I hung some prayer flags across the porch today and they reminded me of Tibet, as they always do. They remind me of a different me, of a different life, of a trip I took almost 10 years ago, a trip that changed me, like trips tend to do.
Part I: A week in Beijing
The ferry terminal was full of people waiting. Some had spread out newspapers as makeshift picnic blankets on the floor and they were eating or lying down with their eyes half closed. Others sat on the plastic seats with their feet propped up on giant bags and packages. Still others stood, checking their watches regularly, restless. I looked around at my fellow passengers, and though I’m usually a confident and comfortable traveler I become nervous – taking a ferry from South Korea to China all of a sudden seemed like kind of a big deal.
My friends had taken me out for a farewell dinner. Was it days before my departure or weeks? I don’t remember now. I remember only that it was early September, just after Father’s Day, 2006. We had spent the evening discussing whether the news of Steve Irwin being killed by a stingray was true – it couldn’t possibly be, but it was. We went to one of those places where you pay a set amount and get all you can eat Korean BBQ and Jack Daniels. We loved that place. Their farewell gift to me (apart from the Jack Daniels hang over) was a travel survival kit. Inside I found matches, spare shoelaces, a mini Mandarin phrasebook, and a t-shirt with a picture of a dog smoking a pipe on the front.
Because everyone needs a dog-smokes-pipe t-shirt they said.
How strange that with such a huge journey in front of me, this is what stands out in my mind the most; the Jack Daniels, Steve Irwin, and my dog-smokes-pipe t-shirt. I don’t even remember the anticipation, just the smell of the BBQ and the faces of my friends.
It was a 25 hour journey, from South Korea to China, across the ocean, and for large chunks of the trip there was no land in sight. I remember the way the sky blended into the sea in hazy pastel tones, the horizon a smudge rather than a crisp line. I remember the way the sun broke the ocean into a billion pieces of broken mirror scattered in front of me as far as the eye could see. I remember asking myself what the fuck I was doing embarking on this trip across China with zero preparation except my dog-smokes-pipe t-shirt, spare shoelaces (I didn’t even pack any fucking shoes), matches, and a miniature Mandarin phrasebook.
I had supposed that I would stay for at least one day and night in Tianjin before traveling on to Beijing. But upon arrival at the ferry Terminal everyone that I had met on the ferry headed towards the bus to the city, and since I was tired and without an actual plan, I got on the bus with them.
China was difficult. We’d been off the bus for mere minutes before we were faced with this stark realization. It was dark by the time we reached the bus terminal, and despite the millions of people that live in the city it seemed deserted - not like South East Asia where the terminal is full of people waiting for you, hoping you’ll need a ride or somewhere to stay (Where you go? You need transport? My friend has hotel, I take you there). There was no signage in English, none of us spoke the local language, the few locals that we did see didn’t speak ours, and the phrase book from my survival kit proved to be fucking useless. We wandered around, directionless, until a taxi came and took us to an area of the city popular with backpackers. We checked into a hostel and ate. I showered and put on the t-shirt from my survival kit. Everything seems better when you have a full tummy, a place to sleep, and a t-shirt with a picture of a dog smoking a pipe on it.
I spent a few days in Beijing though I hadn’t really thought I would. It hadn’t occurred to me to explore this city – it was more a way to get to where I needed to go. It was in Beijing that I would get my visa for Tibet and board the train that would take me there. But it seemed like a waste to be there and not experience any of it, so I extended my stay at the hostel for long enough to visit the hotspots.
I was struck by the city’s contrasts; tall mirrored buildings of modern architecture next to ancient temples; new wide roads and parks with trees as old as the city itself; hundreds of cyclists sharing the roads with hundreds of cars. I spent hours exploring, constantly astonished by the merging of the old and the new.
In Beijing I sat with artists in the Forbidden City, with musicians in Beihai Park and with students in Tiananmen Square. I wandered through the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven. I meandered through the Hutongs of old Beijing. I got tea hustled, as all naïve travellers do. I went to the Great Wall of China.
I wasn’t going to, you know. I wasn’t going to visit the Great Wall of China. I thought it would be too touristy. But again, it seemed silly to be in Beijing and not go. So I booked myself a bus that would take me there on my last day.
Can you believe it? Can you believe I almost spent a week in Beijing without seeing the Great Wall of China? I can’t believe it. As soon as I saw it I couldn’t believe it. I walked for I don’t know how long along that wall not believing it. I had a constant internal dialogue, “you idiot, you almost missed this, what were you thinking?” I visited Jinshanling and I thought to myself ‘you almost missed this’. I walked for miles along the Simatai section of the wall and thought to myself “you almost missed this”.
The Great Wall of China, listed by UNESCO as a World Heritage site and well known as one of the Wonders of the World crosses deserts, grasslands, mountains and plateaus for more than 21,000 kilometers from the east to the west of China. And I almost missed it. The Great Wall of China was constructed to protect the nations land and people. It was built by soldiers, criminals and everyone in between, many of whom died during its construction as a result of hard work in poor conditions. It was built, in sections, for over 2,000 years (!!!) And I almost missed it!
I walked the Simatai section of the wall and apart from the young girl who walked with me (and then sold me a t-shirt) I didn’t see another person. I marvelled at the expanse of China to one side of me and Mongolia to the other and the winding and undulating Great Wall of China as far as I could see in front of me and behind. I took many moments that day to sit and just be. I wrote a letter to my grandmother who had died 10 years before. I stared out over Mongolia and China and the ever expansive winding wall and I cried. I cried for all the hands that had built the wall and all the feet that had walked it and for all the hearts that had been broken by it. I cried and I cried and I cried. I cried because I was there, alone, a nobody from Australia, just a little girl, sitting on the Great Wall of China. And I cried for reasons that I would never be able to understand or explain. And then I picked myself up and I walked some more because you can’t just sit on the Great Wall of China and cry all day for reasons you can’t understand or explain.
That’s where the journey to Tibet started, I think. There, on that wall - the humbling realization that the world is just so fucking big. And an overwhelming sense of gratitude to be a part of it.