responded. It was actually quite awesome and inspiring to see.
Family is also extremely important. This extends beyond the immediate family to include the neighbours – which may have actually been family.
Hospitality is a major part of the culture. The number of people who offered to buy me drinks, have me to dinner, or make sure I was comfortable, looked after, and well fed was heartwarming. I didn’t speak the language, but the warmth in their eyes and the kindness of their smiles spoke volumes.
Overall, China was amazing. It was a country of contrasts: old and new architecture, extremely poor and extremely rich, long-standing customs and newer western influences, strict adherence to etiquette compared to actions that might be considered in the west to be rude. But these contrasts are what made the country so incredible and interesting. For those who are travelling there for the first time, remember to check your western opinions and expectations at the door. Embrace the organized chaos that is China. Trust me, you’ll love it, and will likely end up like me – looking forward to your next adventure there.
On my travels throughout China I was constantly reminded by people I met about the luck of certain numbers. This first came to light in Dalian where several weddings were being performed on the 6th of July. More recently I learned that the Forbidden City of Beijing contains 9999 rooms – 9 being a rather lucky number1, 2.
Being a numbers person (although a different kind of numbers person), this got me thinking, how did my trip stack up numerically?
So here goes:
Distance travelled (by plane or train): 25404.64 km – or approximately 63% the circumference of earth.
Travel time (by plane or train): about 40 hours.
Distance travelled by foot: no clue.
Distance travelled by bicycle: about 14km around the old city walls of Xi’an.
Days away: 33 – June 29 through July 31 (a little more than 9% of the year).
Total population of those cities: approximately 60 million, with Shanghai and Beijing being home to about 45 million people combined.
Spur of the moment travel decisions: at least 3 – extended stay in Xi’an with Peter so we could climb Huashan, extended stay in Shanghai after Sass and Andrew returned to the hostel from their canceled flight, and cancellation of my flights from Beijing to Dalian due to delays at the airport.
Mountains climbed: 2 – Hua Shan and the Black Mountain of Dalian.
Temples explored: Too many to count.
Photos knowingly taken with strangers: Too many to count.
Instagram photos/videos posted (so far): about 440 – or approximately 14 per day.
Blog posts (to date, including this one, but excluding those about China that were written prior to leaving on the 29th): 21 – although there will be a few more because I have a few other things I need to write about.
Warmest temperature: 39 Celsius (not including humidity).
Coolest temperature: 25 Celsius (not including humidity).
Countries represented during the trip: 8 – Britain, Ireland, United States, Australia, Germany, Brazil, Canada, and China.
Local dishes sampled: at least 4 (not including the oddities listed below) – Peking duck, hot-pot, dumplings, and noodles.
Silkworm pupae eaten: 4
Snakes eaten: 2
Scorpions eaten: 1
Starfish eaten: 1
Spiders eaten: 1
While I don’t necessarily believe that any of these numbers are lucky – because we all know that only pi has that characteristic – I do know that I am very lucky that I’ve had the opportunity to explore China for these past 30+ days. I’ve had an amazing time here, and I’ve met so many amazing people. It really has been an incredible and unique experience.
I’ve also realized that 30+ days is too short a time to really capture China, which means I’m just going to have to return. Perhaps next year. Perhaps for 60+ days. And perhaps including some of the neighbouring countries. Because let’s be honest, a trip that ends without further wanderlusting just wouldn’t be a successful trip in my books.
1 The number of rooms in the imperial palace is also in reverence to god whose home was believed to contain 10000 rooms. Apparently the emperor didn’t want to piss off god by presuming to have the same number of rooms in his house. Probably a wise move.
2 According to Wiki, the exact number of rooms might not actually be 9999. Whatever.
Beijing has been a little bit different from the previous cities in China I’ve visited, but that doesn’t mean it has been any less amazing.
As I’ve mentioned in a previous post, I opted to stay at a hotel while in Beijing, mainly because the hostel I wanted wasn’t available, but also because the hotel deal was too good to pass up. The problem, however, with staying in a hotel versus a hostel is the type of people who share accommodations with me.
Hostels are mostly filled with travellers and backpackers; people who don’t mind getting dirty, sharing bathrooms, sleeping in bunk beds in 6 or 8 person dorms with complete strangers, and randomly striking up conversations that begin with Where are you from? Where have you been? Where are you going? These conversations always seem to develop into some sort of instant friendship, and before long, you and your fellow traveller are out experiencing the city together, writing crazy new adventure stories to tell at the next hostel.
Hotels are mostly filled with business folks and tourists; people who expect a certain level of pampering and sophistication, room service, and guided tours. Any conversations are limited and short, and have rarely led to adventures (at least in my experience).
Why is this problematic for me? Well, tourists and business folks aren’t likely to strike up a conversation with a random dude travelling on his own. And as has been my experience, they don’t necessarily open themselves up to a random dude striking up a conversation with them. Don’t get me wrong – they talk back – but it’s usually limited to casual chatting and small talk. Backpackers and travellers ignore the small talk and get to the stories. That’s how I met so many great people in Xi’an and Shanghai.
However, this doesn’t mean that I’ve not met some amazing people while in Beijing. I randomly met Brian – the second person from Nashville I’ve met while in China – while touring the parks next to the Forbidden City. He was almost caught in a selfie that I was taking, and that of course led to hello, some laughter, and before long lunch, beer, dinner, and wandering the city at night. We also managed to explore Tiananmen Square, spending part of our time getting photos with locals, and the rest of our time trying to figure out where Tank Man was last photographed as he stood defiantly in front of a line of tanks in 1989.
And as I’ve mentioned in previous posts, I spent a few days on a gastronomic adventure with Till. From Peking Duck to silk worm, scorpions, and spiders, we tried pretty much anything we could. We enjoyed beers while chatting about travel, education, and other random things. We compared cities, and the people of China to our expectations and experiences at home. And we talked about Munich – where he’s from.
When I explored the Great Wall I met Arneau and Rihanna – travellers who had the exact same idea as me when we saw a sign that informed us that the public were not allowed beyond said signage. Clearly this was meant to be ignored. And so the three of us trekked on and found ourselves probably 1km or more beyond the no-admittance declaration, along a section of the wall that hasn’t been repaired as of yet. It also afforded us some amazing views of the wall as it ascended and descended the various mountains we could see. Breaking the rules – always the best decision (that’s a rule – you should write it down – ha, see what I did there).
Last night I had dinner with a Brazilian that I met who’s in Beijing for only 2 days on business. Having been to the city numerous times, he knew of some great restaurants. We ended up eating at La Pizza, where I had western food for the first time on my trip – seafood pizza if you’re curious. While eating, the sky decided to open up and pour for the first time since I’ve been travelling. The rain brought with it thunder and lightning, and apparently sent all of the cabbies into hiding. After eating we did our best to stay dry, but I ended up soaked and having to walk about 3 km before I was finally able to hail a cabbie to get me back to my hotel. Fortunately it was a warm rain and ultimately refreshing given how hot and smoggy it had been that day.
Anyway, while the people I’ve met here have been no less amazing than those I’ve met elsewhere, the ways in which we met have been vastly different. Regardless of how we met, Beijing has been an amazing experience and I’m definitely going to miss it.
The end is nigh! I fly home tomorrow. I honestly can’t believe that a month has flown by so quickly. I guess that’s what happens when you explore a country where you don’t speak the language, but somehow manage to find yourself in crazy adventures. From climbing mountains and dangling on the side of a vertical rock face, to exploring temples, side streets, and mysterious – possibly questionable looking clubs, China has been an incredible adventure.
Of course, the food has been an adventure all onto itself. I tried the recommended staples – Peking Duck (enjoyed several nights ago with a german student named Till), dumplings, noodles, and hot-pot. I’ve enjoyed various soups and rice dishes, both spicy and non. And I’ve also tried some of the local desserts, because dessert, naturally. But nothing in the world could really prepare me for the smorgasbord of gastronomic treats that were available in some of the various markets in the various cities I travelled.
So several nights ago, Till and I continued our gastronomic exploration of Beijing. Specifically, we found ourselves at the Donghuamen Street Market which was very conveniently located within walking distance of our respective hotels.
As we walked the length of the market we were greeted with various aromas, not necessarily matching the images we were seeing. There were standard things such as chicken and beef skewers, but mixed within these there were also skewers of crickets and beetles, snake, frog, fish, scorpions, sea urchin, starfish, unidentifiable animals, unidentifiable insects, and of course, spiders. Creepy, crawly, and heebie-jeebie inducing even in their skewered death-form.
We started our culinary exploration with a skewer of grilled silkworm pupae. To be honest, they look like cockroaches. As for the flavour – they were actually pretty good. They were seasoned with some sort of magic seasoning that pretty much makes everything taste amazing. The inside of the pupae had the consistency of cheese. It actually reminded me of cheese that one would have in a lasagna after it has been baked. The shell – is that the proper term – was crunchy, but not to the point of being offensive or intrusive. It wasn’t so thick that it made for difficult chewing, nor was it so thin that it had no textural impact.
Next we tried grilled snake. The outer flesh was a bit tough to bite through, but the inside had the consistency of egg white. It was actually, in my opinion, quite delicious. We also sampled deep-fried snake – but it was pretty much like eating anything that was super deep-fried. Crunchy, salty, and really devoid of most flavour.
Scorpions were added to our menu. They also were deep-fried, but I think since we had them before the deep-fried snake I enjoyed them more. Also, scorpions seem to be a bit more out there than snake, so there might have been a thrill factor involved with my liking them more.
I also managed to sample some deep-fried starfish – although it was huge so I couldn’t eat it all. It had the toughest/crunchiest of exteriors. The interior was like nothing I have ever tried. It had a weird crumbly wet texture, with a bit of a seafood (but not fishy) flavour.
There was also some sort of bat/lizard thing that I tried. The vendor claimed it to be a bat, but the tail on it suggested to me it was something else. The head and tail combined made me think it was a lizard prior to its untimely skewering. That is, unless bats have long tails and I’m just not as informed on bat knowledge as I should be. Regardless, it was super deep-fried so I’m sure whatever it was lost its original flavour in place of salty deep-fried crunchy deliciousness.
But the showstopper for me was the spider. For those of you who have been reading my blog for some time, you’ll know that I suffered from arachnophobia since I was a little kid. I grew up with a recurring nightmare about tarantulas killing my family. I’d wake up sweating and unable to breathe, fearful that the nightmare were real and if I moved they’d know and get me too. I won’t lie, walking by the platter of skewered spiders invoked both the heebie-jeebies and a sense of joy that they were actually dead. That didn’t stop my brain from jumping into old patterns of what if they aren’t really dead? Don’t get too close, they’ll get you.
When I came to China I knew that the possibility existed of eating a spider. The thought creeped me out. I remember telling someone who I’d be able to eat pretty much anything, but I didn’t think I’d be able to eat a spider.
Well, now here I was, staring at a small tarantula on a stick. Was I truly over my fear of spiders? My mind repeated – I don’t think I can do this. Internally the monologue went on for an eternity, but I know it was short-lived. I looked at the spider, reminding myself that I try to live with a goal of not letting my fears stop me from experiencing everything I possible can. And I thought to myself – what’s the worst that could happen?
The vendor passed me my spider and I contemplated it for a moment. Then I ate a leg. It was crunchy. Almost like an over cooked and super crunchy french fry. I ate another. Till joined in. Before long it was just me, Till, and the spider’s body on a stick. Go big or go home, right? One big gulp and it was gone.
And just like that, revenge was mine. Take that spiders everywhere.
After saying goodbye to Andrew and Sass this morning, I returned to my room to start packing. My adventures in Shanghai have been fantastic and I’ve met some great people, but Beijing awaits.
This adventure will be slightly different for several reasons.
Reason the first: initially I was going to spend the bulk of my time in another really cool and highly rated hostel, but having waited a minute too long to book, it slipped from my grasp. Fortunately a last-minute deal at a five-star hotel dropped into my lap that I couldn’t turn down. So for about $10 Canadian extra per night, I’m going to be spending the next 5 days and nights wrapped in whatever luxurious luxury the Beijing Prime Hotel Wangfujing offers. I may even order room service.
Reason the second: for most of my trip I have travelled between destinations by plane. Today’s 1200+ km trek will forgo the plane as I have opted to see the country from a first class seat on the bullet train. The train promises speeds up to 300 kph. The price is essentially the same as the flight, but affords me views of the countryside that I’ve not really had as of yet. It also means I don’t have to deal with the same type of security, nor do I need to arrive at the airport several hours in advance. So, even though the train will take about 5 hours to reach its destination, I think the time commitment will be about the same.
What does Beijing have in store for me, other than luxuriously luxurious accommodations and the amenities that come with said luxury? Well, I’m not sure to be honest. I know that I’m going to be checking out most of the touristy things that I can, but I’m also going to try to find the not-so-touristy things. I’m definitely planning a trip to the Great Wall, and I’m going to walk Tiananmen Square, and probably snap about eleventy-billion photos of the Forbidden City. But I’m also going to be looking for markets and artisans, random clubs and eateries, and anything that might be described as uniquely Beijingian. I’m not sure Beijingian is a word, but I’m going to go with it.
I have no idea when all this will happen or what other adventures I’ll find myself in, but that’s part of the fun. I also have no idea who I might meet on this the almost-last-leg of my great China adventure. What I do know is that China has been incredible so far. I have no doubt that Beijing will also deliver.
Today I said goodbye to Shanghai and the various people I’d met there over the past 8 days. I’m very much going to miss the city, especially the part where I ate street food almost every night after enjoying a tipple or three with the folks I was fortunate to call friends during my stay. Originally I had planned to leave Shanghai Tuesday, but those plans were thrown out the window on Monday eve. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
On Monday afternoon I said farewell to three of the people I had spent the last few days hanging out with. There was Ben, the other professor in our merry band of misfits, and Andrew and Sass, two 20 year-old students from Australia who have been dating for the past two years or so. After I said goodbye, I relaxed in the lobby of the hostel looking forward to a quiet night. I had a beer, got somewhat caught up on email and world events, and was fully expecting to head to bed early.
And then in walked Andrew and Sass, both looking a little rough around the edges.
I clearly had a very confused look on my face because they immediately started laughing and then began recounting a rather harrowing adventure that began with a police ticket for the cab driver, and ended with their flight being canceled. In between they were involved in a car accident on the highway that wrote-off the car they were in (fortunately all were okay save for some stiff necks). If that weren’t bad enough, the substitute cab had a faulty door which was only discovered while careening down the highway at speeds in excess of 120 kph. Apparently it’s not normal for the door of a vehicle to just swing open. Who knew? Fortunately Ben – who was travelling to the airport with Andrew and Sass – got things under control (and I think managed to make his flight home). From this point, however, things went from bad to worse for Andrew and Sass.
At the airport, Andrew and Sass were initially faced with flight delay, after flight delay. Eventually they were told the Military were conducting operations, the airport was essentially closed, and they should return to the hostel. They were given a slip of paper saying they’d be able to get a flight on Wednesday around noon.
Despite the day they had, they walked into the hostel with very few gripes and a lot of smiles. After listening to them recount their adventure, I started thinking that my time in Shanghai wasn’t quite finished. We chatted about plans for the next morning (technically check-out was at noon, and I had the entire day to get to Beijing) and decided to head out for food and some drinks. We had a great night chatting and exploring several dishes at a nearby restaurant, laughing at some of the Chinese to English translations. Dinner led to drinks at a local bar which was fortunately stocked with some deliciously delicious scotches. I already knew Andrew was a fellow scotch drinker so it didn’t take much for us to sample a few drams. After several drinks we returned to the hostel, but not before a feast of street food. Scallions wrapped in some sort of gluten/soy blanket, bacon wrapped something-or-others, fish-on-a-stick, mushrooms, and a bowl of spicy crawdads – or whatever the Chinese equivalent might be. All of this was washed down with a half litre of beer for the outrageously low price of 5 yuan (less than a dollar Canadian).
On Tuesday morning I awoke early to extend my stay an extra day in Shanghai, and modify my booking in Beijing. It took all of 5 minutes.
After some coffee, the three of us jumped in a cab and made our way to the art district known as M50. I was expecting a market with local artisans showing off trinkets and such. It was nothing like that. The area reminded me of the Distillery District in Toronto, but larger, and filled with various different artists. The works ranged from absolutely amazing – we all seriously considered buying some prints by the artist Sanzi – to downright creepy (hello naked baby painting). Some were quite practical, such as the handcrafted tea sets, to completely outrageous. Why would someone want a 7 foot purple corn-on-the-cob? Or for that matter, a giant angry silver baby riding a tank? Perhaps I just don’t get art.
We had lunch in the area then walked to a nearby temple to see a beautiful jade Buddha. The temple – appropriately called the Jade Buddha Temple – was stunning. We wandered the temple for about an hour, snapping photos and taking in as much of it as we could, before we grabbed a cab and returned to the hostel for a nap.
The day led us to the French Colonial section of town. From the street I’d never have known this place existed, but down a particular alleyway pointed out by our cabbie, we were presented with pedestrian walkway after pedestrian walkway, each filled with pubs and eateries. Given our success of the previous day, we opted to repeat history. Several drams of scotch were ordered for Andrew and me, while Sass opted for some rather beautiful and delicious cocktails. We chatted about travel and school, life in general, and even statistics. At one point I found myself explaining degrees of freedom and multicollinearity. It was weird and wonderful and completely unexpected. Feeling a bit wobbly from all of the scotch, we returned to the hostel and the same street vendors. We couldn’t have our last night in Shanghai not include more spicy crawdads and fish-on-a-stick.
I’m glad I decided to stay an extra day. Andrew and Sass are exactly the type of people I like meeting when I travel. Adventurous, open to new things, and willing to laugh at the weird things that happen instead of getting upset. What could have been the death-blow to their vacation, they turned into a grand adventure. Instead of pouting and whining, they decided to give Shanghai one last hurrah. How could I not have stayed?
As we hugged farewell today I knew that I wanted to keep in touch with them. I’m really excited to know where their adventure-filled life will take them.
Today is laundry day, so what better thing to do than write a few blog posts.
I arrived in Shanghai on Wednesday last week. The flight was a bit rough but ultimately uneventful. It was bittersweet to say goodbye to Xi’an, but other adventures were calling my name.
To save some cash and get a sense of the city I opted to take the No. 2 Metro line from the airport to a station close to my hostel. Fortunately signage was both in English and in Chinese which made purchasing a ticket (4 Yuan, or about 69 cents Canadian) and making my way to my destination rather simple. At least in theory. In practice I failed to consider my own stupidity and exhaustion. After falling asleep on the subway, I woke to find I’d missed my first stop and had returned almost all the way to the airport. Feeling like a twit, I quickly corrected the situation and was back on my way to my home away from home for the week.
After checking in, I decided to saunter around the neighbourhood. Within about 5 minutes I stumbled into Andy whom I’d met in Xi’an the week before. Having been here for a few days already he gave me the lay of the land, and then we went in search of food.
Since then, I’ve hung out with him and several other travellers – the Brits Laura, Chloe, Sam, and Hugh, the Aussie student-couple Andrew and Sassica, and the Americans Jack, Ben, and Lauren. Various subsets of us have opted to explore the local pubs and clubs together, and that of course has led to some rather late nights/early mornings. From the dark and dingy yet strangely inviting and friendly C-club, to the overpriced but entertaining Cheers, to the posh techno shoulder-to-shoulder deafening thump-thump and visual assault that was M18 and Myst, and to the not-so-crowded, not-so-loud techno thump-thump and free booze of SoHo, we’ve pretty much been all over the place.
Between bar-hopping, I’ve managed to make my way to the financial district – where fellow professor Chris and I celebrated with a scotch on the 87th floor overlooking the nightlife of Shanghai – to the Bund, and to the major shopping district of Nanjing Road. I’ve been amazed by the contrast between old colonial buildings and the new modern flash of skyscrapers. The street BBQs have turned into a staple after-bar snack. I’ve snapped my pic with an M&M dressed as a panda, I’ve enjoyed fresh coconut water and probably too many dumplings, and I have been entertained by the various Chinese to English translations that I’ve read. The people, as in Xi’an, are exceptionally hospitable and welcoming.
In short, this city is vibrant and amazing and has so much to offer, I think I might just be in love with it.
While I’ve technically be in Shanghai for 5 days already, I’ve been out having too much fun to sit down and write. I figured that I probably should write a little bit about my experiences today before I find myself looking at the city from my seat on a bullet train to Beijing.
Before I get into my adventures in Shanghai, I thought I’d offer up a huge thanks to Xi’an and the people who call that city home. Xi’an was amazing. So much so that I extended my stay a few days so that Peter and I could conquer a mountain. There was seriously so much to do in that city, and I can definitely see myself returning there in the future. Exploring the Bell and Drum towers, eating my face off in the Muslim District, cycling the walls of the old city, and visiting the Terra Cotta Warriors were all highlights of the trip. My adventure to the top of Huashan and subsequent plank walk were icing on the proverbial cake.
But it wasn’t all site-seeing and history. The city also connected me with some amazing people with equally amazing travel stories – some profound, others hilarious, all fascinating. There were nights spent sitting in the streets with locals and two students from France, drinking beer until the early hours of the morning, and other nights wandering the city with no particular goal in mind.
On one particular eve, Peter and I found ourselves looking at the almost-full moon through a massive telescope that someone had set up near the Drum Tower. We also found ourselves sitting and staring at the Drum Tower, amazed at its simplicity and beauty, amazed of where we were and how we got there, all while listening to a local musician play what we assumed was traditional Chinese music. It had all the makings for a cheesy romantic date-scene in some equally cheesy romantic movie – but all that was quickly shattered when we realized the musician had switched into Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On. Obviously laughter ensued.
I’m definitely going to miss Xi’an. And I’m definitely going to miss the band of misfits that I got to call friends for a short period of time. With any luck, I’ll meet up with some of them again on some random adventure in some random city in the future. If travel has taught me anything, it’s that the world is a rather small place, and stranger things have happened.
The hike to the top of the east peak of Huashan was the first of three specific adventures that Peter, Gavin, and I had set out to do on Monday night. Watching the sun rise over the Yellow river valley after spending the night at the top of the mountain was the second. The final adventure was the descent of the mountain and a detour to brave the infamous plank walk.
For those who aren’t aware, Huashan is known for its treacherous and deadly paths. Despite chains and fences that have been put in place, alternate routes up the mountain, and the construction of a rather amazing set of lifts, people continue to die while attempting to summit. Where most of the deaths occur I have no idea, but my guess is that it has to do with the plank walk.
Situated more than 2km above sea level and at approximately 1 foot in width, the planks look like nothing more than dilapidated wood that may have once graced the side of a barn. Three separate pieces of wood make up the width of the planks, and these run the length of a shear cliff face. The planks appear to be held together by glorified staples. Beneath them, mostly air until you hit the base of the valley far below. For the faint of heart it might be a paralyzing view.
For us, it was a must-do adventure.
Before beginning our climb down an almost 90 degree incline, we were strapped into harnesses. In theory the harnesses provided some measure of safety – but I’m more convinced that these were a money-making scheme above all else. While I have had some training with carabiners, I’m not so sure the 30 second demonstration provided most of the Chinese tourists attempting this now well-known path was sufficient. Nor was I convinced that the harness was actually set up to do what it needed to do should someone slip off the edge.
Of course that didn’t stop us.
Nor did the fact that the one-way path was, at least for that day, a two-way highway. As we descended, others climbed around, beside, and sometimes on top of us. It was chaotic, at times a bit frustrating, but more than all of that, it was amazing. Whenever I could I leaned out from the mountain wall to look down. The view was spectacular.
Eventually we found ourselves at the base of the rock-face – or at least the part where we would start traversing the cliff. This meant working with footholds that had at some point in time been carved into the mountain. Some were large enough to rest more than half a foot in, others not-so-much.
All along the path Peter and Gavin and I attempted photos of each other and ourselves. I leaned back several times as far as I could and held the camera above my head to capture the most perfect selfie possible.
At this point the two-way traffic became a bit bigger of a challenge. While it was perfectly comfortable to traverse the cliff via footholds in a single-file-moving-one-direction way, oncoming traffic added a new element of thrill to the entire venture. Without communicating a word we learned that returning traffic had to stay to the outside of the mountain. That is, they had to traverse the cliff-face by leaning out and around us.
Amazing! I won’t lie, I was pretty stoked to try this on my way back.
Before long we were at the planks. More oncoming traffic had us dancing with many other people – some more frightened than others – and all making their way around us back to the safety of where we started. The experience on the planks was exhilarating. More photos, lots of smiles, and lots of laughs were had as we gazed over our shoulders or turned around completely to face the valley below.
Shortly after the planks we found ourselves climbing up a final set of stairs. These were very narrow, not very deep, and filled with a stream of fellow plank-walkers who were returning to home base. This meant that the three of us were stuck in place as 10 to 12 people maneuvered around us. For those who were far too nervous to descend confidently, I took the time to guide their feet, tell them when and where to stop – allowing me ample time to unbuckle their carabiners one at a time, releasing the second once the first had been reconnected to the available safety lines – and then giving them instructions to continue on their way.
After what seemed like an eternity hanging out on the very narrow stairs, we were able to climb up and over to find an open area that was home to a small Buddhist temple. Again we laughed at what had just happened, thrilled that we’d had the opportunity to walk the planks.
Of course, we still had to return to home base. Which of course meant that we were on the outside path of the planks as we maneuvered around those who had begun the trek to the temple after us. I had thought that I was going to find this scary, but in all honesty it wasn’t. There was ample room to move, and while I wasn’t so confident in the harness I was wearing around my neck, I was cautious and safe, and I was confident in my ability to do what needed to be done.
After returning to home base we were all smiles, because holy shit, we’d just completed the plank walk. And once again I couldn’t help but shake my head smirking, thankful for the opportunity to do something so incredibly amazing with two great guys.
The rest of the morning was spent exploring the remaining peaks and finding our way down the mountain. I was tired and weary, desperately in need of a shower and food, but energized by the adventure that was Huashan.
Thanks again to Peter and Gavin for making Huashan such an amazing experience. This adventure wouldn’t have been the same without you.
After an epic hike to the east peak of Huashan, Peter, Gavin, and I spent a few hours enjoying the views that an almost full moon afforded us. In the distance we could see the Yellow River, and below us only the sharp cliff that dropped off to the valley below. I stared into the darker areas trying to will myself to know what was there. I stared at the white rocks that were illuminated by the moon. And I stared at the night sky and the thousands of stars above us.
It was humbling, and it was breathtaking, and it was awesome all at the same time.
And there we stayed as we waited for the sun to rise over the mountain ranges beyond. Extra layers were added as the temperature dropped. We snacked, marvelling at the fact that we were in China at the top of a mountain at night. I was slightly giddy as I thought about how fortunate I was to be in China, experiencing this amazing adventure.
Slowly the night sky turned to dawn, and we were joined by more and more people seeking the summit and the view of the sunrise it offered.
The sky quickly became a spectrum of colours, which signalled to the birds to begin to chirp. The dark blue of the night sky became green, and red, and orange. The outlines of buildings in the valley came into view, and the stars began to fade.
And then the sun peaked over the mountain range. At that very moment the crowd of spectators – tired and weary from the climb – applauded and cheered, refreshed by the beams of light that were dancing over everyone’s faces. The noise that erupted caught me by surprise as I had been in my own little world watching this amazing spectacle before me.
I couldn’t help but smile, reminded that people everywhere are basically the same. We all look at something as simple and beautiful as a sunrise and recognize the significance and hope that it brings. Our differences and misunderstandings seem to pale in comparison to the amazingly simple things we all value.
I also smiled as I thought about the two great guys who joined me on the trek. Gavin had never climbed a mountain before that night and was clearly blown away by the experience. And yet without Gavin, Peter and I would have had a very different adventure prior to arriving at the base of the mountain. Spending the night at the top of the mountain with Peter couldn’t have been a better way to end our 5 day epic Xi’an adventure. I’m confident that the two of us will be up to adventures together in the not-to-distant future.
And finally, I smiled as I thought about friends who I know would have loved to have been there to share the experience with me. For those friends – you know who you are – I will conquer this mountain again and you will be joining me. That’s a promise.
As the sun drew higher in the sky we settled in for a short nap, content that the second part of our adventure was complete. After our nap we’d head off to the other 4 peaks that Huashan offered, and a section of the trail known for its incredibly dangerous path.
Monday marked the day after my adventure with Peter biking around the city walls of Xi’an. Much of the day was spent figuring out the next legs of our respective adventures. At one point I was going to join him on his journey to Chengdu, but that opportunity seemed to flit away as soon as we realized that the buses, trains, and planes were all full – save for a few late night options.
We also were beginning to wonder how we were going to fit in Huashan – the epic mountain climb I had mentioned in previous posts – given the remaining options available to get Peter to Chengdu to see his friends.
We decided that Huashan would have to be a night climb. This way we’d be able to meet all of our schedules and take part in a very unique experience.
Figuring out how to get to Huashan was our first challenge. Trains were booked. Buses were booked. Renting a car would be too pricey. Everything was working against us. That is, until the opportunity for two standing only tickets were made available. We rushed to the train station with all of our hiking gear to purchase our tickets, only to find out that the train was indeed full. Fortunately for us, the ticket agent offered us two first class tickets on the high speed train. We gladly purchased these and were on our way – sometimes reaching speeds of almost 300kph.
As we raced towards the mountain, we chatted about the coming adventure. Specifically, we discussed the fact that we really didn’t know how to get from the North Huashan train station to the mountain, and the fact that our conversational Chinese was limited to saying hello, thank you, or asking for the bill, and the fact that we didn’t know how we were going to get back to Xi’an the next day. We probably should have been nervous, but what’s an adventure without a bunch of unknowns coupled with poor communication skills?
As we exited the train station, we were greeted by a very lively scene; people snapping whips (seriously), and a very large number of taxi drivers fighting to take us to the mountain for insanely inflated prices.
And then we met Gavin.
Gavin, from the US, had also decided to hike the mountain. Like us, he also wasn’t fully prepared for what was about to happen, but in a different way. While we had no idea how we were going to get to the mountain and home, or how to communicate with the locals, he had no idea what the hike involved or what equipment he might need.
Fortunately between the group of us we somehow formed a kick-ass team.
Gavin organized the taxi and got us to the mountain. Peter and I helped get Gavin up the mountain. It was a win-win situation.
After buying a twelve pack of beer (because why wouldn’t we want a twelve pack of beer for hiking a mountain?), and purchasing our entrance to the park, we started on our big adventure. The time was about 10pm and the way was lit only by the moon and the headlamps people were wearing.
The trek started simple enough – along what is known as the Soldier’s Road. The incline was gentle and the path was composed of a very well constructed set of stairs; stairs that went on. And on. And on. And on. And got steeper, and steeper. Oh, and steeper.
We weren’t alone on the trek. It seemed that thousands of locals were making the trek with us. Up and up we hiked. We stopped from time to time to catch our breath and give our legs a rest, and to enjoy a beer. We commented on the variety of people making the hike – some looked early on as if they weren’t going to make it, others looked strong and determined. Our collective goal – the east summit, where we’d be able to watch the sun rise around 5:30am.
In some sections the stairs were narrow – very narrow. In some sections the stairs were only big enough to put less than half your foot on. And in some sections the stairs were so steep (80% incline) they looked more like a wall with notches carved into it. And yet still we hiked, higher and higher up the mountain and into the night.
Eventually we found ourselves face to face with the steepest section. Imagine if you will a wall that leans out slightly towards you. Imagine three chains hanging down from above – setting up two lanes for potential climbers. Imagine stairs that are about 1 inch deep. And imagine people attempting to climb them, freaking out, and having to climb back down while others attempted to climb up. It was a bit chaotic. It was a bit insane. It. Was. Amazing.
Of course, it wasn’t necessary to take this route. There was a way to bypass it – and many people did. We talked about it, but I knew immediately that I was doing it. I hadn’t come all that way to wuss out. Peter and Gavin felt the same way. We were going to crush this.
As I approached the wall I simply took a breath, got my footing, grabbed the chains and started my ascent. I looked down, often, because why wouldn’t I? With each step closer to the top, I smiled more and more. With each step I took a moment and thought out my next move, then confidently made it. And it felt amazing. I fully expected some fear, but there was none. There was just an awesome sense of crushing the challenge.
And just like that we were past the wall and heading the rest of the way to the peak.
After about 4.5 hours we reached the eastern peak. The moonlight provided enough light to see that the valley below was expansive and incredible. The sky was huge and decorated with countless stars. It was an amazing moment and it was great to share it with both Peter and Gavin. We sat there, smiling, taking in everything, and celebrated with a couple beers.
We spent several hours chatting and napping on the mountain as we waited for the sun to rise. At some point I just sat there listening to the sounds of nature, and marvelling again at how lucky I am to be able to experience something like this.
Since I arrived in Xi’an, I’ve made a point of visiting the Muslim District every day. There’s just too much going on there not to go. And every visit seems to offer something new – something that I either missed on previous visits, or something new and amazing that was added to the mix. It really is a feast for all of the senses.
The District is approximately 15 minutes from my hostel – assuming I’m moving at a very leisurely pace – and is situated right next to the Drum Tower. In the early morning hours it’s filled with vendors who are busy setting up for the day. Any time after 10am and it ranges from busy to crazy busy. The hustle and bustle is part of its charm. Of course, if you aren’t one for crowds this is probably not the place for you.
At night the area is truly hopping. Hundreds, if not thousands of people stream in and out of the area, sampling the many culinary treats they have to offer. It’s also particularly entertaining to watch each of the various dishes being prepared, in the open, on the street.
Saturday evening was the first time I actually decided to sit down on the street to eat. Previously I had bought food and continued to wander, enjoying dinner and a show – as it were. I sat with Peter as we ate noodles and watched the crowds go by. Everyone was smiling, laughing, snapping photos, and truly enjoying the marvel that is the District. Peter and I happily posed for many photos as we sat there and ate. We waved at little kids who stared at us wide-eyed, sending them into fits of giggles. The experience was truly fantastic and definitely one of the highlights of my trip so far.
The food in the area really is fantastic. So far I’ve sampled various mushrooms, tofu, noodles, pastries, sugary drinks, quail (I think) eggs, and more. This doesn’t even begin to cover the variety of food available, which of course means I have a lot of work to do if I really want to eat my way through the Muslim District.
Challenge happily accepted Muslim District. Challenge happily accepted.
After my Big Wild Goose Pagoda excursion on Friday, I returned to the hostel to rest and meet up with fellow traveller Peter. I met Peter while we were both working in Dalian. After chatting via the interwebs, I learned that he would be heading to Xi’an, Chengdu, and finally to Hong Kong. After further chatting via the interwebs, he also foolishly agreed to climb Mount Huashan with me. Muah.
The climb, of course, is the thing that I must do on this trip. You know, on top of all the site-seeing and eating and eating and more eating. Also, did I mention the eating?
Since the big mountain adventure won’t happen until tomorrow, we’ve spent the last couple of days wandering the city together, chatting with other travellers, and getting up to no good. While I love exploring cities completely on my own, it’s also great to have someone here to share the experience with. And as is always the case, I’ve found that most of the people I’ve met on my travels have been rather amazing; they are adventurous, laid back, and full of fantastic stories. While Peter is a few years younger than me, he has travelled to places that are still on my list.
I’ve also been fortunate enough to meet some other amazing people on my trip so far. There’s Andrew – a 51 year-old rare-earth mineral explorer from Australia, who has some amazing stories of wandering the world (and is currently dealing with a bout of malaria). There are the two Dutch twenty-something guys who joined Peter and I last night as we watched the Brazil-Holland match; one of whom is finishing his Masters. We ended up having a great discussion about statistics and how he needs to analyze his data. Benjamin and Arthur are two undergrad students who have been living in China for the past 5 months on exchange. We joined them when we explored the Terra Cotta Warriors yesterday. Maggie is a visiting professor from Chengdu. Her and I spent several hours chatting the other day, and since then she has greeted me with a huge smile, and is often offering me food. There was also Haichao Liu, a local student who spent some time chatting with me to help improve his english skills. So many great stories. So many friendly faces.
While I love travel for its ability to open me up to the different corners of our world, I love how it also connects me with people I might otherwise never meet. True travellers, at least in my opinion, share not just a love of travel – they share a love of life. It’s quite infectious, and makes the experiences all the more incredible. Where some might travel China and complain about the dust or the heat or the crowds or the many things that aren’t the norm in North America, these people happily dive into the culture, learning as much as they can, and taking some part of the experience home with them. Honestly, I think if more people traveled with an open mind, we’d have far fewer issues in the world.
I’m going to miss these folks when I return home. Fortunately that won’t happen for another few weeks. In the meantime, Peter and I are going to organize the mountain climb, and figure out how we’re getting to Chengdu. Apparently there are pandas there. Clearly I have to go.