A few years back I was asked why I love to travel. It might seem like a silly question since the internet is rich with images of people exploring new places, or memes of people taking about saving to adventure all over the world, but in the moment I was awe struck by the answer that first popped into my head.
It wasn't a sarcastic remark about how travel is for everyone, it wasn't even a poignant reply of how traveling makes me a person of the world, it was an honest and raw emotional response inside that I never really put into words before.
I love to travel .... to find myself.
Yes, I know it sounds like something that belongs on a spiritualist's bumper sticker, or a response from a yoga master on the cover of "Believe In Me" magazine... but when the thought popped into my head it was with a lot less grace and a lot more messiness.
Though I do believe at an early age our life experiences, things we learn from our parents, and major events, shape us into the core things that we are... I think the living of life can soften those well defined edges, or sometimes make us deviate from them all together. We all tend to get stuck in ruts sometimes and lose sight of the best parts we developed. Maybe we make these trenches ourselves with the wrong jobs, or friends, or family that over time wear down the greatest versions of who we are. Maybe a series of compromises push us so far off center we don't realize how much we've watered ourselves down until the viscus is so murky we don't recognize it anymore.
Maybe you are one of the lucky ones that has stayed true to yourself and has found the right people and places for you. I think even in this situation travel will still enhance these qualities. I like to think in life my core qualities are pretty strong in some arenas, and yet it is amazing how quickly someone else who doesn't know me - in a land I've never been to- will pick up on the essence of who I am. Yes, I'm sunshine and happiness... one of those annoying people that wakes up enjoying the morning and is ready for what the day will bring. And yes, not everyone enjoys traveling with me because of this. Those who I travel well with hold a special place in my heart.
It is a great gift to be near someone who appreciates the depths of your ocean.
For me, away from the day to day routine I'm used to, in a foreign land where I'm back to basic instincts: survive, explore, learn, in a culture that might be vastly different or crazy similar to the one I grew up in, I tend to quickly settle back into myself. The true Sarah shines through.
Now I've promised you a post about my trip, and thus far I've rambled about what draws me to planes, trains, and automobiles- what drags me through different time zones - across oceans and continents, but I wanted to start there for this post simply because I think every travel experience I have is tainted by my rose colored glasses. The experiences I have with places, come from who I am and where I am at in my life at the moment. While some might see my way of viewing life as overly optimistic, I'm grateful that where some may see the smog of a city first - I see the history and beauty.
I hope you enjoy this journey with me, and that you one day get to visit this beautiful country.
Everything is so much larger than I imagined....
Stepping off the plane in China I'm smacked in the face with scale. I knew the country was known for it's over population size, and yet somehow that didn't translate in my mind as the immense architecture that would make up this Asian land.
Everywhere skyscrapers are climbing towards the sky, not one or two, but thirty or forty being built at once. They reach like stalactites towards the outer edges of the atmosphere, so tall they seem to kiss the clouds. They are cities within buildings and I'm transported to a Blade Runner like experience of new technology meets third world country.
Rickshaws puff along with customers holding cell phones more capable than my own, weaving in and out of traffic that rivals the worst rush hour in Colorado. Bikes holding entire families wiz by and people dance between vehicles as we join what feels like the rest of the world in the middle of a cluster at the center of an intersection, waiting for our turn to go. It's chaos but somehow it's organized, each group understanding their moves in this foreign stream of transportation. The driver of my car explains that no one waits in China and it is important as a pedestrian to have confidence but to also look all four directions when crossing streets.
The bumper of a van edges centimeters from my window and I wonder how in the world I will join this mess when I do have to step out into all of it.
Beijing is a city trapped in time, old temples and forbidden cities mixed in with KFCs and fancy hotels. I stay near the Beijing train station on a floor high enough to watch the business go on below me. People hustle wherever they are going, forever seeming to be in a rush. At first many might seem unfriendly, heads down, and in a hurry, but I quickly find the Chinese to be hospitable and overly nice. Most are caught up in the worlds on their smart phones since these little devices do everything from pay for their food to call their friends and family. Yet when asked a question, even in my horrible pantomiming way, not one turns down the chance to help the foreign girl with porcelain skin.
I'm quickly noticed most places I go. I wonder if I am a circus freak to them, as they gawk and try to snap pictures with me. Some are brave enough to come up and ask me to pose with them, while others try to politely hide the selfie they are taking with me purposely in the background. I begin to feel like a Barnum and Bailey side show exhibit, I can see the marquee now: the strange white girl with really long legs.
I thought they were excited by my height, though surprisingly in Beijing I didn't find myself much taller than women, and very much the same size as men, able to blend in most of the time in a crowd. Much to my surprise it was my face. On my third day in Beijing, while walking casually through the forbidden city, I found myself joking with a girl who forced me into a series of photos with her. "I'm really tall aren't I?" I ask her. "You really pretty," she answered, "We no see girl with your beautiful face 'round here. Are all American pretty like you? Celebrity pretty?" Taken-a-back I blew her off with a smile, a peace sign for the next picture, and gracefully excused myself towards the next viewing area.
It was a theme I would see most of my trip, very very few Americans, lots and lots of Asian tourists. If you've ever wanted to feel like Tom Cruise (this never has been on the top of my list) I would suggest heading to China... where even the most average of Americans is a model.
I guess it makes sense, with a country as large as China, and a vast majority of the population still below the poverty line, many haven't even seen outside their own province. Loyal to their history and culture, when they get the time to travel they tend to visit other places inside the country they love so much.
I can't blame them, and from the first day I am so grateful I did all the research I did and that this is the time of year I got to visit. Trees streak the landscape in a blend of colors ranging from gold to burnt rouge. It's a constant sunset backdrop to every ancient wonder. Climbing the stairs along the miles of Great Wall I'm surrounded by fall leaves threatening to breach over the stone edges. The alpine slide that deposits you from this 7th wonder of the world passes through changing foliage, showcasing the beauty that is Autumn in Asia. Amazingly nothing is over crowded either. Everyone has gone home for the season, with winter threatening to show it's bitter face any moment.
The weather hangs on the edge of perfection and only the thick smog from large coal smoke stacks takes away from this paradise. I was lucky, as an asthmatic, that only one day in Beijing is bad enough to make me feel a bit queazy. The one thing I didn't plan for was the one thing that probably made most of my Beijing stay as pleasant as it was. Due to a Communist Party Conference, day one and two of my three days in the Capitol of China were blessed with factories shut off and only a minor haze. It wasn't until day three, when the political leaders went home and they turned back on the coal plants, that I experienced what people talk about when they mention the severity of the pollution that China experiences.
Smog, and the fact that so many people are still smokers in China (yuck), were my only 2 grievances about this Asian land of goodness. I had been warned about the food... which by the way is MIND BLOWINGLY AMAZING... and about the toilets (which yes ladies, you must learn to aim because they are holes in the ground, but very sanitary porcelain holes... nothing like Peru where dirt holes are a real thing)... but it would be the smoke that was my only complaint.
Climbing the stairs to a Buddhist temple at the highest point in the Summer Palace I feel my lungs begging for a filter to block the particles I suck in from the soup of pollution around me. I can hardly see across the lake that sits at the center of this ancient escape from reality. All around serenity and peace ooze in architecture and perfectly manicured nature, while dragon boats glide gracefully across the smooth water far below. Despite my minor headache and slight wheezing I'm captivated by the history I'm enveloped in. Emperors used to walk these same stairs, with concubines or perhaps the Empress in toe, used to take boats across this same lake, hung their own prayers from the branches of trees. It makes me feel small in such a delicious way to be passing along the same road 2,000 years later.
Yet these historical relics are now parks and locals sit and knit or work on their calligraphy as though all of us get to hang out in places that were around during biblical times every day. I wonder if I would be as nonchalant about such places if this were my usual life. Instead my eyes stay wide as I take in the modern culture in such an antediluvian world.
I knew at some point during my trip I was going to place a prayer ribbon or lock on one of the many holy sites I would visit, and though the Great Wall was amazing, the Forbidden City was massive, the many temples were reverent, and the Summer Palace was a place built for a queen, none of these places felt like the right place for me to leave my wish for the future. I passed through all of them in awe, capturing many amazing memories, but they were not my favorite places on the trip.
On my final day I head to Tiananmen square to see if it is open after the conference is over. It's still closed and lined with Policeman standing near fire extinguishers. I comment to someone that in America we use paper spray to subdue a wild crowd, and how much nicer it would be to get hosed off with foam instead of tear gas. I'm quickly corrected that it isn't for the crowd but for protestors that light themselves on fire as a demonstration. I think I'm quiet for a good twenty minutes contemplating such a display. I think with the violence we've seen recently in our country it is easy to forget that in other places of the world horrific acts are also still taking place, often self inflicted. I board a bullet train headed for my next town so overwhelmed, in such a good way, by all I had already experienced in such a short time.
To be continued... Next up: X'IAN