Coming Home Early

THERE IS A POINT on every trans-Pacific flight when the dynamic of the coach cabin changes. It usually comes around the nine or ten-hour mark, but this can vary depending on the total duration. Around this moment people grow weary of the movie selection; a woman takes up her knitting needles intent on finishing that scarf, while another crumples her face into the cup of her fist, no longer able to hide her aggravation at the squealing child across the aisle. Men mill about in the back of the plane, stretching, glassy-eyed but happy to make small talk.

It’s at about this time that I can usually be found hunched over my tray table, praying for sleep to finally come and numb me to the final painful hours of the interminable journey. But on this particular trip — Seoul to Chicago, the second leg following a redeye from Siem Reap — I was surprisingly energetic. I felt almost buoyant, and this buoyancy was reassuring: it let me know that I had made the right choice in coming home.

Lying in bed for a third day in Cambodia, my stomach wrenched from vomiting, I took comfort in reading Steinbeck’s Travels with Charley. I had bought the book in Beijing, thinking that it would somehow reconnect me with America (never mind that it was first published in 1962) while also fueling my wanderlust. But amid my sickness and the heat, that latter bit wasn’t panning out; the only place it made me feel like going was back to Wisconsin.

“I don’t know how it is in other seasons, the summers may reek and rock with heat, the winters may groan with dismal cold, but when I saw it for the first and only time in early October, the air was rich with butter-colored sunlight, not fuzzy but crisp and clear so that every frost-gay tree was set off, the rising hills were not compounded, but alone and separate. There was a penetration of the light into solid substance so that I seemed to see into things, deep in, and I’ve seen that kind of light elsewhere only in Greece. I remembered now that I had been told Wisconsin is a lovely state, but the telling had not prepared me.”

These passages made me ache. And then there was my illness, which was not really an illness but side effects of the anti-malarial medicine we were taking — symptoms that were not certain to wane. The idea of simply coping with the nausea over the course of another month, or potentially growing dangerously dehydrated in someplace like Battambang, smothered my enthusiasm for the rest of our journey.

When J and I finally decided to buy tickets back to the States, I felt two things: relief, and defeat. After more than two years in South Korea, a hectic summer preparing to leave, and a fly-by-the-seat-of-our-pants trip through China, we were exhausted. And in a way I felt like I’d taken in all I could. Steinbeck, in the final pages of Travels, writes: “Who has not known a journey to be over and dead before the traveler returns?” That was what I wanted to avoid — pushing through Cambodia and Vietnam for persistence’s sake, the memories blurring into a blank like overexposed film.

But giving into homesickness and exhaustion also cut deep into my own self-image as an untethered wanderer, which I had carefully constructed since adolescence and nursed with Kerouac and Iyer and Theroux. Maybe it was bunk all along (most probably so), but I hadn’t had to face that until now. And that was injuring.

By the time we stepped out of the international arrivals gate at Chicago O’Hare, all of that had melted away. The sky was cloudless and the air was cool, and the bus to Wisconsin was waiting at the curb. I felt a bubbling happiness that I could barely contain. We threw our bags below, and made that final trip back to the place we had missed so much.

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Tuk Tuks and Tourists

THERE WAS THUNDER OVER the Bayon and it made the place seem eerie and haunted. The temple’s corridors grew even darker. The air shuddered with each crackling “BOOM!” Carved faces with broad smiles looked down from every ruined surface; in each a look of compassion, otherworldly knowingness. It started to rain down hard and thick drops trickled off their stone noses.

This was day two in Angkor park, but day four in Siem Reap. I’d been painfully sick for most of it — a side effect of the anti-malarial pills that I could only imagine was worse than the disease. It made me nauseous, which made me not want to eat, which in turn made the nausea more violent. I’d spent an hour or so the day before trying to appreciate the famed and holy Angkor Wat in this state, doing all I could to not desecrate it by ralphing.

But I felt better today. We called for a tuk tuk once the afternoon heat had passed and then zipped and bounced our way from town into the ancient city of Angkor Thom, once a grand metropolis of nearly a million people. Now it was populated mostly by trees and silent stones, tourists and tuk tuk drivers. A more modern temple on the roadside played a recording of distinctly jungle-sounding music out toward the narrow road. I couldn’t imagine what for (party at the temple?), but somehow it added to the atmosphere.

As much as this all felt adventurous, once we arrived at the Bayon the idea melted away. Clumps of tourists from China, Japan, Russia, some plodding around in high heels and wedges, gathered to take photos — probably of places they’d seen in photographs before. There was one spot, a kind of carved window, where everyone seemed compelled to sit and have their picture taken. Butts and backsides wore away at the bas relief.

As they waited for their turn, the clusters of umbrellas made a bouquet of colors that were set off by the dark gray stone behind them. It was lovely; I snapped a photo.

The rain let up as we rode back toward Siem Reap, and in the patches of clear sky I could see the gathering of dusk. It was the start of what photographers call the “magic hour.” J and I looked out the back of the tuk tuk as we passed Angkor Wat, and for the first time I sensed its power, its magic. I thought to call out to our driver to stop, but he wouldn’t have heard me.

Little India

GIVING UP ON INDIA wasn’t an easy decision. Since the idea for our trip was conceived, we had hoped to fly to Delhi and spend a good three weeks or so traveling around the northern part of the country. But drawing closer to our departure date, J and I felt a growing sense that the timing wasn’t right.

First came the reports about the “superbug” — an antibiotic resistant strain of disease that scientists had, controversially, traced back to hospitals in India and Pakistan. Fine, we said, there’s no real chance of catching that.

Then came the realization that we’d planned our trip right smack at the start of Delhi’s Commonwealth Games; prior to getting all the bad press, there wasn’t much about the games in the international media. For a city already infamous for crowding, the idea of having to wade through additional thousands wasn’t appealing. But it was going to be fine, too.

The news that tipped the scales was this: a spike in dengue fever, with more cases halfway through the biting season than in all 2009. With J being a veritable mosquito magnet, this changed things. So we cut it out. We cancelled the flights, the train tickets. And then we hopped a redeye to Singapore.

A surprisingly leafy city-state inhabited a mishmash of cultures, we wanted to go to Singapore mostly for the food. When we finally crawled out of our hotel (Air China coach seats don’t offer the best environment for sleep) and made our way through the tropical mugginess to one of the food halls for which Singapore is famous, the question of what to fill our bellies with was easily answered: Indian food.

During our time there, J and I loaded up on Biryani and Dal Makhani, lime and mango juice. We spent an afternoon walking through Little India, fascinated by its bright colonial buildings and equally colorful flower garlands. We passed by a temple dedicated to the fierce Hindu goddess Kali, who is sometimes depicted wearing a necklace of heads.

It wasn’t going to replace seeing the Red Fort in Delhi, the Taj Mahal or the lakes and hills of Udaipur, but it was our experience, what we had. We weren’t trying to force anything. When changing course seemed right, we did.

Walking on Wild Wall

AS OUR TRAIN ROLLED into Beijing on Saturday, it was drizzling rain and remarkably cool compared to the dusty heat of Xian. I dug into my bag to pull out my coat, which I hadn’t worn since spring. This was good. This was hiking weather.

We didn’t have much in the way of an itinerary: J and I first visited Beijing five years ago, and so what we wanted most was to just get a sense of how the city had changed, and maybe to see the Forbidden City without its pre-Olympics scaffolding.

But the one thing I was particularly eager to do was to head to the hills with Beijing Hikers, a group I’d read about in the newspaper. We’d seen so much of China’s cities that spending time out in nature seemed essential to making our trip feel whole.

The hike we settled on was The Great Wall Spur, a three-plus difficulty rating on their one-to-five scale. As we rode a chartered bus Sunday morning out north of town, Zach, our guide leader, told us the route would involve walking on what is called “wild wall.” This was a section built in the Ming dynasty that had been left to fallow, with trees and bushes and wildflowers digging their roots into the soil that had accumulated on top.

Not to worry, said Zach, a native of Chicago, to our group of 30. Beijing Hikers had gone out and done some trail maintenance. “We’ll see if we did enough when we get out there.”

It started to get warm as we made out ascent up a steep trail before reaching the wall. The brush was thick enough that I would have felt justified in some machete-wielding. When we started to sweat, J and I made the mistake of rolling up our sleeves; by the time we made it up to the watchtower our arms were stinging and red in spots where we’d been stuck by a spiny plant’s defenses.

The view was nearly indescribable. “Majestic” doesn’t do it. To the north sat a deep valley, on the other side of which the mountains rose to even more precipitous heights, causing me to wonder why they bothered to build the wall at all. To the south the spines of hills gradually descended, draped in lush late-summer green.

After lunch, we began to walk along the wall itself. Parts of the structure were suprisingly well-preserved for having been left alone. Other stretches had become little more than piles of weathered bricks. We walked along these sections carefully, with nothing at our sides to keep us from tumbling down the mountain. Along the whole thing the vegetation was thick but navigable; Zach later said his team had spent four hours in the rain one day last week, hacking at the brush.

J and I managed to get in between a couple clumps of hikers, and here we paused. We breathed in the sweet air and listened to the cicadas and the crickets and the absence of traffic. The towns that sat far below were barely towns. More like handfuls of buildings. For miles around us things were moving slowly and quietly, and mostly there was just a lot of swaying with the breeze.

Before we made our descent, Zach stopped at one tower to point out a stele upon which were inscribed the names of people who had presided over the building of this part of the wall. The stone lay on its back but was still legible; according to it, this section had been built in the eighth year of the emperor Wanli — sometime in the late 1500s.

As we came down off the trail and onto the pavement, a fellow hiker said to me, “It feels like we just went back in time.” And in a way it did. Away from the tourists, the wall felt alive rather than something that had crystallized into an attraction. It stood there, resisting its own erosion, long after its meaning had diminished.

A Death in Yangshuo

AROUND THE CORNER FROM our guesthouse, a family was holding a funeral. The location wasn’t particularly dignified or sacred; the man’s coffin lie, raised up on what looked like table legs, in a windowless shop space with a garage-style door. Cars and motorbikes sped by less than 10 meters away.

This would not be a brief event. Certainly not the kind of subdued mourning — the guests, dressed in black, filtering in and out and offering their condolences in between — that is so familiar in the West. Over the course of three days, J and I observed curiously but solemnly as we passed by on our way into town and back.

Day 1:

The coffin appears. Tables are set out under a makeshift canopy on the sidewalk, and guests sit in the relentless heat. Several people — family members, I guess — wear hats along with baggy shirts and pants made of canvas. Everyone plays cards and drinks tea into the evening.

Day 2:

Crack-crack-crack-pop-BOOM! We awake to the sound of firecrackers, long chains of them, exploding in succession. We ask the owner of the guesthouse, Mr. Wei, if this is common at Chinese funerals. Yes, he says, and also it is August 1st by the lunar calendar — an auspicious day.

The explosions continue into breakfast. When we head out for the day, singed scraps of firecracker shells are littered all down the main street. The pavement in front of the funeral is hidden by them. It looks like someone blew up a flower shop full of only red carnations.

A picture has appeared in front of the coffin. He’s a gaunt man with white hair. There are also new decorations: wreaths of shiny colored foil.

At a sidewalk table, two men play horns in harmony. They are not playing in front of anyone, or even for anyone, it seems. There is no stage and none of the other guests stop their conversation. The horns are traditional Chinese instruments and they hit those in-between notes that sound sad, beautiful and strange to foreign ears.

Day 3:

More fireworks. By mid-morning, a band has arrived. There is a drum set and an alto saxophone and the band members are warming up. It’s still oppressively hot outside.

After nightfall, there is the band and there are the men playing horns. Both play at the same time to completely different melodies.

The next morning, everything has been cleared away. I only notice a few thin red candles burning in the shop where the coffin had been.

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.

Touching the Bottom of the Ocean

THE ROAD WAS WIDE and empty. Out the window, I watched the edges of Kunming give way to factories, then villages and country. Farmers walked along the highway as though strolling down a city block. Everything seemed dusty.

It hadn’t been easy determining the best way to get out of Kunming to see the Stone Forest (石林). The Frommer’s guidebook had firmly encouraged us to take a train. When we went to the station, a middle-aged attendant had looked at me with what could only be described as disappointment as I tested and broke the narrow limits of my Chinese. She sighed a few times. Then she made a driving motion with her hands.

“Bus,” she said.

“Bus?”

She nodded. “Bus.” Sigh. And that was all.

The folks at our hostel had also encouraged us to take a bus, but from a station they described as being a 50-minute taxi ride out of town. After scouring the Internet in vain for other options, we finally took their advice. With no traffic the ride to the East Bus Station (there are two in Kunming) was less than half an hour. We paid 25 yuan.

The entrance to the forest — a fantastic geological formation created by the receding ocean millenia ago — was not what one might expect from a Unesco-designated heritage site. Squat toilets; a bus station with broken chairs and a moldy wall. At the information desk, I asked a man dressed in traditional costume whether he had a map of the park. “Meiyou.” He shook his head and then looked away.

The forest was like a maze. After wandering around the quiet outer ring for a while, J and I followed the crowd into the Major Stone Forest. Because some of the paths between the rock are narrow enough to make you walk sideways, visitors are asked to only go in one direction. But there are many branches off of this arrow-marked path. These are good places to find solitude, and to get a little lost.

We stopped at a passage that was cool and dark. The stone towered above us, changing color near the sharp, curling peaks. This, we read, was where water had pushed through a layer of shale and then slowly carved out the limestone beneath to create the chamber in which we now stood.

Over the course of our hike, seeing coral fossils or where the water had left rocks in the shape of animals, I envisioned how dark this place must have been once, when it was still the bottom of the sea. I wondered what kind of huge and terrible creatures had swam by the very places I now walked. I sensed the patient force of time.

Along the path, parts of stone that people gripped to steady themselves had become smooth; the steps were slick and shined like marble. Human hands and feet resuming the work left by the ocean, slowly wearing jagged rock into formlessness.