Begin at the End

“You know, I don’t think it’s actually the end of the Great Wall,” my couchsurfing host in Changchun said when I told her my next stop during my trip. “It’s the beginning. “Longtou” means “dragon head,” which would be the beginning, right? It’s not the tail.”

I had to pause to take it all in.

I had planned for my last stop on this final backpacking trip to be at Shanhaiguan’s Laolongtou (老龙头) Great Wall portion. It seemed metaphorically correct: to end at the end of the Great Wall, where it met the sea, and where I would at last have accomplished visiting all of China’s Provinces. It seemed backwards in a way, for me to have traveled all these five years to only end up at the beginning, like a lost child who ran toward an exit, only to crash into the entrance instead.

But then, since I find meaning in dust motes and can poeticize anything, I thought “isn’t it fitting, to have an end be yet another beginning?”

I walked along the stone crenelations days later, having reached this end of the Great Wall. I once looked out at the other end, which faced a vast and harsh desert that was part of the Silk Road. I had tried to put myself in the boots of those sentinels who watched that gaping desert, watching the sand swirl into the sky. Since the time I went to Jiayuguan and the time I stood here at Shanhaiguan, I’d seen a lot in between. But now, I was at the end, listening to the waves roll along the shore and crash against the stone wall jutting into the sea. It was as different a scene as I could possibly find from the other side of the Wall all those years ago. And yet, looking out into the vast expanse of seawater, I took in the horizon like a blank page.

Yes, I had reached the end of something grand, and every inch of it along the way had been exhilarating. Yes, things would be different after this, as I would no longer be scheduling in as many China backpacking trips as I once had before. Yes, I would walk in a different direction now, with new boots and a smile.

But no, I don’t think things at are an end. Why, I’ve only begun.

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In Search of a Red October

I’ve been told many times that fall is not the best time to experience Dongbei. You either go in the summer when it’s most comfortable and fun, or you go in the dead of winter when the snow-scapes are at their best. But I chose to go in the fall because I wanted to try and find red leaves, and because my summer was a time for Tibet.

As I mentioned in my previous post, Dalian was not quite red yet. I’d come perhaps a week or two too early to really see red. True, I still managed to find some scant fall foliage, but it was hardly what I’d been expecting.

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Changchun (in Jilin province) on the other hand, was an entirely different matter.

“You’re too late,” a rough-voiced taxi driver outside of Changchun said. I was on my way to a place tantalizingly called ‘The Red Leaves Valley.’ “You should have come during National Holiday two weeks ago. The leaves were red then.”

I thought he was exaggerating, and so went ahead to the valley, thinking I could still catch some pretty leaves.

Boy, was I wrong.

red leaves valley 2

It’s a funny thing with Dongbei: it’s bigger than I thought. One part can still have many green leaves, while another be practically barren. I thought about this as I walked through the ironically-named (at that time) “Red Leaves Valley,” thinking that there was nothing more forlorn than walking through a forest of bare branches. Positive spin: it very much put me in the Halloween mood I’d been seeking in my ghost stories.

red leaves valley
I spy with my little eye exactly ONE red-leafed tree.

“It’s not so bad,” I tried to say to the taxi driver.

He shook his head. “You’re too late,” he repeated. “You shouldn’t have come here.”

“Does that mean you’ll lower the price?”

He didn’t say anything.

Not to be deterred, I headed out to a local park the next day, not too far from my couchsurfing host’s home. The sky was a crisp blue (the kind that’s rare in the north once the heaters are turned on). I wandered inside and saw several clumps of trees with some orange still intact.

“There now,” I thought. “Maybe I’m not too late after all.”

I snapped photos of them from beneath, where the sun shone through them like fire. (Because sometimes leaves are like people: unimpressive from one angle, brilliant when given a chance to shine). As I walked through the park, I saw cat-tails by the pond in light browns, and single trees shining in light yellows. I took picture after picture, feeling pleased with myself for my life choices and inwardly cackling at the taxi driver (who did later lower the price when I whined about it, but then cussed me out later insisting that as a foreigner, “I obviously was rich.” Jerk.)

When looking through the photos later, I was struck by something.

“These trees look an awful lot more green than I remember…”

That’s when I realized something: I had been looking at them through my tinted sunglasses the whole time.

So, maybe people are right and fall is not the best time to go to Dongbei because the leaves are pretty unpredictable. But, sometimes you can get lucky, sunglasses notwithstanding.

South of the North

“It’s so great to be in Dongbei,” I said to my taxi driver. “I’m a northerner in the United States, too.”

“Oh, this isn’t the north,” he said, steering me through the winding roads in the seaside city Dalian. “It’s more like the south of the north. Once you get to Harbin or Changchun, THAT’S the real north.”

At first I didn’t believe him, thinking he just wanted to act all macho (since he was from Changchun originally), but after experiencing Dalian for several days, I’d have to agree with his sentiment. Yes, Dalian gets really freaking cold in the winter, but at heart, it sings a song of summer.

What can I say? I loved it anyway.

I loved that, even though by northern standards October ought to be getting chilly and grim, I and my exuberant Irish couchsurfing host could walk along the seaside with salt stinging our skin. I loved that, while I was reading ghost stories on the train to get in an October mood, the sun shone bright and the trees swayed green. I loved that people complained of it getting cold when all anyone really needed was a light windbreaker, but ate hot pot anyway to stay warm. I loved that after going out drinking, we could all walk out to the seashore like it was still summer, despite these very windbreakers and sweaters. I loved that people would say “yeah, winter is coming,” but still see public service announcements asking people not to barbecue outside on the streets.

Dalian experiences winter with a wink. Though it does get cold (and it will get cold soon!) there’s an exuberance about it that dances until the moment when the curtain actually goes all the way to the stage floor.

And I’d like to go back, when the curtain’s all the way up, in the summer with the sea.

Into the North

Dongbei. 东北。In Chinese this means “The Northeast,” but it carries with it a whole host of connotations. It’s the place where the people are hardened from tough winters, where “bottoms up” really means you will finish whatever’s in your glass, and where the thick curled Chinese accent emerges. People from Dongbei I’m told rarely leave Dongbei and miss it whenever they do.

“Hangzhou’s too hot,” a taxi driver told me on the way from a train station.

“Yeah, but you went there in the summer,” I said. “Try the fall or the spring.”

He shook his head. “Too hot. Dongbei is better.”

Dongbei food is heavy, with meat and potatoes. Dumplings are everywhere.

I couldn’t wait.

Since this is my last big trip in China, I’m trying to give it the theme of “Hannah’s Believe it or Not” by seeking out unusual things. There is red seaweed, UFO sightings, chocolate dumplings, hotels built like castles. But more than that, there’s me, the person reading ghost stories on the train heading north, who leans into the window as heavy fog (and yes, I’m sure it was fog) shrouds the buildings and trees in dark gloom, who writes ghost stories as the lights go out.

Dongbei is where the wind howls. And in the North, I howl back.

Hannah in the Attic

The sun drifted in through the triangular window of the attic as I pieced together the interview with Kaitlin Solimine (see previous post). I’d chosen to stay in the tatami room in a guest house with other writers for a couple days as we retreated from city life and let the quiet canal lanes accompany our work.

You could say its luck, you could say it’s my insistence on putting myself out there, but I’ve had the great fortune of getting to know artists through the Shanghai Literary Review. It started with a translation I did back in the summer, and became a doorway into a welcoming community of thinkers and doers. We’d sit around the dinner table every evening and have long, winding conversations about everything: optimization, the existence of ghosts, the history of fashion.

Down the lane, the touristy area of the canal, complete with coffee shops and neon purple lights in the evening. I walked through it only briefly, the sudden press of people around me a shock to the system after such calm and quiet. I’d eagerly return to the house, looking out on the garden below from above.

Honestly when I think back to that house along the canal, I’ll think of those sunlit hours in the quiet of my little tatami room. The slanted ceiling, the low table, the tiny wooden tables out on the small balcony, the comfy chair propped up by the orange lamps on the floor.

There, I could be a Hannah in the attic, a creature best left undisturbed, but who would venture out when the time is right.

Last Stops

All right, so my last big trip is coming up. Where will I be going this time? To China’s northeast (dong bei) region, hopefully in time to catch some fall foliage!

I will say that there are some marked changes between this trip and the last. One being TRANSPORTATION. Remember how in Qinghai, there were vast stretches of uninhabited land that was virtually inaccessible? Not so with China’s east coast! I was checking train tickets, and assumed that they would be slow ones that took well over 20 hours. But…surprise! There’s a high-speed train that gets there in 8. Just…high speed trains. Everywhere. The other, more subtle difference, is that I’m personally more restricted by budget and time. Much of this is because I’m a student, and so most of the trips I’ve taken in the past 2 years have had to undergo some creative gymnastics to even happen, such as volunteering in certain areas for a stretch of time. This time, I’ve been pretty choosey about what I’m seeing, and have definitely picked up some spare work to raise up some funds for what I assume will be an ungodly amount of dumplings. (Those files may have taken me a full week to translate, but it’s all for you, 饺子!)

But that’s not why you’re reading this. The real point: just where will I be going?

Like my trip in the summer, I’ll be starting with the Shanghai Literary Review people (who probably think I travel all the time now). For China’s National Holiday week, they’ve rented a villa in the water town, Zhujiajiao, to have a writing retreat. There will be activities, writing, and probably some BBQ. I’m not actually staying the full week with them, but for the last couple of days.

After that, I hop on a train and head to Panjin, Liaoning province, which is where seaweed grows red in their wetlands area. I’m coming at the tail end of the season, but have heard that the colors are at their best near the end. It’s always possible that I’ve miscalculated, which happens, but the wetlands sound nice anyway. Once in Liaoning, I’ll hop on over to Dalian, which is a big sea-side city that I’ve only ever heard people gush on and on about. I don’t think I even know what makes it special. I’ve read that people have seen UFOs, floating cities, and glowing beaches, but I’m guessing they were referring to the seafood.

Once out of Dalian, I’ll then go to Jilin. Now, initially, I planned on going to Changbaishan, which is a gorgeous ecological nature spot. It has a dormant volcanic crater lake on top of a mountain, which also serves as a border between China and North Korea. Plans have changed (and you can probably guess why). While I’d never planned on actually going to the border between the countries, given the recent political climate, I think I’ll just stay far, far away. Oh, and also because the recent nuclear missile tests out of North Korea have triggered seismic activity around the mountain, and some even say the volcano could erupt again. If you just read that last sentence and thought “Holy shit,” buddy I’m with you. (Also, fun fact: there’s a bunch of lore about a loch ness esque monster inside of the volcano…metaphor for North Korea? Let’s hope not). The likelihood of any of those doomsday scenarios happening? Pretty low. But, there’s no reason to tempt fate.

Luckily, Jilin is a big province, and so I can go there without being in close proximity to the world’s most insane country right now. (Seriously, Mom, don’t worry! So long as I’m well within Chinese borders, there’s no safer place in the world than China when it comes to NK). Sadly, the biggest and best thing to see in the province is FOR SURE Changbaishan, but I’ll also check out Jilin’s meteorite museum, go to some national parks to catch the red leaves, and (you guessed it) eat lots of NE food. Best part? There’s actually another lake with a loch ness esque monster allegedly inside. I’m starting to think the NE is totally bonkers.

I’ll finish out my trip by going to the end of the Great Wall, which tapers out into the sea. A perfect spot for brooding, and also to end what has been a wild ride of traveling in China!

Stay tuned for more info as the trip unfolds. And, if you want to know more about specifically traveling in China, you can check out my other blog here. It’s both in Chinese and English, and is all about China travel (as the name suggests).

Circular Motion: Finale

I began this trip in Shanghai for the Shanghai Literary Review launch party, and went on the road with good feelings and a bouquet of flowers. Since then, I’ve left the bouquet of flowers at the base of Mount Everest, and am returning back the way I came to Hangzhou.


Things have gone full circle it would seem, in a trip full of circuits, koras, and circular motion. The spinning prayer wheels, koras around holy places, the mandala that depict the path to immortality, and yes even the Ferris wheel. Here, a circle is a sacred path, and one I was happy to take.

Which is why on my last full day in Lhasa, I decided to make as many circles as possible, starting with the kora around Potala Palace.
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The palace is a very central part of Lhasa, and is completely circumferenced by prayer wheels, save for its front side which faces a public square. I joined in the foot traffic, and spun every prayer wheel as we went around. Some were as large as a room, some big enough to have a railing along the bottom, and most small enough for a deft push to keep it spinning.

Though it sounds easy enough, after a while my arm hurt, and my fingernails caught on the polished wood handle on the bottom, and I felt as though I was actively making callouses. But by the end, I also felt as though I was marching to a new beat than before.
I did this circuit only once, deciding to save a full three circuit trip for Jokhang Temple that evening, when the most people would be walking, and when the believers would prostrate their ways around the temple, bowing all the way to the ground every few steps.


I am a hopeless romantic (in the transcendental sense) and found myself spinning an object in my hand as I walked that holy kora. Those prostrating bent over onto wooden slats on their hands, and it was like wave after wave upon the sand.

In this atmosphere, I decided to take out the white prayer scarf I was greeted with on my first day of the trip. It was a welcoming gesture, and though the scarf was pretty, I also felt it belonged in Tibet. After three circles around the temple, I tied my prayer scarf next to others, and I sat on the warm concrete, watching birds swirl above and listening to passersby muttering their mantras.

Even as I write this, I’m already back in Hangzhou, jumping back into a very different lifestyle — one that probably doesn’t have as much room for romantic wanderings. My phone has gone from the sparse 3G available on the Tibetan Plateau, to a full, nonstop 4G and internet connection. In a series of public transit card switches, I’m back in the groove of Hangzhou, and am unpacking all that I’ve brought back from the road.

But I like to think that the revolutions that were set in motion, the centrifugal force of all these circles will carry their ways into my life and beyond. I like to think that I’ll keep spinning and circling long after this trip and that, like the flowers and the scarf, I won’t need to carry so much with me and can leave it fluttering in the wind, kissing the clouds.