I may have just come up with a new namesake for this blog. The word “travel,” at once synonymous with incredible freedom and exhilaration, is also implicated with a fair degree of contempt. Simply reading a few other travel blogs of late has made me increasingly aware of the joys and perils that travel can take, and how easily one might become burnt out by the very thought of it—opting to spend a lazy evening abroad, for example, eating microwave popcorn and watching re-runs of Seinfeld, for want of visiting yet another tourist site or ancient ruin. Whenever you travel, you run the risk of having everything you planned for go horribly wrong at a moment’s notice. But you also learn how to roll with the punches. Take travel in China for instance. For anyone who hasn’t experienced the great Chinese rail network already, I urge you to try it out. I can assure you that it is an once-in-a-lifetime experience.
The first thing you notice on the train is the stares—wide-eyed, bewildered glances from people of all kinds, looking you over and whispering about your foreignness to their seatmates as soon as you’ve passed. Then comes the smell—an incredibly pungent combination of waste, human refuse, and cigarette smoke. The smoking section on the trains is technically confined to the areas between cars, but opening doors and a general carelessness about smoking in China on the whole hardly confines it in the least. Once the train begins moving, you start to get an uncomfortable cold feeling in the toes of your feet. That's because overcrowding and a routine lack of heating translate to long standing train rides where your feet are most vulnerable to the elements. To top it all off, blaring on loop from the speakers on overnight trains is the same, wretched Kenny G “jazz” ballad that is criminally popular in China (according to Wikipedia: [Kenny G's] music is noticeably popular in China. His recording "Going Home" is often played at closing time at public places or at the end of classes at schools), leaving you feeling as a passenger that you would rather be propelling toward the end of the universe than stand to be on the train any longer.
This all brings me, of course, to my upcoming plans for winter break. I feel so extremely fortunate to have not one, but two two-month long vacations during the year as a teacher at Shanxi Agricultural University, and privileged to have the luxury of a $1500 check each year to supplement travel just for being a Shansi Fellow. One break is in the winter from the end of December to March and the other is in the summer from the end of June through September. Never again in my wildest dreams will I have a job that pays me to travel for four months out of the year, so you can be sure that I will be making the most of it. This winter, I will be traveling to three countries, and at least seven major cities/regions. I will be spending three weeks in Japan, two weeks in India, and the rest of my time in China.
But there is one key problem: India. The Indian Visa is notoriously hard to obtain, even for U.S. citizens living in the states, let alone for U.S. nationals who don’t. After an interminable poring over of online materials—documents, rules, regulations, exceptions—I was essentially left with two options. The first would be to have my visa done in Beijing—using my work permit as proof of residency—but that process would have taken five to six days, more time than I would be spending in Beijing before my plan to go to India. The second was to express mail my passport back to the states and get it processed in New York. This too had its own share of difficulties, though this time largely due to my own lack of foresight. My only proof of identity besides my passport is my driver’s license—needed for the visa application—which upon recent inspection, expired five months ago, and requires an in-person eye exam to get renewed. So it looked as if both options were no-gos. It was especially frustrating because this issue could have easily been resolved with just the slightest bit of planning on my part—going to Beijing one week earlier to drop off my passport and get it processed before my trip to Japan, or renewing my driver’s license when I was at home during the summer. As a person who prides himself on his prudence (though admittedly, not my punctuality), this came as an incredible blow to nearly everything that I stand for. Miraculously, however, a third option arose.
After a few calls to the Visa Application Center in Beijing and a great deal of hoop-jumping, it turned out that I could have a proxy deliver visa materials to be processed on my behalf. I enlisted the generous help of my friend Jordan who I was staying with in Beijing and got to work. After a day spent printing, copying, and meticulously filling out application materials, I left a stack of papers, a wad of 100 yuan bills (the visa to India is expensive), a pre-paid express mail envelope, and a list of instructions in Jordan’s care. The process, ideally, will look something to this effect: I fly to Japan. Almost immediately upon landing, I express mail my passport to Jordan’s apartment in Beijing. Jordan goes to the Visa Application Center and delivers my application on my behalf. He receives the passport back in five to six business days. He then express mails my passport to the house in Machida, Tokyo, where I will be boarding with two of the other Shansi Fellows. I fly back to China.
All of this is supposed to happen over the course of a short three weeks. It is incredibly risky and riddled with any number of potential mishaps along the way. But what’s the fun of being young without taking some absurd risks? And thus, with the hope that everything goes smoothly, here is the tentative breakdown of my winter itinerary:
12.28-12.31.09: Chaoyang, Beijing
12.31.09-1.4.10: Shinjuku, Tokyo
1.4-1.8.10: Kutchan & Sapporo, Hokkaido
1.8-1.16.10: Machida, Tokyo
1.16-1.22.10: Hirakata, Osaka
1.22-1.23.10: Machida, Tokyo
1.23-1.26.10: Chaoyang, Beijing
1.26-1.27.10: Delhi, Haryana
1.27-2.3.10: Madurai, Tamil Nadu
2.3-2.5.10: (a series of overnight buses and trains from Madurai to Jagori)
2.5-2.9.10: Jagori, Himachal Pradesh
2.9-2.11.10: Delhi, Haryana
In India, there is also a chance of going to visit Goa, Mumbai, Kolkata, or Chennai while in the Madurai area, but they are all train rides away and have yet to be fully mapped out. I get back to China on February 11th, and from there don’t have any really concrete plans as to what to do until school starts up again at the beginning of March. I might decide to stay in Beijing, visit Anne’s extended family in Shandong Province, or travel to any number of my students’ hometowns who have invited me to stay with them for Spring Festival. Spring Festival in China is better known to the outside world as Chinese New Year, which takes place this year on February 14th.
All of this traveling is exciting, but at the same time, incredibly ambitious—more work perhaps than a rightful “vacation” should be, where the only two bullet points on my daily agenda consist of (a) sitting in the sun and (b) sipping mojitos. Needless to say, I’m not even going to a warm enough place that the first option is possible. And everyone knows that mojitos are poorly made in Asia. Travel will largely be stressful because I’ll be alone in Japan and don’t have a phone that works outside of China. In Japan, I will be traveling on my own, but in India, I’ll have a travel partner in Anne, and in both places, I’ll be staying in the company of incredibly hospitable friends at each leg of the journey. I have set a budget for myself of $1000 each for both Japan and India, not including the cost of airfare, but including all requisite travel within the country, in addition to the usual staples of food, lodging, and souvenirs. However, for some reason, I have a feeling that that money will go quite a bit farther in India than it will in Japan.
In spite of all of my nay-saying, I am reminded now, on the eve of my long vacation, of why I love to travel in the first place. At first it was an excuse to see landmarks and touristy sights, but quite frankly, I like to travel now simply to see the people I care about seeing. Visiting other countries interests me infinitely more when there is someone I know living there that I can make the journey to see. To that end, I am proud to say that by mid-February, and if all goes well regarding the Indian Visa, I will have seen all 18 of the Shansi Fellows currently in Asia, save for the five in Indonesia. I have already seen Adam and Alex when I went to visit Kunming over Chinese National Week in October. I just saw Mia at her new digs at Beijing Normal University. I will be staying with Sam, Erika, and Ben in Tokyo. I will first see Kelly in Madurai and then travel up to northern India to see Jenna and Anya. And I’m in the process of scheduling my next big trip—to Indonesia in August to see the rest of the Shansi folks there. By all accounts, it’s really just an exercise in opportunism, in which I am already well versed. Shansi, rightly, has done its job—placing us all in sites across Asia and giving us money to visit each other during holiday breaks. With most all of the Fellows working at below-minimum wage salaries (including yours truly), the prospect of free housing—not to mention a warm, familiar face—in a land abroad is an enticing one indeed.