The best way to travel in China is to strike out in a random direction and check out what’s there. Stay away from the tourist attractions, find your own path.
It’s a good thing that I enjoy the “simple everyday” in China, for if I needed the tourist sites to keep my mind spinning I’m afraid I probably would not enjoy being in this country very much — or be able to afford it. Countless times in these narratives I’ve found myself striking off to check out some interesting geographic feature or to see a place that was recommended to me only to arrive at a huge gate with ticket takers posted in a neat row, blocking my way. They tell me to go buy a ticket, and I scoff when I see that their price is generally around $10 to $15.
Paying this much money to go and look at what I’m suppose to look at while being crowded by a hoard of other tourists is often not worth it when I know that I can turn around, walk away, and find something that I’m not suppose to see, talk with people that I’m not suppose to talk with, and have an experience that couldn’t be sold by any tourist agency for free simply by getting far away from anywhere that’s dubbed a tourist attraction.
I took off up a thin path leading up the south side of Nanjing’s Purple Mountain. I was looking for a way to get past the tourist sites and on to the north side of the huge hill which virtually protrudes right up out of the city’s streets. From a look at a map it seemed to me as if the mountain was too big and massive to be completely choked to death by tourist attractions, and I was right — there are all kinds of hiking trails and nature on the other side of the “scenic area” stuff. I logically concluded that all I would need to do was walk through all the temples, mausoleums, gardens, and other stuff that people here like to pay to take photos of and on would be smack on the other side, in nature. But I soon found myself having some difficulty actually getting there. I was becoming irritated, as all my previous attempts to find a place to hike through the park beyond paved roads just kept bringing me face to face with ticket booths.
I was trying one last way around the Sun-Yat Sen Mausoleum and I saw an older, rather rotund man on the path ahead of me. He was shooting birds out of a tree with a slingshot. He was so involved in his sport — I guess that’s what you call it — that I was able to walk right up behind him without being detected. Feeling a touch mischievousness I went into stealth mode, got up real close, and put my face right behind his left ear and gave him a big, “Ni hao!” He jumped in shock, then upon turning around and seeing me, a misplaced foreigner, he jumped in fright. I burst out laughing, he gave the rapid fire hehehe sort of laugh that the Chinese do to mean, “I’m really F’in embarrassed.” Soon enough, we both recovered, and I asked him what he was doing.
“Dangong,” he said real slow as he held his slingshot up in front of me as though I were a small child or a retard. He then explained the contraption as though I’d never seen one before. He schooled me on its purpose and how to use it. He told me that he liked hitting birds out of trees with it. I stood there nodding my head through the lesson, playing along as though I did not have a slingshot hanging out of my pocket from age 5 through 15. I oohed and ahhed and kept asking questions about it. That’s called travel writing: you go around acting like a retard in hopes that people will teach you about who they are and what they do — which is the raw fodder needed for this profession.
It was now time for a demonstration, and the guy picked up a few balls of steel shot from the soil beneath our feet (I can’t say why they were there), loaded one into his sling, took aim at the high branches of a tree that rose above us, and blasted some poor bird. I gaped in surprise as the beaned bird manically took flight. I found relief in the fact that this old guy didn’t kill the damn bird for my viewing pleasure, though, I have to admit, he certainly tried.
The slingshot and a small steel ball bearing were then placed into my hands and the old guy told me to try it. I asked him if he saw any birds nearby, and he said that they all flew away (i.e. he’d blasted them all already). This was probably a good thing, as I’m ashamed to admit it now but I really wanted to show what a good student I was by taking out some unsuspecting bird with a steel shot broad-side. Instead, the the old Chinese guy told me to take out the fence post that was directly in front of us. This seemed stupid to me, and I imagined the steel ball deflecting backwards and taking out nothing but a couple of my front teeth. Instead, I aimed for a far off branch on the tree. I completely missed, the steel ball fired into nothing but thin air. It was now the old man’s turn to laugh.
But the snap of the slingshot put a smile back on my face, and eased my irritation with the Chinese habit of putting up ticket booths and fences around anything of interest. This is a country famed for its large walls, but it should be famed for its magnificent fences as well. Sure, there was the mosuleum of Dr. Sun Yat-Sen up there, as well as Lingu Tower and even the Anti-Japanese Aviation Museum, but none of it appealed to me as much as a dirt path through the woods. I kicked myself for not really looking into the best way to get to the hiking areas on this mountain, and considered hopping a fence and making a break for the summit beyond. But then I figured that it would have been awkward if I were caught:
Really, sir, I don’t want to look at the marble coffin, I just want to go hiking.
I was essentially standing on the wrong side of a collection of barricaded compounds dubbed as tourist attractions. I would need to completely give this area the go around to get to the summit of the mountain, and I simply did not have the gumption for this. I realized that I really didn’t care, the other side of the mountain was just a place to go. As always, this side of the mountain can be pretty good as well.
I then looked out at where I was. There was really nothing to gain, I was looking upon mountains rising above me and below me was a grey/ blue, dead still and glistening lake with a ring of fishermen around its periphery. The incredible old city wall of Nanjing rose as a pleasing backdrop. This wasn’t so bad, and I delighted that I was outside the wall, outside of a city — which is an absolute essential when based long term in the endlessly sprawling cities of China. I descended the hill and began walking around the lake.
I have a style of travel that is intended to lead me astray: I pick out destinations but often have no real intention of getting to them. I figure that having a destination is an integral part of going somewhere, but the going is the only thing that matters. If one way doesn’t work I’ll just try another; if that doesn’t work out I’ll go do something else. Sometimes I find places, people, landscapes that are truly interesting, sometimes I just find dead ends, baked earth, sweat, sunburn, blisters, and strange looks. Whatever is the case, I’m sure to always be surprised.
I would rather strike out in a hastily chosen direction on a whim and find myself in proverbial nowhere than put the time and effort into mapping out a specific route, doing research, consulting guidebooks, and conducting endless internet searches so that I’m assured that I will get to where I set out for. I would rather make mistakes and learn from them, go the wrong way and see what’s there, meet people I never could have met if I remained like a good tourist on the path. I travel by any means necessary, but I never really cared too much for where that leads me.
I can switch into “destination arrival” mode very quickly and make it to the end of my anticipated path when the fruits seem worth the picking, but when I’m just out for a walk on some mountain looking for nothing in particular I prefer to allow my mind and fee to wander in tandem and of their own volition.
Knowing exactly where you’re going is the surest way to turn travel dull.
But I also know that wherever I go in China, whatever I do, it is guaranteed to be interesting.
If I’d wanted to take the quick route to the summit I would have visited this page: Purple Mountain of Nanjing.