Blue sky in Beijing 

The smog lifted and I saw a rare blue sky as I rode the little bicycle around Beijing my last morning.



I named the bike xie xie, which is thank you, one of the few Chinese phrases I can say unselfconsciously now.

It was cold and windy but the ladies were dancing in Jingshan park. 


It costs 2 yuan to enter the park and I couldn’t take Xie Xie in, but I spent an hour walking, watching the dancing ladies and backward walking men, and  climbing the little hill to look at the Forbidden City and the stretch of Beijing to the mountains that is usually impossible to see.

I pedalled through the wind to Tiannanmen Square, where xie xie was also most unwelcome.   There is a strict security check to get into the square, but I must have looked sufficiently harmless because when I couldn’t produce my passport or indeed any ID except a credit card the guard waved me in anyway.

Windswept, huge, flanked by multiple fences and scary totalitarian buildings. And soldiers and police and Mao. No one is going to gather here unbidden any time soon. 


I rode around and around in the freezing sun. Wandering hutongs and knowing this life won’t be here in 5 years. This moment.






I’m not sure what I expected Beijing to be, but it certainly wasn’t this so-alive, ground-level tangle of laneway life. The old part of the city is a warren of “hutongs,” tiny lanes that snake between the main streets, where some families have lived for centuries. Some still don’t have indoor plumbing — every hutong is dotted with public washrooms that look… cold.

The hutongs have become more commercial and sought-after in the past few years, and the government is demolishing many of them in favour of “progress” and tall squat buildings — but there are still hundreds of them, plenty of life amid the tea houses, restaurants, street food sellers and graphic comic shops.


My hotel is down a hutong and then hidden off to one side, and behind this grey narrow passage is a super-comfortable place centred around a courtyard, complete with cat and a friendly central lobby bar/coffee space. My room is the most cosy and serene I’ve had so far on this trip. The hotel is smart enough to give each guest a good map and a cellphone pre-loaded with phone numbers to call if you get lost.

I borrowed a ludicrous tiny folding bicycle from the hotel and rode around Beijing for 5 hours today, watching winter sports (chair skating? people either push others around or pole themselves around on these chairs-with-runners).


I pedalled around the edges of the Forbidden City, through the north end of Tiannanmen Square (where an old man on an equally tiny bicycle gave me a thumbs up), through obscure hutongs and giant modern shopping complexes. Most streets have a bicycle lane separated from the main traffic, used by bikes, motorbikes, walkers and random strange 3 wheeled vehicles of all kinds.


I looked ridiculous — bundled up, toque on head, perched on folding bike, wearing a smog mask part of the time. But I was absolutely joyful as I rode. The sun broke through the haze, and I was entranced over and over by the architecture — ground level, centuries old — and street life.

I stopped for lunch at a dim sum place I’d read was open 24 hours. There was a long line I had to figure out how to navigate — there was a little tent where you got your number, a printout with a QR code, and where people crowded around a large screen tv waiting. Everyone else milled about outside. There were dozens of people ahead of me.


The numbers were only called in chinese and there was no visual of any kind, so I kept showing my ticket hopefully to the shy door guy, who had no english and kept shaking his head. (His demeanour was identical to the man who later served me dinner at a Malaysian Chinese restaurant. I realized how anxious some people must be when Westerners come in and try to communicate so ineffectively. Apparently my charade of “I’ll order spring rolls and a beer now and please come back in a minute when I’ve had a chance to look at the menu” was not easy to follow; my dinner guy hovered in suspension right by my elbow until I stabbed at something in the menu).

After half an hour of waiting in the dim sum line, a young woman overheard me gently accosting the door guy again and pointing to my number. She asked me if I wanted to join her and her boyfriend, since they had a table for four. She had just come back from doing a master’s in landscape architecture in the US. I stuffed myself on pork buns and har gau and bean curd rolls and some things I’d never tried before. They insisted on paying.


China has so far been kindness everywhere for me. I don’t know what I expected — more of the sense of oppression I felt in Xian, maybe, a sense of dis-ease and misery. I didn’t expect so much happy street life, or a sweet young woman named Sunny buying me lunch, or feeling at ease on Bejing’s streets on a bike. I wasn’t certain I wanted to visit China at all, my pre-conceived notions all making it feel like a somewhat off-putting place.

When I decided to come to Bejing despite the pollution warnings, someone said to me that it was changing so fast I could only know this moment in time, that this moment would be gone in two years. I can see how that is happening — and today it was pure delight, a 3000 year old city laced with stories and ground-level life.

When you travel alone



IMG_0060.JPG“You are alone? Where is your better half?”

Most people are less direct about my solo state than the two women from San Francisco who were sitting behind me on my flight from Beijing to Ho Chi Minh City. I didn’t really understand them any more than they understood me — one placed a single curler carefully in her bangs to sleep on the plane, and the other put on the kind of gooey facemask I would be reluctant to use except when I was completely naked. “Just me,” I said.

When you travel alone, you have a relationship with a place, not the people you are with. I’ve had many boon traveling companions — some lovers, some friends, some accidental — and it’s lovely to share a place with someone, to have someone to turn to and say “was that woman holding a dead pigeon?” or to tell you that you look like an 80 year old in that hijab when you visit a mosque. To hike up a peak or wade into the reluctant ocean together, discovering the scrape of sand in unison as you get knocked down. Sharing the philosophy that emerges when new place expands you.

It’s good to have people — and for me, alone is simpler, elemental. It’s hemming my raw self to a new place, absorbing the folds of heat, smell, pace, distances, impulses, adapting from the inside out. When I move through a new place with someone else, I track how they are absorbing, their comforts and needs, as much as mine. I fret about their contentment. My receptors open differently. I talk to them about the place, not with the place.

When you travel alone, simple decisions can be either “safe” — eat in the hotel — or tinged with question marks that feel different than if you’re with someone. My impulsivity, letting what happens wash over me, comes to the foreground. I don’t deliberate as much as make micro-decisions and then let things emerge.

On New Year’s Eve, I was in Xian, China. I had literally never heard of this city and it has 10 million people. I felt insulated in my hotel, and randomly picked a restaurant I thought I could walk to. I asked for a map, and directions, and it seemed very close. But Xian is fogged with pollution haze, and the streets are sporadically lit, storefront signs often the only illumination. And as I started to walk, I kept running into locked metal gates. I couldn’t find my way out of the enclave that my hotel was in, and ran right back into my hotel entrance after 10 minutes of walking.

If I’d been with someone, I would have started to get anxious here. Were they okay with this? Whose idea was this anyway? Should we abort and go into the overpriced, mediocre hotel restaurant after all? When I was younger, companions took the brunt of my anxiety — why are we doing this?? Is this dangerous? (SORRY BENNETT!) I can still get torqued out when I travel with other people when my impatience and discomfort take over. Alone, I have to be patient, own my discomfort.

On new year’s, I tripped a bit on a weirdly angled gutter, and found my way to the entrance of the square. I was completely turned around, but kept walking, following the shaky directions. Now it was completely dark, and even cyclists and motorbikes were coming up behind me without lights. Most of the building fronts were lightless and the sidewalks were filled with parked cars. It was damp and quiet, and occasionally, I could see someone going into a tiny grey house behind a walled gate. All of the signs I could see were in chinese characters, nothing that looked like the restaurant I was looking for.

I walked to the next main intersection and looked at my map. Clearly much too far. No one to ask anything — I knew the name of the restaurant but couldn’t say it. I backtracked, scanning more closely. And there it was, almost at the original turn, sign so high up I hadn’t noticed it the first time.

The room was small and bright and filled with people eating, all Chinese, and I was greeted by a young man whose english was better than I expected. He led me upstairs to the overflow area, where I would be alone. “No, please — up here is lonely.” This has happened to me before as a solo traveler. “I will wait.” He set me down at a little couch downstairs, and we figured out that he only sold wine by the bottle, not the glass. It’s new year’s eve, I thought, and picked out a bottle. “I will not drink all of this,” I laughed — “you should have some.”

As I ate, the restaurant emptied out. It was 730.

You eat early here!

They are home, watching tv show about New Year’s.

Seriously, have a glass of my wine. He brought me some homemade ginger chicken while I waited for my food — my friend made it. His two friends, a couple, waved at me from another table, the only other ones there.

He took a glass of wine, and began to talk, about China and human rights. He is in his early 30s, desperately wants to leave. He talked for a long time, while I ate. About parental pressure, and having to pay off the government to open a business, and having to do something he didn’t want to do. About his child, whom he named something uniquely western, a gesture of hope and open knowledge.

I brought the wine over to the table with his friends and we all had a glass. His wife and the beautiful 2 year old joined us. The boy’s English was surprisingly good — “he watches teletubbies and Peter Rabbit on BBC via VPN,” my friend said. We all talked for two hours. Do your parents pressure you to have children in Canada? They have English names because the Hong Kong companies they have worked for require it. They dream of Germany and New Zealand and Australia, a place where they can be open. The only Canadians they know are Norman Bethune, Celine Dion and some guy named Mark Henry Rowswell.

We have a friend, they said. She is a female, but she likes females. Do you understand? Yes, I said. This is no place for her. She cannot be open. I try to explain the concept of the Rainbow Railroad.

We finish the wine and they pour out cider. We talk until 1030, a stream of hopes and questions. The woman who made the ginger chicken is so pretty with a cute little skirt and rolls her eyes about her mother in law’s pressure to have a child. The child’s mom slowly tells me she wishes she had confidence, to speak english freely, to travel alone. We exchange wechat information, because it’s the only way to connect in this regime. When I leave, I double the bill and tell them it’s for their son’s future. He looks up from his Peter Rabbit and says Sank You.

Before I left, a friend told me that she could never travel like this alone — that traveling makes her too anxious. It makes me anxious too. But it also forces me to move through the anxiety, and opens me up to being present to what is there, not interpreting it through a shared prism. I let things like loud music go more easily because there’s no one to create shared — and amplified — irritation with, no one else’s reaction to worry about. I randomly pick destinations and then swallow my fatigue because this long hot walk was my choice, because I see the park alive with people, doing tango and playing a hacky sack badminton hybrid, that I would never see from a cab.

It can be lonely — but the floating moments, the letting a place in, letting people in, happens in a completely different dimension when I’m alone. You can’t “make” connections happen — but walking those damp grey or too hot kilometres with an open heart makes something happen that changes me. I see myself as more intrepid than I feel because of how others see me, see my privilege, see my confidence, see my strength. I am more fluid, more at ease. I notice things.

When my friend told me she could never travel alone, I said “The thing is, if you’re with someone else, you have the freedom to have that meltdown at the airport,” I said. “But if you’re alone, you’re not just going to lie down on the floor of the Addis airport and never get up.” “I’m not so sure,” she said. I am.

Cut off

One of my resolutions for 2016 has been to deepen my practice of gratitude, including writing something every day about what I’m grateful for. It’s been a huge gift to start the year in China, where I am full of wonder for this huge world, the humanity and hope and yearning in it, and most important, so so full of gratitude for the freedom of Canada.

I knew that there were “chinese censors of the internet,” and I’ve experienced some weirdness about online access before in rwanda and myanmar. But here, Facebook is illegal, which means I get notifications that I have messages in messenger but can’t read them and can’t access FB at all; google is suspect, so I had to figure out a workaround on safari on my ipad through bing to search anything; my gmail (being google) has gradually stopped working on everything except my ipad through mail (and I’m waiting for that to shut down, since that happened on my phone); I can’t access cbc website or download any cbc podcasts; I can’t access the NY Times, not even to update the crossword in my crossword app. And of course because I am relying on wifi, I can only text people through imessage. This notion of gradually having all means of connection shut off is at first frustrating (why is the little ball spinning?) and then as it dawns, you realize how in this context, worlds get smaller and narrower, and what is true gets defined within this space.

I met some Chinese people on NY’s Eve who talked about how hard it is to be young and feel so few options, to feel so trapped. They named their son something that represented hope for knowledge in the bigger world (I don’t want to share it because it would identify them, but it was so poignant). He was a beautiful 2 year old. It was the best gift I could have had for NYE — deep connection with people about their hopes for their lives, how hard it is to be in this place with so few choices. Reminding me of my privilege, the world I live in.
(Want to post a photo of him hiding under a table, but again, now I am paranoid about causing them trouble).

Since I got to china, my eyes have been burning and my chest tightening with the pollution. This and the censorship are emphatic punctuation: you live in good place. And, people everywhere make gestures of hope, sing happy birthday in a tiny Hunan restaurant, share food, open up to others, survive as fully as they can, and who yearn to travel and see things outside themselves. I’m so glad I came to China.