SOLO in Sichuan

It’s been a few months now since I visited China and I’ve been a bit slow in getting my thoughts down. I will start by saying that China isn’t on my “visit again” list. At least not any time soon. It’s not that I hated my experience or anything to that level, but it wasn’t as enjoyable as I had hoped. I didn’t thoroughly enjoy my trip, but I am glad I went. The experience was meaningful, some of the people were wonderful, and the mountains were mystical.

Reverence for the environment is a core tenet of Taoism, a religion that began in China. The belief is to live in harmony with nature, that by having a healthy environment, we can be healthy ourselves. It is clear that a significant and consistent attempt has been made to incorporate green space and trees into every neighbourhood; parks and reserves are common and seen as important and essential places to re-energise. This has important and beautiful flow on effects – despite Chengdu beings a densely packed city of 14.43 million people, the bird life is abundant and loud, out competing the talking and honking of locals and their cars. Walking the streets you’ll find butterflies flying by, seemingly unperturbed by the traffic and chaos of city life.

However, this respect does not translate when it comes to litter and pollution. The city is dense with smog, the footpath spotted with rubbish despite an abundance of bins, and even hiking in what is considered a remote and difficult area to get to, the amount of litter is overwhelming and disheartening. I don’t understand cultures who “revere” nature and yet do not follow through on that respect in all areas.

I met some wonderful people in China, but on the whole people weren’t particularly friendly or helpful. I knew travelling without speaking the language would be a challenge, but this isn’t the first time I’ve done it. I attempted to prepare as best I could with a handful of phrases taught to me by Chinese linguists and native speakers, as well as two translation apps and maps in English and Chinese. Despite my efforts, most people were rude, cold, and refused to help. I was saddened by this. Thankfully, I had much more positive experiences with Tracy, my tour guide in Chengdu, and Xaio, my host in the mountains, his cook, who didn’t speak a word of English but sat with me each meal to share photos on our phones and show me where she grew up. Through the eyes of Tracy, watching her interact with locals, I saw that people in Chengdu are social, chatty, friendly, but as an outsider, a westerner, I guess it’s more difficult to break into that circle and in some respects understandably so. I was also lucky enough to meet a bunch of Taiwanese tourists who helped guide me on my first hiking day and then took me out for lunch! Despite the negative interactions of being ripped off, trying to get directions or help in other circumstances and being met with disdain or being shooed away, these people were beautiful and caring and I am thankful for meeting them.

The Four Sisters mountains were beautiful; the sunshine on snow capped peaks, the says walking through gentle snow as it fell, the last day of snow covered trails, yaks, eagles, and warm sunshine was magical. I was fortunate to not be affected by the altitude, though as expected, the hiking was hard. But, that’s what I had wanted. I really enjoyed being out on the trails for my moments alone, which surprisingly were many, especially on the last, most remote trail. It reminded me of hiking with my friend Hollie in Nepal and how our hiking strategy essentially let you have your own space to enjoy the surrounds whilst allowing us to have our moments together to talk about what we had seen and heard whilst apart. I really appreciate that.

Chengdu was possibly the best choice of city in China for me. Despite the population and smog, the city felt open and spacious, the metro was perfectly easy to navigate alone and honestly a lesson in resilience, risk management, and efficiency that I think Australia could learn from, and the birds were overpowering in their song. There was a classic mix of old and new, with temples, monasteries, and historic streets littered about the city. It was a good introductory city as my jumping off point for my solo china trip, and the direct flight from Sydney definitely didn’t hurt.

Where old meets new

Overall, it was people like Tracy, the moments of solitude and reflection in the mountains, and the laid back spacious nature of such a densely packed city that I’ll hold onto when I look back. Whilst I won’t be returning to China in the very near future, I do value the experience I had and have a greater appreciation of the things I enjoy about my travel. That is, the physical challenge, the variety of differences in food, the interplay of old and new culture. This hasn’t put me off travelling to a country whose language I don’t speak, and it hasn’t made me reconsider my decision in the first place to visit China, again, I’m glad I did. I would be happy to go along with another person to show them around, to share what I had learnt and discover more, but I don’t need to go there soon. I also want to stress that I do not see my experience in a couple of cities in one little province as the summation of possible experiences in such a huge country. I do want to return to experience other areas, other mountains, the Great Wall, the mystic rivers, but for now, I want to travel elsewhere, but maybe, one day, hopefully, I make the opportunity to travel to China again, armed with the knowledge from my previous experience.

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