Road Lessons

LIVE AND LEARN: THIS has become the mantra for the trip. Yesterday’s lesson was to always study your map closely. Otherwise, in your search for the scenic village of Jiu Xian, you may find yourself biking for miles down rocky singletrack — past mud-brick homes with free-wandering chickens and no road access — only to wind up on the wrong side of the river. And then have to ride back along that same path, low on fluids, in 90-degree heat. Live and learn.

In Guilin, the lesson was not to pay entrance fees for parks unless they’re sure of offering something really interesting. Also, maybe not to believe every picture in the brochure, and (on a related note) that Solitary Beauty Peak is not so much a peak as much as a rocky mound and not really worth the 70 yuan. Live and learn.

It could also easily be the slogan for the group of seven Austrians we got to know during dinner at our guesthouse. Following the meal, over bottles of Liquan Beer on a balcony facing Yangshuo’s famous karst mountains, I told one of them that their 13-hour train ride from Shanghai to Huangshan could have been a short five-hour bus journey. Or so I’d read.

He nodded. “I guess we messed up, again” he said. “But that’s traveling.”

The ability to assess is important; making the best of it afterward is the really essential part. It was this that allowed them to see the humor when — after finding a giant rat in their hostel in Beijing — the owner’s answer was to lock a cat up in the same room. (“Chinese problem-solving,” one said with a chuckle. Another swears he heard the cat scratching frantically to get out…probably after seeing the size of the rat.)

You also have to recognize your own boundaries. For travelers Jo and Rob, non-Chinese speaking Aussies who were brave enough to bike the 500-some kilometers from Chengdu to Yangshuo unaccompanied, it was stopping after the bowl of rice when served a dish of what they’re pretty sure was ox.

The living and learning is also part of what makes travel alluring. It can be frustrating and disheartening, but eventually you get into the swing of it. You get a little more confident. And then you pack up, go someplace new, and start from the bottom all over again.


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