We’d been told, after hunting for someone, anyone, to give us directions in English, then me trying out my horrid Mandarin, and finally Eddie finding a former Chinese military guard who could speak, and more importantly, understand, Eddie’s makeshift Russian, that there was a window for foreigners at Beijing’s multilevel train station where a worker might be able to help us secure tickets out of town.
To say that independent travel in China is hard might be like saying Tea Party Republicans are a touch conservative. Our fellow travelers brought along point it books, an array of pantomime skills, years of Mandarin studies, or guides, We had a Lonely Planet, my husband’s smattering of Russian, and my month of Berlitz Mandarin to try to get us overland from Beijing to Xian and then over to the base of the Himalayas to secure a guide, then a flight to Lhasa.
Truth be told, China hadn’t wooed us. We’d yet to find a memorable meal. Most attractions were overrun with military escorted tour groups giggling their way through temples. We’d suffered through a 9 hour sleeper bus ride on the curviest road I’ve seen, with a woman in front sitting backwards and barfing out the window the entire journey. At other moments, kids and their parents would point, then yank Eddie’s arm and chest hair for a laugh. We’d gone to a fire festival with toddlers running around with torches aflame. And the list goes on.
To be frank, traveling in China was not fun.
Yet there were two moments that stand out as some of my greatest travel experiences both of which occurred in China.
The first took place in Lhasa, Tibet. Of course, getting there was a chore. We had to “hire” a “guide” to take us around Tibet, which basically meant we had to pay someone to pretend that he was our guide to get us on the plane. Once on the plane, all the Chinese tourists took sleeping pills so as to not faint with fear at how close our vehicle came to the Himalayas.
I thought we were in the clear once we arrived, only to realize that all the precautions we took for altitude sickness–raw garlic, pills, sleep, resting every five steps–didn’t work on Eddie. Dizzy and spaced out, we forced ourselves to explore the stunning Potala Palace. Tibet’s architectural queen, and spiritual center.
Walking through the palace was sad though. Tourists laughed loudly, forcing monks to pose for photos. Eddie and I tried to tip toe through the heart of Tibetan Buddhism, but the distractions of disrespectful tourists, and the monks who would grab our arms and beg us to save them, made the experience unsavory to say the least.
Depressed, we exited to palace only to find a mother and daughter staring at us. The daughter must have been in her early twenties. She had clearly learned some English in school, but had yet to practice it. So through a series of pantomimes and arm pulling, she expressed their desire to invite us to their house for tea. Maybe it was their kind eyes that allowed us to be unafraid, but we followed them through a maze of alleys to a small room where we were instructed to sit on a couch and drink their tea. Yak butter tea.
The tea was disgusting. Yet we didn’t let on. Each time we took a small sip, they proudly kept our glasses full. We kept thanking them and attempting to leave, but then they kept adding cookies, and crackers to the plates as they told their story, which was like many others, in China’s Tibet, frustrated by the situation, unable to speak out, hoping that the bigger countries of the world would help. All we could do was promise to get the story out about their poverty, the injustice of being a country colonized by others.
Returning to China proper was a trip. After seeing the conditions of the Tibetans, it was hard to respect the Chinese who sat idly by and allowed their government to occupy Tibet. And yet, I knew there was something similar between myself and them. This was in 2001. I had spent many hours protesting the injustices of my government to no one. I knew the helpless feeling, yet I was not quite ready to throw up my hands and give up.
And then we met Ching Bai. A sweet girl from Chengdu, who found us baffled by a Chinese menu, took us under her wing and began ordering a decadent spread of hot pot for us. Afterwards she led us through the nightclubs of Chengdu, buying us rounds of beers, and explaining that the ways that Chinese protest is through kindness. They help each other, bringing the essence of community spirit home.
She really proved her stuff the next day, when I received word that my grandmother had had a heart attack back in the States. She took me under her wing again, and worked some serious magic to get us on a flight to Beijing and another flight back to LA that night. She didn’t expect anything in return. She just offered kindness because that’s all she had.
I often think of these women when I am home, wondering how to process government choices I don’t agree with or political situations, or unjust crimes. I think of how these women overcome challenges by offering all they have. A smile. A bit of tea. Some help when their neighbor is in need. And I realize that this is what makes the world habitable.