Musings, Travel & Adventure

A Bittersweet Detour

The purpose of our three-month long trip to Asia was to train in Cambodia and  volunteer teach in Thailand, but we thought it was necessary to end with a week-long detour into China since we were in the right hemisphere and everything. (You can read a little about this Chinese detour here and here.) We enjoyed every stop we made, but we had one major goal in mind: To visit the famed Great Wall of China.

I’m happy to say that on our very last day in Asia, we finally made it.


Furthermore, we accomplished the impossible: We actually had the Great Wall to ourselves for most of the morning. In China, a land of 1.35 billion people and countless tourists, it can be difficult to find personal space. And this is the Great Wall. Surely, even in December, we would be admiring it with fellow crowds of tourists. But I am not kidding when I say that the one and only time I enjoyed complete solitude in my almost three months in Asia was on the Great Wall of China, which, depending on the source, is visited by four to ten million tourists a year. Amazing!

Several things helped our cause:

First, it was not peak travel season in China. When we went, it was between Chinese holidays. Near the Chinese New Year holiday in January, more people start traveling again, but we were there weeks before the Chinese New Year, and also, the schools were busy wrapping up their semesters.

Second, we were helped out greatly by the friendly manager at our guesthouse in Beijing. He had recommended going to the Jinshanling section, which is a bit farther away than the more popular sections of the Great Wall near Beijing. We took his advice, and I’m glad we did. He also helped by lining up a private car to drive us there. As we had flights to catch in the afternoon, we decided to leave at 5:30 a.m. and were there before 8:30. I’m not even sure if it was open yet, actually. I think they just let us in anyway.


Third, it was absolutely freezing. Granted, I had just left Thailand where I’d been sweating in the heat and humidity for months, and I had turned into a bit of a cold weather weeny. But even hardened, wizened agriculture men Adam and Danny, who had recently left the North Dakota winter, claimed it was cold. And they were well prepared! Tommy and I, on the other hand, were trying to make do with any clothing we had from our Thailand backpacks that could count as slightly warm, as well as scarves, hats, a fleece-lined flannel, and other outerwear hastily purchased on the China streets. Tommy was forced to wear socks under hiking sandals. Yes, it was cold, my friends; but apparently North Dakotans are among the few crazy enough to go romp around on the Great Wall when the temperature is 10 degrees Fahrenheit and there is a biting wind blowing across the rugged Yanshan mountains.

That’s not to say we didn’t do some precautionary warm-up stretching:


It was probably good for me, anyway. I needed a taste of winter so I would be prepared to go back home.


Standing on the Great Wall for the first time was breathtaking. (Perhaps I’m remembering the icy wind that hit me in the face and literally took my breath away.) But in seriousness, in that moment it was worth every minute spent applying for visas and every penny spent getting there. At the Jinshanling section, the Great Wall stretches over ridges and mountain peaks as far as the eye can see in either direction. And once we were up in the sunlight hiking around, even the cold wasn’t so bad.

We were like a group of kids on a really impressive playground.






The first humans we spotted in the late morning were two Chinese merchants, a chatty, smiley wife and silent, serious husband, who haul their coolers and water jugs to the top of the Great Wall every day to sell drinks to thirsty tourists. These two are tough, I tell you. The cold barely phased them. Partly in admiration and partly in desperation, we purchased cold beers and hot black tea with the last of our RMB – it seemed fitting to spend it there, despite the steep prices – and sipped it on the Great Wall while the wife cheerfully learned how to use my camera, laughed at our pronunciation of “thank you” in Mandarin, and taught us a couple of new words.



We did eventually run into a smattering of tourists straggling onto the Wall, who looked equally as cold as we did, but we were on our way out by then. We had flights to catch and real lives to get back to and these kinds of moments can only continue in one’s memory, anyway.

It was a bittersweet feeling, stopping on those ancient stones and gazing over the mountains, knowing I wouldn’t be back to this part of the world for a while.

Mostly, it was just bitter because of that bitter cold I mentioned.

Because as far as memories go, this one’s pretty sweet.

Musings, Travel & Adventure

Happy Every Day: Guest Speaking in China

As I mentioned in my last post, we spent a day and two nights in Zhengzhou, in the province of Henan in north-central China, with my friend Erika. Zhengzhou happened to be a perfect stopping point between Hong Kong and Beijing during our week of train adventures.

Usually back home I am trying to convince people to guest speak in my classroom, so when Erika asked if I’d like to accompany her to two of her college English classes at Zhengzhou University, I had to say yes. My brother Danny also volunteered his services. It turned out to be one of the most enriching experiences during my time in Asia. After just a couple hours spent with Erika’s warm and curious students, I could see why so many people fall in love with China for its people.

First, we talked about our Christmas traditions, including Christmas cookies, Christmas trees, sledding, and carols. Danny and I taught two carols to the students, and in return they sang a Chinese New Years song for us. Erika also instructed her students that if they wished to ask us a question about ourselves or about life in America, they needed to share with us something interesting about China first. Here are a few of the cultural things we learned:

  • Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, is a pretty big deal!
  • We should try dumplings while in China. We heard a lot about dumplings. (And when we tried them from a street cart later, they were pretty tasty!)
  • Dialects vary greatly from province to province, and even within provinces. We even got a demonstration on dialectical differences.
  • Do not eat a banana by itself! It needs to be eaten with something else or you might hurt your stomach.
  • Do not drink milk by itself either.
  • You should not put honey in hot tea as it ruins the nutrition.

Here are some of my favorite questions the students asked us in return for sharing a cultural tidbit:

  • Why do Americans tuck napkins into their shirts in the movies?
  • Why are dentists respected in America? (In China, they tend to go to the dentist for a toothache only, not for regular cleanings. It’s not a serious medical field.)
  • Is it true that in America, if you wear an outfit to a party, you can’t wear it again? (Blame the celebrities.)
  • Does America watch dating shows too?
  • Are farms in America expensive?
  • Can you use chopsticks? Are knives and forks used as eating utensils even safe?

It’s great seeing your own culture through a brand new set of eyes. Their questions surprised me, but then again, they were shocked that I didn’t know that I’m not supposed to eat a banana alone. It’s the beauty of culture, and cultural differences.

And also, why was it ever OK to tuck napkins into a shirt?

The best part of this whole experience actually greeted me back in America. Erika’s students wrote thank-you notes and sent them to me. Here are some of the heart-warming messages I received from these truly charming students in Zhengzhou, China:

  • “Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! I like your lifestyle very much!”
  • “Welcome to China! I wish you happy forever!”
  • “Hope I could see your ‘star-like’ eyes again.”
  • “Thank you for visiting our class which makes us very happy!”
  • “It’s very glad to see you! Thanks for your beautiful songs!”
  • “Hope you can come back to China someday in the future.”
  • “May you come to China at Spring Festival.”
  • “I am so glad to see you but I forget to take a photo with you! What a pity! I hope I can see you again… and then take a photo!”
  • “What a lovely girl you are! Happy every day!”

What a great message: “Happy every day!” I’m not sure if the students learned a thing about Christmas from me and Danny, but I know I learned a thing or two from the whole experience. China is an amazing place, and I’ve never been greeted so warmly by young people I had never met before. When you are fortunate enough to get to add these kinds of experiences to your life list, it’s hard not to be happy every day!

Here we are:


Thanks for the experience, Erika!

Musings, Travel & Adventure

2535 Kilometers on the China Train

We had exactly one week to spend in China, and we needed to travel 2535 kilometers in that one week (not including a short trip to Hong Kong smashed in there), and we needed to stop and see some of China along the way, too. We were willing to meet this challenge with the help of one very important asset: China’s high-speed train system. After several years of construction, this train system is both the longest high-speed rail system in the world and also the most heavily-used in the world.

A little summary of our 2535 kilometers through China by train: 

We landed in Guangzhou, a major city in the south of China, on the Thursday night that we had left Bangkok for the last time. I tried to swallow some of my sadness over leaving Thailand by focusing on the challenges facing us in China: Mainly, how the heck were we going to make it to Tommy’s friend Brady in Shenzhen when we didn’t know a piece of the language, we wouldn’t have phone access to find him, and generally, we didn’t have a clue what we were doing? (Read: Silly, lost, clueless tourists in a very foreign country.) But with all four of our silly tourist heads put together, we managed to get it done. We had printed the Chinese address of our hotel to give to the taxi driver at the Guangzhou airport. Our hotel in Guangzhou turned out to be lovely, and the receptionist helped us get a cab to the correct train station the next morning. At the train station, we were helped by an exasperated employee who managed, through many gestures and basically by pulling the correct money out of our wallets herself, to get us four tickets to Shenzhen, our first 139 kilometers by train. In Shenzhen, thank goodness, Brady found us where we had agreed to meet and escorted us to his apartment and throughout the city of Shenzhen.

Here we are, happy to have made it to Shenzhen. This would start our long, increasingly-colder journey north to Beijing:

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Because Shenzhen is near the China-Hong Kong border, Brady also escorted us to Hong Kong and back for a night. I only wish that we had more than one night to spend there, because it was a pretty amazing city. We took the ferry out into Victoria Harbour to see Hong Kong’s skyline; we ate burgers and drank ale at a delicious diner; and we stayed out late to enjoy the local nightlife. We were only there for a total of about 16 hours, but I’m glad we stopped by.




Did you know that Hong Kong is also home to the world’s longest outdoor covered escalator system? I secretly like riding escalators just as much as I did 20 years ago — and so do all of you, be honest! — so personally I thought this 800-meter-long escalator system was pretty sweet:


Upon returning to Shenzhen in the morning, we said goodbye to Brady, and, armed with instant noodles and packaged cookies, we hopped on board our second high-speed train and traveled 1707 kilometers north to Zhengzhou, current residence of my friend Erika, a college professor. Unfortunately, it was so foggy that we couldn’t see much of the countryside out the train windows, but we enjoyed our trip regardless. It was indeed a speedy train: during our trips, the trains traveled most of the time at a speed of 300 kmh (around 186 mph).

We spent a lovely two nights and one day in Zhengzhou with Erika. She showed us around her college and introduced us to her friends and co-workers. She also took us to some pretty tasty street food, which is a quick and sure way to all of our hungry traveling hearts:

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It was also getting increasingly bitterly cold as we went farther north. After spending two and a half months in tropical Southeast Asia, I would classify myself as a rather giant weenie when it comes to cold weather. (The only good news here is that China was doing its best to prepare me for my trip home to the brutal winter of North Dakota.)

Finally, we left Erika behind in Zhengzhou and commenced the third and final leg of our journey by high-speed train, 689 kilometers north to famous Beijing. We felt we were pretty experienced high-speed-train travelers by now.


That was a little irony, because we were still kind of just silly tourists in a very foreign country.

But we had at least figured out a few crucial tips about China train travel: First, the hot water dispensers located in every train car are invaluable for anything from instant noodles (in other words, cheap lunch) to hot tea. It took us until the last leg of the journey to figure out that they even provide paper cups for your tea leaves.

Second, they do have both squatty potties AND Western-style toilets in the trains. However, as I learned after waiting for what seemed like an hour for my preferred Western-style toilet and finally resigning myself to the local version, using a squatty potty on a swaying train — while it takes some skill and courage — is not actually so bad. (When in Rome, right?)

Finally, when you spend 2535 kilometers on high-speed trains in China, even more important than the flavor of instant noodles that you choose and the type of toilet that you use is the quality of your travel companions. And I had pretty good ones: