A frog in China: the worst trip I ever organised and what I learned from it

TL;DR: Ideally pick who you travel with & avoid putting all the organisation load on your shoulders. Preparation is key. Unexpected outcomes can still make good memories.

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View near the top of mount Emei, Sichuan

This trip took place during my 2010-11 year abroad in Chengdu, China. I already had been to China many times and spoke relatively good Mandarin. A month in, I organised a trip together with 3 dormitory neighbours: we barely knew each other, they did not speak much Chinese but I fancied myself as their guide to discover the beauties of Sichuan province.

A statue in one of Xichang’s temple

A statue in one of Xichang’s temple

The plan was to use the October Chinese national week holiday to visit the south of Sichuan around Xichang, and then go north to climb the famous Buddhist mount Emei. At the time you could only buy tickets for a train departing from that specific station, so no return tickets – online train bookings were still at beta testing stage. We got Chengdu-Xichang tickets, and once in Xichang immediately went to buy return tickets. First mistake: there were only standing tickets left for those dates. That’s how I learned to always keep holidays dates in mind when travelling in China.

Posing with a lady from Yi ethnicity, with her authorisation

Posing with a lady from Yi ethnicity, with her permission

I loved my stay in Xichang, an authentic place mostly inhabited by people from the Yi ethnicity, and we enjoyed visiting the lake and temples. The others were relying on me and I had not prepared much, so at the last minute I just texted a classmate I knew had been there. His suggestion was to take a local bus to visit the surroundings. I absolutely loved these long hours peering through the bus window at the countryside. Second mistake: my lack of organisation meant that there was no specific goal to reach and it felt a bit meaningless. I would have liked to take the time to chat with locals, but felt responsible for bringing those people all the way to the countryside and panicked about them being dissatisfied.

Yi market outside of Xichang, taken with authorisation

Yi market outside of Xichang, taken with permission

It was only when we finally got on the night train to Emei that we realised the full meaning of ‘standing’ tickets: it really meant standing all night in a shaking train, or possibly sitting in the alley between two rounds of fruits carts passing through, forcing us to stand again. I did not think of buying folding seats, we were absolutely exhausted, and not really at that stage of friendship where anything is ultimately funny.

Needless to say that when we arrived at the bottom of mount Emei early in the morning, I should really not have insisted to climb it right away, but I still did, that was the third mistake. We skipped most of the climbing by taking a bus towards the top. As we laboured in the stairs towards the ultimate goal, one of my mates suddenly stopped. She just would not walk another step, although we were probably only 100 meters from the summit. I went anyway to enjoy the wonderful ‘sea of clouds’, but when I came back we predictably had an argument. In my tiredness and pride-induced rage, I felt somehow betrayed, ignored them all and decided to climb down the mountain on my own.

The sea of clouds in mount Emei

The sea of clouds in mount Emei

Picture the situation: I went down alone, on an unknown mountain far from home, without much cash on myself, and a phone not getting any signal. The fourth mistake was the worst as it eventually ‘snowballed’, following Murphy’s law: the path turned out much, much longer than the map seemed to indicate. I spent at least 6 hours in the stairs, my knees burning from the sudden effort. Mid-way my rage had dissipated, my pride disappeared altogether, but not my lack of sleep. At some point I hallucinated myself falling from the stairs where nobody would ever find me. Since it was late in the afternoon most hikers were either further up or down the mount, so I fancied myself all alone. Later I would learn that, in reality, locals lived in the mountain too, so it wasn’t nearly as dangerous as I had imagined.

Climbing down Emei shan

Climbing down Emei shan

Then suddenly the beauty of the place overcame me completely. I experienced a small ‘nirvana’ moment: I admitted to myself that I had piled up mistake after mistake, endangering myself mildly as a result. It sounds cheesy, but truly the Buddhist Mountain worked its magic on me and I forgave myself as I walked zombie-like in the foggy old forest, occasionally sighting monkeys while passing through monasteries.

Forgiving my mates did not come as easily: when I finally finished the descent my phone got some signal again and a text informed me that they had left to Chengdu, not waiting to make sure that I was safe. Some of my best hour of Mandarin practice followed: I convinced a minibus driver to take me the rest of the way although I had not enough cash with me, crossing fingers that there would be a functioning ATM in Emei. After I paid him, I wanted to leave for Chengdu but by then, it was too late for regular coaches. So I negotiated a last-minute, unofficial return ticket on a Chinese organised tour bus. As I finally arrived in Chengdu I was both ashamed and proud of myself.

Monkeys ‘guarding’ the gate of an Emei monastery

Monkeys ‘guarding’ the gate of an Emei monastery

A few months later I returned to mount Emei, this time to ascent it with my classmates who spoke Mandarin, and it turned out to be one of the best memories of my year abroad. On the way up, while sleeping in a monastery or eating instant noodles with my friends, I finally forgave my mates from the previous trip. Maybe that is how living abroad changes you; each mistake makes you stronger if you reflect on it, making you a better person.

One thing is certain: I will remember all my life the two sides of mount Emei and what it taught me about myself. If you too had a disastrous trip, let me know in comments!

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