Countries that are difficult to love

I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been jostled on the subway in China, yelled at by shopkeepers and bus drivers and ticket sellers, or narrowly missed stepping on a freshly-hacked glob of sputum.

On a trip to Hangzhou, I had barely set foot on Chinese soil before curly haired women in puffy vests and mismatched scarves began pushing me backwards at the luggage carousel, clucking their tongues in impatience. They were at least half a head shorter than me and middle-aged, but the force of their elbows made me retreat hastily, even though I was waiting for my bag too.

They grabbed cardboard boxes off the conveyor belt with ferocity, piling them atop a trolley already heaving with misshapen lumps. Every time a box arrived, they screeched at each other in triumph, high pitched cackles that rang across the arrival hall.

Yes, this was the China that I remembered.

*

I first went to China on a graduation trip, backpacking for six weeks. My plan was to visit the major cities — Beijing, Shanghai, Qingdao, Xi’an — before making my way down south to catch my return flight from Guangzhou. When I told people where I was going, there was a lot of laughter and some legitimate concern.

I heard warnings about China’s melamine milk scandalgutter oil substitute for cooking oil, and food safety practices in general. One well-meaning friend told me the story of a woman who fell ill upon returning from China and never quite recovered.

“After a couple of weeks, she died,” he said darkly.

I was apprehensive, but their caution made me gutsy. I was 23 and dreamed of being a travel writer — an “intrepid traveller” who “strayed from the beaten path”, carving a route where there was none.

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It’s funny how hindsight and a few years can make your younger self seem so idealistic. At the time, articles like Date A Girl Who Travels were spreading like wildfire on the internet, and I lapped it all up. I wanted to be that sun-kissed, big-hearted traveller who could make conversation with anybody. I wanted to see the authentic side of places, long before I realised authentic travel is a myth and that big-city touts are just as authentic as weavers on looms in the countryside.

Maybe that was the appeal of going to China, strange and terrifying as it seemed. I was newly single, looking for adventure, and dying to prove the skeptics wrong. And while my friends traipsed in groups around well-trodden destinations, going somewhere different and difficult felt like a badge of honour.

Traveling alone, I wore my badge of honour proudly. It was 2013 and easier to feel adventurous because social media had not yet become the driving force of travel like it is today. I had not yet become accustomed to seeking out food recommendations through Instagram hashtags, or reading listicles to research on a new destination. All I had was a copy of Lonely Planet — a hard copy, brick-thick. It helped get me to my first hostel; my subpar command of Mandarin was enough to make me a few friends.

It was with one of these newfound travel buddies that I made a detour from my planned excursion to cruise down the Three Gorges Dam, and sought instead the grasslands of Western Sichuan.

Western Sichuan Garzi

Much of Tibet, especially the capital Lhasa, has been commandeered by the Mainland. Beijing refers to the region as “China’s Tibet”, underscoring it with a strong military presence, five star hotels, and modern recreations of traditional Tibetan villages.

But in the Garzi prefecture, part of Sichuan and well within China’s borders, the authorities seemed to allow a looser grip. Tibetan culture was alive in well in small towns with names like Tagong and Litang and Dege, sometimes no more than two rows of shops along a dusty street.

We rode through them by minibus, mud-spattered white vans that reminded me of my kindergarten school bus. But the routes we traversed were no child’s play. We jolted along at 30km/h on dirt roads that prevented us from going any faster, and as the trail hugged mountainsides and curved around bends, I never dared to peer down at the cliff face and the steep drop beyond. Our drivers had a frustrating habit of halving the travel time when we asked, so a three-hour journey could easily turn into six or seven.

Shangrila China

One day, midway into the journey, our minibus shuddered to a stop before some roadworks. All the other passengers seemed nonplussed, making for the grassy banks that lined the single carriageway, pulling fruit and snacks out of their bags and pockets. Because this was China, watermelon rinds and empty bowls of instant noodles already pockmarked the surrounding area.

I approached a woman in a hard hat, who was wielding a large stop sign.

“How long will the roadworks take?”

“Maybe the whole afternoon,” she said, shrugging and turning away.

The sun was unforgiving at altitude, and we were in the middle of nowhere. My stomach churned from last night’s dinner — which happened frequently while I was in China, although I was unable to pinpoint the cause. The air hung heavy with the persistent smell of tar.

Fifteen minutes in, I was ready to scream. But the roadworks weren’t going anywhere, and what else could I do? The only option was to join the locals, who looked like they were having a merry time. I took off my watch, pulled out my travel journal, and began to write.

I don’t recall how long we waited, that afternoon, or what time it was when we finally set out. What I do remember is the sheer gratitude of climbing back into the minibus, the trundling of its wheels suddenly a reprieve, rather than a source of frustration. When we pulled into the next town I could see alpine peaks shimmering in the distance, and was it my imagination or sheer relief that made the air smell a little crisper here?

If all this sounds tedious and exhausting — it absolutely was. Every day was an emotional rollercoaster, with no indication of when we would arrive. Could I hold off the diarrhoea until the next rest stop, and would it be crawling with maggots when we got there?

And yet China invigorated me. I learnt that I could navigate the backwaters of a country; that life was better seen slowly; that things would work out even if I didn’t plan them three steps ahead.

western sichuan hot springs

One morning we hiked out to a monastery with only a hand-drawn paper map as a guide; another afternoon we met a local who showed us to natural hot springs, so hot I could barely keep my toe in the water.

“No one knows about these springs,” he said. “It’s like heaven.”

Another day we wandered through town with no plans, until a pair of fellow backpackers led us to a horse racing festival where blue skies and green plains sandwiched a riot of sound and colour. Some families camped, other lounged on groundsheets, and everyone paid respects by bowing to a horse led by a monk. 

Young men, almost boys, guided horses adorned with bells streamers as they galloped down a gauntlet of spectators. There were no guard rails, and when the horses veered off course, everyone gasped and backed away. It was completely unexpected, and one of the best days of my trip.

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I loved China. I loved how hard it made me work for it’s beauty, and how much it kept me in thrall. But I didn’t know how to describe these things, and struggled to justify my ardour when I came home.

How could I do justice to a country that had challenged and changed me? There was no way to articulate what I’d seen in a pithy line or two, or express why I was far less bothered by traffic jams and MRT delays now.

When people did ask, I found myself turning to stock replies of how the scenery was great, the food greasy but delicious, the people rowdy yet friendly. Privately, my thoughts had already turned to the pastures and plains, and how the horses’ bells called like a siren song, even from miles away.

*

A year later, I faced India with a little more trepidation. My first trip was a 24-hour layover on the way to London, my Jet Airways flight the cheapest I could find. When I landed in India I realised I’d spent so much time securing my tickets to Harry Potter Studios and Old Trafford that I had nothing on my Mumbai itinerary besides a hastily-changed pile of rupees I purchased from Changi Airport.

Meeting Sajid was a stroke of sheer luck, but even then, zipping around the city in a private taxi ride he’d arranged for me, fear thrummed in the back of my mind. This was the same country where women could be raped and their accompanying boyfriends murdered. Jyoti Singh’s story had become a cautionary tale.

Thankfully, those 24 hours passed without incident. A couple of years later, I felt reassured enough to revisit the country, this time with a few friends in tow. At the Juugadus hostel in Amritsar, our host Gopi handed us a folder on how to avoid unwanted advances from men.

Avoid smiling at men you don’t know, read one tip, as it could wrongly suggest some form of attraction.

Address platonic male friends by Bhara in Punjabi, or Bhaee in Hindi, which means brother.

“We are not rapists,” said Gopi, presumably on behalf of all good Indian men. “We hate what they do to women.”

“But our cultural norms are different.”

I’m not the only traveller who’s come to love a difficult country. The good people at the travel intern have invested much time and effort into debunking fears about India.

It’s a place they love from multiple trips there, including a three-month yoga teacher training course, trekking in Dharamshala and cruising down Kerala in a houseboat. They do this because India means something to each of them, and of course it means much more for Gopi and his kin. 

In Singapore, these aren’t popular opinions. I’ve literally seen people wrinkle their noses when I describe my adventures in India. What’s there to see, they ask, and I hear the unspoken question — why on earth would you want to go there?

*

There are easier destinations to love, at least from a Singaporean point of view. Wallet-friendly Bangkok is only two hours away, Melbourne is a stream of picture-perfect brunches, and Tokyo is bound to invite some serious sashimi-envy.

Preferences are subjective, so I usually don’t bother to change their minds. But when Dean and I visited Beijing two years ago on our way back from North Korea, I badly wanted him to love this country I spoke of so often, and fondly.

It was a muggy summer’s afternoon that glued our fringes to our foreheads and shirts to our backs. We took the subway to Tiananmen station, emerging at one corner of the historical square where it seemed half the country had the same plan as us. There were so many people that the police had erected barricades to herd the crowd through bag scanners and metal detectors.

Perhaps on a different trip I might have appreciated the security, how Beijing police sought to protect their city from suicide bombers and rogue vans that plague European cities in summer. But we were sweaty and tired from our overnight train ride, and suddenly all the little annoyances I’d learnt to ignore were jostling for attention.

A man had hiked up his singlet to reveal a sweaty paunch, and another lady was elbowing us from behind, and why wasn’t this bloody queue moving?! We had come to visit the mausoleum of former Chairman Mao, but by the time we cleared security, the line was so long that officials had closed it off for the day, waving us off brusquely as we approached.

Tired and dispirited, in that moment I hated everything about China.

Later, in hindsight, I’d realise how I had let the little things get to me — the little things I work on letting go of when I travel alone. Shebana Coelho writes, in a short story Snow in Mongolia: “When you travel, you tend to cultivate a persona different from that of your everyday life. You’re open to everything and you take better care of yourself emotionally. Because you know you’re out of your comfort zone, away from home, you work on letting go of whatever you can so that you can move with ease.”

It’s a mantra I have repeated to myself often, in immigration queues and sardine-packed trains across the world. I failed to do it that day. When you’ve built up a country so much in your head, it’s easy to be disappointed when real life doesn’t measure up. I wanted China to put it’s best face forward, and grown frustrated when it hadn’t.

That’s the thing, though. China’s best face is provocative, spiky and sometimes downright contrarian. That was how it pushed me to travel longer, farther, more fearlessly; how it forced me to challenge my prejudices and norms; why I fell for it in the first place.

After that first trip, I realised a month and a half hardly scratched the surface of China’s hundred different personalities. So I’ll keep coming back, trying to learn, accept and love all facets of this difficult, amazing country — and all the others I get a chance to visit in the world.

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