photo credit: Dani Fraser

Joe’s Place

(The Great Wall Box House)

There was a golden square of light down the hill, framed by a set of solid wooden doors. The doors hadn’t been closed and locked for the night because we were expected, and they were waiting for us.

I let out a sigh as I heaved my backpack one last time for this part of our journey and slung it over my shoulder. Sleepily, Dani and Jake did the same. We silently wrestled with handles that twisted in our hands as the wheels of our second backpack-slash-suitcases, bumped and bounced behind us down the dirt path. The golden light growing bigger as we walked closer, a finish line that felt as good in crossing as what I imagined an Ultra race finish line must feel for any runner brave enough to run.

I’ll have to admit, when our driver first pulled up to what seemed like the side of the road in the middle of nowhere, I had a uneasy sense of trepidation. Trust issues are like my extra set of contacts. For years, I’ve been packing them along for the just in case. Two hours of a drive in a dark landscape to somewhere in the nowhere after a many hour flight, I was shell shocked by the passing traffic of beat-up work trucks with Character writings all over them. I was back in China and a really long way from home. And as much as I thought I was oozing independence and had this journey all under control, the reality of it was, this trip depended also on the help that others were to offer along the way…

The night air had a cold bite to it and it was hard to stop shivering, let alone stop the chattering of my teeth. So when our driver Pong, opened a modern version of a front door that was set inside the building a couple of feet from the wooden outer doors, it was a relief to feel the warmth of the front room that went along with the golden light.

Joe was behind a large tea table with two other men sitting on stools, sipping tea in their quiet companionship. I put my backpack down, and slid onto an empty stool, Dani and Jake doing the same. My brain was fast shutting down after twenty-four hours and more of no sleep except the head-bobbing, cat-napping that had occurred on the plane. But I knew I had several important arrangements that needed to be checked off my list for the next part of my trip in two days. And Joe, in our variety pack of internet conversations, (Facebook, WeChat, and phone calls), a few weeks prior, had offered to help with what needed to be done.

The room we were in was a contrast of new
blended with the old building that I had observed it to be from the outside. Walls of honey colored wood reflected the light and warmth of the room and there was a faint smoky smell of what I assumed must be someone’s outdoor campfire or maybe a wood stove. This made perfect sense to me because the air outside felt like the cold that the night brings to the mountains of the Pacific Northwest where the warmth of a campfire or stove would be more than welcome.

Joe’s Zen-like manner quickly put me at ease as he introduced his friends, and offered hot tea in a little glass cup that I drank in two gulps. With concern he explained that because of Qingming Festival, train tickets to Guangzhou were almost completely full for the following Tuesday, the day we needed to travel. He had managed to find three seats on a very early train and advised me to buy them that night. Joe and his friends didn’t understand why I couldn’t purchase my tickets via WeChat. I didn’t understand the why and how that could even be done at all. To make it all simple, Joe’s young friend Jimmy, who became our new friend in the following days, made the purchase for us.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

Relieved and oh so ready to meet with some sleep, I thanked Joe as he had Jimmy show us the way out a narrow side door by the tea table, out to a small courtyard. Too dark to see much, the smoke smell was stronger in the courtyard. In an odd way, it mingled with the cold mountain air. Surprisingly clean and fresh, I drew in a deep breath before ducking past Jimmy who held the door to our room open for us.

Our room had hardwood floors and there were several Asian antique-looking dressers that reminded me of the fact that we really were in China. But the very best part were two twin beds pushed together with snow-white, puffy down comforters. Jake sailed his way to jump on the bed, leaving his things in a heap in the middle of the floor. Dani was more careful, placing her backpacks in a corner, before leaping her own way to bounce at his side. Jimmy showed us how to use the heater, than said goodnight and we were left to ourselves.

Exclamations from the kids on how amazing our room was, the lights were quickly turned off and they were fast asleep. I crawled under the comforter and closed my eyes to the dark of the room. As tired as I was, in the funny way that seems to happen, my mind revved up, staving off the sleep I would have gladly welcomed.

I thought about how stressed I had been in the weeks prior to traveling. It had woken me up in the middle of many nights, sometimes to the point of keeping me up for hours at a time. But the minute I had walked out of my house and stepped onto the first flight of this trip, I had gone into a state of auto-pilot calmness.  I wondered about that and thought of the reasons why.

Sure thing, I had been unsettled when our driver was gone-missing when we landed in Beijing. But there truly had been a light shining on us when a lady approached to ask if we needed help. She was able to locate our driver and keep in contact with him until he found us.

Pong had that same light in his presence. Even though it was late, he was thoughtful in his offer to stop if we were hungry so that we might find something to eat. He was patient in my questions as to why he would live in Gubeikou, the village that we were on our way to.  His answers of clear blue skies and beautiful mountains, and concern for the ever increasing pollutants of our Earth, reflections of what I held to be of great importance as well.

Than there was Joe who gave us one of his best rooms at no extra charge because we had arrived late in the night. Inviting us to sit at his table, he had included us as if we were already a part of his circle of friends, and not the three strangers that we really were, having barely just walked in the door ten minutes before.

photo credit: Dani Fraser

The same light just kept shining through the people we were meeting, the places we were going. Somewhere outside and very close, was the Great Wall of China. I was excited for the morning and the adventure it would bring. In the silence of the late night I was also at peace, thankful that I could feel so safe in a place so far away from my home. Instinctively I knew we were staying with good people and that we were exactly where we were supposed to be. As the peace in knowing this eased my mind to rest, it was with trust that I finally
fell asleep….






 “Are you sure you want to book those tickets…?”

The question caused me to pause as an internal debate stirred in myself on how to answer. So much of me wanted to say, “Hold off. Wait… At least a day or two, maybe a week. Come to think about it… how about forever?” I wanted to be absolutely sure I could pull it together, that I actually had a concrete travel plan, one that would be undeniably safe.

But that was the problem, and I knew it. If I hesitated, or decided to not go forward with what I wanted to do, my disappointment in myself would be endless. A lifetime of playing it safe, this trip back to China was complicated. So much more than the really big of why I was going, another huge piece was personal redemption for the years I basically had spent avoiding life because of fear of the unknown and risk of failure.

Inside of me was the Adventurer. I knew this was finally the time I needed to experience the possibility of being out of my comfort level. If the unexpected happened, this would be the opportunity to strategize on my own, how to overcome what it is was that made me afraid. Booking those tickets was the test to see if I was going to allow that to happen.

The travel agent asking me the question was patiently waiting for my answer. The places I was planning on going, the excitement of this once in a lifetime adventure contrasting with the thousand and one things that could go wrong were a constant thought pattern running through my brain, an internal picture-slide show that just wouldn’t shut off.

China was to be a backpack, hostel-staying adventure. Flights were to destinations that were off the beaten track and there would be no guide. I knew from my google research that plenty of adventurers had done this before. However, for the really big of why I was traveling, it was not the norm of travel that was expected and to be honest, several people advised me not to do so. I even had someone state that I wouldn’t be allowed to stay in a location that was on my itinerary. I really don’t like when someone tells me that I can’t. I wanted to be like the adventurers that could.

If only I had known that when we arrived in Beijing, the internet on my phone no longer felt the need to work, leaving me with no means of which to contact our driver who was to meet us that night. Ironically, or not, when he did finally find us, he somehow misplaced his car and we spent a good forty minutes touring the parking garage searching for it.

Several days after that, in the farm village of JiuXian, my son was hit by a moped, crashed into by his sister, and later, wiped out on his own as we were biking through the countryside. He was fine with all that but not so much when we ended up ironing our wet sheets that night in our hostel in an attempt to dry them before bed. I’m not sure what was up with those sheets because they were wet the next night too.

I didn’t have a clue that as a result of traveling during QingMing festival, China’s equivalent of Memorial Day, there would be no available seats left on the bullet train that I was planning on taking to Guangzhou. Luckily there were three tickets left on the Get Up at Four O’clock in the Morning Train. Unlucky that the lady ticket master had no interest in handing over our tickets even though they were paid for.

I think it would have been nice to know beforehand, how to handle the situation when a taxi driver drove us back to Guangzhou after an afternoon in Zhongshan. Halfway through the ride, he began driving in such a way, that I thought it most likely he had multiple health issues. With his left leg and arm jumping all around, resulting in a swerving, lurching, stop and go driving pattern, and his unresponsiveness to my asking him if he was ok, I thought it likely we all might die that night.

But I hadn’t known and even if I had, I realize that I still would have answered as I did. Because each and every day in China was exactly what I had hoped for in planning the trip in the first place. I had allowed myself to be the risk-taker. In facing the trip in all of it’s challenges, and rewards, the adventure unfolded with a richly layered experience and an opportunity for myself and my children who traveled with me to live it well….

Knowing the travel agent was still waiting for my answer, I replied without hesitation,

“Book the tickets…”