The title is a bit misleading. I’d travelled solo before… but my trip to Yellow Mountain in Anhui, China was the trip that made me confident that I could take on the world and come out the other side, victorious. I’m sharing this story in the hopes that it helps other would-be-solo’ers who are a little worried or have gotten bogged down in the details..
My entire experience was a little unconventional. I left that day, never intending to traverse that massive mountain on my own. But fate schemed to turn my plan on its head.
The plan was to meet with a few of my friends at the city bus station to see the fabled Yellow Mountain — a place that looks like something out of a movie, with swirling white mists wreathing lonely, jutting peaks. Though I was new to the country I felt confident with these guys. They’d all been in Shanghai for quite some time and their Mandarin was much better than mine, which consisted of only the bare basics. We all agreed to meet at the bus station at 4am, since Anhui was a day’s ride out and tickets sold fast. And so I arrived, bought my ticket, and sat down to wait…. and wait… and wait.
But when the final call for the bus came, they still hadn’t arrived. It was just me, a quickly dwindling lobby, and a ticket handler who was peering at me impatiently. I was left with a choice: should I stay or should I go?
… I jumped on that bus. I left Shanghai behind with no cellphone and next to no money. I had just enough to get a return ticket and buy admission onto the mountain but not much more. I’d been told by one of the guys that he’d pay for my portion of the trip, since he owed me a good bit of cash, otherwise I would have never chosen to go on the trip at all.
But as I sat there on that bus, peering out the window as the city careened by and slowly gave way to country side… I felt no regrets. Just giddy excitement. Eventually I made friends with a college boy who came to sit down beside me — we struggled through conversation with his meager English and my lackluster Mandarin. He helped me find my stop.
In Anhui, the small city that rests at the feet of Yellow Mountain, I met two college girls who helped guide me to the right connecting bus… and eventually to the admission gate (but not after they helped me find vegetarian food, and a parka because the weather predicted rain that night).
On the mountain itself, I passed so many people. And eventually a group of Chinese travelers invited me to join up with them to hike the thigh-killing path to the top. I had to part because they were heading to the only hotel in the mountain… I didn’t want them to know I couldn’t afford it.
So night began to fell… and I didn’t want to get caught. I walked off the beaten path and into the woods. And I made a little nest and hunkered down, trying to avoid the rangers. But then it began to rain. I did what I could — I had my umbrella and parka, a hoody and PJs. I made a little tent to the best of my ability. But the rain and cold eventually drove me to try and find something a little warmer. Maybe I could break into the tourist shop that was a little ways a way? Any place that would be sheltered from the rain beating down on me.
But on the way there I saw that there was a light from the park ranger’s station… and I knocked. A man opened it and he seemed shocked to see me. His English skills were none, but through a mixture of my bad Mandarin and charades he eventually got the gist and actually cleared out a supply closet beside the station (the only other room being his — a tight fitting space where his bed dominated. He invited me in but I had refused, caution on my mind). He even mopped the floor! And built me a bed with all the soft things he could find.
I spent the night there in that closet and slept like a baby lamb. It was my best sleep in China to date. And when I awoke in the morning he made me breakfast — a pot of green tea, bread, and fish. He had none for himself, he was just looking after me. A stranger who’d come out of the night, who had nothing to offer him. I might have cried.
I eventually returned back to Shanghai, struck by the overwhelming kindness of strangers. But I knew I wasn’t just dependent on them to find my way. I’d managed with my rudimentary language abilities, with my grit and gumption. I knew that I was strong enough to overcome adversity and any bumps along the way on my own (a man who would not leave me alone, who sat much too close.. a taxi cab driver who refused to take me to my school until I got out of the car and found police officers…).
I took a huge gamble. The trip could have ended so poorly. But it was one of the best decisions of my life, one of the experiences that truly made me love life and traveling. It’s honestly the trip that formed my current travel philosophy — to go when you can, whenever that may be — because you never know if you’re going to get another chance. Undoubtedly it was that feeling that spurred my latest trip to Morocco.
I love hearing stories from other travelers about their first time solo’ing. Please share in the comments to inspire others.. Or if you haven’t traveled solo yet, where’s the place you want to go and what’s stopping you?