The funny thing about traveling solo as a foreigner in China is that you won’t be alone for long.
As soon as you arrive at your accommodation or pause to get a mug of tea and look at your map, you’ll be inundated with people with questions. If you show even the slightest ability to speak Chinese, the questions will fly at you faster and faster, and everyone around you will chime in. You’ll be asked all of the basics- Where are you from?, Can you speak Chinese? (We’re speaking in Chinese right now, aren’t we?) But most importantly, you’ll be asked if you’re traveling alone.
Where ever I’m traveling, I usually pause before I answer that question. It sounds innocent enough, but as a women traveling alone, I often don’t want to broadcast to the world that I’m a party of one. There’s been a few times- like in Cambodia- where I didn’t feel comfortable answering honestly and I lied. China has been different. In China, I tell the world that I’m traveling alone and I love to watch the reactions.
If an elderly auntie on the bus sees my backpack, then sees me, and asks if I’m traveling alone I will always say yes. The reaction is great- she’ll be shocked, a bit worried for me, but also will admire my sense of adventure. For women of her generation, traveling for leisure wasn’t an option and certainly not alone. I appreciate her caution as she’ll always want to know where I’m going and how I plan on getting there.
Usually, if a young person asks if I’m alone, the reaction is almost that of pity. Sure, this is an over generalization, but it seems to me that most Chinese don’t like being alone. My students, who live 6 or even 8 per room in the dorms, always ask if I’m lonely when they see my 2 bedroom apartment. I’ve asked them if they would live alone in a dorm room if they could and every one of them said that they like living with other people.
Once, I ran into my retired neighbor and his wife at the local bus station. After a long mix-up with my ticket where they served as my mediators, they gave me the phone number of the family member that they were going to visit and insisted that I called them when I arrived at my destination. I heard the relief in their voice when I checked in with them that night.
My Solo Trip to Yunnan
On a recent trip to Yunnan Province in Southern China, I experienced the joys of traveling alone, briefly. I flew from Chengdu to the Thai-influenced town of Xishuangbanna where I spent a day wandering through the palm tree lined streets sampling the local flavors. When I returned to my hostel that night, the owner immediately told me that there was another foreign girl who had also just checked in. He was very intent that I should meet her and we should travel together.
Almost just to appease him, I made of point of seeking out the other foreigner that night and introduced myself. Pip, the tall New Zealand college student, was traveling through Yunnan after a school sponsored trip. She embodied the warm New Zealand manner and we hit it off. We spent the next two days seeking out adventure in the nearby minority villages, and honestly, I was more eager to travel to remote towns that weren’t on the tourist map since I had a partner. Sometimes, it’s just smarter to travel with someone. (It was also much safer when we were approached by a pack of wild dogs and together we were able to employ a tag team of whooping barks and rock throwing.)
On her last night in Banna, she had arranged to play basketball with two of the guys that were also staying at the hostel, and I met up with the group afterwards for dinner.
As we searched out the local xiao kao, or BBQ on a stick, I found out that Pip’s basketball friends were gym teachers in another province. Since it was winter break, they decided to take a road trip through Yunnan, before driving to Chengdu and eventually flying home to Xinjiang province in the far North West of China for Spring Festival. Along the way, they met a young woman at their hostel who was devastated after an emotional breakup with her boyfriend. I found it quite surprising how quickly they opened up their trip to her, inviting her to travel with them.
By the end of dinner, we had established that their team of three was headed to Lijiang, a historic city at the base of a mountainous area in the northern part of the province. I was also headed there, but a day after them. We made plans to join up two days later- they even offered to pick me up at the airport.
The next few days turned out to be one of the best travel experiences I had in China. There’s nothing quite like traveling with locals, and it was such a wonderful opportunity to be a part of a group of like-minded travelers. It ended up being an entirely different trip than if I were traveling alone- and that’s a good thing too, given that an unexpected snow storm hit and I would have been stranded since I was unable to continue on my planned multi-day hike. Fortunately though, they had a car and knew of other destinations that I wouldn’t have thought of.
The weather made our sightseeing difficult, but not impossible. A lovely bike ride around Er Hai lake turned into a drive in the car, but the scenery was so beautiful it didn’t matter. The group scoffed at the overpriced snacks in the historic downtown of Lijiang, and instead found a local market and prepared homemade dumplings for dinner. At night, the four of us huddled around the fire and watched their favorite Chinese language movies and TV shows.
There were unexpected lessons along the way. I noticed that the oldest of the group, Kevin (who was also the owner of the car) always paid for everything. He carried a fanny pack and whenever anyone wanted anything (even a bottle of water) he paid. I’m assuming that they all contributed and this was a shared pool of funds, but I’m not certain. When I tried to pay for a group meal or an entrance ticket I was always refused. Finally, on my last day with the group, I insisted on paying to fuel up the car. I knew that their hospitality wouldn’t allow them to take my money for all of the shared expenses and I wanted to make sure I contributed somehow.
After four days and two cities it was sad to break up the group, but they needed to continue on and I had a few more destinations I wanted to check out in Yunnan.
I thought that that would be the end of my interrupted solo travel, but sure enough, another traveler found me. As I was walking through the old town area of JianShui, looking for an entrance to a historic house and I noticed a woman who was also searching for something. She was wearing a backpack and sneakers, so I assumed she was also a traveler. We passed each other at least 3 times as we both circled around the neighborhood.I finally found what I was looking for, and didn’t think of her again.
A couple of hours later, I was back on the street making my way around town when I heard someone calling out to me. Sure enough, it was the lady from before. She approached me, quickly established that I could understand her Chinese, and she didn’t stop talking for the next 12 hours. She was bubbly, curious, and thrilled to be able to help an American travel through China. We never really confirmed that we would travel together; it was just one of those very unique pairings where two solo travelers in remote parts of China obviously need to be together. Though she really liked to talk, and a bit too much for my taste, I just pretended to not fully understand her so that we could enjoy a little bit of the day in silence.
What I found really unique about her, was her insistence on being together. Like many women that I met traveling in China, she was married but didn’t seem to enjoy spending time with her husband. Many times I ran into married women traveling together without their husbands, but with her, she set off alone and hoped to meet people on the way. As soon as we started walking together, she was already planning our entire day together….and beyond.
This sort of thing happened over and over during my month of solo travel in Yunnan. It’s not to say that it hasn’t happened in other countries, but in China I know without fail that if I am traveling alone I will be approached by other local travelers (not just other Westerners) who either think that I must be lonely and therefore need to spend time with me, or by curious people who want to hang out. Sometimes, it works out to everyone’s benefit and we can share expenses like a rental car. Sometimes, it’s just nice to have company.
There are those times though when I really do want to be alone and I have to try hard to politely let my unsolicited guide for the day know that just because I’m alone doesn’t mean I’m lonely.
When you’re traveling alone, do you like meeting up with other people, or do you prefer to travel by yourself? Feel free to comment below.