No reservations, part 1


When I travel, I normally have things planned out to a fair degree. I have reservations for transportation and lodgings, and sometimes even for specific sights that require them. This is a story of the opposite tactic.

A few weeks ago, as the week-long Golden Week holiday approached, everyone in the office was talking about travel plans. Most of them were going to visit their hometowns, and they told many tales of difficulty getting train tickets. With the improving economic situation here, hundreds of millions of people all want to travel at the same time. The government has instituted measures to try to spread out the rush a bit, but so far without much effect. But when I was asked, I had no plans.

Then I was talking with a former coworker (with the end of the Olympics and reduction in our staff, I have a lot of these), and she was talking about visiting her home province of Gansu, but at the end of the holiday instead of the beginning. There would probably be fewer people on the move at that time. I’ve seen pictures of the area around her home town and said, “Wow, that’s amazing. I should go along!” So we started tentatively thinking about a trip.

But it turned out Gansu was just too far to go. We started looking at alternate destinations. Hangzhou and Suzhou? Qingdao, maybe? Then she remembered a place I once told her I wanted to visit, the big Buddhist carvings at Yungang Grottoes in Shanxi. It seemed like the right combination of distance (roughly eight hours by train) and desirability. A little bit of research added another Shanxi destination to the list, and we had a vague 4-5 day itinerary. And two of my friend’s old college classmates from Gansu who now live in Beijing signed up to come along. A friend of a friend who is a travel agent helped out with the train tickets.

Being a typical American, I packed for five days, with five changes of underwear, five shirts, a couple pairs of pants and so on.

I’m a big fan of Anthony Bourdain’s TV show No Reservations, but I’m well aware that its title is misleading. He’s traveling with a TV crew, so of course he has everything worked out in advance when he goes somewhere. He has a local guide and translator, he has the restaurants picked out, he has a schedule to keep. But still, his philosophy (Be a traveler, not a tourist) is appealing, and if he can’t completely live up to his title, maybe I can try to. For one trip at least.

So here begins a series of posts that are much longer and more detailed than my usual habit. I hope you enjoy them.

Continue to part 2.

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