Saying yes to the Swedes.

I love to play solitaire; it’s a fantastic game that hones your resilience. I also love to read books, make friends with strangers atop mountains and try to balance all my bags while squatting on an eastern toilet.

Traveling alone is liberating, powerful and immensely enjoyable, I reckon.

It’s the freedom I love the most.

Just as awesome is meeting some Swedish blokes – what’s not to love about Scandinavians? – and tagging along on their adventure. If you’re going that way anyway, why not, eh.

I’ve been fortunate enough to hook up with a cards champion who doubles as my Food Buddie, and a celebrity: Marky Marc Wahlberg.

I met the Swedes as I checked into a hostel in Guilin. Wahlberg was emerging from the shower in a towel. There’s no better way to meet a person, I reckon, than when they’re half-naked. He went out to buy cigarettes and I met his mate and their Yankee pal.

The Yankee has since passed in a bubble of enthusiasm and rancid stories.

They invited me to throw my backpack over my shoulder again and join them on a trip to Yangshuo, about an hour and a half away. I quizzed them about their plans and some logistical information, much as a child quizzes their father about the prospects of icecream. Indeed, there would be bike riding and good times provided.

It’d been a week traveling solo in a completely alien environment. I was thriving on the challengee, but accepted their kind offer and began indulging in some English-speaking company. It seemed a rare decadence at the time.

Being Sacndinavian, they are good-looking, of course, and that makes the journey smoother. The easy laughs don’t go astray, either. Wahlberg commented yesterday, when I asked him about his diet that “he was not leading a super-healthy life-style at the moment.” With a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, we laughed as if we’d just escaped a minor traffic accident.

I later realised the Swedes were surprised at my willingness to join them that day in Guilin. Certainly the receptionist was surprised at me checking out just half an hour after I’d checked in.

The point was to say yes, yes to a new adventure. That’s why I’d traveled alone. The opportunity was sitting on the table for me and now I see how fruitful it was to take it.

My Food Buddy later told me he was surprised I’d joined them. “I guess she has good intuition,” he gloats about my choice.

I first realised we would get along as companions when we checked in at our Yungshuo hostel. The Foodie Buddy cocked his ear and playfully said “can you hear that?”

“The birds,” I asked, still marvelling at the Chinese countryside.

“No,” he said, looking at me as if I had a orange bush growing out of my head. “It’s the bar. It’s calling us.” And then I felt we may just get along.

Almost a week later, I still cannot shake them.

We have biked around Yangshuo together. I showed them how to put a chain back on a bicycle and the best place to store your bags on a train.

They showed me the best method for drinking Chinese liquor and how to miss a bus so you have to pay extra to change your ticket.

An important factor here is that we’re all similarly laid-back. No-one was distressed at loosing ten bucks – the equivalent of two night’s lodgings – rather, we were stoked at the adventure and laughed at the grumpy ticket-sales lady. She turned the microphone on just to sigh loudly at us!

Also, it’s been splendid to share the long train journeys. Our honest get-to-know-each-other-as-if-it’s-school-camp-again conversation helped the 18-hour train ride to Kunming and the subsequent seven-hour trip to Dali pass easily.

Our inhibitions were left on the tracks, to be replaced by an ever-deepening friendship and comraderie.

When you’re traveling, relationships form quickly. It’s an interesting quirk. A few bike rides and a train trip later and it’s as if we tried to hoodwink our parents into buying us Bacardi when we were teenagers.

The best part, for me, is the deviation of my path. As we laughed our way up a mountain in Dali (south-west China) today, I realised that I would not be in that place, and it was such a stunning, peaceful place, if I had not decided to take a leap and trust the strange Scandinavian men.

In essence, I’ve traded solitaire for euchre and poker and become accustomed to dining with friends.

Travel relationships produce honest friendships. It’s hard to hide a fart in a dorm. The like-mindedness of fellow wanderers is as comforting as a doona and a Brad Pitt film on a rainy Sunday.

But, like all things in the carefree world of the backpacker, nothing is certain.

Wahlberg and the Foodie, they’re mine, for now, at least.

My solitaire skills, however, will not be left by the wayside. Adaptability is key. I’ll keep saying yes and trusting my fine intuition.

Freedom, after all, is about embracing opporunities. And I’m thrilled to have some new Swedish mates.

The best hangover cure.

The Kaya bar in Yangshuo touted $1.50 tequila shots and an ambiance that’d rival avocado-harvesting season in Mexico. A local bucks party was rocking on and the crew from my hostel were indulging in a rather wild Saturday night. Naturally, I joined the party.

I woke with a shock on Sunday morning at 8.45. I was supposed to meet some mates at 8 for my 9am Chinese calligraphy class.

I grabbed some coin and headed into town on my bicycle in last night’s dress, reeking of the previous night’s festivities. I’d missed breakfast, of course, so made do with a petite glass of water.

When the ambitious Aussie/French couple had asked me whether I was interested in learning to write Chinese characters with a brush and ink, I was immediately intrigued. I seized the opportunity, but did not anticipate I’d try to master the age-old art with a booze-riddled body.

I did not hold out much hope for the day, but I’d committed myself.

It started off well: with snacks and tea. Our teacher, Lucy, was a kind and generous soul. She sat us down and explained the materials we needed to write for the emperor. An ink stone, a brush, see-through paper and a steady hand was all we needed.

She explained the brush strokes as she was training a young pooch. “Sit, sit sit, sitting, sitting,” she’d say as she moved her brush with bamboozling precision.

Then it’d be “stand, stand, stand, standing,” as she increased the angle of her brush. Each stroke needs to be done a certain way.

I had little idea what was going on and that was obvious to Lucy. She’d try to be diplomatic. “Yes, you have a very interesting style,” she told me.

The others in the class were standing up to write, apparently this is the best position for holding the brush. I was slumped in my chair dreaming wistfully of fried rice and a rehydration sachet, piecing together the events from the previous night. What were the names of the Canadian folk I met, I wondered.

I gave it my best, determined to get my character perfect. We were prqactising fu or luck as it uses every stroke movement. Occasionally, I’d do something well, miraculously.

“Oh, well done. Yes, yes,” Lucy would say, delightedly and hold up my piece of paper for everyone to see. I felt like a kid who’d dressed themselves for the first time and basked in her approval. Still, it was a blur of splotches for me.

The other tutor would often shake her head and laugh at my attempts. Then when I’d do something that would have made the emperor proud, Lucy would gush. “You are improving so quickly.”

Her companion chimed in, “we are very surprised,” she nodded at me, her face grave and encouraging. Clearly, my potential at the beginning of the class lacked some lustre. Perhaps it was my un-brushed hair?

The surprising thing was how calming and meditative the activity was. Gradually, my hangover receded, but my hunger was like an elephant on heat, rampaging.

After we’d completed fu a few times and Lucy had helped me find my “own style – it’s more carefree,” we indulged in some reverse psychology bargaining. She wanted 60 yuan for the class. We insisted on giving her 80 each. Then we debated over who would pay for lunch. In the end a local school teacher shouted our group, as a welcome to the town.

We sat in her loft and drank tea after the class, snacking on dried flowers, taro, exceptionally strong ginger and other local snacks. It was a truly beautiful moment and a highligh, so far, of my China trip.

The local noodle shack she took us to had some strange-looking meat in the window. I thought it was lamb. No, it was goat. And it was delicious. Alongside the pale meat some cubed pieces of slippery red stuff had me confused. “What are those,” I asked, innocently. “Oh, that’s goat’s blood,” she replied, offhandedly.

It was delicious and immediately remedied my nausea.

I was impressed with the goat meal and told some of the folk from the Kaya bar about the strange food. Then, I recalled that we’d snacked on some street food as we marched home at 4am. “What did we eat,” I asked the Belgian and Swiss guys who’d walked me home.

“Oh yeah, you had a few sticks of snails.”

Snails, huh. I was impressed by my tequila-fuelled abandon, but completely revolted.

So, in one day I’d eaten snails, goat, goat’s blood and mastered one of the Chinese characters in my own new style. That’s what I call a good hangover day.

I want to ride my bicycle.

There is only one activity I loathe more than cleaning red wine stains off white shirts.

It’s biking. I hate it. And I hate that I hate it.

It’s such a romantic, breezy, green activity; I should be a biker, really. I love the idea of getting around two wheels and talking bike trips across the desert or on a guilt-free cheese tour of Tasmania. I don’t mind lycra, either.

Instead, I recoil when someone mentions a Sunday afternoon cycle or the appealing-but-annoying idea of riding to work.

But down here in Yangshuo in southern China, biking is rampant. Chinese and foreign tourists compete with scooters, dump trucks and the occasional tuk-tuk to see whether bells or horns are more effective.

Horns win, every time.

The landscape down here is some of the best I have ever seen. The endless karst rocks that disrupt the rice paddies are stunning. I love searching the horizon and thinking of what must be on the other side of the hills. More than a few times I’ve caught myself feeling incredibly happy and content here. The scenery and the vibe are enrapturing.

On the back of such bliss I’ve mustered some enthusiasm for cycling.

It seemed natural to join the bike-mad hoards. It’s quieter and cheaper than scooters, you can cover more ground than your average walker and, this is probably the clincher, I once read a romance novel about a couple riding through southern China and fancied myself a shoo-in for the lead role in such a story. It had emotive appeal, weirdly, even though it’s such a sweaty, bum-paining activity.

Despite my delusions, a day’s cycling has almost converted me to the bike brigade.

Breezing through the rice paddies with a river on one side, huge rocky peaks on the other and easy conversation flowing between my fellow cyclists was awesome. This did mean that I had to endure the excitable Yank’s lurid stories, but that’s all part of the journey, right.

It was a soul-cleansing day and it measured up to my romantic expectations. The wind whipped under my new hat and the sun beat down on us all, hilariously burning the Swedish guy to a deep shade of burgundy.

Of course, it was not without difficulties. The bike Gods had planned their vengeance for my cycling cynicism. I was provided with a kiddie bike, instead of an adult’s bike.

My scooter-with-handlebars was the joke of the day.

One of my companions remarked it was “like you’re on a pony and the rest of us have horses.”

A few hours later he asserted to all and sundry that my bike had come from Maccas with a burger.

I looked like a giant, too, next to my tiny steed.

I am certain I had to spin those pedals twice as hard as the rest of the crew. Obviously, there were no gears (kids don’t go up steep inclines), so I looked an ever bigger fool walking my toy bike up the steeper hills.

Going downhill was truly treacherous. I constantly feared I’d be spat off the bike and sent underneath one of the adult bike’s wheels. My hands are a little blistered from eight hours clutching the handlebars as tightly as a father shakes his future son-in-law’s hand when they meet for the first time.

Actually, the entire ride was hazardous. They drive on the other side of the road here, so that’s confusing. But, if it’s too hard you can just ride on the wrong side of the road. In layman’s terms, people going everywhere. Chaos.

Dodging the trucks and buses and, worst of all, the pedestrians that would do more damage to my rented bike than I’d do to them, made me feel exceptionally vulnerable. Helmets have not been thought of here yet, of course.

Best of all, I felt alive cruising around on my over-sized skateboard. The exercise factor cannot be ignored. It’s an honest way to get around and immerse yourself in a place – huffing and puffing around the paddies. It makes the gym look like a prison camp.

But I can sense, already, that my enthusiasm for getting around on two wheels may spin away when I set foot on Aussie soil again. Or maybe this is one of those things I need to follow through. I will continue to sing the bike song every morning.

I may even ride bikes on a Sunday instead of crying over spilt wine. I could even indulge in a cute new bicycle with a basket and flowers on the front.

And the romance of Yangshuo; then we’ll see whether it was the bike or the mountains.

Waiting for the train.

I love a good reality check, especially when it comes at ten minutes after midnight on a Thursday night.
Last night, I was treated to a healthy dose of reality as I waited patiently for my sleeper train to take me to Yingtan, a stop-off en route to Guilin in the south of China.
I had been hanging out in Tunxi, near Mount Huangshan, with some lovely folk for a few dayts and I had got a little comfortable. One lovely Taiwanese lady, Lina, had been keeping me company with her perfect English. I’d been indulged with her insightful, fascinating conversation and even treated to her skills as a translator. It was heaven.
Then, just as it started to get nice and cosy, I upped and left, like a Aussie guy who thinks he might be in love. The road was calling.
It started with the taxi driver. He decided to round Y6.40 up to 7 Yuan. It took a good five minutes to figure that one out.
In the packed-out, human-odour-filled waiting room a young Chinese man struck up a brief conversation with me in English. This ain’t so bad, I thought.
His train and most of the waiting passengers left and I pulled out my book, ready to chill out. It was midnight, after all and I’d had a big day sampling different sorts of tofu.
But, peace alluded me and, instead, I was treated to a piece of modern-day Commedia del Arte.
A friendly-looking, pink-clad young Chinese woman excited beckoned me over. I obliged, lugging my backpack to sit opposite her and her companion (friend, sister, cousin, maid – I was not sure).
Naturally, she started chatting away, asking me all sorts of questions and confusing my blank face for comprehension. After a few minutes of her rapid-fire Chinese, my shy smile, combined with a head shake, brow crunch, silence and shoulder shrug eventually told her that I was understanding her as much as vegetarian understands a butcher.
She was crushed. Her shoulders slumped and her head drooped, for a few moments at least.
But it did not take long for her intuitive Chinese nature to take over and she was it again. Question after question poured out of her, alongside a million beautiful smiles. She was convinced, I’m sure, that if she said the words slowly and loudly enough, that I would understand. Does that sound a familiar tactic, I asked myself, guiltily.
So I sat there, pouring over my useless phrase book, looking like a complete fool and repeating the meagre words I knew. Mi fan (rice) and ce sor (toilet) – at least I think that’s what those words mean – did not really fit into the conversation. But, dua bu qi (sorry) was bandied about like bubble bath at a slip ‘n’ slide.
It was pretty funny, really, and it was certainly more amusing than my rather hard-core book about Chinese history.
There weren’t many people at the station, about 8, I reckon, but they were all crowded aroud like kids at a clown show.
I was definitely the clown.
My fellow passeners were smiling, adding their two-cents worth every few minutes and, of course, having a nice giggle at my expense.
Then, the conductors came over, three of them, and joined the circus. Of course, I couldn’t understand their Chinese either.
It started getting ridiculous when one of the ticket officers decided to display his considerable mime skills. He was jumping across the waiting room like some rabbit-cum-reindeer with an exceptionally goofy grin on his face.
I’m not sure if he was trying to mime a kangaroo for me, as I’d divulged that I was an Aussie, or whether he was trying to tell me that doing acrobatics with my heavy backpack would be difficult.
In any case, it was a real treat to see the conductor, decked out in his full uniform – complete with the train driver’s hat and blazer – take on the attributes of a jack-in-the-box.
After that wave of laughter had subsided, we were really in stitches at one point, the girls got straight back to their task: to tell me what they had been doing in Tunxi. The bought out the old let’s-show-her-in-writing-so-she-can-read-it-because-the-problem-is-clearly-her-lack-of-oral-skills trick. The Chinese business letter they whipped out for me to read, unsurprisingly, did not ease our mutual confusion. I can read the date, I thought, impressed with myself.
But, once again, I crushed their dreams.
And it was touching that they cared so much about continuing a conversation with a foreign stranger. It was short-lived, but I felt a breif sense of community with the folk at the station. I managed to learn the Chinese words for sister, name and tired, too, which was a bit of a boon.
I reckon it’s the absurdity of these sorts of situations that make them so memorable. It’s really not every Wednesday night you find yourself at a train station in rural China trying to understand the local dialect. For me, that’s the real brilliance of travelling alone and visiting exotic places. Climbing Mount Huangshan and road-testing stinky tofu are fascinating and thrilling experiences, but the ones that make you laugh and take you by surprise, they’re the real gems.
The never-ending game of Charades continues.

Conquering Mount Huangshan with the rest of ’em.

Imagine stepping back in time a few thousand years and going on a quest. Oh, there’s fun to be had tapping into that side of your imagination. You could find a few handy companions, a dodgy map and pack yourself some provisions. Then you’d set out to conquer an ancient mountain.

That’s what I did a few days ago, but with a little less ancient mystique and quite a few more Chinese people. And a couple of Norwegians.

Mount Huangshan is a good spot for such an expedition. It’s about a 6 hour bus-ride or 13 hours on a comfy train south of Shanghai. (Of course, I took the longer route.)

On this ancient mission you should not forget your wallet. You’ll need a fair bit of coin to survive on the mountain. Most notably, you’ll need to fork out 230 yuan to get in the gate.

All you have to do is find your way to the other side.

That means strapping up your boots at the Mercy Light Pavilion, climbing a few thousand steps to CelestialPeak, cresting LotusPeak on your way to the Heavenly Sea and then finally reaching the hotel at Bright-Top Peak. Then you can find the room that you’ll share with 20 others, includingh 17 friendly locals.

The Chinese have made this much easier by attaching concrete pathways to the side of the sheer cliffs on Huangshan. And the prehistoric mountain, with its exceptionally steep slopes and sharp granite outcrops, is as easy to navigate as a brand spanking shopping trolley.

In China, accessibility means people. The domestic tourists swarmed around the peaks like greenies at vulnerable old gum tree. They were ubiquitous. Many are wearing yellow hats that are themed for their special tour group and they follow their flag-waving, yelling-Chinese-into-the-microphone-so-the-people-in-Shanghai-can-hear-but-no-one-one-the-mountain-can-hear-their-own-footsteps guide fastidiously.

The Mandarin is like the buzz of your next-door neighbour’s lawnmower on a Sunday morning. It can be annoying, but you learn to tune out and both are non-negotiable.

The people were a mixed bag. Some charged up the hill, and it’s a bloody steep hill, as if there was a pot of gold at the top.

Others were less keen on the hiking and paid men to carry them up in chairs attached to bamboo poles.

In fact, the Chinese tourists came in many shapes and size, from the hard-core Adidas-shod athletes to the pretty ladies strolling up in Dior shirts, tight jeans and heels.

It was a strange sensation to be atop a stunning mountain, with peaks cascading upon each other all the way to the misty horizon, with thousands of other people.

I’m impressed by their enthusiasm for the outdoors and that they take the time to visit these places. On the flip side, it’s overwhelming. And it seems ironic to have a swanky four-star hotel in such a mystical place.

But, hey, that’s China. It’s modern and ancient, simultaneously.

The biggest surprise for me was that I already knew this place. It’s one of China’s most famous landmarks and features on many of their oriental paintings. It’s what I always imagined China to look like, but without the tourists and the cable cars.

Still, the mountain has myriad charms. The scenery is exceptional, especially at sunrise and sunset, and the place names are something else entirely.

On your way down the Huangshan you’ll need to keep Flying–Over Rock on your left as you head towards the Black Tiger Pine. The trick here is not to go to the White Goose Station, but instead go straight down to the CloudValleyTemple via the Scenery-Inviting Pavilion.

If you get lost, which I did, of course, you can make your way back to the Black Tiger Pine by the Beginning-to-BelievePeak and the Harp Pine. It’s best not to take the path to the Stone Monkey Watching the Sea. Instead you should take the sign to the North Sea.

Of course, if you were on an ancient quest there would probably be no signs and fewer tourists to ask advice from, but you should never let the facts get in the way of a good imagination.

Not for all the tea in China.

I love a morning stroll. I especially love discovering new delicacies every morning for breakfast. There is one thing, however, that the Chinese do not do so well. It’s not a big surprise. I had been forewarned. But that doesn’t make it any easier.

It’s the coffee. It’s rubbish.

Even in the places it should be ok, it’s not.

But, this is all part of the China-detox I had been planning. Going without a morning latte is much easier when there is a smog-infused walk and ginger-flavoured candy on offer.

So far, I’ve also been keeping my dairy and cheese cravings at bay. Although, check-in with me in two months to see whether I’ve traded hiking for brie hunting.

Food aside, the best trade-off for coffee is, of course, tea.

And having a brew in China is like wearing a string bikini at Ipanema. It just feels right.

I’ve even invested in a little thermos, after seeing most of the population walking around with various shaped and coloured thermoses, all containing different types of tea.

I just love carrying the flagon around with me and stopping for a quick cuppa at every intersection.

And the looks I get from the locals, it’s like a daughter-in-law-to-be has just revealed to her future in-laws that she’s keen to have children as soon as possible after the wedding. I can feel their approval as they stare at me and trip over the chipped pavement.

Perhaps the best thing about my new pink flask is that it says “Childhood’s memory always tastes delicious,” on the side. I am always thinking that.

The tea is not super cheap, either. A few hundred grams of the nice jasmine brew I’m indulging in at the moment cost me the same as two plates of delicious dumplings. Choosing the leaves is quite the process, too. And a few leaves can be infused about five times by the hot water thermos that is conveniently located in the lobby. In fact, hot water is everywhere for your tea-drinking convenience.

But, despite all of the tea-leaf excitement, I still catch my mind wandering into the realms of lattes and Arabica beans at about 10am. At least I have my childhood memory, right.

Group photo

Greetings from Tunxi!
Here are a few snaps from my journey so far.
I love the enthusiasm people have shown for getting a photo with a Westerner. Mostly, as a single white girl, I am not attracting too much attention, but it does raise a few eyebrows.
This is a selection of some of the best group shots. It makes me very happy to be welcomed like this.
Also, The China firewall is bloking WordPress and Facebook, unsurprisingly, and I am not sure whether these shots will go through. If someone wants to let me know if they are successful, you can post a comment on the blog, or email me at pen.lang.
I cannot change spelling errors either, so apologies for that.
Hope you all have a great day!!


Speak Chinese? No, not so much.

I was chatting away with some very friendly Chinese folk today over lunch. They were yakking away in rapid Chinese. I swear their mouths were nearly exploding from the speed. I was there, too, yarning on in English. 
There was no comprehension. Nothing. 
Yet we were all laughing away and having a fabulous time.
Its extremely liberating to wonder around a country with no idea what the people or signs or voices in the railway stations are telling you. 
Since realising that Mandarin is exceptionally difficult to grasp, I have loosened up about the language barrier. I blunder along, trying unsuccessfully to make myself understood. Mostly I treat the characters as I do in Australia, theyre best ignored. Its better for the self−esteem.
What is truly fantastic about understanding none of the language is how effective sign language becomes. I can successfully mime the easy stuff, such as what is your job, plus some more advanced mimes, such as what breed of pidgeon are we eating. Asking people to take a photo of me is easier than playing in mud.
But not everyone can agree on what is the best way to ask someone where they bought the good−looking noodles, so I have run into a few issues.
Today, for instance, as I was chatting away with the friendly restauranteur, I understood the word how (good) only. And I’m fairly certain they only knew hello. I was fine with that, but the nice man was getting a bit frustrated. He really wanted to know what I did for a crust. So, to make it easy for me, the silly Western girl who cannot speak Chinese, he says hell write it down.
Well, this is just great, I think, as he begins spewing Chinese symbols onto the page. Itd be easier to comprehend physics.
Ive been in China for four days now and, frankly, I had expected to be fluent by now. Ill keep trying.
And in the meantime, Ill keep wandering through this beautiful country with only my smile as a communication tool. I feel vulnerable. But the best part about the situation is the lack of expectations. I never know whats around the corner.
I went for a stroll today through a random park and ended up finding a zoo.Huh? It had a bear and deer and peacocks and one very cranky monkey. I was just expecting trees. And then I found a beautiful heritage bridge.
So, the language barrier, it aint so bad, I reckon.