Pilgrimage by Page

So you’ve probably noticed that it’s been a while.

Well, more than a while. It’s been over a year since I’ve written here, which is to say that it’s been quite the year, much of which spent trying to keep up with myself. Last time you checked, I was plodding away on my graduate thesis, which I wrote in Chinese (pauses to let ego expand a bit); contemplating where to work and how after graduation; and generally finding nooks and crannies in Hangzhou.

Okay, so I hit a bit of a snag with graduation, which delayed my thesis defense until the fall, had some family stuff to deal with, and a lil’ surgery because at that point why not. But damn it, I made it! Diploma in hand, I am a new Hannah. (That’s a lie: I’m the same idiot, this time with credentials). Since I work for online magazine Sixth Tone now though in towering Shanghai, I was able to write an article about that experience, which for nerds like me is the same as being an Avenger.

I never thought I would live in a big city, back when I was a senior in college. I really thought I would find nothing more than ennui in a place brimming with concrete or that I would despair at the shortage of scenic brooding spots that more nature-filled places offer.

I’m in one of the world’s biggest cities now though, finding not ennui but brie, and a new breed of brooding spot in the form of metro rides in this massive amalgamation of buildings and art deco decor, its wide range of expats meandering the streets, possibly wondering, too, how they even got there. It took me less time than I expected to adjust to city life, though Shanghai life is another beast. As a friend told me: You cannot live anywhere else in China after living in Shanghai. You will get Shanghai spoiled. I’ve been in the city for a year now, and I can confirm that, when the upscale brewery doesn’t carry my preferred imported beer or when I can’t find more than one type of cheese in the international grocery store and find a complaint winding up on the tip of my tongue, I am indeed spoiled, spoiled, spoiled.

(I love it).

Currently, though, I’m on vacation, sitting in my childhood bedroom after going on a multi-day hike with my mom on the Superior Hiking Trail. To feel the reverent silence of the trees is to understand why most pilgrimages happen on foot, as footfalls shake loose thoughts and connect you deeper to the world around you. You can finally catch up to yourself.

These past years, my writing has gone to other places, and so I’ve been on a bit of a hiatus from this blog, but as I reconnect with my family and friends after time running amok amid those cornrows of buildings, I’m reminded that while some pilgrimages happen on foot, some happen on page.

And so I will try to update more regularly and welcome comments or questions for what you’d want to hear more about.

For now, another step.



Hannah in the Attic: The Sequel

The last time I wrote in this blog, I mentioned that before starting my thesis, I’d be 1) going to Shanghai for the Battle of the Bards competition, 2) figuring out how to print a Hangzhou poetry anthology, 3) celebrating my birthday, and then you know, 4) starting my thesis. Since then, I’ve been to Shanghai and back (twice) having met new artists and friends and literary connections interested in collaborating with Hangzhou’s writers, I’ve already picked up the printed anthologies and put them in my closet away from the cats and their wandering claws, have celebrated not only my birthday but also Thanksgiving AND have put up Christmas decorations, and have, you know, actually started my thesis.

Things move fast in the world of Hannah.

But this past weekend, I let things move slow as I joined other writers in an Air BnB meant just for art retreats to get away from the bustle, learn about some writing tactics, and then of course write.

The last time I went on a retreat, it was this October with some people I’d met through the Shanghai Literary Review. It was relaxing in its own right, but was more of a working retreat in which we disappeared to write for hours on end, and then resurfaced in the evenings over hotpot to dish about how it went. This retreat was very much focused on writing, and everything we did was to inspire more writing and give us new angles and ways to approach our projects.

But of course, like the last time I went on a retreat, I gravitated once more to the attic, where I would fall asleep to the slanted roof. There’s something about being the shuffling ghost overhead. Perhaps not something good, but something nonetheless.

At this retreat, we did games that seemed silly, like making up a song using random words to describe the day, to more intriguing poetic exercises such as writing a madrigal and setting out to write 30 haikus throughout the weekend. We huddled around candles in the evenings, passing around wine bottles and Irish cream whiskey, as ideas ricocheted off the walls and into our heads. We gave each other Tarot card readings (with cards based off of Native American animals) and when we invited to cook to stay for dinner with us, I gave him his reading in Chinese. (Side note: he was the fox, while his wife was the inverted wolf). I met someone who had just finished translating the script for the staged version of “The Three Body Problem” which I’ve been reading (and when she saw the book on the table, she just moaned “I just can’t escape work!”), and I met some other grad students, as well as a meditation instructor who gave us guided meditations every morning.

And yes, we wrote. For long, quiet stretches, curling toward sources of heat like cats in the winter. I came to the retreat with a specific writing problem I wanted to face, and by the end of the first day, found myself feeling more confident about it and where I was headed.

With December well under way and the end of the year approaching, I guess it’s just about time to think about my resolution for this past year. I kept it simple: “Do better,” because there was no denying that I already knew what I needed to improve.

And you know what? With the retreat still humming in my ears and my pen on the move once more, I really think I did better this year. Lumbering in the attic and all.

Literary Shanghai

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There are four main things I seek out in Shanghai: good Western food, flights, friends and books.

Of course there are books in Hangzhou and even English language bookstores, but what Shanghai has that Hangzhou doesn’t (yet!) is a strong, prolific international literary community.

(But we’re working on that!)

I’d submitted a translation of a contemporary Chinese poem by Zhou Jingzhi to the Shanghai Literary Review and hadn’t expected much since it was my first translation attempt. But they accepted it, and in the following months, I worked with an editor to make it even better. I’d actually never worked with a proper editor before and was lucky that we had a good rapport. He made sensible suggestions and the end product indeed felt better than the one I’d submitted.

I came to the launch party excited if anything to meet the person behind the emails and other writers. As soon as I walked in and introduced myself, the head editor came over with a huge smile and said “It’s Hannah! We’re so happy you’re here! Welcome, Hannah!” And the translation editor came over to welcome me too, and in the course of the evening I met editors, painters, poets, and more.

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The editorial staff gave me and other contributors a bouquet of flowers, a keychain, and a free copy of the magazine.

Later we ate the cake they had ordered (though were also loathe to cut because of its impressive design).

I really do hope that the magazine takes off and does well. The editors were trying to create a more international magazine that could even find a place with lit magazines in New York.

Whatever happens in the future, I will at least revel in the glow of an evening schmoozing with my kind of people: the kind who find meaning in dust motes and with enough words to fly.

And now, as I disappear into the west, I carry that glow, along with a bouquet of flowers and a book of good words.


Travel Sneak-Peak: Tibet and Qinghai

Now that my roommate and I are at last all moved into our new apartment, I can start to think about my next big trip, starting in July. As I’ve mentioned before in other posts, I only have 4 more provinces to travel to in China before I’ve been to them all! So with that in mind, July is when I’ll be tackling another piece of China’s Wild West by visiting Qinghai and Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR).

My map of past trips and remaining places.

I’ve been asked before how I travel, or how I plan my trips. Everyone does it differently, but I tend to think more in terms of directions/overall shape. For example, I know what the spots I’d like to reach, but in terms of exact day to day planning, it’s more up in the air. I know what general direction I’m heading and how to get back, but that’s it.

For this trip, my “general shape” is that I’ll start at a magazine launch in Shanghai where one of my poetry translations has been published. Then, I’ll board a train to get out to Qinghai, then TAR! From Lhasa, a 48-hour train (they have beds) all the way across China to see the landscape fold together. It should be an exciting trip, especially since I’ll get to experience the highest altitude in the world and see mountains well beyond my imagination.

Here’s a breakdown of the trip.


Well, I’m no stranger to Shanghai, given that Hangzhou is only one hour’s train ride away. I’ve gone there to meet friends during international flight layovers, I’ve gone for the literary festival, I’ve gone for a bachelorette party, and I’ve gone to just straight up travel of course.

This time I’ll definitely have a pretty clear goal, which is to attend a magazine (“The Shanghai Literary Review”) launch, and hopefully meet some other interesting writers and editors. I’ll be fancy, I’ll be (hopefully) charming. In other words, I will be the exact opposite of what I’ll be like traveling in the following weeks when my clothes get rumpled from the washed-in-a-sink routine.

While in Shanghai, I may call up some friends, or I might just scuttle into a nice western restaurant to enjoy a good meal before boarding the train.


First off, to get to Qinghai, I’ve figured out a train system that will get me there. First, I’ll be doing an overnight train to Lanzhou, in Gansu Province, and then a short 1-hour train to Qinghai’s capital city, Xining. It sounds complicated, but it’s actually not so bad, especially considering that I’m basically crossing the entire country.

Since Qinghai is part of the Tibetan Plateau, is home to Tibetan people, and is historically Tibet, much of what I want to do in this province is related to Tibetan Buddhism. I don’t have many specifics nailed down for the 10 days or so that I’ll be here, but there are three things I want to do: Find the salt lakes, go to a Tibetan village, and go hiking. From what I’ve read online, all of this is extremely doable. There’s the Chaka Salt Lake, which is just to the North/Northwest of Qinghai Lake (the huge one), and there are national parks, and there are several Tibetan villages, including Tongren, to name just one.

This part of the trip is travel like I’m used to — the kind in which I’m a leaf on the wind, and enjoying whatever experiences come my way.

Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR)

To get to Lhasa, I’ll be taking the Qinghai-Tibet Railway, which has been dubbed “The World’s Highest Railroad,” because of the altitude. While there are flights going into Lhasa, it’s better to go in slowly because 1) the scenery is amazing, and 2) it helps you adjust better to the high altitude.

As for my time in TAR, I will be on a much clearer schedule, because I’ll be going with a small group tour.

Oh yes, I’m not a huge fan of group tours, and yes yes, it’s more rewarding to travel alone, but that’s simply not the best idea when budget traveling in TAR. This is because all foreign travelers in Tibet must have a guide and a driver, since we are not allowed to take pubic transportation outside of Lhasa. Likewise, there are areas that foreigners are discouraged from visiting. Because having a guide and a driver can get pretty expensive pretty quickly, I’m joining a group to make it more affordable. That being said, the two companies I’m considering (Budget Tibet Tours, and Tibet Highland Tours), seem to have good itineraries in mind.

(By the way, if you want to know a lot more about traveling in Tibet, check out this website. The writer is very friendly and actually responded to my questions!)

The trip I want to take will be an 8-day journey from Lhasa (where we will see the Potala Palace, which in itself is entralling) all the way to the Mount Everest Base Camp. (“OMG you’re climbing Mt. Everest??” NOOOOO I’m not a mountaineer and would need many years of training to even think of that — this is a “poking the base of the mountain” trip). The journey will take us past glaciers, the world’s highest monastery, and I assume more gorgeous scenery.

Oh, and while I’m in Lhasa, I also plan on riding the World’s Highest Ferris Wheel. (Again, because of the altitude.) It’s barely mentioned online, but it’s just odd enough to attract my attention.

Anyway, I’m getting pumped for my trip, and will share details as they come/I hit the road. As for now, that’s just a glimpse of where I’ll be in less than a month!


Eviction Notice, Shanghai

The first time I met my friend, we were in Minnesota and she told me about her beautiful home in downtown Shanghai. It was in a historical district, was not far from the Bund, and was in a pre-revolution architectural style now hard to find in much of China. She told me that she had finished paying for it, and that if I wanted, we could open a coffee shop in that home or start an English school, or do anything we wanted with it.

When I met up with her in Shanghai, I stayed in her apartment, but we went to visit that home. An artist was staying there for months, stepping out of our ways as we creaked through wooden staircases, ducked under low ceilings, and made our ways into old rooms. It was the kind of house that would be the setting for a novel. It was the kind of place you imagine a member of the Shanghai literati ducking into late at night after a soiree. You could hear the walls chuckle with hushed voices as the ghosts of its past welcomed you in.

But it was a house that would no longer be her house within the year.

To read her article (written in Chinese) click here. Long story short, however, the Shanghai government wants her house as part of a sightseeing historical district. My friend resisted, saying that it was her house, and therefore not a scenic spot, but as the houses in the neighborhood became sights, she felt the pressure closing in. Signs and notices stuck to her door day after day. Demolition careened blocks away from her own front door.

Progress was inevitable.

In fact, her community is full of history, and I can understand why historians would want to preserve it in some way. Literary greats such as Lu Xun, Mao Dun, and other pre-revolutionary writers had homes not far from hers. When I saw them, they were still untouched, tucked away in their alcoves with simple plaques posted on the outside to indicate that someone famous had once lived there. Something that would take effort to find, and would only be found by those truly eager to find it.

I try to imagine what might happen to her home now, or what sort of signage might go up. “Here stands an old house?” “Here is a piece of Shanghai?” Perhaps the local government will add figurines of people like my friend, depicting their lives mere weeks before.

All I know is that this story probably sounds familiar to those hearing about it, because it happens everywhere in the world. And, like many braver than me, my friend is still fighting it. I have no powerful connections, I have nothing in my arsenal that can help her. I only have this post, which she hoped I could write. If only to know that behind historical spots, is actual history, is actual people.

And somewhere in Shanghai, a woman refuses to fade.

The Maglev: 9 Minutes in Heaven

At 186km/hr, I thought “Come on, come on…faster, faster!”

At 240km/hr, I thought “Yes…faster!”

At 350km/hr, I thought “Oh my god, it gets faster than this…”

At 431km/hr, it reached its peak. And my god, I had transcended this mortal coil. Pure giddiness, sheer ecstasy of breaking a rule that I wasn’t even sure I’d been told. Surely mankind was never meant to go this fast. Surely there would be repercussions for trying to race time!

I felt like a god for the two minutes it stayed at this speed.

Then at 350km/hr, I knew it was coming to an end. I tried to hold onto the giddiness, but it slipped away from me, elusive as smoke.

At 240km/hr, I knew it wasn’t going to last. A sense of loss.

At 186km/hr, I thought we were crawling.

And then it was done.

True, I had to reroute my trip back to Hangzhou to make this 9-minute train ride in Shanghai work. True, the Maglev is 40rmb (with a boarding pass) when the subway is less than 10. True, all true.

But what price would you pay to be a god?

Midnight in Shanghai

I woke up on Sunday December 30th deciding that I’d go to Shanghai the next morning.  It would be my first New Year’s Eve not spent watching “Phantom of the Opera” with my friend Laura in the basement with chocolate sticks as cigars, and I very suddenly wanted to run racing into the world to do something crazy and impulsive.

By late Sunday night, I booked one of the last spots in a hostel called “Old West Gate International Youth Hostel” and by Monday morning, I was cramming things into my backpack to go to the train station.  My feet were already racing as I made a mental check of the essentials: underwear, socks, toothbrush, clothes (translation: scarf to put over dirty clothes to appear like a new outfit), camera, money, cell phone, notebooks and pens.  I also packed my high heels and texted a Shanghaies woman, Evena, who I’d met on my last trip there.  She liked to go out.  I just told her “It’s New Year’s Eve, I will be in Shanghai…can we go dance?”  I banished the niggling thought “You haven’t gone to a club since senior week in college, and do you really want to be doing this?”  because this trip was not about planning.  Hell, I only had scribbled directions to the hostel in my notebook, and didn’t even have a train ticket to get there.  I just wanted to get there as soon as possible. 

I also got in touch with someone else over in Shanghai who liked to travel.  He’s Chinese and his English name, as cheesy as it sounds, is Charming.  The last time we’d met, I was trying 臭豆腐(smelly tofu) for the first time, so was amazed that he still wanted to chat despite the weird faces I was making at the time.  My hostel was near “Old Shanghai.”  He told me a park, a bridge, and I said I’d get there when I could. And so I was on the newly-built subway with my backpack, sort of behind schedule, but then conceding that there never really was one to begin with, so it was okay.  I sped over to the ticket line as soon as the subway deposited me at the train station, and the rows of people snaked back to the doors.  By the time I got to the front, I’d already seen two trains depart for Shanghai.

“I’d like the soonest ticket to Shanghai.”

“One leaves at 2.”

I looked at the clock.  1:45.  “Okay.”

And so I raced over to the train, which was boarding as I rounded the corner, showed my ticket, and wedged my way into my seat, panting, amazed that no one else was in as much awe for the amazing thing that is being on your way to somewhere else.

Once the train arrived in Shanghai and I got off, I began asking for help finding the subway, and then the route, and then the road my hostel was on.  I zigzagged through each hub, each person leading me to the next place, pointing, and then repeating the directions when I asked for them again, slowly, in what I knew to be precise Mandarin for my benefit.  I found the hostel, which was marked by an old gate swung open on Penglai Road, and a small archway with more wrought-iron gates inside, made to look like Old Shanghai.  The road was flanked by local Shanghaies hanging blankets out to dry, food stands, gated stores, and even an erhu player in a corner by his home.  Inside the hostel, scarves draped over the poles, and several other guests leaned over books and laptops on cushy couches.  Basically what Professor Trelawney’s common room would look like if it landed in China. 

Then I asked around again, eventually zigzagging around until I found the park with the bridge and Charming looking at his map intently.  “I think you went to the wrong bridge…” Charming said, and I admitted that I’d actually gone into the park to try and find him, flailing and snapping pictures of traditional architecture while a smooth voice said “We are now closing, please find the nearest exit and welcome to come again.”  He neatly folded the map and asked where we should go.  I just said we should walk around Old Shanghai, which was the architecture from the 30s and 40s and look around a bit.  Charming moved slowly, which was at first obnoxious, but ended up being a great benefit, keeping my tapping toes from racing past small corners with old birdcages and sculptures carved from elephant tusks.  Every small corner opened up to show hunks of jade, copper statues, and old boxes with smiling faces on them. 

We went back to the hostel so he could nab one of the last rooms, and then I pulled out my heels to unceremoniously transition to wherever Evena deemed necessary to go on New Year’s Eve.

I assumed there would be fireworks, but that was about as far ahead as I’d thought.  When Evena came to the hostel and I mentioned that, she just paused and said “Well, there might be lasers…” and we waved a taxi to fly off into the area by the Bund.

I saw the lasers as we walked clicking our heels to her favorite club, which was a combination of several and which also gave everyone a mini-flashlight-ring to dance with.  That night, we rang in the New Year with cannons blasting popcorn kernels and confetti, balloons poised over nets to be dropped as the night progressed, and “Gangham Style” playing at midnight.  There were the loping foreigners gyrating in the corner, the Chinese people swaying and watching them with curiosity, and the bartenders probably hoping they’d get a decent enough check for the evening.  Evena and I conquered the dance floor and everyone shrieked combinations of “Happy New Year!” and “新年快乐!” when the DJ announced that the countdown was complete.  The rest of the night was flashing cameras and slap-happy people repeating “Happy New Year” which quickly sounded more and more like “Hippy Near…” as the night progressed and glasses emptied.  I marched back to the hostel with a wide grin on my face, shamelessly content with the dance songs then stuck in my head.

The next morning came like a slap in the face, and as I looked around the mysterious hostel I’d only really just used for the bed, I packed up my things to check out.  Charming was already by the door with his backpack, and we got going for some more exploration that day.   He’s a math teacher, and so it was no surprise to me that he was fond of reading his map and plotting precisely where we’d have to walk.  When I explained that I was a Humanities person, he seemed to understand why I didn’t even bother to read road signs.  The route we walked took us through crowds of antique stores where I saw old suitcases, model planes, a clarinet, tin canisters, old pocket-watches, pins, pictures, postcards, bracelets with stones (most fake, according to Charming) and vendors all saying “Hello, have a look, hello, cheap, hello, you like, hello…” 

Maybe this makes me a stereotypical tourist, but I loved it.  I like old things in general because they’re broken, ripped, crumbling, faded, brittle and bruised in every way imaginable, and it’s the scars that tend to tell the best stories.  Life is more or a less a roadmap of bruises, as far as I’m concerned.    

Charming then led me to the location of the first meeting of the Communist Party of China, where we got to see wax replicas of the then-only 14 members around a table, and examine the old magazines behind glass display cases.  Charming told me a lot about the CPC and as we looked at samples of Mao Zedong’s poetry and calligraphy, I learned that even after years and years in China, I could very easily walk away never actually understanding how things worked. 

After we left, Charming took me to 复兴park, where we stood still and drank in the local culture.  He told me that, with every new place he goes, he will always take time to go to a park to see what the real culture is like.  There we saw people huddled around tables to play card games, having animated debates face to face in the courtyard, kites being fed string little by little as the wind lifted them into the air, and a band playing what sounded like two different songs at once with five saxophones, a keyboard, and a violin.  The warm afternoon felt infinite.  Charming pointed to foreigners wanting me to tell him where they were from, and I tried to discretely hang out nearby to hear them talk and try and guess based off of accent.  In turn, I asked about Chinese attitudes towards Westerners, and why so many of my students were obsessed with the NBA when they could be learning about Toaster Strudels or something. 

But soon, I had to descend to the subway again to get back on the train to Hangzhou.  I was a little less lucky getting to my train on time, but the warm sun still shone inside me and glowed all the way to Hangzhou.  On the subway there, I went all the way to the back to watch the receding tunnel behind as oblivion became a platform where passengers waited like ghosts to board.  And as I stepped off and walked the familiar path along Sparkling City to my apartment, I thought that maybe it was nice being a ghost drifting wherever the wind went and to wake up with the intention of living without intention, if only for a little bit.