Traveling implies a certain dose of discomfort. We aren’t roughing it—by Chinese standards, we have it easy, we have hot water, clean bathrooms, etc.—yet we are miles away from the convenience of “home”.
Traveling is about wandering outside your comfort zone. It’s about trying new stuff, making mistakes, discovering a new world and adapting to it.
Traveling is all about feelings. Smells and tastes that bring out strong emotions and later memories. Walking fast under the rain, longing for a hot shower. Walking low in the heat longing for a place with air-con. Endless bus rides, flights or train trips where you can’t wait arriving somewhere—anywhere. Drinking a cold drink on a hot day or a hot drink on a cold day and feeling 100% better right away. Letting your tongue taste the spices and the textures of new foods and appreciating it even though you have no idea what you are eating. Washing your dirty clothes and feeling clean again, if only for a moment before sweating again, or getting soaked again. Resting your feet after a day out exploring.
This trip, we missed two traveling basics—a good Internet connection and Laundromats.
Connecting to the Web was a pain in the butt. The Wi-Fi was slow in Beijing, Shanghai and Changsha. It worked fine in Wuhan—of all places!—and in Shenyang we had to use Internet cafés, or rather the only Internet cafés that allowed us to use their computers without a Chinese ID. Many websites are blocked (unlike in 2008, I didn’t have any issue then) and let’s not even get into the logistic of using a computer where everything is in Chinese.
Doing the laundry was another major issue. Normally, we rely on Laundromats (widely available in Latin America and Southeast Asia) or washing machines in hostels (like we did in Australia or Europe). But there are no Laundromats in China. There are dry-cleaning services but they are expensive as they charge per item instead of per load.
We did some laundry by hand—socks, underwear, t-shirts—but we had too much with Mark’s clothes, jeans, etc. In Shenyang, we ended up buying a washing machine as a gift to Feng’s aunt who lent us her empty apartment, and we spent the last three days doing loads and loads of laundry. Fortunately, it’s not humid here and clothes dry fast if we hang them.
Other than that, we adapted just fine. Mark learned some Chinese words, including 抱抱 (carry me), 谢谢 (thank you), 东北西南 (East, North, West, South—pretty useless but hey!), 拿 (to take), 穿鞋 (put on your shoes), etc. He can understand Chinese pretty well but he gets confused when Feng or I speak Mandarin to him.
On October 2 (October 1st is a national holiday, the anniversary of the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China), we had a huge family gathering in a small town nearby Shenyang. There were so many people that we needed two huge round tables at the restaurant—uncles, aunts, cousins, husbands, wives and kids… even Feng’ 93-year-old grand-mother was here, sipping her beer, so Mark got to meet his great-grand-mother.
Before the lunch, the guys went to play pool and the women (plus Mark) went to get a haircut—I passed (didn’t need one) but Mark actually enjoyed his time in front of the mirror.
The family reunion was fun. The first few minutes were kind of overwhelming (I quickly lost track of who was who) but as people started to eat and drink, it got merrier. Thirty minutes into the lunch, packs and packs of cigarettes were being smoked, there were empty beer bottles everywhere and Mark was learning the fine art of opening beer bottles (and I was keeping an eye on him to make sure the drunk uncles weren’t giving him a taste). An hour later, Feng’s aunt was doing karaoke, the guys were shouting and playing mah-jong and the older generation was ordering just one more round of beers. We stayed until mid-afternoon and then found a sober soul to drive us back to Shenyang.
We spent our last day in Shenyang free of family obligations. We had said we would rest and hang out in the neighborhood, we ended up walking for hours and discovering new places.
First, we headed to Wuai, a giant eight-storey indoor market where you can find everything from a keychain to a full bedding set. We weren’t in the mood for shopping but we wanted to explore the chaotic area. We found a 胡同(side street) with an open-air market and we wandered around for a while, sampling spicy tofu, corn and other street snacks.
Then we hung out at one of these mega-markets where Chinese shop for clothes. There are hundreds of boutiques but they all sell the same stuff, and this market was more for wholesale. In fact, when we finally left the building, we had to make our way through tiny streets blocked by huge trucks delivering the goods. I can’t believe how much shipping and receiving was going on—it was crazy, I had never seen that many boxes in my life!
Then we took the subway back to Taiyuan Jie, the main avenue close to the train station. I had a 90-minute massage (for which I paid less than $20… I’m going miss China for that!) and ended the day with a Shenyang dinner—jiaozi, sugar-coated potatoes and spicy eggplants.
Tomorrow, back to Beijing!