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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