Bad Trip – Good Story

Part one of a two-part blog

“The worst trips make the best reading,” Paul Theroux, the vaunted travel writer, says, because they’re stories of survival.

When people ask about my recent trip to China, I say, “It was the best of trips and the worst of trips.” Spending time with my son, Andrew, who lives there, was enriching and delightful. But we experienced the biggest travel disaster I’ve known.

Mom and Son

Andrew had gone to China right after graduating from U.C. San Diego. He’d planned to spend a year learning Mandarin, then come home and get a joint business-law degree. Sight unseen, he picked out a language school on the Internet in a city he couldn’t pronounce—Shijiazhuang—that had 9 million people but only a hundred foreigners. He chose that school because it offered four hours of one-on-one instruction every day, which is critical when you’re trying to learn to make sounds like qi and xie.

That was six years ago. He fell in love with China, and with a beautiful and vivacious young Chinese woman, made numerous friends and was welcomed into the city’s business community. He started a Chinese internet company devoted to photography lighting, and found he could lead a very good life—four bedroom apartment, car and driver and a maid who cooks and cleans 7 days a week—for a fraction of what that would cost in America.

I’d visited him soon after he’d arrived, but five years had passed and I wanted to meet his girlfriend, see his new home and office. In October, I flew with my sister, Terry, to Beijing, where we met up with Andrew and Yang Fei, who spoke not a word of English. I’d told Andy to plan a trip to some place in China they hadn’t been yet.


They picked two cities I’d never heard of. One, Zhangjiajie, (don’t even try) has a national forest where the movie Avatar was filmed. Remember those otherworldly enchanted mountains that shoot straight up like fingers, with arches and looping valleys shrouded in gray-green mist? We spent days exploring them, on trails that were cantilevered out from the sheer cliffs.

Terry on cliff path

In one stretch, the trail was made not of stone but of thick glass, so if you looked down you saw—beneath your shoes—nothing! A straight drop to the valley thousands of feet below, and you’re on glass with nothing to hold onto but a rail. That was too much for me, and Andy said we shouldn’t do it because “You have to rent booties for the glass.”

Terry, who’s competed in races, said, “So what? When will we ever be here again? Never! We’ve got to do it.”

Yang Fei on glass path

Yang Fei led the charge. I sat on a bench while the three of them made their way, letting out shrieks, along the glass jutting out over the abyss. Chinese women, I was learning, are gutsy; I watched them arrive in stiletto heels, slip on booties and strut across the glass as if it were a runway.

On our last day, we wanted see the terrain where Avatar had been filmed.

Andy and Yang Fei consulted a map in Chinese and led us onto a trail marked “Path to the Heaven.” We climbed a flight of stone steps which, I thought, would lead to a beautiful viewing site. In China, I was discovering, hiking in the mountains is not walking up dirt trails but climbing cement stairs built into the mountain, going straight up. When we came to the top of the flight, the path jogged to the right and there was another flight -– 5 or 6 stories high. Each time we reached what had appeared to be the top, there was an even more forbidding flight going higher.

After an hour of endless stairs, I wanted to turn and go back down. I’ve had injuries in both knees and climbing steps is the worst stress for knees. If one of my knees went out, I wouldn’t be able to walk for the rest of the trip. But Andy and Yang Fei had disappeared up ahead and Terry said we couldn’t go down or we’d never find them. She coaxed me to take one flight at a time, not looking up or down, but my knees began to throb with pain. After two hours, I sat down and said I couldn’t go any further. I’d seen Chinese men with sedan chairs at the bottom of the mountain. I needed them to come and carry me out of this goddamned place.

To be continued.

 NOTE! My short memoir, JOAN, about my 40-year friendship with Joan Didion, is the number one rated Kindle single by readers on Amazon. You can buy it for only $2.99.

You can also send JOAN as a holiday gift to anyone who has an email address. Click here and on the right, “Give as gift”



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26 thoughts on “Bad Trip – Good Story

  1. Dolores DeLuce

    I had a similar experience while traveling with my daughter in Viet Nam on those same kind of mountains in Halone Bay. It was hairy.

    I just bought my first book on my new Kindle that arrived today and it's your memoir about Joan. Waiting for the download right now.

  2. Anonymous

    What a wondrous place! I will have to explore it via internet as I do not DO stairs. Quite a cliffhanger!!

    I visited Bushkill Falls as a kid actor working in summer stock in the Delaware Water Gap. It has wooden walkways built against the cliffs and trails which follow the river with glorious views of the falls. I returned again, 25 years later, ten months after a total right hip transplant. It was a challenge….but doable and I was thrilled to be able to accomplish the hike. I was downriver, resting and soaking up the glorious views when I heard something thinly tinkling on the breeze of the waterfall. Following the sound, I was treated to the sight of 25 African American women, many with walking sticks and tambourines or bells, swaying down the mountain barefoot. They were all wearing white and yellow, and while I left shortly after they gathered at the bottom of the cliff (mainly because my male companion was uncomfortable) the simple sight of their private spiritual quest showed me that we all have our mountains….I can't wait to see how you get off of yours!

  3. Annie Drake

    I love your stories. Whenever I receive your messages, I read them over and over. Your son sounds like a great person, very similar to you. I hope that you have the very best holidays and keep sending me inspirational stories.
    Annie Drake

  4. Anonymous

    Yikes! You've left us hanging onto a cliff! Can't wait to read rest of story. Really enjoyed your memoir on Joan Didion. It spurred me on to reading more of her work.
    Thank you!

  5. bluekelpie

    OMG!!!! Sara!!!! You are brave! I wouldn't have walked on the glass or climbed straight up that mountain. Can't wait to read part two. It sounds very exciting. I love travel and adventure, but damn!!! It must have been so frightening to be so far up and not know how much farther you had to go before you could come down. i admire you. Also, well done for raising a son so adventurous and clever and who knows how to make friends and fall in love inside a different culture. He sounds like an amazing person to create such a life. A reflection on you!

  6. Peter Blau

    Thank you for the interesting tale. My wife and I spent a month in China about 1 1/2 years ago. I found the country fascinating, the people friendly and hard working, and the Communist government best for the urbanites yet neglecting the countryside. I now understand why China is becoming the dominant power in the world as they have the manufacturing foundation which is in demand.

  7. Eileen

    Fabulous and fascinating read! Ay (and oy), I have to wait for Part 2? Hopefully, not long.

    Thanks so much

  8. Harriet

    loved this post–Don't our children truly invite us, one way or the other, into the back of beyond!?

  9. Linda Bernal

    Hi, Sara,

    This arriving e-mail is like a wonderful Christmas present. I love your writing, your stories, your energy. Leap came out at the right time–when I left my job after 39 years and picked up and left the East Coast for the warm weather of Dallas. (I wish I liked cold weather since I would love the spirit and politics, or lack of, in Boulder). Each year I have reread your book.

    Thank you.

    Can't wait to read more about your trip to China. I heard David Sedaris read about his experience in China. I'd be surprised it The New Yorker published it.

    Happy Holidays.

  10. Olivia

    Hi Sara,
    I love your story about China. I too have a son who moved away-to San Diego from Austin. He has made
    a great life for himself with his Russian girlfriend. I relived my trip to China and could relate about too much walking with
    in my case, a bad back. It was no picnic to go to the Great Wall and hop step by step. Thanks for the beautiful reminder albeit
    with memories of soreness like you. Olivia Candela

  11. Anonymous

    Ah, this is what I usually see in order to leave a comment… What a wonderful trip. What an unusual son. I am enjoying this “letter” to us very much.

  12. Diana Mcc.

    Your trip to China sounds fascinating! I can't even begin to imagine climbing stairs for two hours! Looking forward to the next installment. Your son is quite an adventurer to. You must miss him a lot knowing he is living so far away. Happy Holidays!!

  13. Jane

    I don't know why your story hit my funny bone so much…but I am sitting
    here screaming with laughter over your first entry of the “China trip”
    Can't wait for more

  14. Anonymous

    he could lead a very good life–four bedroom apartment, car and driver and a maid who cooks and cleans 7 days a week

    How nice for him that he could find someone to cook and clean seven days a week….not very nice for the poor maid, though.

  15. Sara Davidson

    To “Anonymous”
    I felt the same way when I learned Andy's maid was working 365 days a year. I asked him, why don't you give her a day off? He said, “I've tried, many times, and she refuses.” He tells her to take time off, he'll pay her for the time, but she shows up anyway. She adores him and his dog and girlfriend, and it kind of makes me feel good to know he has a surrogate mother who refuses to leave him for even a day. Maybe it's the custom in her culture, but like you, I think it's inhuman.

  16. Anonymous

    Sara- I always enjoy your wonderful writing. I loved Loose Change, Cowboy, Leap, your blogs- everything.
    That's why I wonder why you are drawn to writing memoirs about people who write memoirs of their own. Both Joan Didion and Ram Dass write their own memoirs; so why write about them? Why not write about people who aren't likely to publish their own memoirs?

  17. Sara Davidson

    Thanks to all for the great comments!
    To anonymous, there's a big difference between a memoir written by someone and a biography or memoir about them written by someone else. You get something very different from a friend or reporter than you do from the person writing about him or herself. Contrast the memoirs and biographies about politicians – huge differences. In the case of JOAN, I have memories of events and conversations she no longer remembers at all in some cases, or only in a sketch manner. I recorded long interviews and conversations that only I have access to. If you check out JOAN, you'll find things you haven't read about her anywhere. Hope that answers your question.

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