Work in Progress

“In the best travel, disconnection is a necessity. Concentrate on where you are; do no back-home business; take no assignments; remain incommunicado; be scarce. It is a good thing that people don’t know where you are or how to find you. Keep in mind the country you are in. That’s the theory.”
–Paul Theroux

A human who loves the world, finds beauty in the unknown, and can't keep her feet on the ground. I like finding unique (and cheap) ways of making my way around the globe. Interacting with people while living, learning, and loving the culture I'm surrounded by.

Saturday, November 14, 2015


I rarely expect anything when it comes time to travel to a new place. It doesn't do any good, because things don't often live up to an idea that you create in your head.

Our sweet hostel's rooftop bar
There are times, however, when I don't expect things. China is a prime example. Here I am, having lived in Korea for over a year, thinking that I won't be the least bit culture shocked. Oh, it's Asia. How different can China really be from Korea? REALLY DIFFERENT. And that's just after seeing Shanghai, a city in China that's renowned for being an international, "modern" city. I don't even know if I can describe the sensation of walking down the streets that first afternoon.

I often found myself missing things about Korea. The food. The people. The language. I realized that I can communicate in Korean better than I give myself credit. I felt helpless, and a touch of rude, not being able to say anything other than "hello" and "thank you". I missed being able to read, especially menus. Coming to Shanghai reminded me how much I love Korea. However, it also reminded me how much I love traveling to new places which leave me in a perpetual state of "wow".

For a while, I never really considered going to China. It didn't interest me as much as places like Japan, Mongolia, and pretty much every SEAsian country. I booked tickets because I thought some friends would be there around that time, and only because after delving into a bit of research about Shanghai I decided it seemed pretty cool.

Traveling with people is tricky. One person. Ten people. I'm lucky to have been with a group that made this easy. Easier than usual. Everyone was easy going. Easy to please. I supposed because it was my idea to go to Shanghai that I was inadvertently placed into the "leader" position. I knew where I wanted to go and the things that I wanted to do, and that's what we did. It was hard for me to not be concerned about my friends state of being. Were they enjoying my game plan? Luckily, I think we all felt that we covered pretty much all the base, especially considering the amount of time we had.

The first evening, three of us (awaiting the arrival of the other two) set out to find a noodle joint that I saw on one of Bourdain's shows. I did an immaculate job of getting us to the AREA, but failed miserably at actually finding it. Good thing it's all about the journey, right? On our way we walked through an array of streets. The most memorable would be the mini pet market we wandered through. Bunnies. Squirrels. Loud, huge insects. In the tiniest little boxes. It was interesting and weird and so, so sad. Meygan and Leena watched as ducks were decapitated on the side of the street, while I choose the more pleasant option of cooing at a sweet dog chained up across the way.

We were hungry. There were countless food shops lined up along the street. We had no idea how to pick. And then, like a sign from above, we walked past a group of elderly Chinese men slurping up some beautiful looking noodles. We gawked while walking past. About 3 meters later, we all stopped and decided we needed the noodles. And we needed them now. We pointed, held up one finger to signify we wanted an order of whatever that was, and sat down at a tiny table on the side of the street that was already occupied by another patron awaiting his meal.  After unknown hand signals and words were exchanged between us and the little woman taking our order, we were lacking in confidence about what was going to actually end up on our table. We waited, and waited some more. While we waited, the couple sitting next to us was delivered a delicious plate of noodles that looked like chow mein. So we pointed and ordered some of that, too.  Finally, we got the noodles. We slurped, and in between every slurp we couldn't help but to express our delight (usually in the form of "ummmms" and "omgs"). We walked away wishing we had ordered a bowl each.

This was the first meal we had. We had no idea what we were eating. Every meal that was to follow, as delicious as they were, did not live up to this meal. Was it in part due to the experience that surround the actual acquisition of the noodles? Maybe. After that night, our beautiful Korean friend, Seolwi (who happens to be fluent in Mandarin), did all the ordering for us. I am forever grateful to her and her incredible language abilities. She helped me from constantly feeling like a lost, hungry puppy.

So, anyways. The first night we headed to The Bund to check out the view. We had to find a secret password to get into an overpriced club that had a bird's eye view of the famous skyline. We bought one drink while we enjoyed people and building watching. They turned the lights off all the buildings at 11pm. That was our cue that we needed a change of scenery. A scenery that included more food.

There were a few mornings where I woke up WAY before anyone else did. One morning in particular I woke up as others were just arriving to the hostel *cough* Leena and Jake. I took this as a prime opportunity to get some solo exploration in. I went and wandered around a park that was near the hostel. I watched old people do Tai Chi and practice their sword skills. I enjoyed the fresh morning air and brought back coffee for everyone.

The other morning I took a look at the map on my phone which had loads of places I wanted to go bookmarked. I had a place starred that was pretty far off, but that's what subways are for. I thought it was a cemetery, turns out it was more of a memorial park. All fine though. I got to watch more old people doing strange things with fans and swords. There we hundreds of elderly in the park, doing ballroom dancing and more Tai Chi and things that I have never seen before. I settled down in an area of the park that was covered in trees. It was a prime viewing area. People on my right were doing Tai Chi with music. Behind me were three men stomping around in black robes. To my left there were friendly games of badminton, and in front of me was a huge, pyramid like memorial surrounded by massive statues.

I was seated next to an elderly man's pile of equipment. He attempted to strike up conversation with me, no English included. I somehow understood the first question he asked me, which was something along the lines of, "Where are you from?" I told him one of the few words I know in Chinese, which happens to be America. He must of assumed that I had a better grasp of the language than I actually did, because he proceeded to have a full on conversation with me while I nodded and repeated things that he said every now and then. There were hand signals and drawings in the dirt. Was he trying to tell me about the Chinese harvest holiday, or was he trying to ask me how old I was? I will never know.

The conversation ended with him asking me to play badminton with him. I politely declined and pointed to my eyes to try and communicate that I would watch him instead. After a few rounds with his friend, he asked again. I decided not to pass up the opportunity a second time. He tried his very best to teach me how to hit that damn birdie, and despite a few success, I was an overall failure at badminton. We got some good laughs out of the situation, at least. He must have frequented the park, because his friends would walk past pointing at me with a confused face while asking him what the hell he was doing. Then, they all wanted a turn at playing with the silly white girl. By the end of our 30 minute badminton session, I was pooped. I reluctantly waved goodbye to my new friend and thanked him, with hopes that he understood. I checked my clock, and it was barley 8:45am.  It was so much fun, hands down the highlight of the entire trip.

One thing I really wanted to do was to visit an ancient water village outside of Shanghai. We got a late start, but eventually made it on the last boat with no time to spare. The ride was short and sweet (which was good for everyone else, considering they had mild food poisoning). Zhujiajiao was so cute, and a huge change from the city vibes of Shanghai. It felt like we were catapulted back into ancient China. An ancient China that was filled with souvenir shops and skwaking  plastic chickens. However, the buildings and boats and people had a much more traditional vibe than Shanghai. I'm happy to have had some contrast in our trip. 

Our last day was plagued with rain. Rivers running down the streets (and in my shoes) kind of rain. It wasn't ideal, but it did ingrain some priceless memories into our brains. The savior of the rain stricken day lay in the hands of the Xiaolongbao (soup dumplings) we ate on our last night, thanks to Mister BOURDAIN. My phone auto corrects his name to all caps, so I'm gonna leave that as is. We sucked down as many fluffy soup pillows as we could before heading to a wine bar to watch as the rain poured down around us. It was an unexpected perfect end to our adventure. 

After scratching the surface of China, I wanna dig deeper. I've altered my tentative travel plans for next year, when my contract is finished. I'm considering hitting up the Trans-Siberian Railway, starting at the eastern most point of Russia, traveling through Mongolia, and then ending up exploring some of Northern China. I really don't like leaving my experience of one country comprised of one place. The thought of how damn big China is, and how little of it that I've seen bothers me. So, with my 10 year visa, I plan on fixing that.

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