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China at Eye Level
By Kendra Tombolato | NO. 14 APRIL 5, 2018

Railway policeman helps passengers board a train at Yuncheng station, north China's Shanxi Province, on February 22 (XINHUA)

It seems, with the current state of technological advances and continual development of infrastructure, that almost every corner of the world is now accessible by some means of transport. Air travel means that a journey that would have previously taken weeks is now shortened to a matter of hours. For me to reach China from my home in the middle of the United States would have seemed borderline impossible without flying. Now, however, it takes less than 24 hours from leaving my house in the mountains of Colorado to walking in the front door of my urban residence in Beijing. However, while convenience may abound, the enchantment of such expedited travel is largely left wanting.

In the fall of 2014, I set out to see as much of China as my savings would allow, with only one parameter—no planes. Starting in the southern city of Guangzhou, my boyfriend and I zigged and zagged across the country, until nine months later we were bidding China farewell from the capital, Beijing.

Our adventure began on buses, the tickets were cheap and it seemed everywhere in China was reachable via these rickety steel boxes. In Yunnan Province we boarded a 12-hour overnight bus from Lijiang to the town of Tengchong on the border with Myanmar. In the night, as we weaved up a mountain road, the frame of my metal bunk bed swayed violently back and forth with every hairpin turn, threatening to pull away from the bolts at any moment. The morning light was a welcome sight as the mountains became visible through the window, and the disorientating blanket of darkness melted away.

Guizhou Province greeted us with natural landscapes and the isolated villages of ethnic minorities. Our first bus in the province took us from the capital Guiyang to the town of Zhijin, and cruised seamlessly along unlike anything I had seen before. Instead of weaving up and down mountains, the roads were straight; a mountain tunnel opened to a soaring bridge leading straight into the mouth of another tunnel. On this went, alternating between darkness and sheer drops on either side. A Wikipedia search would later reveal that, of the world's highest bridges, the large majority are in Guizhou.

Soon after, we found ourselves near Pakistan in China's northwest, on the side of the Karakoram Highway, the highest paved road in the world. Our luck with public transport had run dry and so we reverted to our thumbs and a cardboard sign to reach the Karakul Lake. Before long, a car pulled over and the middle-aged driver offered us a ride. The man himself had other business to attend to, and so back at his house he instructed his brother to stop working with the wave of a hand and drive us the rest of the way to the lake.

Our primary means of transport, however, was trains. A process of elimination led us to the realization that the middle bunk of a hard sleeper was the optimum compromise between price and comfort. Here we had a relatively private space free from weary legs looking for a place to sit, and near-perfect views out of the large square windows on either side. It was from this position that we saw most of China in a geographic sense—from terraced rice fields and farming villages to urban sprawl and industrial nothingness. Our longest such journey was from Urumqi in Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region to Beijing. We spent 39 hours slurping instant noodles as we watched the land outside transform from arid desert to jagged mountains, and finally mutate into countless apartment complexes and modern skyscrapers.

In addition to discovering the landscapes and cultures hidden within China's borders, I also discovered a new perspective on my own country. Upon returning to my hometown it occurred to me that I had never taken public transit, small local buses aside, to go anywhere in the U.S. It is generally accepted that to travel in America, the only two options are to fly or to drive yourself. The capital of my state, Denver, doesn't even have a subway system, the national rail network is slow and expensive, and the long-distance Greyhound buses hold a reputation for being more dangerous than practical.

China is special in this regard, but as the high-speed rail network and cheap domestic flights replace the more traditional, unhurried forms of transport, this unique view of the country may be lost. For now, whenever I board a train, bus or taxi, a wave of nostalgia for the minute details of China washes over me, and the realization that an addiction to convenience will have soon taken precedence over intrigue.

The author is an American living in Beijing

Copyedited by Laurence Coulton

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