My trip to China last year was my first experience in Asia. I didn’t really know what to expect, which was okay with me.
Personally, I've found that not having expectations when going into a trip makes it easier to adjust to the unknown. And there is a lot of unknown when traveling the world...
Travel is romanticized
It’s my impression that it always has been, even (maybe especially) from the very beginning with the birth of commercial flights.
The first US flight with passenger service was in 1914 on a Benoist XIV wood and muslin biplane flying boat. It was a 23-minute flight in Florida between St. Petersburg and Tampa. source Over the next few decades, commercial airlines continued to develop, with Pan American Airways (Pan Am) at the forefront.
Of course, World War II put a major halt on things, as resources were diverted toward war efforts and aerial combat. But soon after the war ended, many of the former military aircrafts and recently built runways were being converted for commercial use. Pan Am began transatlantic commercial flights with their Boeing 307’s (and the technology of pressurized cabins), and by the 1950’s there were more US passengers traveling by air than by train for the first time in history. source
Morning tea at the St. Regis in Shenzhen.
A vibe is born
Cue the posh travel outfits, frilly window curtains with plush chairs, onboard meals served by a chef, and champagne as standard in-flight service. You could say it was the beginning of a vibe around travel.
Suddenly adventure overseas was highly accessible.
Flight advertisements touted sayings like “Halfway to Europe between cocktails and coffee” and “You can meet in London tonight.” source
It actually reminds me how Instagram and new tech have shaped our current generation's perspective on travel just within the last 5-10 years.
On any day of the week, you can likely scroll through your feed and see someone on the beaches of Fiji or hiking through the Alps or scuba diving in the Philippines. And the photo and video content of it all is just BEAU.TI.FUL. I mean, who doesn’t have a drone these days?
The truth is, getting there is completely possible, and not just in terms of physical transportation, but visual transportation too. You don’t have to buy the ticket to get the experience. Tapping through the right person’s stories on IG will give it to you for free. You don’t necessarily have to go to Yosemite to experience Half Dome when you’ve seen 13 different pictures of it in your feed that week.
But at the same time, seeing the photo will never fully satisfy. Right?
With people traveling to every corner of the world and providing stunning visual feedback instantly to our devices, we are made to feel that we too could be any place at any time.
But we’re here. Most of us don’t travel for work, so we’re living through the content creation of others. It is a cold comfort. It’s wander lust.
Restaurant in Guilin / view of Hong Kong through the clouds / shopping in downtown Guilin /
plants for sale in Shenzhen
And it can be deceptive
In fact, it almost always is. Social media is the highlight reel of our lives, of our experiences and our travels. No one’s posting about the intense humidity or the poverty or the pollution.
And I’m definitely not saying that we should be focusing on those things instead. (I myself am a “hopeless optimist” as my husband likes to say, and it would take a lot to curb my positivity.)
My point is that there’s always a fuller picture to be seen. And this is why it’s helpful not to have expectations built up before you go.
Count it all joy
It helps to not have set expectations because, along with all the fun and wonderful things you’ll have planned, the unforeseen and the unknown will ALWAYS happen too.
Maybe there’s a thousand other tourists at the location you thought you’d have all to yourself. Maybe the weather sucks. Maybe you get food poisoning. Maybe all your flights gets delayed. It’s just part of the package, and you often don't know it's coming.
The best you can do is accept it and see that all these things are truly PART OF the experience, and not taking away from it.
Into the unknown
For this trip, I had a little to lean on given that my husband often travels to China for work, and that later on we’d be meeting up with some friends who had previously lived there and spoke Mandarin. But other than that, I didn’t do much travel research or prep on my own.
We began and ended our trip in Hong Kong, which I’d highly recommend. Hong Kong was glorious.
Botanical garden and zoo in Hong Kong.
Surprised by Hong Kong
It feels a little strange to be writing about China and Hong Kong right now given all that's happened lately. Between the riots in Hong Kong and of course the outbreak of COVD-19 in the Wuhan province, I wondered if writing a blog post about these places was in poor taste.
But somehow the circumstances made me want to write it even more - maybe just to have positive memories to contribute when there is a lot of overshadowing negativity at the moment.
Because the truth is, I couldn’t stop smiling in Hong Kong.
There’s such a unique energy there and I just fell in love. I could easily see myself living in the city for a time, and I think many people feel the same way which contributes to its ethnic diversity. You hear all kinds of languages being spoken. The food and coffee scene is amazing. And there are red double-decker buses driving around just like in the streets of London! It’s a unique mix of foreign and the familiar.
My first night in Hong Kong, Johnathan picked me up from the airport and after dropping my things at the hotel, we set out to fend off my jet lag. He took me to one of his favorite places that I had heard a lot about.
At 11 o’clock at night we feasted on ramen at Ichiran, bellies full and eyes wide to the pulse of Hong Kong’s night life. A perfect introduction.
More than meets the eye
The island-city has adapted and changed through time. It carries a heavy history of war, drugs, and imperialism but you sense that it has maintained its spirit of dignity through it all.
Situated ideally on the Pearl River Delta and South China Sea, it has always been, and still is, a cosmopolitan center for international trade. source
Exploring Hong Kong.
Life is abundant in both human and plant form, and the two seem to coexist respectfully.
Banyan trees splay their tentacle roots down stone walls and send their branches up over buildings. Vines hang and orchids blossom and lush green hills rise tall behind the city skyline. Monkeys play among turrets on gilded temples, and it is humid and hot and thundering.
We got caught in one of the storms while hiking to the Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery and from the shelter of a temple, we watched the lightening crack over the bay. Eventually we had to make a run for it back down the mountain and rode the metro home soaking wet, but smiling.
To be clear, Hong Kong and the rest of mainland China are not the same thing.
“Under the principle of 'One Country, Two Systems', Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China on 1 July 1997. This arrangement allows the city to enjoy a high degree of autonomy, including retaining its capitalist system, independent judiciary and rule of law, free trade, and freedom of speech.” source
Transitioning from one to the other is stark and abrupt. Not only do you physically have to pass through the border and submit your passport and papers to Customs each time, but you perceive the differences as well.
I was somewhat prepared for the change, and still I found myself surprised by it.
High-rise apartments in Hong Kong.
During my 10-ish days on the mainland, I only saw a handful of other people who looked like me. My blonde hair and blue eyes did not go unnoticed. There was a lot of staring. A lot of children pointing. A lot of photos being taken in not-so-discreet ways.
It was eye-opening to feel like a minority. I had experienced this a bit when I lived in Spain, but it was on another level here.
I simply could not assimilate. I can’t say that it was an enjoyable feeling, but I also can’t say that I was persecuted or marginalized like so many of the minority groups in the US are. No one ever made me feel unsafe or unwanted because of my differences, but it was a curious experience to see those differences so highlighted.
View from Mainland China looking back over the border crossing to Hong Kong.
Just a taste
There is so much to experience in China and we barely scratched the surface.
Riding bikes along the boardwalks of rice paddies. Being invited to a tea ceremony during a power outage. Renting scooters and exploring the country backroads in Yangshuo. The curved mountains that look like old dinosaurs. Noisy night markets. Never fully sure about what you just ordered, but you take and eat and give thanks. Somebody grew this eggplant. Somebody prepared this rice. Sticky sweet boba tea. The promise of afternoon rain. Sometimes too much rain. The beautifully-curated, herby-smelling tea shops. Broth-filled xiaolongbao after a long day of computer work…
I came into China not fully knowing what to expect, and not wanting to put the pressure of expectation on the trip.
100 floors of the St. Regis tower lit up at night / crowds at a famous mural on Graham St. in Hong Kong / tea shop and restaurants in downtown Guilin / Ten Thousand Buddhas Monastery in Hong Kong.
There were so many photo-worthy moments and memories that will stay with me forever. There was also lots of rain, 80% humidity and bad hair days, a tarantula in the stairwell (yup), the smell of durian, a few stomach aches, and Johnathan and I ended up having to take separate flights home.
This is the thrill of adventure. You never know what you might encounter.
Biking through country backroads in Guilin.
There's more out there
Nearly the entire human population of China lives in just 48% of the country. About one-fifth of the land is deserts, glaciers, and snow. Another two-thirds is mountains and high-elevation areas. source
Needless to say, I want to see more, to go deeper into the country and get a better sense of it.
Expectations aside, I’m open to whatever’s waiting for me there.
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