Three years ago we were barefoot in Yangon, wrapped in longhis and held under the spell of a glistening Shwedagon Pagoda. A new year was underfoot. Ahead of us: the whole world. Or at least another 14 countries. Then, a move to San Francisco. An apartment on a hill. Paychecks, Uber rides, and two years of Whole Foods’ hot bar. But all is not lost: Once you get to fondly know the Skyscanner app, it doesn’t leave you. Fares to Asia are always at your fingertips and when the $550 roundtrip SFO to PVG on United flight floats to the top of your feed, you book it. Thanksgiving in China.
We invite Patten’s mom, who adventurously accepts. We fill out visa applications and wait in long lines at the consulate to pay our $140 country admission fee. We visit the library, and I leave with 10 pounds of hardbacks. I wake up early and instead of diving into emails, I pore over the history of China, taking notes on the Han, the Tang, the Qing. I spend the morning after the election reading about Wu Zetian, China’s only female empress, who despite reforming education, lowering taxes for peasants, and expanding China’s borders, was villianized in all the history books. Crooked Wu. Then, a dose of Peter Hessler as he drives through the Chinese countryside we’ll never see (but the context!) and those Lonely Planets—man, they never smelled so good. I’m back in it, building itineraries, reading histories, and imagining pan-fried dumplings. The world is whole. Nothing trumps travel.
We land at 7 pm. It’s hazy. The air tastes metallic and we smell the first bathroom. “I can hold it” as we glide to the Maglev ticket counter, where we’re met with more English than we’ll get in the coming days. The magnetic-levitating train gets to 300ish (I stopped counting) kilometers per hour, then we’re outside a subway stop with throngs of people and florescent signs and Chinese characters and fried chicken and thick air and a staircase descending into… China.
I chose the Fish Inn for its name. “It’s a clean hotel, though it does smell like fish outside.” — Joey A, Booking.com. It’s a night of restless sleep on separate twins, like Christmas Eve as kids, and when we head out the front doors in the morning to be greeted by a lovely 50-something woman kneeling on a stool before a spread of fish and eels and shells, I’m grinning ear to ear.
Breakfast is a bowl of wonton soup and those pan-fried dumplings, dipped in vinegar and topped with scallions. Plus, a strong Americano from the corner coffee shop with just a few droplets of cream. We’re in a taxi soon after, me pointing to the characters for Jade Buddha Temple. 15 minutes and $3 later (yes, cabs are that cheap here) we’re looking up at golden buddhas and arhats and red lanterns galore. Incense adds to the haze and we’re locked in the magic of Asia. Just as we were at the Buddha Tooth temple in Singapore, or the lantern-strung streets of Hoi-An, or the stupa-covered woods of Koya-san. Just as we were at Schwedagon.
Our 8 days in China are too short, but enough to awaken us. We walk 10 miles a day until our hips and knees and backs ache so good: gardens, museums, temples, trains, malls, food (stalls, cafes, restaurants, markets).
“Promise me, we’ll live in Asia one day,” he says, as I suck up one, two, three, four, five bubble-tea pearls and chomp the chewy tapioca. We are back now, and we will be again. The dream strikes us both as we hug beneath the Gods of the Twenty Heavens.