When planning our year-long journey around the world, China was never a country that was on the itinerary. Not because we didn’t have the desire to see it but we just hadn’t given it much consideration due to the difficulty of traveling it on our own – outside of an organized tour – and the high price of obtaining a visa. However, as our “route” has changed so many times, we have learned to roll with the unexpected and most often, pleasant detours. So after landing a housesit in Shenzhen, we added China to the map and started doing our research to be able to make it as solo Americans in such an isolated country.
What we learned from our research, and later our experience is that getting around in China is very difficult. For starters, almost no one speaks a word of English, most places don’t take non-Chinese credit cards, there is no Uber, all public transportation is only in Chinese and all Western websites are blocked (including Google, Gmail, all social media, etc.) So even walking about the city on our own was difficult since we couldn’t use our Google maps as we normally would. Thankfully, our extensive research paid off and we were prepared for these obstacles.
However, there is no amount of preparation that could have alleviated the immediate and overwhelming sense of culture shock that we both felt our first few days upon arrival. Leaving our housesit and walking the streets to find the grocery store the first day, we were flooded with a mixture of conflicting emotions – alienation, anxiety, exhilaration, awe. We crossed through narrow alleys full of tiny shops and food vendors selling unrecognizable meats, motorcycles whizzing beside us just inches away, old men sitting on crates, playing cards on makeshift tables, the overwhelming smells of food, fresh hanging laundry, sewer and pollution all coming together to create a beautiful chaos unlike anything we have ever experienced.
The people on the streets seemed to be equally in awe of us as we were of our surroundings. As an isolated country with no access to the outside world through the internet and movies, it is not often that they see people who are non-Chinese. So two tall(ish) Americans walking through their neighborhood must have been an extreme oddity. They would stop and stare and turn and stare some more. And they were shameless in taking photos. At first, we were in shock about the many photos that we would see people taking, making us feel as if we were aliens from another planet. But after about the first 10 times it happened, we started having fun with it and would just pose and smile for them. They would smile back.
When we finally made it to the grocery store, our culture shock was only heightened. We were trying to shop for foods that we could prepare at home during our two-week housesit and were struggling to find anything recognizable outside of fruits and veggies and rice and noodles. Of course, all of the packaging was in Chinese so we couldn’t even decipher what things were.
We returned to our housesit with our groceries and a feeling of, “WTF are we doing here?!” In that moment, we very seriously questioned our decision to travel through China and for the first time in 10 months we missed home and its familiarity more than anything.
Thankfully, that feeling was short-lived and we came to embrace the unknown and the uncomfortable. We spent the next two weeks enjoying our beautiful view from the 22nd floor of a lovely apartment with two sweet and well-trained dogs. We worked a ton on our laptops, worked out every day with the homeowner’s gym equipment and enjoyed our new (temporary) vegetarian lifestyle after a traumatic meat experience left us with no other option. We went on jogs on a nearby trail and enjoyed our daily walks around the complex with the pups. Overall, we had a pleasant two-week stay in Shenzhen and even successfully ventured out to explore the downtown area one day.
Our next stop was Xi’an, the historic city in Central China with more than 5,000 years of history. We planned this visit at the last minute after learning about the Terracotta Warriors, the world wonder that was discovered there just 40 years ago. Once again, the short-notice detour took us to one of our now favorite Asian cities! Throughout our half-day tour to see the warriors, we learned so much about Chinese history and culture from our amazing guide.
The terracotta warriors are an army of 8,000 lifesize soldiers made from clay that has been buried beneath the ground for 3,000 years. Built by the first emperor, Qin Shi Huang to serve as protection in the afterlife, the army surrounds his tomb. It was accidentally discovered in 1974 by a farmer who was digging for a well. We were actually able to meet and shake hands with the farmer who made this magnificent discovery!
We were completely astounded to learn that it took 700,000 slaves over 40 years to complete this project. Every single warrior was unique, with intricate facial features and different body types. There were different ranks of soldiers, indicated by their uniforms, weapons and style of hats. The slaves would spend most of their lives laboring on the creation of the warriors, only to be killed in the end so that Qin’s secret of his terracotta army would never get out. It was tragic and inspiring at the same time and we felt moved to be in the presence of such an incredible, ancient phenomenon.
Next, we went to an authentic Chinese restaurant with our guide and the kindest Phillipino woman and her nephew who were also on the tour with us. We sat and shared the most delicious, family-style meal complete with 12 different soups and entrees and got to know them better. Then later that night, we ran into them in the city center, chatted a bit, took a photo together and added each other on Facebook. Funny enough, we ran into them yet again the next morning at the airport and they were even on our same flight to Beijing! So even in the country with the highest population, it can still feel like a small world sometimes.
Our second, and final day in Xi’an we rented a tandem bike on the top of the wall that surrounds the city. Built in 194 BC, it represents one of the oldest, largest and best-preserved walls in all of China. It was a beautiful day and we enjoyed seeing the city from above.
That evening we went walking through – or eating our way through, I should say – the Muslim Quarter, a long strip of street food served by the small Chinese Muslim population. The street was packed with people, shimmering in flashing lights and erupting with the loud noise of vendors yelling to get our attention. There was so much going on, and so much to take in, it was quite thrilling to be in the middle of it all.
We stopped at five different food stalls and tried a bunch of different delicacies, half of which we weren’t exactly sure what they were. But without being able to communicate or ask questions, we had to choose what we wanted simply based on looks. We were even brave enough to try a durian cheese pastry and it was surprisingly delicious! We have heard much about durian, the famous South East Asian fruit that has a bad rap for smelling like stinky feet.
Early the next morning we hopped on our 14th flight and headed to Beijing. Although it was only a two-hour flight, we were still served a full meal AND snacks and drinks! We still cannot believe the great service of all the Asian airlines that we have flown so far.
The minute we stepped outside the airport in Beijing, I immediately felt suffocated by the smog and horrific air quality. In the previous two Chinese cities, we were definitely affected by pollution but it was nothing compared to what we felt in China’s capital city. Looking at the hundreds of people around us wearing facemasks to protect their lungs from the harmful effects of toxins floating in the air, it was very disturbing to imagine that so many millions of people live like this every single day. I simply cannot imagine a life where fresh, clean air is nonexistent. To me, it is just as necessary to living a happy healthy life as fresh, clean water. And yet, so many people don’t have access to it.
I spent the next three days in Beijing deeply saddened that such a large portion of our world has become so heavily polluted and that it has become the norm. Seeing small children running and playing with masks on shook me to the core. Sadly, that has become the new normal there. Even more disturbing was seeing other children without. After learning that respiratory disease is common in cities like this and claims the lives of millions of people every year, I just never really felt comfortable there. And my discomfort grew after the effect of pollution led to me having a sore throat, headaches and a bloody nose.
We checked into our hotel room and settled for the night. We had a big day ahead of us and would be waking at 6 am to get ready for our Great Wall tour! We both have dreamed of walking along the Great Wall of China our entire lives and we couldn’t believe we were finally getting to do it… together! 🙂
The tour started early in the morning when a van picked us up, along with six other people – two of them from Nebraska! – and we set out to reach the farthest and most difficult section of the wall to reach, in Mutianyu. We chose this section as it was the highest peak, farthest from the city (and smog) and with the best views. We rode for two hours, making a couple stops along the way to visit a famous mausoleum and a jade factory until we finally arrived at the foot of a mountain. There we had another shared, family-style Chinese lunch with our tourmates and then took a cable car up the side of the mountain until we reached the wall at the top. Lucky for us, it was a beautiful bright, clear sunny day and the view was as far as the eye could see. The wall stretched for miles in both directions and we could see how it received the fitting name of the Stone Dragon.
The “walk” along the wall was not exactly a walk. It would be much more accurate to call it a hike! As you can imagine a wall built along a mountain range, there were hundreds of stone steps. And even the sections without steps, the surface was very rough, with jagged rocks and uneven surfaces. But we didn’t care, we were so happy and excited to be there. We were the only people on our tour to go the farthest distance and make it back in the two hour time that we were given. When we checked our phone later that day, we saw that we had ascended 108 flights!
Learning all about the history of the Great Wall and how and why it was built was absolutely fascinating. I have never been one to be interested in history but when you actually visit a place like that and see it for your own eyes, it’s quite a bit different than looking at a picture in a history book. It was truly an epic day and really made us feel grateful for all of these unforgettable and life-changing moments that we have been able to experience together.
The next two days we explored the old city of Pekin (now Beijing) and visited Tiananmen Square, the city center, a site of great cultural significance and the country’s governing headquarters. We walked through Beihai Park, people watched, climbed to the top of a hill to see a pretty white pagoda, a Buddhist temple, and enjoyed the beautiful day.
In all, we spent three weeks in this country stretching and challenging ourselves and discovering that great lessons are learned in the face of adversity. It wasn’t always easy and it wasn’t always comfortable but in the end, we have nothing but gratitude for this unexpected detour that gave us a glimpse into the beauty of the Chinese people and their unique culture.