The G20 is here…

It is the distant future…September 2016. Cars are stopping at crosswalks. Taxi drivers are speaking “English.” Actors are replacing foreigners on the streets…What is this devilry? 

Those ominous words are from a song that a friend and I wrote. About what?

It’s the G20, people.

As in, an international summit on economic matters taking place in Hangzhou in September. I’ve been told Obama will be there. I’ve also been told that the entire city will shut down to make sure that when Obama (and many others) are there, nothing bad happens.

The city must take certain measures to ensure safety. What with terrible things happening around the world, it’s absolutely important to make sure that Hangzhou doesn’t become the next infamous Scene of the Crime.

But…it can be a bit overwhelming at times.

Factories have been shut down to ensure blue, blue skies. Major road construction took place to repave ALL ROADS AT THE SAME TIME. Bars now close at midnight to avoid…not sure actually. There are four policemen at every intersection to enforce traffic rules. We can’t order liquids online anymore. If you carry liquids onto the bus, the driver makes you sip it first before boarding.

And it’s just the beginning of August.

Most people I know have gone back to their home countries during this time. Chinese classmates are all encouraged to just go to their hometowns.


I’m staying.

I’ll be getting a fridge stocked up with food for the week, I’ll have movies ready, and I will not leave the apartment if I can help it.

I mean, Hangzhou in the summer is nasty hot, it’s true, and it would be the perfect time to go back to Minnesota and jump in a series of lakes. But a part of me is morbidly curious about the G20 and the changes brought on by it. (Also, after paying rent on an apartment, I’d better actually be living in it!)

Don’t get me wrong: there are definitely positive changes. You can walk along a crosswalk and cars actually stop! The sky is very blue. Infrastructure is improving. English signage is also getting a facelift (much to the chagrin of us expats who like bad translations for a laugh).

But…in the end, no matter how safe the city is in every way in September, we’ll still grumble about it, and we’ll still gather in coffee shops and on street corners to gossip about the latest changes.


The G20 is here!


Man of the Rails

His job on the train was to sell baskets of products. He would walk along the aisles and shout about light-up toys for children, cucumber peelers (since many Chinese passengers eat cucumbers in transit), toothbrushes, towels, and a mysterious “local specialty” in a plastic jar. He’d go back and forth, the prices changing with each trip.

I had a standing ticket, and so every time he walked by with his loud, grating voice, I would be shunted off to the side to make room in the aisle. I grew to loathe his appearance, trying my best to read my book louder in my head to drown him out.

The entire trip from Xi’an to Yinchuan was supposed to take 12 hours, but with a delay due to heavy rains, it took closer to 15. His voice went from loud and energetic, to raspy and ragged.

It was nearing on 1am, and we were still about an hour from the terminal station. He dragged his basket of toothbrushes out with him, set them on the seat opposite from me (having finally snagged a seat!), and sighed. All passengers were either sleeping or had headphones in.

“Why don’t you sit down for a bit?” I said. “Rest your voice.” (Said with only a tinge of bitterness).

He slumped into the seat and half-heartedly showed me the “local specialty”.

“Are you going to buy this?”

“Definitely not.”

“Okay.” He set it down.

“How often do you ride this route?” I said. “You must get tired of it.”

”It’s fine,” he said. “I ride from Guangzhou to Xi’an, rest a couple of days, then from Xi’an to Guangzhou, rest again, and then do it in reverse.”

“Doesn’t your voice get tired?”

”Oh yeah. I’m still pretty new at this though, and have been told that I’ll get used to it.”

He was well into this thirties, and so “new” sounded like a career change. “What did you do before?” I said.

“I was an economist. Worked well, until it didn’t. People say that the economy will turn around, but that it’s a process. I hope it’s a speedy process.”


He paused, examining the jars in his basket. “You know what I really like? I like psychology. You Americans invest a lot of energy and thought into it, and I think it’s fascinating. Because you look at someone and really, you can only know about 60-70% of who they are. I mean, even after being good friends with them. So much of a person is in fact secret and always will be. I think that’s very interesting.”
The man in charge of the railroad workers walked past and barked at him to get back to work. He shrugged and said we’d be getting there soon.

And as the train chugged along the metal rails like a sleepy dragon, a hundred passengers, a hundred secret lives sighed as he began shouting his wares once more.

Peel me a grape

One of the best parts about traveling in China is that you quickly realize how very diverse it is, and also how exciting that can be. Before, I’d been to deserts, grasslands, mountains, marshes, you name it. But though I’d enjoyed grapes before in Xinjiang Province, I had no idea they were to be found elsewhere.

Such as in Ningxia province.

To be fair, I had no idea of really anything that was in Ningxia, since I’d done no research. Why was I there at all? Because I have a goal of visiting all provinces in China before eventually leaving, and Ningxia was on the list.


What was there to expect in Ningxia? In my mind it was a not-quite Xinjiang, not-quite Inner Mongolia, not-quite many things, and if anything a tiny wedge of a province that marked where the bulk of the Hui Minority lived in China. In the end, I saw a little bit of everything.

In the Ningxia Museum, I saw Arabic calligraphy…


And ancient prehistoric rock carvings (which, fascinatingly enough, have the same basic shapes as many others found around the world…)


But in the end, the best find would have to be the grapes.


What better on a hot summer day than a grape?

At the foot of the mountain

After spending more than a week in rural Henan, I was more or less done with trying new foods. Day after day in Huashan, I opted instead for some simple fried rice in a nearby restaurant. The owner always smiled when she saw me and didn’t question whether or not I actually needed the beer I’d order. On the wall of the restaurant, a painted map of Huashan and picture of tourists climbing it. One day, the cook sat down to offer me some walnuts to snack on and we got to chatting.

“I climbed the mountain yesterday,” I said, gesturing to the map.

“Oh, great,” he said.

“You must have climbed it many times, right?”

“No, never. I’ve never climbed it before.”


“It’s normal. At the foot of the mountain, you see no reason to go up. Annoying, really.”

I looked again at the pictures, the map, and thought to myself: ‘Maybe he feels that he’s already gone up in spirit?’ I asked a waitress. She had climbed it, but about 20 years ago.

The cook shrugged and went back to the kitchen, back to a life of looking at a mountain he’d never climb, back to serving the people like me ogling the map of a place he’d never go, and sharing walnuts with them all the same.


When I first entered the dorm room just outside the base of Hua Shan, I didn’t think much of the suitcases or boxes. After all, it was a youth hostel, and everyone entering the doors are travelers.

It was only later, coming back after dinner and buying food and water for the trek that I noticed anything unusual.

There were two older women bent over thin sheets of paper. One woman scrawled long lines of smoke-like calligraphy in a rush, as if there were too many words in the world to string together, not enough time. The other had a collection of over 20 seals, which she painted with red ink and then stamped in rapid succession onto the calligraphied papers. They chattered about how many more they had to do, and as the night wore on, stamped faster and faster.


“Wow, I’ve never seen this before,” I said.

The woman with the stamps laughed and kept stamping.

“Why are you doing this? What is it?”

“We give it to people. For good luck.”


And no matter what I said, that was all I got. That, and laughter.

I thought perhaps they were the kinds of vendors that sold cheap tricks to tourists, or maybe they were actual locals in the midst of a custom that tourists like me were interrupting. Either way, meaningful or not, they kept me up half the night, so the next night I changed rooms.

Later, I found out more from the hostel owner.

They’re not locals or vendors at all. In fact, they’re from the northeastern China, and are full-time psychologists. However, since “their hearts get full of sorrow” (his words) from this line of work, they come to Hua Shan (a Daoist mecca) for about a month, and write offerings.

I tried to imagine what that would be like, making a pilgrimage like this to clean one’s heart. In the very hostel where they stay, travelers chat on and on about the mountain and where to climb and how to climb.

But, I suppose, not so many asking ‘why’ to climb the mountain, while those women wrote it over and over on those sheets of paper, one stamp at a time.

How to do Hua Shan, “The World’s Most Dangerous Hike” Without Ugly Crying

Okay, so most people that have heard of Hua Shan have heard of it because of this.

Did you watch it? Pretty insane, right? It’s called the Cliffside Plank Walk, and is what has made Hua Shan earn the nickname “World’s Most Dangerous Hike.” Personally, after actually climbing it, I disagree with that title, mainly because a ‘dangerous hike’ for me is something that a) is remote, b) requires your own equipment, c) is physically demanding and d) definitely doesn’t have restaurants and staircases and hostels along the way. Huashan is FOR SURE physically demanding, because Huashan is full of tough stairs. But while stairs can be dangerous…

Just ask Frodo

it’s not the same as, say what some of my friends have done in the Cascades, or in the Rocky Mountains, or in the Alps, etc. That being said, Hua Shan CAN be dangerous, but it doesn’t have to be, and you are totally free to make your own choices about the dangerous bits. (Take the Plank Walk for instance. A lot of people think you MUST go across this path to climb the mountain, but you don’t! It’s an individual path that you follow out and back again.)

Now, some may say that unless you do that Plank Walk, it’s not worth the trip. But really, there are so many ways to do the mountain. I didn’t actually do the Plank Walk — too many people climbing it at the time, and if there’s one thing that turns me into a bucket of rage it’s crowds of people shoving me around. Here’s a video of a guy climbing that Plank Walk in the crowds.

So, all of this is to say that if you want to see this gorgeous mountain, but have been avoiding it because of those dangerous bits, GO! You can still enjoy yourself.

This was taken off of a main path. Look how pretty it is!

As for me, to figure out my route, I just googled “How to do Hua Shan” and came to this link. I did this route (minus the double-back to North Peak, instead opting for the chairlift down West Peak).

One thing I like about this link is that the times are more or less accurate. People will say “Oh, it’ll take about 2 hours to climb to the top.” NOPE. I took 4-5 hours, much like what the link said. You can choose to take a chairlift up North Peak, too, which many Chinese tourists do. Once at the top, all peaks are linked by paths, so you don’t need to go all the way down and up again. (If that was the case, my trip would have been “There and Back Again, and Never There Again: A Hannah’s Tale.”)

Not pictured: the dwarf running the opposite way, saying “Seeya at the final chapter’s feast!”

When to climb the mountain is largely split into 2 camps: Climb at night to see the sunrise; climb during the day and probably miss the sunrise. (Or the third: stay a night on the mountain, though be warned: prices are jacked way up because of the sheer amount of physical labor it takes workers to haul food/water up the peaks).

Climb at Night

The main reason to climb at night is to see the sunrise, though there are those that say it’s a good way to climb if you’re afraid of heights. Most people set out around 9-10 pm, and that seems to be enough time to reach the top in time for the sun.If you choose this option, it won’t be so hot on the way up, and you definitely won’t be alone (especially around graduation season). Be sure to bring a flashlight and gloves!

Climb During the Day

Though the night ascent sounded romantic, I chose to climb during the day, because my reason for climbing mountains is not to see a sunrise, but to climb the mountain and enjoy the view along the way. (Plus I know myself: in the moments after the sunrise I’ll be all poetic, but once sleep-deprivation kicks in, I’ll be feeling murder-licious, and there would still be a whole mountain to see).

I began, as the link suggested, at Yu Quan Temple (玉泉院), which was a cool beginning place. Go through a temple, walk along a slightly-inclined path, and then keep going until the path says “All right you’ve had your rest, let’s pick up the pace!” and you’re climbing the Thousand-Foot Precipice, which is a more or less vertical ascent along a rock wall (with plenty of chains to grip), and the Hundred Foot Valley, which sounds more terrifying than it actually is. Then, THEN you make it to the top of ONE peak (out of five).

I ended up buddying up with a Chinese mother and her 12 year old son. We climbed a stony ladder with chains on either side to grip (there are a lot of chains in Hua Shan, so gloves are a good idea! No matter how sweaty you get, you’ll always have a solid grip), and then ended up doing the “Sparrow Hawk Turns Over” (鹞子翻身) portion (which, like the Plank Walk is 100% optional and not necessary to continue forward to the other peaks).

Me on the “Sparrow Hawk Turns Over” section. Pretty wild!

We were doing a circuit of all the peaks, making West Peak our last one, in order to ride the cable car down (which I’ve never done before, always opting to climb, but this one’s actually worth it for the view!). We did make it to the South Peak, which is where you’ll find the Plank Walk. Didn’t do it, because of crowds and also, after climbing all the way up and also noodling around the mountains, I was very tired!

Some people climb Hua Shan specifically to do the Plank Walk. If you are one of those people, then easy! You go up via West Peak and beeline for South Peak, where the Plank Walk is. The earlier you go, the less likely there will be crowds. (And keen an eye out for my favorite: a green screen photo op for people to take fake pics along the Plank Walk. Cheaters!)

It’s fun comparing trips with other people, to see how other people saw the mountain.If you decide to go, be sure to share yours and to take lots of pictures!

Rocks and Buddhism

“You’re going to Luoyang?” the driver said. “It’s just a bunch of rocks and Buddhism.”

Well, technically, he’s right. When you get to the bare bones of Longmen Buddhist Grottoes, it’s Buddhist statues carved from the stones. Rocks and Buddhism, in a nutshell. But then, of course, there’s more to the story than that.

In the youth hostel in which I was staying, I met a Chinese graduate student studying Biological Engineering. A roommate asked “Does that mean you look at the origin of humanity and stuff?” She just smiled and said “Close enough.” She was tall and smiled easily, and had made the trip to Luoyang specifically to see the rocks and Buddhism. We decided to go to the grottoes together.

If I had gone by myself, probably I would have admired the artistry, but would have more or less come away with a better-worded version of that driver’s assessment. With the Biological Engineering student, however, I saw so much more.


“Why is this Buddha so much fatter? Why are his eyes smaller? What do those markings mean on the wall? What are the materials used for this statue? What about that one?” She asked the guide whatever she could think of, and I marveled at how she thought of so many angles that had never occurred to me before.

When the guide left, she and I walked around the grottoes, all of these small alcoves in the rocks that housed Buddhas wherever there was space.

“You see, wherever there is space, there is a Buddha. That one measures 2 cm tall. They’re just wherever they can fit.”

Sometimes there would be empty alcoves, where some had been ransacked either through war or turbulent political history, and she would tsk and say “What a shame.”

In the end, I don’t know how many Buddhas we saw, but I left very impressed at how many could fit into such a small space. Some Buddhas were as large as a mountainside, some of them tiny, in rows all along the wall. Some had their eyes closed, peaceful, others had a thousand hands with eyes on them to symbolize both wisdom and all-seeing presence in the world.

“What do you think the Buddhas are thinking?” she said.

I stood in front of an empty alcove, and I thought the echo was the perfect answer. They were thinking of nothing, meditating on all of the people passing by and making the trip to their stony embraces.

We were all thinking together, of rocks, Buddhism, and so much more.

Why all of the people portraits?

Recently, I’ve been a woman obsessed. With what? People.

Used to be that when I traveled, I wanted to see as much as possible. Now, I’m curious about the people seeing it with me, and why. It’s like an endless supply of books sometimes. Stories that are there, but not shared.

Is this just a side effect of growing up, of realizing how very big and full our world is? Maybe. All I know is that scenic spots don’t call to me as much as winding conversations do, perhaps because conversations take a very scenic route and end in places we couldn’t have foreseen when they first began.

The world is big and full, but every time I chat with someone, it gets smaller too. And that’s most exciting of all, isn’t it?

The Helper

I met Marvin, a 29 year old Henan native while at the Zhengzhou train station. I had really only paused to see where the bus station was, when he came over to ask if I needed help. Since he had offered, I accepted, and hopped on the back of his scooter, him saying that in fact the bus station was a tiny bit too far to walk, and was afraid that my bag would make it an unpleasant one at that. He dropped me off at the bus station, and wouldn’t you know it? He was a native of Xinxiang, the place I would be volunteering for the next 10 days.

After about a week, we decided to meet up for a coffee. As it turns out, I’m not the only person he has helped.

“I like to try and do one good thing for someone else every day,” he said. “If you put good into the universe, good will come out. I really believe that.”

He told me about how he had helped an old man carry his bags up a long staircase, of helping foreigners purchase things in stores.

But it seemed that sometimes he couldn’t help himself.

“You know, I was just in a 6 year relationship. After three years, we talked about getting married, but you know in China, it’s important for the man to have a house, a car, and a good job before marrying someone. Most parents cannot accept any less for their daughters. I really tried to raise the money for the apartment. I made 15,000 RMB a month and set aside 8,000 every month for that future house, while still paying my own rent. But, I still didn’t have the house, and so we broke up.” He paused here, alternately thumping his chest and the wooden table at the coffee shop. “I thought she was the love of my life, you know? But you know what? Three months after we broke up, I see wedding announcements for her. She was going to marry another. He got the house.”

(In fact, this “house first” mentality has led to a movement in China called “Naked Weddings” in which the couples have very low budget weddings without the expectations for a house, car, etc, first).

He paused, then said. “Maybe it’s a good thing I’m not with her.”

I couldn’t believe his optimistic attitude, so impervious in the face of challenges. I can think of many times that I’ve crumbled over much less.

Perhaps, in the end, that’s what it takes to be a helper: an ability to see how something has the potential to be better, and to follow through, no matter what.

Here’s to hoping he finds a helper, too.

Painter’s Eye View

“We’re going to the Mouuunntaaaains!” Xiao Gang said as he and his friends picked me up for our trip to 郭亮 guo liang for an overnight. As they promised, it would be cooler and more beautiful, and with real mountains to enjoy.

During the ride over, I kept trying to imagine what this would look like. An old travel habit of mine is that I rarely look up pictures before going somewhere, which can be good for a sense of wonder and surprise, sometimes bad for packing strategies. In this case, I truly had no idea what to expect as we drove through village after village, mountains getting closer as we stopped and asked for directions, getting turned around more than once along the way.

When we got there, I had an eyeful. Craggy mountains with green shrubs clinging to the sides, old stone archways, steep cliffs with massive drop-offs into a river. I didn’t know where to begin looking.

But there were those who had done nothing but look since being there.

Guo Liang attracts a huge number of painters, who prop their easels up, perch under umbrellas to protect from the sun, and try to capture the very pictures I don’t look at prior to travel.

Painters in the wild

I wove through different collections of the painters. Two were very talented painters from Shanghai, dashing black strokes on white canvas in a classic Chinese painting style. Many of them were students from a nearby art school in Zhengzhou. Some had paint splattered on their uniforms, all were friendly, but attentive to each brush stroke.

“How long are you here for?” I said.

“10, maybe more days,” she said. “Kind of depends on how we do.”

Some chose to focus on a particular collection of steps, some on the mountain’s reflection in the water. Others focused on the village itself with its stone houses and old wheat mills. After walking around the painters for several minutes, I had seen dozens of ways to look at the same village.

Maybe the key is not to look at photos before the trip, but to really look attentively at them, from a painter’s eye view, to really see what’s in front of you.