I was descending through the clouds wrapped in an air conditioned metal tube. I had to rub my eyes vigorously, in a futile attempt to wake myself up to the reality of the mission I had undertaken. Leaving behind a month of fond memories and an unexpected addiction to spicy foods, I had boarded a plane in Indonesia and set off for China, where I was to spend the next 5 months training in martial arts under masters of the Shaolin Temple. I have an appetite for the unusual.
My time in China was to be less than easy, spending days gruelingly kicking trees, practicing sword forms, and meditating under a heat so oppressive that I would have rivers of sweat pouring down my face at 6am as I practiced the gentle movements of Tai Chi. Despite this, I would always feel as though this was my home, albeit temporary.
The very start of my trip, however, was a crude cultural slap to the face, a slap that jolted me back to the seemingly daring nature of traveling to a country where the English language is as much a foreign concept as a meal cooked without ample amounts of oil. True to my nature, I was completely under prepared for my journey into the heart of the Orient.
I stumbled out of the airport, seeking a taxi. I would show the driver a piece of paper I had printed with the address of an old school mate who was living in Shanghai. My plan was to stay with her for the night and catch a train to my destination the next day.
I found a driver who showed me to his vehicle, the likes of which had seen better days. The driver seemed confused at the address I had shown him.
My jet-lagged body asked permission to sleep. Permission denied.
The man turned to me and released a flurry of Mandarin upon my undiscerning ears. I pulled out a piece of paper with the phone number of my school friend, Caroline, printed on it. He took it upon himself to call this number.
I was not in Shanghai at all. I had booked my flight with a budget airline. When I chose the port I would be flying into, it read ‘Hangzhou airport (Shanghai)’. I had assumed this meant that Hangzhou was a part of Shanghai. I was wrong. I was in a city approximately 2 hours train ride from where I had hoped to be.
Several hours later, midnight, I found myself checking into an $80 hotel room. Not my idea of ‘cheap China’. Numerous attempts to check into hostels had proved to be useless; nobody would take me in. Exhaustion battled fiercely with a rising sense of anxiety, and I gave in to the 4 star complex.
The next morning I found myself standing behind a long line of people as I waited to buy my train ticket. When I reached the booth, I showed the woman my destination written in Chinese characters. She made a gesture which I took to mean “there are no sleeper tickets left”. A seat will do. I purchased my ticket, and went to situate myself outside to watch time go by. I curiously observed mothers allowing their children to squat in the middle of crowded walk ways in order to defecate. A young man who spoke a little English asked to see my ticket. He cheerily informed me that I had purchased a standing ticket. What? Standing in a train? For 12 hours? This was the icing on the cake of discomfort. I had, in the days previous, spent 30 hours in a rickety bus, 12 hours in a train with broken windows, 1 hour on a motorcycle, 8 hours on a plane, and 2 hours in a taxi.
The train ride seemed like a bizarre dream. Several times I almost fell asleep while standing. On occasion I would crouch down, only to stand up again to press myself against other passengers as women wheeled trolleys of strange looking snacks down the isles.
I almost missed my stop in an attempt to determine if indeed it was my destination and had to hurriedly collect my bag and run off the train before it continued on its journey.
I wouldn’t claim that my first encounter with China was particularly fun, but it’s the richness of experience that I seek in travel, and from that perspective, I have absolutely no reason to be disappointed.