Where the Lightning Trees End

I resisted it for over four years: the silent death of churning wheels cascading over sidewalks. I said I would just as soon ride a bike and take it slow. I said I detested those machines and how they owned the roads, sidewalks, and exhales between cars. But when I saw my friend post an ad for his secondhand electric bike and when I saw the price, I resisted no longer. I gave in to all that my friends said, that those wheels would radically change how I viewed Hangzhou, and would in turn radically change my life.

I took to the roads on my clanky ebike, on a nighttime mission to find lightning trees.

On the whole, I’m pretty resistant to new technology. I remember how long I waited to actually ride a bicycle, how I hesitated before getting a slider cell phone in college, how I debated over getting a smart phone my second year in China, and how I didn’t want to use Alipay, the online payment system that is quickly making cash obsolete in China. I wanted to keep the hum of technology at a low volume, to feel the sensation of money disappearing from my fingers. I wanted to be able to disappear and be unreachable for long stretches of time. I wanted slow, silent days to accompany my thoughts.

Well, life in a city is different. Just trying to get to those lightning trees takes about 45 minutes of biking through congested downtown traffic. Buses are even slower, and when buses get trapped in turn-lanes, it’s hard not to watch those ebikes weaving in and out traffic with envy.

So I listened to my friend explain his old bike to me — how to charge it, how to lock it, how he had added extra power to it and had obtained all of the legal license plates and registration. And I plotted where I would take it for a test ride on my own.


When the time came, I flicked on the headlights. My roommate helped me put on a reflector armband, and I checked the brakes, letting myself glide to a gradual halt when I saw other pedestrians. Then, I left our apartment complex to enter a Hangzhou that I already knew quite well.

I turned back the handle — oh god! Walkers! Glide, honk, brake, glide, my feet skimming the surface of the asphalt. Up ahead, a stoplight. Oh god. Glide, brake, plant feet. The night was not so much an evening jaunt as it was a blur of headlights, stoplights, illuminated cell phone lights, and dark shapes passing along sidewalks as I glided, braked, stopped, glided along the bike lane. A red light, my heart pounding as I rehearsed how I would get started again. Along Beishan Road along West Lake, turning into bright-light cityscape as I entered the Nanshan Road area.

I already knew the route, and was used to it taking perhaps 40 minutes. In about 20, however, I was already close. Not only that, but roads that I knew felt somehow less congested. I could honk at pedestrians walking in the bike lane. I could glide past silently, too, if there was enough space and I wanted to hear the patter of passing feet.

Then, I turned the corner onto Nanshan Road and Hangzhou was like I’d never seen before. I saw where the lightning trees ended.


As sudden as rain, the canopy of well-lit trees draped over the sidewalk, strings of white Christmas lights wrapped around the boughs. The streaks of white against black were like negative images of trees, as if by cracking across the sky they became exclamation points in Hangzhou. I scooted forward, enjoying the silence of the motor, and the smoothness of asphalt. I followed the tunnel of lightning trees, underneath the signs that had been made for the G2o saying “Welcome to Hangzhou!” and processed my way toward the other side of the area, where one tree branch flickered, as if being erased and drawn over and over again. Light rain flecked my jacket, but none of it mattered. I had a full battery. I could go beyond the lightning trees and into the dark street beyond it. I could get lost and find my way back, and I could do it on creeping wheels.

I only went along the tunnel and then back, relishing the feel of the “Welcome to Hangzhou” sign as I passed it again.

Indeed, where the lightning trees end, it was as though I was entering a new Hangzhou, where distance was only a concept, and I could connect scattered scenes together and re-map a home I have come to know so well.

It’s never too late to rediscover home.

My China Travel Hacks: Part 1

I’ve done a lot of traveling in China. No, really. I’ve been to every province, save four. Each time, I’ve tried different things. My past trip to Shanxi and beyond, I challenged myself to spend as little as possible. In the end, I spent just about 2000 rmb for the whole month, which is about 300 USD. Despite trying to be closer to 150 USD, I found that there were some expenses that you just can’t get around.

…or can you?

I got to thinking about all of the travel hacks I know about China. Some are common sense, some are things you only learn from traveling a lot in China. I’ll be thinking of what I’ve learned. If you want to know more about it, read on. If not, then don’t!

Let’s have a look, shall we?

The Impossible Situation: Transportation

Why it’s impossible

Obvious. You want to go somewhere. Wheels aren’t free.

When I added up the numbers for my trip to the Central Plains of China, I found that transportation ate up the biggest chunk. I could have gone cheaper, but in some cases, I opted for comfort rather than frugality. That being said, is it impossible to have cheap transportation?

Why it’s actually not

I have done all forms of transportation in China, and though it can quickly suck all of your money away, there are ways to trim the fat. I’ll run through some transportation options.

Let’s start with flights. Sometimes, they’re unavoidable, which is fine. However, if you’re not in a time crunch, don’t do flights. There’s a significant price gap between train and plane tickets, and the train system is pretty extensive in China.

The next cheapest on the list (in general) is buses. For more remote locations, you may have no choice but to take a bus (and if this is the case, try to make friends with anyone who brought a lot of snacks hehe).

If you have time and want to save money, though, trains are your best bet. (Cue the sparkles and heavenly light around the map of trains routes in China). There are two main train categories: high speed trains (高铁 gao tie, and 动车 dong che), and regular trains (usually with a K, a T, an L or just a string of numbers in them). Most websites will just tell you about the high-speed trains in general and not point out the two different kinds. Is there a difference? In price, yes! The dong che is cheaper than the gao tie, because it is ever-so-slightly slower, perhaps by a scant half an hour arrival time. If that doesn’t matter to you, you can save money here. (Be warned, though, they sell out quickly!)

As for the regular trains, there are different ways to ride them: 软卧 ruan wo (soft sleeper), 卧铺 wo pu (hard sleeper), 硬座 ying zuo (hard seat), 无座 wu zuo (no seat). (I have listed those from order of most expensive to cheapest and consequently from most comfortable to least.)

The main advantage of the soft sleeper is that there are only four people in a private compartment, meaning you have a better chance of privacy. The hard sleeper has doorless compartments with six beds in each one. I personally think that the hard sleeper is the best value, because soft sleepers aren’t that radically different from hard sleepers, but have a pretty noticeable price difference.

The last two options are the more strenuous ones. I have done 7-hour hard seats, I have done 30-hour hard seats, I have even done 19-hour no seats. Once you exceed 7 hours, it starts to ache. Once you’re past 15 hours, it’s about the same ache, 16 hours or even 30. Hard seats are great places to meet a wide range of people on the rails, but be warned: you will probably not sleep well if you do an overnight, if you sleep at all (though I met a traveler who swore by hard-seats, refusing to ride trains any other way). As for no seat, you will be jostled around quite a bit for how much money you’re saving. I recommend bringing an engrossing book to distract from the pain, bringing a blanket to unfurl under the seats, and making generous friends. Most no-seaters resort to leapfrogging from open seat to open seat to rest their legs. If crowded and overnight, this can be very miserable (such as a man I saw sleeping on a sink while I came back from Guilin). Choose this only as a last resort.

But what if you are truly truly, considering-busking-in-the-train-station-broke?

Well, there is yet another way: hitchhiking. I’ve done both solo hitchhiking and hitchhiking with a partner. I’m also a young single woman, so if you’re thinking that’s impossible, just stop. In China in the country, people are very friendly and willing to help travelers (though of course, you ought to use common sense and proper judgment when accepting rides). Be sure to have a sign of some kind in Chinese, or a good map. (My friend and I had a picture of a good map and then a picture of this picture when the battery started to die. We’re winners.) The thumb is not always recognized as a signal for hitchhiking, so wave cars down like you would a taxi. Also beware of actual taxis, which could be an unpleasant surprise when a bill comes at the end.

Trying out some new transportation methods or even tweaking how you ride already-existing ones will save a bundle. But, what about lodging and sight-seeing and other things? Stay tuned for more hacks.

**EDIT: You can also bike around China, which is an exciting, though physically-demanding way to see the country. I’ve met travelers who have done this, though I’ve only tried this once (read here) and it was a grueling experience for me, given that I had not trained for it and was at a pretty high altitude. When I did it, there was a deal between hostels at opposite ends of the route that let you switch out/leave bikes. I’d be interested to try more, but if you’re into biking, god speed, dear friend!

Real China

I hear a lot of talk about finding “Real China.”  And I gotta say, I don’t think any of us know what we’re talking about.

For some, Real China is the same as poor China.  The dirty, dingy parts of cities that don’t make it onto brochures, or the wandering children like wraiths that stare at passerbys with wide, awestruck eyes.  The so-called “sketchy” noodle places that look like they might be full of diseases, but are actually rare culinary finds.  “This is Real China,” these people will say, glad to have found the places where “normal people” live.  

On the other side of the spectrum, there’s the idea that Real China is old China.  The pagodas, the temples, the old instruments playing amid willow trees.  Perhaps fortress walls, guards standing at attention, traditional outfits, old tea houses all mixed together to exude an air of nostalgia.  But as much as traditions shape where we are today, I think we’d be remiss to say that Real China is a thing of the past.  Real China, I mean to say, exists in a way that doesn’t dismiss the current generation or the past 100 years of Chinese modernization.

Then there’s another concept of Real China, which is something I’ll call Scary China.  This is the sort of conspiracy side of China that those who have no desire to cooperate with China will ascribe to.  The guards around Tiananmen Square, and the cameras (“Big Brother,” some might say with a knowing grimace), and the censorship, and the idea that no one in China is happy anymore because they’re under the government’s heel and are stuck there until they either go back to the good old days or become more like us in the West.  True, there are many things that Chinese don’t know about their own histories, which is sad to hear.  But part of Real China today is finding out about this history and facing the identity other countries see.  Breaking apart another’s constructed identity to get at the truth as it surfaces in its original context.  As a student told me last year, “Learning about what happened at Tiananmen Square is this generation’s coming of age.”  If we are to understand Real China, then we must get over this fear of what we think it is.  Real China is not Scary China.  Scary China is just what many outsiders call China when they’re not close enough to understand.  This is, in part, a facet of the Chinese identity today–to have to break all of the “scary” rhetoric out there apart to find what Real China actually means.  

So here’s where you find Real China, in my opinion.  Not in brochures, not (exclusively) in the slums, not in foreign newspapers berating the menacing force they think is out there.  Real China is on the road, talking to Real Chinese people and hearing about their lives.  

You want to encounter the real thing?  Hop on a long-distance train.  Get on a bus.  Step away from translation and see it with your own eyes.  And you’ll see it, because it’s everywhere.  Every person, cracking sunflower seeds, studying for exams, hauling rice sacks, checking their faces in the reflection of smart phones, trying to keep babies from wailing the night away.  This is Real China, and it’s on the move.

Night Bus to Kashgar

A Uyghur girl with a shaved head, and a yellow striped dress swung from the rails at the bus station as we waited in line.  She looked at me as I inched forward with a friend in the Peace Corps, backpacks digging into our shoulders.  Woman argued in Uyghur with the ticket window.  In their language that sometimes sounds like purring, sometimes like a drumroll, always smooth.

“We’ll have 2 tickets to Kashgar,” my friend said when at last we’d battled to the window.  We got our tickets and made our ways to the bus.  A night bus, which meant that inside were three rows of bunk beds (“pods” as my friend called them).  Just wide enough to lie down, and then likely sleep on your side, with a pillow and a blanket.  We climbed into our pods and lay down because there was no room to comfortably sit up and stay that way.  Muslim women struggled to climb into the top bunks with their long skirts, and shot me sheepish grins as I smiled.  I’ve found that a smile does a lot when you don’t understand someone and think they’re angry at you.  9/10 times, they’ll smile back.

The pods in the Night Bus.
The pods in the Night Bus.

The man checking that our shoes were off and in plastic bags looked a lot like a guy with an impressive mustache I knew from a college band. I decided to name him Stan.  Uyghur Stan.  The bus started up, taking us through mountains that looked like the bloody knuckle kind, like scraped charcoal.  We went up, up, into the flint mountains, and then settled in for a long ride.  Over 24 hours.  A woman in a blue veil switched beds with her husband in a white cap, since her position was right in front of the TV.  A good decision, too, as the TV flickered on with Uyghur music videos as soon as he rested his head against the screen.  There’s a show lampooning Imperial China.  More music videos.  I got the strong impression that I had settled into Arabian Nights more than western China.

When we stepped out of the bus, heat slapped us like when you step in front of a car’s exhaust pipe.  Luckily, the bus was air-conditioned, so we could relax with the loud lilting music of Uyghur wedding music in the background.   Outside, I had no doubt that the mountains were as hot as a frying pan.  I settled into “Fortress Besieged,” the Chinese novel I found in a hostel.

Hours later, as the dark crept in, someone (Maybe Uyghur Stan) was flipping through the TV.  I saw “Shawshank Redemption” come up, but it’s bypassed for something bloodier—“Gladiator.”   Suddenly, when hearing the opening music, I thought of how far the US really was from all of this.

Uyghur Stan led us off the bus in the night, where there’s a BBQ spit surrounded by the snake lights.  The air felt like silk then, and I could believe that I was in another world.  The front of trucks illuminated like ghosts by passing headlights, a discarded cigarette box gilded from streetlights.  When I got back on the bus, I rearranged the pillows and blanket, and settled in for what I hoped would be a good night’s rest.  We were woken up once for a stop at a CNG to pee next to entangled barbed wire amidst the veiled women. Surprisingly I slept well, dreaming that I came back to America to become a freelance gravedigger.  Uyghur Stan looked a little disheveled from driving a portion of the night while the other driver slept, but we awakened slowly, crunching nuts and snacks for the morning.

Once we got at the outskirts of Kashgar, we went through a police check.  The guard held my passport with a scrunched up face, twisting it around.  “Amreeka?”  he asked.  I nodded.  He let me through.

We arrived in a dingy bus station in Kashgar, and that was that.  I gathered my backpack, my bag full of random things gathered along the way, and my purse to get off.  I waved at Uyghur Stan and he sort of laughed and waved back.  And then we were gone, into Kashgar, into the land of silk and sun.