Chen: Taking the time to travel

There’s this idea that travel should be about having adventures. Travel should provide, as Tatsuya Ishida once philosophized, “NEW EXPERIENCES! LIFE-AFFIRMING SOUL-STIRRING EXPERIENCES!” This is what I was looking for when I set off this summer to traipse for 45 days around China’s lonely grasslands, meditative lakes and daring cliffs. But my travel — despite all its novelties and surprises — developed a comforting rhythm of its own.

Arrive in a city. Open the guidebook. Choose a hotel. Flag a cab. Check into a hotel. Immediately rummage through the giveaways to see if there is anything worth taking. Sleep. Unlike at Yale, nothing stops you from sleeping as much as you want.

No responsibilities, it seems.

Except the most basic ones. The ones that are taken care of for you when you live on-campus in a university — a room, a bed, a meal, a shower — become your most pressing responsibilities. Plus one large looming responsibility, the responsibility to wander.

Days before I was scheduled to depart, I felt tremendously guilty because I felt that in going to China (a country where I speak the language and am ethnically identical to the people, a country where I’ve spent two summers of my adult life) I was cheating. I felt I should have gone to Ghana, Chile or Scandinavia — to a riskier place. I could go anywhere in the world, and yet had chosen to wander home.

To a home that quickly felt less so.


“They’re looking at you,” R. said to me.

“How do you know they’re not looking at you?” I retorted. R. was one of three boys from the University of Edinburgh with whom I travelled with through western China. Blonde and blue-eyed (or at least brunette and hazel-eyed) the boys had been amassing most of the stares and attention during the trip. Regularly, Chinese tourists would tap me on the shoulder, address me as daoyou — “tour guide” — and ask if they could snap a picture with my clients. The boys joked about charging five yuan per picture and of setting up a photo booth to make a bit of money, to offset our traveling expenses.

But here, in Kashgar, an oasis-city near the China-Afghanistan border, all the stares were clearly directed at me. As we walked by the nan carts and rug shops in the Old City, the men silently ogled, their heads turning to follow me as I walked past. The women glared at me from behind their full-length black gowns. The temperature was easily over 100 degrees; there was not a single cloud to obscure the sun.

Uyghurs, one of China’s 55 ethnic minorities, make up between 70 and 90 percent of Kashgar’s population. Uyghurs are predominantly Muslim and, in accordance, the women in Kashgar, particularly in the Old City, dress very conservatively. Ankles are okay; knees are not. Not all the women wear head scarves, but none of their necklines show much more than their neck.

I was wearing a skirt that went down to my knees and a T-shirt — positively covered by Western summer standards but positively scandalous here. Lonely Planet writes, “It is wise for women travelers to dress as would be appropriate in any Muslim country, covering arms and legs.” I had intended to buy something appropriate. I found a real Uyghur dress, one of cream-colored silk with stylized floral patterns in dark brown and blue. It was so large that it actually went down past my feet, so that we had to bobby pin and belt it to keep me from tripping all over it when I walked. And yet, even covered up to this extent, I still got stares — no less than before.

Only then did I notice that there were people who wore T-shirts in the Old City — the tourists. Ethnically Han tourists. (Han make up 92 percent of the Chinese population and are what is stereotypically thought of as “Chinese.” Lucy Liu is Han; I am Han.) They stood out among the ethnically Turkish Uyghurs. There weren’t many. Though domestic tourism is flourishing, Xinjiang, the region in which Kashgar is located, is still considered an uncivilized desert.

However, Xinjiang has also been flooded with ethnic Han, who are encouraged to move there by tax incentives, the promise of jobs and propaganda— China’s version of “Go West, young man.” Xinjiang was not an established part of the People’s Republic of China until 1955, when the People’s Liberation Army “peacefully liberated” Xinjiang from their own republic, the Second East Turkestan Republic. Han migration is seen as a necessary method through which to solidify control. Han are preferentially selected for government positions and now make up 50 percent of the population of Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang. Some Uyghurs even believe that the People’s Republic of China is trying to encourage Han to move to Xinjiang in order to dilute the proportion of Uyghurs in the population and breed them out.

Even Kashgar, on the Western-most edge of Xinjiang, practically as far from Beijing as a Chinese city can get, is changing. The PRC is knocking down much of the old multi-generational housing and forcibly evicting the residents into new characterless high-rises. The high-rises are materially superior to the dust-coated buildings of the Old City, but they lack it’s character and culture — the balconies with charming floral motifs that so resemble the ones in New Orleans’ French Quarter, the crowds of street children temporarily enraptured by a black and white television program, the smoke from the yogurt-coated lamb-kebab stands.

Though the Uyghurs and the Han share the same cities, they do so uneasily. The Uyghur and Han live in distinctly different districts and ethnic riots occur regularly in Xinjiang. Had I visited at the same time last summer, when a major riot occurred, I might have been dragged into an alleyway and beaten solely for my appearance.

To the Uyghurs, an ethnically Han girl in a traditional Uyghur outfit was even more of a shock than an ethnically Han girl in a short skirt. A real Han girl would only dress in an ethnic minority costume in order to have a souvenir picture taken next to a camel. Their eyes followed me now not with lust or disapproval but with curiosity, the way I would stare at a blonde Harajuku drag queen waiting on York Street for a lunch-time burrito at the burrito cart. I was not uncomfortable being looked at in this way. Emboldened by their inquisitiveness, I looked back.

I saw Uyghur. I saw Han.


Thunk. The deep, low sound of my body hitting a patch of grass reverberated in my head. The horse I was riding had tripped on some rocks just after it had finished fording a stream. It had broken into a gallop and, probably because it’s hooves were still slippery, had slid over the rocks in the trail. I was thrown off.

This was my first time riding a horse — day two of a two-day ride from Lake Kanas, a massive lake near the border of China and Kazakstan, to Hemu, a small nomadic village. The night before, we’d slept in a yurt next to a mirror black pond. We’d feasted on homemade laghman (noodles with lamb a bell peppers, a specialty of the region, the noodles freshly stretched by the lady of the house), bread dipped in butter milk-tea (a surprisingly appetizing combination of the three ingredients) and locally-brewed rice wine (surprisingly sweet, tangy and palatable). At the time, it had tasted like most delicious thing I’d ever eaten, which probably had to do with the fact that I’d just spent the last five hours on horseback. We’d woke up and dressed in chilling darkness and began to ride again in a smoky dawn — the musky burnt orange rays speckling the eastern hills, the stars still holding out against a blue-black sky.

We’d forded many streams before this one and each time my horse — old, black with grey streaks — had steadily and reliably carried me across. He would pick his way carefully along the path, oftentimes just a narrow break in the carpet of grass. First-time riders often worry about being thrown off and snapping their necks. But with such a dependable and gentle creature, I couldn’t imagine ending up on the ground.

Until I ended up on the ground.

“Get back on the horse,” I said to myself then. I got back on.

I’ve been told that in these situations you have to get back on the horse as soon as possible. The longer you wait to confront the fear, the scarier getting back on becomes.

It wasn’t fear of greater fear that got me back on the horse. Surrounded by grass and mountains, there was simply nothing else I could do.


N. and I were sitting at the general store/bus stop in Jiapeng, an isolated rural mountain village in the largely agricultural province of Anhui in eastern China. Here, in the summer heat, the air was thick and gooey. This air, saturated with humidity, nurtures the land so that it overflows with life. Bright, ripe corn and rice kernels bursting from the green pockets of rice plants. Plump indigo eggplants and bulging green cabbage. Sturdy green beans and delicate white-flowering sesame.

The crops stretch for miles and miles up and down the mountain and surround Jiapeng. There isn’t much to the village other than this general store. The only indication that it was also the bus stop was a wooden bench placed outside and the half a dozen or so people who, along with us, were waiting for the bus.

There seemed to be some debate as to whether or not a bus was actually leaving. One spirited man in dark blue pants declared that the last bus had already left, that the bus sitting outside the store wasn’t operating that day. Another woman, who seemed to derive some authority from her permed hair, declared that it was absolutely coming, although she wasn’t sure whether it would arrive at 4:20 or 4:50. An old woman carrying two pumpkins arrived and started to load them on the bus. Blue Pants, ever vigilant, ran over to tell her that the bus wasn’t coming. She looked at him incredulously and left her pumpkins on the bus. N. and I took this to be an indication that this bus was actually departing. I sent N. to claim our seats with a bottle of shampoo and a bottle of conditioner, the closest thing to pumpkins I had in my bag.

Shortly, however, Pumpkin Woman came back, went up to the bus, and took off one (but not the other) of her orange assets. “She’s diversifying,” N. exclaimed. An economics major, he was clearly delighted to see economic principles in action. But now we didn’t know whether the bus was coming or not. There was one vote for the bus, one vote for no bus and one lonely pumpkin.

We didn’t have much of a choice but to wait. And so we sat and waited. The sweltering, moist heat drenched our necks and our backs and our faces with sweat. My hair products melted.

We took bets on whether or not a bus would actually leave from Jiapeng to take us to our destination, the closest large city, Jixi. We dreamed about being stuck here overnight and sleeping in the corn fields under the stars. We dreamed about being stuck here forever and starting a new life as farmers, our Yale educations utterly useless. 4:20 passed, and then 4:50. The bus at the station wasn’t moving. No other bus had shown up.

That night, we had a train to catch from Jixi, a train we could not miss. And yet, we were remarkably calm. My earlier paranoia and anxiety, the anxiety that had made me want to catch swine flu earlier in the summer — the sort of anxiety I assumed would follow me everywhere — simply wasn’t there. Perhaps, over the course of 16,000 miles, it got lost.

Here, in Jiapeng, in Anhui, in China, there were so many unknowns — not knowing when the bus was going to come, where we were going to sleep, whether or not N. and I were going to date. I’d sat in the heat for so long that the sticky, sweet rice air had infused every cell of my body. And I felt at peace with the uncertainty of the future.

Putt, putt, putt. A bus bounced up the road. N. and I went for the front bench, right behind the driver, with a good 60 percent more leg room (the average Chinese man is 5-foot-4; China was not kind to 5-foot-10 N.) Then, swishing her plastic bags around her like two low-aimed mace and chains, Pumpkin Women pushed past N. and plopped herself victoriously in the front bench.

“I’m not messing with her,” N. joked, sliding into another bench.


There’s this idea that travel should be about having adventures. There’s another that travel is about being able to share your adventures.

And yet when I first got back, and acquaintances at frat parties would ask, “How was your summer?” I loathed having to share my experiences.

The sound bites I was expected to convey over warm beer would never capture exactly what I had gained. Travel is remarkably difficult to justify directly. It is enormously expensive but imparts no hard skills, no vocational training, not even an additional line on a resume. It’s impossible to say exactly what is learned by wearing a dress, riding a horse or sitting in a rural village waiting for a bus.

But something is. Something that helps you wander home.

Jialu Chen is a senior in Trumbull College. Her trip was funded by the Class of ’55 Travel Fellowship, awarded to juniors in Trumbull College.

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