Bad Trip – Part 2

 Part two of the best and worst trip to China. To read part one, click here.

After two hours of climbing the “Path to the Heaven” with no end in sight, my knees gave out and I refused to go further. Terry, my sister, went on climbing hoping to find help, and after a few minutes, called to me that she’d reached the top and found my son, Andy, and his girlfriend, Yang Fei. They scampered down to help me to the top, where we saw a wide road with buses ferrying Chinese tourists up and down the mountain. We hadn’t seen a soul on the Path to the Heaven and now we knew why: everyone else took the bus! I learned, later, we had climbed 3,000 feet.

Exhausted, feeling nearly crippled, I swallowed some Advil and sat happily on a bench while the others took a tour of the Avatar sites, which they said were magnificent and surreal.

The next morning my knees were okay, but we had to get up at 5 a.m. to catch the first of two flights to Shijiazhuang, my son’s home. (Henceforth I’ll call it Shiz) We had a six-hour layover between flights. Andy discovered a spa at the airport, where we could have massages and rest. Every day we’d been in China we had foot massages that are like no other foot treatment in the world. We were given a private room with four beds, a flat screen TV, and served tea and snacks when we wished. As we stretched out on the beds in the airport spa, four therapists walked in carrying tubs of warm milk with rose petals floating in them. As we soaked our feet, they massaged our heads, necks and shoulders.

They spent 90 minutes on the feet, kneading, rubbing, pounding and pressing tiny points on the toe and between toes and under and over the bones with such specificity that it was breathtaking. All for about $12. When they finished, my feet had never felt so alive, as if fireworks were going off under the skin. I could feel every fiber of my sock when I slipped it on. We watched a movie and took naps until it was time to check in for our final flight.

That’s when disaster struck. The flight was canceled at the last minute because of fog around Shiz. The airline said they’d put us on a flight the next night or refund our money. The next night was not an option. Andy had allotted us only one full day in Shiz before we had to fly home from Beijing. The main point of my coming to China was to see his home, his company, meet his staff and his dog and have dinner with Yang Fei’s parents. If we couldn’t get to Shiz for that last day, we’d have to leave China without seeing any of it.

Andy and Yang Fei starting working their cell phones, trying to find some other way of getting to Shiz. It was Friday night now, and every seat on every flight to Beijing, from which we could take a train to Shiz, was booked. They tried the railroad but all the trains were sold out. Finally, Andy found the last four seats on a flight to Taiyuan, which was a two-hour drive from Shiz. He called his driver and arranged for him to meet us at the airport.

Relief! We landed in Taiyuan at 8:30 p.m., met the driver and settled in for the last leg of the trip. We were moving right along when suddenly the traffic slowed, then came to a dead stop. As far as we could see, giant trucks and cars were stalled, and they’d shut off their engines — a very bad sign.

Had there been a massive accident, a landslide, a road collapse? We waited an hour, then another hour. Nothing moved. People walking between the rows of vehicles said the road was closed ahead because of the fog in Shiz. Needing to do something, I got out and walked past what felt like miles of trucks and cars until I saw the barricade. A sign said we were only 30 miles from Shiz! But there was no way off the road, ahead, behind or sideways. We were trapped!

All bets were off. Nothing to do but settle in for a miserable night. There were 5 of us in the car and Yang Fei had contracted a bad cold, coughing and sneezing. I had developed the runs, and had to exit the car periodically to do it in the road, as the Beatles sang. Have you ever spent the night sitting up in a car? We tried to catch some sleep until daylight, when surely they would open the road. But between the coughing, the runs and our cramped positions, no one slept much.

When dawn finally came, the fog was thicker than before. Vendors were walking up the rows, selling tea and noodles.

I began to think we might be stuck here for days! Terry had a brainstorm: “We should call the American embassy.”

“That’s ridiculous!” Andy said.

Maybe they could investigate, I said, or call the local authorities. At least we’d get some information.

Andy folded his arms and shook his head. “Relax. They’ll open the road when the fog lifts.”

“But that might not be for days!” I got out and walked again to the barricade, having to step over puddles of pee and piles of excrement. There was a police car there now with two Chinese officers. With hand gestures, I tried to ask when the road would open. They pointed to the fog, then made a crashing gesture with two fists. One held a mock telephone to his ear, indicating there’d be a call when it was okay to open the road. I held out my watch, urging them to point to the hour it might open. They pointed to ten. Ten! It was only 6:30 a.m.

We waited, playing card games to pass the time. Around nine, Yang Fei jumped out and walked to the barricade. When she returned, jabbering in Chinese, Andy burst out laughing.

“What?” we asked.

“She told the police we had two foreigners in our car who’re sick and shitting all over the road.”

Whether that message worked or the phone call arrived, I’ll never know, but shortly after Yang Fei’s exchange, our lane began to move. The police wouldn’t have cared about shitting in the road, but the Chinese are now doing cartwheels to welcome foreigners as tourists and to do business. Tourists getting sick in a 15-hour traffic jam is almost as bad for their image as tourists getting shot by terrorists.

Once we sailed past the barricade, the highway was empty. At 11:30 a.m. we checked into a hotel in Shiz and went straight to bed. We’d started out at 5 a.m. the day before and been in transit for 30 hours.

That evening, Andy gave us a quick tour of his home and office, introduced us to his dog, his maid and several friends. Then Yang Fei treated us to a multi-course banquet in a private dining room with her parents.

first course

Andy coached me in Chinese etiquette: I should make toasts, starting with the oldest person at the table and capping each toast by downing a glass of beer.

With Andy translating, I toasted Yang Fei’s father, mother and Yang Fei herself, but most important, I toasted my son. He’d spent 10 days with three women—his mother, his aunt and his girlfriend–under stressful conditions and only lost his cool twice. He had to translate constantly between Terry, Yang Fei and me, sometimes with two of us speaking to him at once. He wanted to accommodate our different and often conflicting needs, and the grace with which he pulled this off was awe inspiring.

Without my watching, he’d metamorphosed from a green college grad into a mature and terrific young man. He’d arrived by himself in Shiz, knowing no one and not a word of the language, and now he could conduct business in Chinese, manage 12 employees and a household and make his way through tangles of Chinese regulations, taxes and export/import laws.

Being able to see the life he’s created here and feel the love surrounding him was worth the punishing journey. We survived, and isn’t it a far better story than if everything had been blue sky and quaint pagodas?

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29 thoughts on “Bad Trip – Part 2

  1. Mimi

    Hi Sara,
    i remember meeting him as a little boy! What an amazing story. Oy, China of all places!!!!
    Thanks so much for your Blog.
    Love, mimi

  2. Madge

    Amazing story. I am glad it all worked out. It must be so difficult not to speak the language and have your son doing all the translating. Is his girlfriend trying to learn English? I have a friend who's son works in Korea and he also met someone but she worked in a bank and needed to know enough English to do business. They married and are still living in Korea but soon to be moving to the US. She is pregnant with their first child. It is a long commute for either set of parents no matter where they will eventually live. I, too, visited China this past year and while it was not as adventurous as your journey I was not impressed. In fact between Japan, India and China I liked it the least. The sites were fabulous but I didn't like the feeling of being constantly under communist regimes and having my internet blocked as well. I also think in time they will suffer the same ills that plague our economy.

  3. Grace

    I just want to tell you how very much I enjoy the e-mails you send out about your life (you’re probably wondering who the heck I am… – I live in Boulder up Four-Mile Canyon, possibly a neighbor or former neighbor of yours). I met you when you spoke with Rabia Roberts in Boulder about your trip to Afghanistan, and again at the Health Club when you were doing a TI swim follow-up. You’re such a fabulous and entertaining writer and sometimes I wonder if I’m living vicariously through your stories. Keep sending them, I really enjoy them immensely.

  4. Peter

    Good story, good web site, good photo. Bravo. In your Chinese story, which is entirely splendid, I especially was glad you wrote about shit-piss on the road. As you were talking about being stuck it was exactly what I was wondering. So many historical stories omit that small but significant detail.After all, was not THE greatest achievement of the modern age nothing other than indoor plumbing? As someone who spent six months in the jungle I have perhaps a greater appreciation for flush toilets and toilet paper than someone who hasn't had to collect a large pile of leaves everytime nature called.Happy Kwanza and love,Peter

  5. Tony

    The foot massage at the airport spa sounds inviting enough alone to make me want to take a trip to China.

  6. Flo

    Sara, enjoyed your story!

    In October my sister and I had a memorable trip to the southern/ southwestern part of China. We flew into Hong Kong, then stayed in Shenzhen, Guilin, Yangshuo, Kunming, and then Lijiang. The only bad experience for the entire trip was experiencing “tourista” in Lijiang, and being weak enough that it was necessary to need wheelchair rides thru the airports while flying back to Hong Kong. For a healthy, independent person, that was hard to accept!

    Memorable experiences included:
    a one mile hike up a mountain to an inn in the middle of terraced rice fields, where the rice was being threshed by hand. Our inn had electricity, but the village did not.
    a bamboo raft float down a pretty river
    and Old Town Lijiang, with beautiful wooden buildings and walkways filled with flowers. Surely Lijiang would have been the real prototype for the fictional Shangri-La. I would highly recommend a visit to Lijiang for anyone enjoying off the beaten path travel in China. On the whole trip, we were often the only Caucasians around.
    Glad your trip ended well. Events like your stay on the road in the fog create memories that one will tell for the rest of your life!

  7. Marylou

    Hi Sara—What a trip! Your exhausting trip to China had me feeling tired and uncomfortable. You guys were quite the travelers under horrific circumstances. How wonderful to see your son all grown-up and able to handle all the situations with aplomb. You must be one proud mom.

    You know, I might go through all you did just to partake in the foot massage you received. How heavenly. Pure bliss.
    Thank you for the article. I loved it. Let us know how the romance is going?

  8. Susie

    My god that is a trip from Hell. You are one brave soul! Great accounting of this trek. I had one similar on a dogsled in the Yukon….

    Happy Holidays,

  9. Donna

    I read your work years ago and you have reentered my life again at just the right moment. I am currently reading Leap and it is a blessing. I'm 54 now and my world has imploded. I'm seeking the meaning and attempting to discover the “what next”.

  10. Hans

    Sara, you are a terrific writer. Your writing is as beautiful as your voice. I appreciate your humor and the dramatic build-up. I was sorry the story ended; I could have continued reading for hours.

  11. Gabriel

    Thanks for the great conclusion to your story, though the experience itself wasn't always “great” in the least. You could have flown to Africa and back in the time it took to get to your son's city.

  12. Clarence

    Thank you so much for sharing your adventure in China. I truly enjoy your writing and your point of view during your experiences.

  13. Jenna

    Loved hearing this story, and of your daughters wedding (was that last summer?) You must be so proud of your kids!

  14. Melanie

    I absolutely LOVED your story – especially the wistful twist at the end about how your son has grown up and become an absolutely amazing person. Great writing (as always) Sara.

  15. Harriet

    Great story. I totally identified. In my book, Pulling Up Stakes, check out “Falling From A Roof On The Roof of the World”. You'll recognize familiarly Harrowing Heights in China

  16. Anonymous

    Chère Madame,

    If I were in a litigious mood, I'd sue you for causing me sleepless nights.

    Yours, etc., a victim

  17. Hilary

    Great story – very interesting to me because I adopted my now 13-year-old daughter from China, and this is the second year our family is hosting a female high school Chinese exchange student. We hope to return in a couple of years so my daughter can see where she was raised the first nine months of her life.
    She was abandoned at one day old in front of a building where, as one Chinese man who met me, said: “Oh? I see she was found before the dogs got to her.” Then, he chuckled.

    Things in China are not what they seem for women – do you know that the highest suicide rate in the world, for women, is in China? The killing of baby girls still goes on, especially right after birth.

    I sincerely hope that your son will be able to bring his girlfriend to the States, where she can live w/out fear and where they can, if they choose, have as many baby boys AND girls as they want!

    Again, please don’t believe what tourist boards want you to believe.


  18. Cheri Hoffer

    Your account of traveling in China made me smile. What a grand adventure (AFTER the fact!). It was great to put your personhood and story together last night at the potluck. What sticks with me the most powerfully though, is you as the mother of a son who has transformed so gracefully into the swan. It gives me goosebumps of happiness for you both. What greater wonder does any mother dream of, than to see her child grow into not just an independent adult, but a resourceful, kind, intelligent and adventurous one???? I am so happy for you all. And for you, weathering the storm, I am reminded of one of my favorite quotes, of unknown-to-me origin, “Women are like tea bags. You never know how strong they are until they get into hot water.” Yeah! Great memories.

  19. Sally

    Your writing is inspiring. So glad your knees stayed with you. I am wondering if the group you were with is still singing.

    Happy New Year!


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