Hiking the Great Wall and traveling outside your comfort zone

January 10, 2012

in Beijing,Life as an expat,Shanghai


The Pudong skyline, as seen from Shanghai's Bar Rouge.

In November of 2009, I traveled to mainland China for the first time. I’d been to Hong Kong and Singapore, so I thought I was up for tackling the very different reality of China. But  I was nervous – worried about being understood, reading the signs, finding my way to where I needed to go and even how Chinese people would react to having an American around. I came with all sorts of preconceived American notions of China and communism and what it all stood for. For while I’d lived outside my home country for five years and had traveled around the world, I had not been somewhere that seemed so foreign, so very different.

But Robert had business in Shanghai and I had an article to write. The first morning, I went up to the hotel concierge with my map of the city. “I’m going to be sightseeing on my own during the day. Can you show me what areas I should avoid, the places where it’s not safe for a woman to be on her own?”

“Shanghai safe. You go anywhere,” was the heavily accented reply.  Thinking that maybe the man did not understand me, I asked again. And I got the same reply. So I headed out with my handy hotel card, the one that on one side said take me to my hotel and gave the address in Mandarin. And the other side with a checklist in English and Mandarin of such attractions as Yu Garden, Oriental Pearl Tower and Xintiandi that I could hand to the white-gloved taxi driver.

On the first day, I went with a small tour group from the hotel to Yu Garden and a tea ceremony. I was fine. I could do this on my own, I thought. And I did. I spent two weeks with my map and guide book, touring on my own during the day, growing more and more confident with getting around, learning how to avoid the watch and bag hawkers on Nanjing Road and how to assemble a stir fry vegetable lunch from a street vendor and trying all the dumplings and other delicacies. In the evenings, I would show Robert the neighborhoods and places I thought he would like to see.

I loved the contrasts: glittering skyscrapers, elevated neon-let highways and luxury boutiques sit next to lanes with no indoor running water and street markets selling everything from kiminos and pearls to Chairman Mao bags and terracotta soldiers. Horn honking taxis and cars do battle for space on the roads with mopeds and bicycle carts laden with fruit.

Over lunch in a cafeteria at the Shanghai Museum, an old woman laughed at my attempts to eat the noodle soup with my chopsticks, then patiently, over and over again, showed me how to do it her way, speaking a steady stream of Mandarin that I understood not one word of. In the People’s Square, two university aged girls approached me shyly, with a smile, asking “You likee Shanghai? We takee picture with you?” As the only westerner in sight, I stood out. And these two wanted to be sure I was having a good time. I felt so very welcome.

But I missed my flight home to Stockholm and was rerouted to Beijing for two days. Robert had flown on to Japan and I was again on my own. The first night, I was put in an airport hotel with no other westerners, no one who understood English, no internet access, no TV. And I felt completely lost and miserable. So I called Robert who got on line and booked me a western hotel in central Beijing for the next night. I took a taxi there early the next morning, talked to the concierge and hired a driver for the day at a ridiculously low fee. Bit by bit, I was feeling better. Besides, I did not want to miss the chance to go outside of town to the Great Wall.

When I got there, the wall was lightly dusted with snow and just a little slippery. As it was November, it was the off season and I saw just one other small group of westerners. I felt lonely at first, but started climbing, stopping to take photos periodically and to admire the views. The further I walked, the fewer people that were around. It was glorious and I was so glad to be there. On my own. At one narrow section, I needed to get around an icy patch. Suddenly, a tiny elderly man was at my side, offering a smile and his hand to help me. I took it, even though I thought it was probably me who should help him.

Taking a cable car back down the mountain a few hours later, I had an entire car to myself. I couldn’t stop smiling. It  felt like I had just conquered my own Everest.



1 Antropologa January 10, 2012 at 19:18

Oh, how interesting! I’m glad you had the experience. I haven’t traveled alone much, but the time I did, to Montreal, was a treat.

I lived in China as a child and would love to go back, but it’s such a very different place, as you said.

2 Sandra January 10, 2012 at 19:38

Oh, that’s interesting about you too, antropologa. How old were you when you lived there? Do you remember it?
I have done quite a bit of traveling on my own for work, but not quite so much for pleasure! I’ve definitely gotten better about it over the years.

3 maria January 10, 2012 at 22:36

I can relate to all of this in every way. I really enjoyed reading this Sandra!
Maria 🙂

4 James January 11, 2012 at 01:10

This is a really nice piece of writing. I was totes (as the young folk say) there.

5 Sandra January 11, 2012 at 08:44

Why thanks James. You are very kind. And I have NEVER heard of totes there. Either it’s another one of the uniquely Australian phrases or I’m old. Or both.

6 susan January 12, 2012 at 09:58

lovely post! just catching up on the blog now – looking forward to seeing you soon! xx

7 Sandra January 12, 2012 at 10:18

Thanks Susan and Maria!

8 Antropologa January 12, 2012 at 15:05

I was very small when I moved there (10 months old, lived there two years), and I was fluent in Mandarin but unfortunately don’t remember a thing.

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