Back to Yingtan, Part 1: The Challenges of Travelling to China

We had an amazing trip to China a few weeks ago.

One of our big goals for spending time in Asia this year was to travel to China at least once. As our time here progressed, however, we kind of lost sight of that goal. The kids have been doing very well in school, and we were reluctant to take them out for any length of time. Ali and I are also starting to make some good headway on our business projects, and we have been trying to take advantage of the time the kids are in school as we don’t know what our work situation will be like once we hit the road again in May. There just never seemed to be a good time for us to go away for a week or two.

However, we realized after Christmas that if we were to make good on our plans to visit China, we’d have to bite the bullet and just go for it. We decided that we’d do a more focused trip this time, spending just one week exclusively in Lia’s birthplace of Yingtan. After a bit of searching, Ali found a guide through some online contacts and we bought our Air Asia tickets to Hangzhou.

Travelling in China is a challenge. Maybe we’ve been softened by our time here in Malaysia, where English is commonly spoken by most people and the many Western influences make daily life easy. By contrast, English is pretty rare in China, especially where we would be travelling, and we knew we’d have to arrange for a guide to help us get around. Ali and I picked up a smattering of Mandarin when we lived in Beijing in 2009, but we know we have to get moving on being more intentional about learning the language. It has become the country we’ve visited the most after the US, and we foresee many more trips as the children get older.

Boarding the plane in Kuala Lumpur

Even before we boarded the plane in Malaysia, we had already encountered one of the major hurdles of travelling to China: the visa process. Penang has no Chinese consulate, so we had to do the three-hour trip to Kuala Lumpur to get our visas. Since we wanted to avoid multiple trips to KL, we chose the one-day express option, paying triple the fees to have everything processed in one-fifth the time. This meant a full day of submitting mounds of paperwork in the morning, coming back 5 hours later for an in-person, seemingly superfluous interview, and then returning once more at the end of the day to pick up the visas. A bunch of unnecessary steps because that’s just the way the Chinese bureaucracy works. 😉

If you’ve ever been to China, you’ll know that one of the major challenges to visiting any of its major cities is the smog. Every time I arrive in China, no matter if it’s Beijing, Shanghai, Shenzhen, and now Hangzhou, I’m hit by its distinct odour as soon as we get off the plane. While it was oppressive during the first couple of days of our first trip in 2007, it’s now become like an old friend welcoming me home. Seriously, the smog in China makes me nostalgic. As soon as I got a whiff of the air walking down the gangway, I was immediately transported back to some amazing experiences from our previous visits, starting with the times when we met both our children for the first time. Those are powerful and important memories for us as a family, and I’m struck by the irony that something that may be repulsive to most people only floods my brain with good thoughts.

Despite its challenges, we love China and can’t wait to go back. For sure, a big part of our affection for China is due to the fact that it is our children’s birthplace. Our lives have been enriched by our connection to the place and its people. We’ve been filled with an insatiable curiosity about this huge nation with an ancient and enigmatic culture. Every time we travel there, we only feel a stronger pull to return and connect more.

This trip was no different.

Our goal for the trip was to visit Lia’s birthplace and spend more time with her foster family. It was designed to be very focused; we would spend one week entirely in her hometown of Yingtan, which would allow us to have multiple visits with her foster mother and learn more about the city and region where she was born.

After several unsuccessful attempts to reach the guides we’ve used in the past, Alison found a Jiangxi-based guide through an online adoption group. One of the group members vouched for her, and the fact that she responded promptly and enthusiastically were all encouraging signs. Due to a school holiday in China, we ended up having both the guide and her husband accompanying us for most of the week, which was fantastic as they were both great with the kids, giving Ali and I some space to converse, sightsee, and research without managing them all the time.

Spring blossoms in Hangzhou airport

Despite Yingtan being a sizeable city by Western standards (population of 1 million), it felt like we were travelling off the beaten path on this trip. Our hotel, while quite pretty, was very much geared to Chinese travellers, with staff who spoke no English, breakfast that included no Western options (not even coffee or tea!), and rock-hard beds. It also had no central heating, which meant that everyone walked around in heavy coats in the common areas and we had to crank up the heater in our room to get a good night’s sleep. Unlike Beijing, where Westerners are pretty commonplace, we were quite the curiosity as we walked around the city. In fact, we did not see another white person from the time we left the airport to when we arrived back in Hangzhou.

Since we asked for a room with two beds, the hotel offered us one of their mahjong rooms. It featured beds on two levels, with an automated mahjong table that magically sorted and restocked the tiles at the push of a button. Needless to say, the kids had a great time with it! Unfortunately, it meant that we were located in the gaming area of the hotel, and every morning we’d walk by rooms strewn with cigarette butts, peanut shells, and empty glasses. The hotel’s massage parlour was also located across the hall, and the very well made-up “masseuses” spent most of their day playing mahjong and talking loudly while they waited for customers to come. Not an ideal locale, but we were glad for the extra space in the room.

Due to its central location and proximity to China’s major river systems, Yingtan is a major transportation hub. It meant that we had high-speed rail service that only took four hours to travel from Hangzhou near the coast. If you’re not aware, China has been rapidly developing its high-speed network and is slated to have more high-speed rail than the rest of the world combined by the end of this year. In Yingtan we drove by a static display of a steam train that read “1982”. The technological leap that the country has taken in the past few decades is mind-boggling. The high-speed trains are comfortable and quiet, and we enjoyed the round-trip back-and-forth to Hangzhou.

View from our hotel: The brand new bridge across the Xinjiang River

Despite the weather being a bit on the chilly side, we knew we would have a week of decent weather with lots of sun and temperatures approaching 20 degrees Celsius. Our guides had arranged an itinerary of visits to Mama Zhu’s village interspersed with a few sightseeing trips. We couldn’t wait to get to the village and visit with Mama Zhu and her family, and we looked forward to simply staying in one place and learning more about the cultural heritage of the region where Lia is from.

[Continue reading Part 2 here]

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