I recently moved to Xiamen, China, which is an island but sometimes seems like an amusement park. The free cartoon maps at the airport spotlight the city’s ferris wheel and little googly-eyed girls drinking coffee under umbrellas. Also sometimes the rocks lining the sea by the perfectly worn boardwalk look like painted concrete.
I moved the day before a national holiday, so my college friend and new roommate, Zach, had to convince me to go traveling. What was I going to do? Get settled? That was stupid, he assured me. It’s a holiday! We’d have much more fun traveling, and even more fun traveling without reservations! Yes, we were so spontaneous, so adventurous!
If you want to follow in our footsteps through Kunming, Dali, and Hong Kong — as you well should — follow the step-by-step directions I've laid out for you below. They may also be read as the beginnings of our pilot, Mistakes with Zach and Taryn (Working Title), a traveling show and/or sit-com in which one Chinese-speaking, brooding foreigner moves in with her absurdly tall, skinny, and talkative college friend in the middle of nowhere in China after losing her job. Then they go on trips together, without any planning whatsoever. Maybe they are on a budget as well. Maybe there are digital shorts. The possibilities are endless. Here we go:
1. The day you move, buy two plane tickets to Kunming for the next day. You are bringing a friend.
2. Board the plane to Kunming without any reservations, maps, or ideas as to what in the hell you will do once you get there.
3. Decide on a mantra. Repeat this mantra at all hours for the duration of the trip. (Ideas: "We can do anything! But we can't do nothing," or "Don't ask too many questions! It will freak you out.")
4.Once you land, make your way to the airport candy kiosk.
a. Secure a map. Don't let them take it away, even if it means you have to buy it.
b. Attempt to explain your situation to the workers there, then follow their instructions. (Idea: "We don't have any plans. No plans whatsoever. Where are the bars?" It helps if you speak Chinese.)
5. Get in a cab. Pray that where you are going has a critical mass of foreigners. Repeat your mantra.
a. If there is a Rastafarian in the car beside you at a red light, continue to let him make eyes at you. Then roll down your window and ask him where the nearest hotel district is.
b. Go there.
6. In your newly found hotel district, try to find a room.
a. The first hotel might be full.
b. The second hotel might be full.
c. The third hotel might be full.
d. Think very hard and try to remember if this could possibly be a holiday weekend.
e. It is.
7. Go down weird alleys and look for another hotel. If it's hard to find for you, it's hard to find for everyone else too. They will have rooms.
8. That night, go out to one of Kunming's three clubs. We suggest David. It is decorated in a baroque steam-punk style — almost unimaginable, yes — and has three times too many chandeliers, probably because someone rosebudded too many Simoleons and didn't know what to spend it on.
a. Dance on top of the speakers.
b. Get mad Chinese numbers and offers of boyfriendship.
c. Be toasted to like a demigod.
d. Shake many hands. Your friend might eat this up and scream, "They just want to touch me!" then repeat, more softly and with wonder, "They just want to touch me." This is okay.
9. Buy a bus ticket to Dali from the counter with the shortest line, even if it's in a separate room and called High Fast. Let people reassure you that there is no difference.
10. Get on said High Fast bus to Dali. They were right; there is no discernible difference.
a. If this is your fourth city in three days, don't worry. You're not going to die.
b. If you're hungry because the cakes you bought taste like cardboard, don't worry. You're not going to die. If you were really going to die, you'd shut up and eat the cakes with a smile.
11. Find a hotel in Dali.
a. Let your friend ask for a room on the highest possible floor so he will be happy.
i. Take note that, despite being on the highest floor, you don't actually have a view.
ii. Curse the responsible party later when you are climbing the stairs with a full bladder.
iii. Curse the responsible party later when you are climbing the stairs drunk.
12. Be disgusted, in general, with the city of Dali and how dull and industrial it is. Be disgusted, in general, with your friends for claiming it was some sort of hippie haven.
13. Climb a mountain.
a. Eat bean curd and noodles.
b. Make friends with someone blonde.
i. Ask her why Dali sucks, and how.
ii. Remember to close your mouth as she explains that you are in The Wrong Dali.
iii. Upon realizing there are two Dalis, one dull and industrial, the other teeming with fun and interesting crazy people, follow your new friend back to her hostel.
14. Stay at this hostel for two nights. It is paradise, and so is New Dali.
i. Eat Belgian waffles from an Indian man.
ii. Eat proscuitto sandwiches from a German woman.
iii. Eat many cakes from a coffee shop run by the hearing-impaired.
1. Debate whether they are actually hearing impaired. Collect evidence:
- They have a clock with signed numbers.
- One of them answered a cell phone.
2. Eat more cake.
b. While eating, an old woman in minority dress might approach you and offer to sell you a small gift.
i. First of all, bargain. Obviously.
ii. Buy said small gift.
iii. When people later ask you where you bought said small gift, say from a minority woman. When they ask which one, refer to her as Minority Woman with the Twinkle in her Eye.
15. Make friends with any Russians you can find, especially if you find someone named Иля.
a. Talk to him about Russian literature.
b. Talk to him about the year he spent studying at Buddhist ashrams and monasteries in India.
c. Talk to him about his time in Thailand and China.
d. Take advantage of the fact that he has not heard Russian in years and impress him with one of your phrases. Choose from:
i. My name is Tara.
ii. I am going to the library.
iii. I want vodka.
iv. I love Victoria.
e. Go out with him. Obviously.
16. Get a bus back to Kunming.
17. Stay in a hostel this time, for the love of God.
a. Wake up the good-looking bearded Brit in your communal room to pass on the small gift before your flight.
b. Accidentally have breakfast with him. Talk to him about elitism in England.
i. Also give him your extra free coffee ticket.
ii. Also let your friend forget your copy of The Birth of Tragedy on your bed and hope he's the one who finds it.
18. Fly to Hong Kong.
a. Your phone will not work here.
b. Your money will not work here.
c. Try to fix these problems, then give up and go to Starbucks to call your friend.
i. Have you heard that Starbucks is an oasis?
ii. Have you heard that Starbucks is a womb?
19. Pull an all-nighter with your friends from school. Love them openly.
20. Split up with your traveling friend so you can go home.* It's time. Also, you are poor.
a. Drop said friend off at Chungking Mansions, the only "hotel" either of you can afford. You will know you have found it when you see a dingy skyscraper crawling with people trying to sell you things. Push past them to the elevator, where you can pick a floor at random and hope for the best.
b. Go to the airport by yourself.
i. Sleep on the terminal chairs.
ii. Don't buy any food even though you are starving. It is important to save the pretty money for later, when you might look at it once and then lose it. You cannot afford wasabi peas, but you may have one quarter-can of Pringles if you can't stop whining.
There you go! Have fun! Send pictures! La-di-da, lalala!
*Home here refers to Xiamen, or a city you have only spent one night in.
Sharon Salt is doing her damnedest. She rearranged her furniture last night.