After I had climbed the heavenly mountain in Shangxi, I left from Tai Shan a changed man. Looking back, I can see that there was something different about me – before I had been lost, but now I was simply wandering. My next destination was to be Xi’an – I wanted to see the famous Terra Cotta Army. It was a long trip and midway through – I saw a white guy getting on the train. He was quite obviously another backpacker and so we smiled and nodded at one another, sat near each other and struck up a conversation. Where I had just come from climbing Tai Shan, he had just come from climbing Tian Shan (I think). In any event we’d just both climbed up separate holy mountains and had come from different directions to the same crossroads heading to Xi’an to see the Terra Cotta Warriors. We were instant best mates.
Johnny was English and I was American – he came from a wealthy life of privilege and I was a homeless guy – it didn’t matter. We were fellow backpackers on a steam train in China drinking cheap Chinese whiskey. In Xi’an we checked into a hostel and met two lovely English girls who also wanted to go see the Terra Cotta Army. We all went to get a meal in the cafe next door ‘Genghis Kane’s Cafe’ and met up with another English backpacker, Keith (who had just sold his house and was traveling around the world) and a burned out German English teacher named Sasha. We all set off as a group and seeing the organized tour groups all wearing similar hats or armbands, we decided to make fun of them by all buying identical yellow Chinese hats – moving forward we were the yellow hat gang.
I was glad to have the company as Xi’an was a tourist zoo even back in 2001. After the clean air and natural beauty of Shandong, it was a totally different environment. At the time, I remember thinking ‘This place feels evil and grey’. Even so, the company was very good and the terracotta warriors were astounding to behold.
From Xi’an, Sasha was going back to work at a school in Northern China where he claimed to be a virtual slave and the girls and Johnny were heading to Tibet. Keith and I were more interested in seeing the pandas in Chengdu and eating true Szechuen hot pot. We discussed taking a boat trip down the 7-rivers gorge to see it before it was flooded and would disappear forever – but for some reason didn’t. It’s a decision I regret (as was not goint to Tibet) but which at the time made sense because I didn’t want to run out of money and was trying to be careful with my planning.
From Chengdu, Keith and I were going to meet up with Johnny again in Kunming, get visas that would allow us to enter Laos from the land crossing, and then move onward to new adventures in a new country. Our designated meeting spot was an astoundingly cool hostel called ‘The Hump Over the Himalayas” where I made friends with a wide variety of Chinese, Israeli, European, and Australian backpackers, punk rockers, rappers, and more. I’ll save that for another flashback.
And, as you can see in this photo sequence (above) …by the time I reached Chengdu, I was no longer a homeless guy wandering around China – I’d more or less turned into a 20-something backpacker from the Pacific Northwest. Looking at the transition now – nearly twenty years later – it’s an astonishing transformation and I can’t help wondering what might have happened if I would have stayed in the USA and never gone to see the world.