My Mom sent me an email the other day – she had picked up a book I left behind by Ryszard Kapuściński, a Polish journalist, and someone I idolize. In this book (Travels with Heredotus), Kapuscinski writes this about travel: “Indeed, there exists something like a contagion of travel, and the disease is essentially incurable.” My Mom thinks I have this disease – and she is right. Kapuscinski writes about his first trip to India, writes about being fabulously lost and confused, while at the same time, eating up every moment and color and sound and experience around him – for him, it was the beginning of a life-long love affair with going places, meeting people, and telling their stories.
When I decided to go on this trip, a lot of people asked what I like so much about travel. One of the things I said then was that, especially as a solo traveler in an unfamiliar place, you really need to rely on the goodness of people. When you don’t speak a language and pretty much everything is unfamiliar, you simply can’t stay alone for long – you must reach outside of your comfort zone, and find ways to connect with people – and this is something I absolutely love about going to new places. (And I think something that Kapuscinski also reveled in).
Yesterday, I visited Mount Cangyan Shan, a little-known destination for foreigners, but an extraordinary place to visit. I’ve had an obsession with the place ever since I saw the movie Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, and swore to myself I would someday get there. Its about 100 kilometers outside of Shijizhuang, China, and takes a bit (alright, a lot) of doing to get to if your Chinese is practically nonexistent.
My trip here was a definitive adventure. First, I hopped a local train from Beijing to Shijizhuang, only a few hours south of the capital, but a world apart in many other ways. Being the only foreigner on the train, a lot of people wanted to talk – including the amazing girl who sat directly across from me. A student in broadcast journalism, we had quite a bit in common, and with the help of one Chinese-English dictionary and one phone-based translator, we chatted for the 3 hour journey to Shijizhuang.
When we arrived, I was seriously out of my element – although armed with the Chinese characters for my hotel and the characters for the street name, no taxis would take me – it was too close, according to Aixy, my new friend, and they wanted a higher fare. So she called her father, had him pick the two of us up, called someone else for directions, and this complete stranger took me to the front door of my hotel, no questions asked, and no thanks needed. (I did thank him profusely, however).
Then, arriving at my hotel, I pulled out my laptop and showed them a picture of Cangyan Shan. This resulted in 6 different staff members wildly gesticulating and talking, and it ended with another small slip of paper, with a series of Chinese characters, a few bus numbers, and one small street map drawn to get me to my first bus.
The next morning, I was off at 6 am, to follow my little map to Bus #1, which I hopped on as the moon was still high. Once there, I showed my little paper to a teenage boy, who said, calmly, “You follow me!” A 30 minute bus-ride later, he grabbed my arm and took me to a bus station, where he said “You go here!” and then we took a few pictures together for good measure.
I walked into the bus station, where once again, I presented someone with my paper of Chinese letters. A woman took me by the hand and placed me into the bus station staff room, and pointed to the clock, held up seven fingers (I assumed for 7), and said “Wait!” So I waited there for about 30 minutes, as many, many bus station employees had a decent laugh at my expense. But I wasn’t complaining.
Next, a woman came and grabbed my hand at 5 minutes till seven, brought me to a bus, talked with the driver for about 2 minutes, and plopped me down into a seat, all the while, smiling brightly. The bus departed, which I figured was the bus to where I was going (again, relying heavily on the decency of people at this point) – but 15 minutes later, the bus pulled up to a corner, and the driver looked at me and pointed to get out. So I did, finding myself at another hub of buses. At this point, I walked inside, showed my paper to yet another staff member, and at this point, got a ticket for a trip to Cangyan Shan!
That’s when the fun really began. It was almost 2 hours before my bus was leaving, but as I was the only foreigner in the bus, it was more like a 2-hour English-Chinese-wild-gesticulation lesson – and I met 5 of the nicest people I have ever encountered. The two hour bus ride, and the rest of the day, I spent walking, laughing, eating, and taking pictures with these 5 strangers – and what amazed me even more, was that they seemed to become friends with each other.
I was trying to envision this scenario occurring in the United States, but I had trouble even imagining it. I definitely believe people in the U.S. would help a lost foreigner – that isn’t a stretch – but to have 5 completely different people, two of them a young couple, two a middle-aged married couple, and one, a crazy solo lady full of zest – to have these people meet on a bus, and spend the next 8 hours together – I can’t even imagine this happening. Not only that, but they laughed together, talked the entire day, sang songs loudly on the mountain, took pictures, and then exchanged emails and phone numbers. I think (and maybe I’m exhibiting my cynicism here) that in the States, it would be more likely that most of these people would be on phones/computers/talking amongst themselves for most of the trip, and would probably not decide to spend their day with an unlikely band of strangers. The interaction among this group struck me as so warm and genuine, that I couldn’t help but be touched by this group who adopted me as one of them.
After this amazing day, where we climbed and scrambled up this uncommonly magical place, (Kapuściński, by the way, often had his writing characterized as “magic journalism”) three members of the group escorted me back to another bus, got off at my stop (although I could have done this on my own), and walked the 10 minutes to the front door of my hotel with me. It sounds a bit silly, but it was bittersweet for me – this kind of incredible kindness among these strangers – It made all the confusion and challenge of communicating just fall away, and made me wonder if this type of immediate connection is possible in my own community.
It was an unbelievable place to visit – but more than that, it was a truly touching experience to have. To meet complete strangers, to connect with them, to eat and gesture and sing and hike, to walk arm in arm for a day and to really share time and space– those are the moments that make travel so undeniably sweet.