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Another Journey Across China: A Predepature Ramble

Starting off on another journey across China, trepidation turns to excitement once the wheels of travel begin spinning.

I prayed for exact change as I pulled up in a taxi to the train station in Taizhou. The driver had more fingers up his nose than on the steering wheel for the entirety of the 20 minute ride. At one point I thought starring at him may provoke some insecurity and thus inhibit the nasal excavation, but I thought wrong: he just stared right back at me and continued twisting away, knuckle deep. He wasn’t pulling out because some foreigner was starring at him with a gross face on. I tossed the fellow an extra kuai to save having to take change from his freshly boogered fingers. Sure, I interact with disgusting hands all day long, but there is just something about seeing the soiling for yourself that removes the comfy veneer of doubt.

I am on my way to Changsha and then the mountains at Wulingyuan. I am sitting in the waiting lounge of the train station feeling that empty feeling that comes from departing from my family. They can’t do trips like this. They have school and they would not really enjoy hurtling across China to research a couple of stories and then spend a week tramping in mountains. They like to travel, they don’t like going on vagabonding trips into oblivion. This means that I travel away from them often, and I always leave with an overbearing feeling of “What’s the point? Why am I doing this? I am perfectly happy at home, why do I need to tear off on yet another grueling, forsaken, rapid pace trip across this country? I can just churn Chinese news and social media infinitely like most other websites published for an audience of foreigners are, why do I feel the need to see these things for myself?” Oh yeah, as Burton said, the devil drives.

But this emotion quickly disintegrates the moment the train or bus pulls out of the station or I get up to full speed on my bicycle. The spinning wheels of travel and those of thought synchronize as they both race ahead for the singular goal of what lies beyond. Onward. By this point I have been fully taken over by the other side: I am into the journey, my focus becomes absolute, my wits feel sharper, and I descend into the spiral of rapid fire decision making that is a large part of the stimulation of travel. Life becomes simple, my needs are basic: food, water, and shelter; the nonessential layers of life vanish. I start talking to strangers, asking foolish questions, chasing fleeting intrigues, putting myself in uncomfortable or otherwise challenging circumstances and documenting everything with an endless procession of notes, photos, and videos. There is nobody to remember my embarrassments but myself, so I don the cap of a fool and set out to learn something new.

Downtime is extinguished until the moment I return to my family’s home: the work has begun. The job is simple: keep your senses astute and look for anything that piques curiosity and find out more about it.

It is about time to board the train, jump into another venture across China. The prime fear of modern travel is with me: what if nothing happens? What if this becomes a journey where everything works according to plan and I don’t end up with a story worth retelling? What if my plan doesn’t produce adequate results? But then I look at the milling hoard of people in front of me who are already jostling for position and getting ready to fight for the seats they are assured by their tickets, at the guy carrying the bundle of white, root-like sticks the likes of which I have never seen before, at the family who is talking about the way I look right in front of me, at the old man carrying his weight in giant bundles tied to the ends of a bamboo shoulder pole and I know that my fears are not only unfounded, but in a country like China completely impossible.

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Filed under: China, Travel Diary

About the Author:

Wade Shepard is the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. He has been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. He is the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China, and contributes to The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3545 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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12 comments… add one

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  • John Wasteneys May 8, 2013, 7:32 am

    I enjoyed this piece. It gave me insight into your process of thinking. Makes me always question the tourist route> I’m conflicted, because I don’t like infrastructure- despite being an artist and being able to see the interesting qualities that a rusty pile of steel, or some corroded bus terminal, or the emotions of the people inside a station. I’m not much for narrative in my art. I’m more interested in capturing some kind of fleeting emotions, empathy or circumstance which feels empowering…. Often the best parts of travel for me are those moments where you get to take pictures, where you get to make some kind of representation of something. Where you get to be silly with your friends in front of beautiful sights, amazing landmarks. Maybe i’m too young, but part of me feels disappointing unless I feel like I really saw something. Like a mountain!

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 8, 2013, 9:34 am

      Never lose that feeling, man. Seriously, you have things right on. Keep traveling.

      Link Reply
  • John Wasteneys May 8, 2013, 6:32 am

    I enjoyed this piece. It gave me insight into your process of thinking. Makes me always question the tourist route> I’m conflicted, because I don’t like infrastructure- despite being an artist and being able to see the interesting qualities that a rusty pile of steel, or some corroded bus terminal, or the emotions of the people inside a station. I’m not much for narrative in my art. I’m more interested in capturing some kind of fleeting emotions, empathy or circumstance which feels empowering…. Often the best parts of travel for me are those moments where you get to take pictures, where you get to make some kind of representation of something. Where you get to be silly with your friends in front of beautiful sights, amazing landmarks. Maybe i’m too young, but part of me feels disappointing unless I feel like I really saw something. Like a mountain!

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 8, 2013, 8:34 am

      Never lose that feeling, man. Seriously, you have things right on. Keep traveling.

      Link Reply
  • Lawrence May 9, 2013, 1:09 am

    Yea cool observations. I am sitting now in Beijing, my second day in China at some weird overpriced coffee place. Sort of like some strane Hopper painting smudged in brown. Overpriced coffee but a nice place to collect your thoughts. The people here are friendlier here than i was told but the air is somehow worse. I just dropped my passport off at the Tajikistan embassy and am about to hurtle across this huge place.
    I had a near panic attack damn near two days ago. I have a beautiful wife and house in Melbourne and a comfortable job that I love. Alas the travel bug never leaves you and now tajikistan and hopefully turkmenistan await somewhere. Then of course Tibet and Nepal and Sichuan and Venezula and Ethiopia. You perfectly summed up though how the panic turns into a purpose once the train departs or the passport is stamped. Good stuff…..
    The tea girls are funny here…some you can smell there bullshit a mile away but one called Jennifer really had me convinced she was a just an English student (I’ve travelled a fair bit) right up until they say..I know this coffee place…funny stuff….

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 12, 2013, 10:50 pm

      Yes, the urge to travel is something that is pretty impossible to shake. Well, unless you can find another obsession as enthralling, all-encompassing, and excited. I, personally, have not yet found anything that can match it.

      Yes, those scammers can be pretty clever. You just look at some of them and you just can’t believe that they are the types that would be involved in such a scheme. I sometimes think that some of those kids may actually be naive to what they are actually doing, but, a scam is still a scam, no matter what.

      Let us know how your Tajikistan travels go. I’m considering going out there soon.

      Link Reply
  • Lawrence May 9, 2013, 12:09 am

    Yea cool observations. I am sitting now in Beijing, my second day in China at some weird overpriced coffee place. Sort of like some strane Hopper painting smudged in brown. Overpriced coffee but a nice place to collect your thoughts. The people here are friendlier here than i was told but the air is somehow worse. I just dropped my passport off at the Tajikistan embassy and am about to hurtle across this huge place.
    I had a near panic attack damn near two days ago. I have a beautiful wife and house in Melbourne and a comfortable job that I love. Alas the travel bug never leaves you and now tajikistan and hopefully turkmenistan await somewhere. Then of course Tibet and Nepal and Sichuan and Venezula and Ethiopia. You perfectly summed up though how the panic turns into a purpose once the train departs or the passport is stamped. Good stuff…..
    The tea girls are funny here…some you can smell there bullshit a mile away but one called Jennifer really had me convinced she was a just an English student (I’ve travelled a fair bit) right up until they say..I know this coffee place…funny stuff….

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 12, 2013, 9:50 pm

      Yes, the urge to travel is something that is pretty impossible to shake. Well, unless you can find another obsession as enthralling, all-encompassing, and excited. I, personally, have not yet found anything that can match it.

      Yes, those scammers can be pretty clever. You just look at some of them and you just can’t believe that they are the types that would be involved in such a scheme. I sometimes think that some of those kids may actually be naive to what they are actually doing, but, a scam is still a scam, no matter what.

      Let us know how your Tajikistan travels go. I’m considering going out there soon.

      Link Reply
  • Jack Woods May 12, 2013, 4:48 pm

    I know how that is….there is always a story…I keep wanting to actually write about my stories about China….just wish I had the time….before the memories start to fade.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 12, 2013, 10:51 pm

      For sure, get those memories down — if only in note form. The travel in China is real interesting, but it’s often things that are easy to forget. Though I can’t imagine how busy you are right now 🙂

      Link Reply
  • Jack Woods May 12, 2013, 3:48 pm

    I know how that is….there is always a story…I keep wanting to actually write about my stories about China….just wish I had the time….before the memories start to fade.

    Link Reply
    • VagabondJourney May 12, 2013, 9:51 pm

      For sure, get those memories down — if only in note form. The travel in China is real interesting, but it’s often things that are easy to forget. Though I can’t imagine how busy you are right now 🙂

      Link Reply