Author Archives: saratreetravels

About saratreetravels

On August 13, 2006, two crazy kids from the Camp Nutimik drama team got lost on their way to a staff retreat. While driving all over the city, they discovered that they both loved The Cranberries and U2, and decided they should probably become friends...

Guest blogger: RETIREMENT/30/65/GRAD

Standard

Editor (Sara)’s note: For the first time in saratreetravels history, we are proud to welcome a guest blogger to our travel universe – my (tied-for-) favourite travel partner and mother, Mary!!

20180614_133632

What a year!

Sara and I talked about doing a major trip, but her idea and mine of a major trip were two different things. When she asked me where I would like to go, I stretched it to my biggest dreams I could imagine of what I could do in my lifetime. I suggested wild things like a train trip across Canada, or sitting on the beach in Hawaii (which by the way was slowly being covered by lava). I stretched even farther to the Alaskan cruise up the West side of our fair country.

Imagine my amazement when I received the email from Sara who must have chuckled at my ‘amazing dreams’. My dreams were so small. She sent me an agenda that saw us flying to Rome. “Now” she said “what would you like to see now?”

Editor’s note: Small?! Absolutely not how I would describe my mom’s dreams… her life has been my inspiration to dream big!

Now my vision was set farther. Europe was never in my thoughts for a trip I could ever do in my lifetime. Now I had the ticket, just had to come up with an agenda. Sara asked me, “NOW what do you want to see?” I threw out things that I had dreamed of, again, never expecting to see them happen: The Coliseum, the Vatican, Pompeii, Venice, maybe a side trip to Ukraine to see dad’s family again.

Sara took my ideas under advisement, and came up with an agenda of almost three weeks. I got my boat cruise (not the Alaskan Cruise, but on the Danube which I had planned with a friend who had passed away before we could see it). I got my train trip (two actually), I walked the Coliseum (oh yes, it was at the end of our street in view of our hostel) and the Vatican. I walked Pompeii and marvelled at the amazing lost city. I took a gondola on the canals of Venice and visited the lace museum in Burano. We experienced the amazing city of Vienna and the Matyas heritage in Budapest including public baths and the Matyas church and castle.

Wait, what’s that we spy from our front door? Could it be… ??!!

Exploring the ancient mysteries of Pompei

Aboard a gondola for a canal-eye view of Venezia

El Museo del Merletto (The Burano Lace School & Museum)

Stadtpark Vienna City Park

Beautiful Budapest

As a grand finale, we took a train to Lviv, Ukraine and then drove to Lanchyn where I was able to once again see my dad’s village, walk the roads that he walked, sit for dinner with his family.



What an adventure! I am so grateful to have had this chance to see all I did. Kudos to Sara who planned all this in spite of writing exams and doing those things required to complete her MD. Challenge should have been her middle name because she most certainly meets the challenge. However her middle name is even better: Hope. Without the Hope, we don’t have energy for future plans. And so I say “Thanks for the memories.” It was an awesome experience of a lifetime!

20180604_210934-1

Motherland

Standard

What does it mean to be something?

I have always proudly proclaimed that I am Ukrainian. And I know that to be true.

Yet, when people would question further, I would have to admit that no, I didn’t speak the language (besides the essentials: namely, food items and “I want to eat”). I don’t know the dances. I wasn’t born in the country. Furthermore, I had never been to the country.

What does it mean to be Ukrainian? And how could I say and know it so fervently to be true when all evidence pointed to the seeming vacuity of such a claim?

Perhaps like so many things, part of identity is habit and familiarity. The people most consistently in my life were Ukrainian, and thus so I identified. They spoke the language, cooked the foods, knew the history, preached in the church. While I personally could not do so myself, I embraced our collective history as part of my own personal story. (Even as I was writing those words, I absentmindedly got up to throw some perogies on to boil as a midday snack.)

Despite the fact that we spoke zero Ukrainian, my cousins & siblings & I carried the Ukrainian Church Christmas program for many a year, completely confusing the few actual Ukrainian-speaking kids there (Note the super Slavic camel? None other than your favourite blogger!)

Perhaps desire plays a role. I could not speak Ukrainian fluently, but I so wanted to learn and would pore over my aunt’s old буквар, insisting she and my mom quiz me by singing “Head and Shoulders” in Ukrainian. I would painstakingly sound out those Cyrillic puzzles that would unlock Christmas lyrics, so that I could join my aunts and uncles in carolling. I spent many evenings with my mom at the kitchen table, repeating the litany of our family’s devastation and reconnection throughout years of war, making notes on aunties’ and cousins’ names and origins until they were woven into my own meandering quilt of memories.

Or perhaps identity is in our blood, our genes, our soul. Because despite being born in Canada, speaking English as my first language, and not being allowed to dance growing up, the moment our train rolled onto Ukrainian soil and I saw the green hills of my motherland, I felt a connection that surpassed all evidence to the contrary. I was home.

After a few days exploring Lviv (where my mom completely took over as tour guide and wowed both me and every Ukrainian we met with her beautiful, fluent language skills!), we made the 3 hour drive to Lanchyn, the hometown village of my mom’s father. As the road rolled beneath us, my throat ached with suppressed tears, a joyful ache I couldn’t begin to put into words. All those campfire quizzes with my mom and aunt; all those Christmas Eves standing on my icy front porch, taking my youngest-child-responsibility seriously and searching for the first star to appear; all those Ukrainian Baptist conferences in middle-of-nowhere Saskatchewan, trying with all my might to discern just one or two phrases from the flowing conversation – I was finally here in the place where it had all started, the soil I had always longed to know.

And as we pulled into the Lanchyn post office parking lot and my mom’s cousin Mariya leaped out of her car, tears already streaming down her face as she called “Сестра, cестра!” (my sister!) and embraced my mom… That solidified what my heart already knew, that these people were family, not strangers, and that I had a place here despite having never been here before.

This feeling was affirmed when we arrived back at their beautiful home and found that Mariya had made a side of perogies to go with the meal, because she had seen on Facebook how much I loved them.

We spent 2 days with cousin Mariya and her family, spontaneously spending the night with no luggage on hand. We met her son who built an incredible house for his family on my Gido’s property. We walked to my Gido’s old school which has been renovated into a community town hall. And we did what I have always dreamed of doing, since hearing my Gido’s poems about his homeland read at his funeral: we walked to his beloved river Pruit and waded in its sandy shores, looking at the very mountains that my Gido thought of and longed for every day he was away from them. In that warm water, with the same warm sun that has touched my hair in Canada beating down on me in Ukraine, another piece of my story – and soul – was complete.

After only one visit to this rich (in history, in complexity, in contradictions) land, I cannot even pretend to lay claim to an understanding of it. But it’s yet another thread, this one pulsing with rich gold and blue, woven into my story…

P1200803

P1200871

Travelling up the Carpathian Mountains on the Bukovel panoramic gondola

Land of seeming incongruities. Traditional singers protesting for #FreeSentsov at the Shevchenko monument next to a mobile tattooist

Treasures of Lviv: “Пузата Хата” buffet (home to the most mind-blowingly incredible dill cream pie), “Second-Hand” thrift stores, and traditional delicacies (hot dogs or Ruffle chips, anyone?)

красивий Лев, Львів

Whatsapp? A Tale Of Two Sleeper Cars

Standard

June 05, 2018
Euro Night Schlafwagen Sleeper Car, somewhere between Venice and Vienna.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: Oh man oh man oh man, my love!!!!!! I am currently on the Schlafwagen – yes, you read that awesome German right – the night train to Vienna! I don’t have wifi but I am actually SO PUMPED I just had to Whatsapp you anyways and it’ll send when it sends …. this sleeper coach is freaking FANTASTIC! My mom and I are totally balling out here! Slippers, a teeny tiny sink, a crazy rope swing to keep me in my ludicrously high top bunk as the train rocks, free sparkling wine (it was on our bed and my mom being a …

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: HOLD THE PHONE. THIS BROADCAST INTERRUPTED TO INFORM YOU THAT MY MOM JUST DISCOVERED THERE’S A SHOWER IN OUR CAR. A SHOWER. I JUST SHOWERED ON THE TRAIN. No wonders of Europe can ever – EVER – compare with that.

[06-05, 10:55 PM] Sara M.: (Continuing on with our saga)

[06-05, 10:56 PM] Sara M.: … shameless uke and asking the porter (who btw, came to ask our BREAKFAST ORDERS), “Is the wine complimentary??” And him replying, “But of course. We just want you to enjoy your evening.”

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: Holy crap. This is what happens when josh and not sara books the overnight train 😛

[06-05, 10:57 PM] Sara M.: (I said that to my mom and she replied, “I like josh.”)

June 06, 2018
Meanwhile, back at the ranch…

[06-06, 2:17 PM] Joshua: Hahahahaha WOW this was an epic text-barrage to wake up to!

[06-06, 2:18 PM] Joshua: Lol I’d forgotten that I had bought that ticket! Well, you’re welcome, you’re welcome (said in my Maui voice, of course)

P1200186

June 09-10, 2018
Polrail… Sleeper car? Maybe. Definitely not Car 431 (since that was on our ticket and that would thus make too much sense). Somewhere between Budapest and Záhony.

[06-09, 11:19 PM] Sara M.: I don’t know if 2 sleeper cars could be more different than Polrail vs. The Schlafwagen.

P1200547

[06-09, 11:20 PM] Sara M.: To begin, Lviv wasn’t listed as a destination on any of the trains, and there were literally zero train employees anywhere in the station to ask. A cleaning lady told me this was the right train, but our car # was not to be found (we were car 431, and the train only had up to 405). So I’m running up and down the train and finally just heave mom and the suitcases onto a car and find some seat numbers that kind of match ours. There’s only one other lady seated in the whole car and we have a very confusing conversation in English / Hungarian, during which she just repeated “Chop? Chop!” And I repeated “Seats 11 and 15!!!”

P1200553

[06-09, 11:24 PM] Sara M.: My mom saves the day at this point by discovering lady is Ukrainian , so they immediately start chatting in Ukrainian about grandchildren, which is adorable, whilst I try to puzzle out where the heck we may be off to. FINALLY an employee comes along! I show her our tickets and she goes huffily, “Sleeper car. Dat way.” I’m trying to gesture and figure out where we’re going, when she snaps, “Or stay here, up to you, I don’t care!!”

She then descends on our lovely new friend and informs her, “Your ticket second class. Out. ”

Our lady obviously can’t understand English, so employee raises her voice and goes, “Idiot. Second class! Two!! Dva!” Then she turns back to us, “Sleeper car! Go!!”

[06-09, 11:28 PM] Sara M.: Ay yi. We go through what looks like an engine room and so I had assumed was off limits but nope, apparently just the way to first-class (Obviously. Maybe I am also an idiot). We find our berth. We’re so amazed and relieved there are actual beds (and not the non-reclining chairs we had thought were our “Sleeper car” seats!)

Suddenly, this balding unshaven man in dirty jeans and a beer t-shirt comes out and gets in our room, and is gesturing at the beds and grabbing at our sheets, and waving his finger at us. Both mom and I are both thinking the same thing, namely, “Holy #@$% is this guy sharing our berth????!”

I’m telling him that we have tickets and saying the berth number over and over again, and he then grabs our tickets and says, “I take these, give back in Lviv.”

[06-09, 11:30 PM] Sara M.: Wtf um, NO. So I try to grab them back and he’s getting all pissy and finally yells, “Yura!!!!!”

And Yura, this kindly older gentleman dressed in – imagine that! – a train uniform with an ID badge, comes in, and says yes, we’re in the right place and he’ll take our tickets now and give them back in Lviv. And then he brings Mom coffee in a beautiful silver salvar and leaves.

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Mom and I just couldn’t stop laughing and calling yelling man every bad Ukrainian name we could think of (“Snot-nosed whiney idiot flower pot!!” …it loses something in the translation). Who the heck WAS he???

[06-09, 11:32 PM] Sara M.: Needless to say, there was no breakfast menu or sparkling wine, so good thing we still had a bottle of prosecco from the Schlafwagen — we definitely needed it!!!

[06-09, 11:33 PM] Sara M.: Just spent a lovely few hours sitting and knitting with mom, and now it’s almost bedtime. When I wake up … I’ll be in my country!!!!

20180609_201705

[06-10, 12:44 AM] Sara M.: Oh jeepers. Woken up by literal banging on the door at midnight — welcome to Ukraine! Border guards on-board to examine everyone’s passports!

[06-10, 1:25 AM] Sara M.: Dear goodness. Ever since crossing the border, the train has been grinding deafeningly. It actually sounds like it doesn’t fit the tracks. Eff. Looks like there will be no sleeping in this sleeper car 😑😢😩

[06-10, 1:46 AM] Sara M.: Psych! That was actually just the Hungarian exit crossing! NOW it’s Ukraine entry time! 😣 Bwahahahaha Mom definitely found her Ukrainian sassy vibe and when there was more banging on the door, she yelled, “Що ти хочеш!?? Що ви робите?!!!?” (“What!!? What do you want???!”) in Ukrainian. Safely hiding in my top bunk, pretending I didn’t understand anything, I let her deal with the border guards!

[06-10, 1:47 AM] Sara M.: Got my passport stamps!!! Ay yi, onward ho?

[06-10, 3:05 AM] Sara M.: Update – 3AM and still no ho.

[06-10, 7:15 AM] Sara M.: Aha. So apparently a giant crane came sometime after 3AM and fixed something on our train before we could start moving again.

Even the toilet paper knows we’re in Ukraine. It is literally a roll of crepe paper streamers, the colour of every good Slavic birthday party: grey.
20180610_084326

First glimpse of the Motherland!!
P1200556

[06-10, 9:14 PM] Sara M.: Still more hiccups upon arrival, where seminary people [random family contact in the Ukrainian Baptist community who were graciously allowing us to stay with them during our time in Lviv] were supposed to meet us but no one was at the station and we were kind of peeved and there was no Internet and no phone number to get ahold of them… but we ended up talking to a lovely cabbie who informed us there was the UKRAINA RUN marathon today (but of course!) And so no cab could even get through to the seminary. We were about to brave public transit but stopped for some breakfast first and GOT PEROGIES and suddenly we weren’t peeved at all anymore 😊😊😊😄😄😄

[06-10, 9:15 PM] Sara M.: And then perogy place had wifi and we got the mobile # for the seminary guy who was apparently wandering the station looking for us! He (and everyone at the seminary) are so exceptionally lovely and our rooms are freaking ginormous! Except we each have our own and it’s actually really sad to be separated down the hallway!

June 10, 2018
And again, back at the ranch…

[06-10, 5:56 PM] Joshua: Wowwwwww you basically just composed a complete blog entry just through these whatsapps! That sounds absolutely crazy! Glad you guys look happy (in a just-teetering-on-insane kind of way 😝)

20180610_101942

“History sticks to your feet”

Standard

As a kid, the only thought I had about my surname was that people never pronounced it correctly. I would fume at elementary school gymnastics meets when the inevitable “Sara… Ma-TIE-us?” would be announced over the loudspeaker. As I entered medical school and had to start distributing my signature copiously over orders and admission notes, I got questioned frequently about the origins of my name. “So unusual!” docs would exclaim, and react in mild surprise when I informed them it was Hungarian.

Funny too, to have my identifying name be Hungarian when I so proudly identify as Ukrainian. Being so close to my maternal family, I had often considered changing my surname to my mom’s maiden name. But even after my dad left the picture and my mom remarried and changed her name yet again, something kept me from relinquishing Matyas. I think I always knew that there was no danger of me losing my Ukrainian roots, what with my own interest in the culture and the plenitude of family connections wrapped around me. But my surname was my one link to my paternal side, and I could not deny that for both better and worse, that side of my family also played a role in shaping me.

When Mom and I were plotting our route, we realized that the overnight train from Vienna to Lviv would pass right through Hungary. So we broke a long travel day into two and planned an overnight stop in my fatherland: beautiful Budapest.

Budapest is a city that deserves the sighs of appreciation that inevitably accompany any mention of it. Architecturally speaking, it is stunning, offering graceful views of sweeping bridges and domed spires from nearly any vantage point. Historically speaking, it is the ancient throne of King Mátyás Hunyadi Corvinus aka “Mátyás the Just.” Born in Transylvania (um, awesome), King of Hungary from 1458-90 (with stints in Austria, Italy, Burgundy, and Bohemia!), famous for his exorbitant and controversial tax reforms, renowned as a “friend of the Muses” who loved reading and languages (and also astrologers, but apparently he was a fan of “real scientists” too). And, of course, my great-great-great-great—ad nauseam—granddaddy.

 


History sticks to your feet and leaves sometimes indelible traces of itself in the whorls of your soles and the creases behind your knees, even in the case of an ancient King with gossamer-thin claims to my present. But setting foot in this lovely and beloved city and seeing my name – my mispronounced, misspelled, “unusual,” name with all its hard history in my personal family story – written on street signs, on the currency, and on one of the principal landmarks of the city was unexpectedly and breathtakingly emotional for me.

 

Yes, I am proudly Ukrainian. But I was also so proud to be a Mátyás in Hungary, and to claim my part of the beautiful and challenging story that is constantly unfurling from ancient past to my present.

20180608_192022

P1200524

Simple Extravagance

Standard

When I first visited Vienna and had the privilege of touring the Schloss Schönbrunn summer palace, I was struck by the rose gardens in the palace park, the delicate explosions of colour and the delicious perfume of the blossoms olfactible from blocks away. While it was lovely to wander throughout the gardens with Josh, my recurring thought was how much I would LOVE to share the experience with my avid gardener of a mother.

4 years after that first visit, it was incredible to walk to the entrance of the gardens with my mom and see her awe and bliss, much as I had imagined all those years ago.

Let it be known that her capacity for awe and bliss were even more admirable since mere hours earlier, we had just gotten off a train, found our hostel and dropped off our luggage, and figured out public transit to come straight to Schönbrunn since we weren’t able to check in for another few hours. Not only was my mom game for wandering the gardens after such a morning, but she also toured the imperial apartments and hiked up to the Gloriette!

The next morning, we made our way to the Naschmarkt and spent the morning finding Austrian culinary treasures to tuck away for future family Christmas presents… as well as for our imminent enjoyment in the form of a picnic dinner. Our afternoon was languidly passed in Stephansplatz, shopping, sipping coffees and Spritz, and admiring the endless graceful corners and facades of Vienna’s many architectural gems.

P1200309

The incomparable Stephansdom

Finally, we stationed ourselves just outside the Staatsoper (Vienna State Opera House) on the Ringstrasse. As twilight settled around us and the crowd swelled, we delighted in our simple yet luscious dinner of Naschmarkt smoked hazelnut salami and black truffle gouda, with burstingly-fresh strawberries and tangy dried watermelon for dessert.

The day felt restful yet extravagantly lovely… much like Vienna itself.

Gradtirement begins!

Standard

My maternal side of the family is incredibly close knit, and I grew up surrounded by cousins who were as close as siblings. We are also incredibly Ukrainian, clinging fiercely and proudly to a culture that first Russians and then Germans attempted to wrench away from us. It wasn’t until Grade 2 that I realized “goomkah” wasn’t the English word for “elastic band,” and that other kids didn’t spend most holidays hanging out at their Ukrainian church until midnight.

I am literally “first generation and a half” Canadian, with a mom who was born in Canada but whose older siblings were born in German camps during the war. We knew the stories of the family in Ukraine and Belarus who had been lost during the war, and the miraculous reconnection thanks to the tireless work of the Red Cross with aunties and cousins presumed dead, but until the dawning of the age of easy internet access, we never dreamed of actually connecting with these faraway loved ones on a regular basis. But eventually connect we did, and now with an epic celebratory trip looming in need of a destination, I couldn’t imagine a more amazing destination than going ‘home’ with my mom.

However, there was no need to hurry straight there! While I have had the privilege of roaming throughout Europe before, my mom has never traveled in Europe outside Ukraine. So, while sitting in my apartment in China, I took the plunge and booked us flights arriving in Rome and leaving from Lviv three weeks later. Now we just had to plan all the fun things in between!

When you travel with the same someone as often as saratree tends to do, you inadvertently develop roles to expedite the planning process. I have definitely become the “things to do and eat” person, while Joshua is the “accommodations and public transit” expert. Realizing that I would need to step into the role of all of the above on this trip was, to put it mildly, freaking terrifying.

While I did have more travel experience than my mom, I felt woefully inadequate in the role of navigator (Josh seems to think my philosophy of “I always get to where I need to go…. eventually!” is amusing rather than functional, and let’s just say that my mother’s sense of direction is even more… ethereal than my own). Moreover, my mom was struggling with a chronic ankle injury that limited her mobility and caused her fairly constant pain. Was a cross-European backpacking trek really the smartest idea?

Maybe not smartest, but definitely most awesome.

A word about my mom. My mom is, as I alluded to above, a first generation refugee who grew up in the culturally and geographically challenging rural North of Canada. Her family didn’t speak English and she had never seen a city or running water until she was 14. She has faced unimaginable hardships in both her personal and extended family life, and worked for decades as a nurse where she was expected to cope with other people’s grief and pain on a daily basis. As a child, she suffered numerous health problems, including damaged veins in her legs that left her with constant and painful swelling in her left leg, and a ruptured eardrum that left her half deaf, caused by a drunken doctor attempting an ear exam.

I confess that because I’ve grown up with these things, I have taken them for granted for most of my life. Mom’s leg that was a different colour, or the fact that she wouldn’t hear you when you talked to her on a certain side, well… those were just normal parts of her, like her collection of matryoshka dolls or her hazel eyes. But living in very close quarters with her during this trip (and planning daily activities that pushed the physical limits of her normal relaxed retired life!), I saw the extent to which she is affected on an hourly basis by these things: whether it’s in the ankle swelling that causes sandal straps to not fit properly, or the careful selection of seats to ensure she can hear the waiter, or even something as simple yet tiringly constant as the quick glances towards and away from her “rainbow leg.”

And yet in spite of (or because of?) all this, my mom is the most gracious, compassionate, generous, and life-loving individual I have ever met. She has instilled me with a sense of joy in the everyday occurrences of life, as well as a sense of healthy respect towards suffering: it happens, it’s hard, so we need to support each other and learn from it.

Also, did I mention that she’s just super fun?

My mom seemed thrilled to have the chance to visit Italy (apparently she has been captivated by the idea of Pompeii since high school, of which I had no idea!), and I was equally thrilled to have the chance to play host in one of my favourite countries, despite all my worries about her well-being. I knew that if anything happened to her, not only would I feel horrible, but I would face the wrath of my three older siblings. It was one thing for ME to go irresponsibly gallivanting across the globe, but to drag along my respectable mother who was supposed to be relaxing in her much deserved retirement??

As it so often turns out, my fears were groundless. Every day, my mom astounded me with her strength, humour, and resilience. She was wonderfully encouraging to me in my newfound travel agent role, offering generous amounts of much appreciated reassurance and excitement. She appeared charmed by the vast assortment of accommodations I found for us, embracing the shared bathrooms and hostel breakfasts with aplomb. She bravely tackled Rome’s metro guarded by machine gun-toting militia, the scorching heat of the Foro Romano, the endless staircases of Venice. Most notably, she never complained. She would request to sit for a minute, or accept my offer to lug her suitcase for awhile, but she would never complain.

Our charming conglomeration of accommodations. I was VERY pleasantly surprised (read: relieved!) at how lovely they all turned out to be… I chose them mainly for price and location, and was keeping my fingers crossed for all the rest!

Our biggest hurdle… the infinite bridges & staircases of Venice (aka the city where my respect for my mom’s chutzpah quadrupled)
20180605_112258

Planes, trains, automobiles… and vaporettos

Life is hard. Challenges get thrown our way (sometimes more due to our choosing than other times!) But how different could our experience of challenges be if we simply stated what we needed, or what could be helpful, rather than resorting to ineffectual kvetching.

El Foro Romano: never fails to be utterly awe-inspiring

Hey Joshua… “[El Foro] is a good place to find a thumb.”
P1190338

My perennial favourite of the Foro – the Temple of Romulus (AD 307), with the original bronze door and the lock that STILL WORKS
P1190378

Mom taking her role as traveller-tourist seriously and not missing a thing!
P1190531

Views from Venezia

All life lessons aside, it was also just pure fun to play tour guide to my mom in bella Italia, a country I have now had the privilege of visiting for the third time and that still leaves so much to be discovered each time I arrive!

Amazing new discoveries with Mom, such as our blissful Santa Marinella beach day

First time in the Pacific!!!
P1190456

The rainbow puzzle box of Burano
P1200145

Late night strolls down to our favourite neighbourhood landmark
P1190635

And then, with coins thrown into Trevi to guarantee yet another return (it’s only had proven success thus far for me!), it was ciao! to the Romantics and hallo! to the Germanics as we boarded our Schlafwagen to Vienna…

(To be continued!)

Wall to Ourselves

Standard
Wall to Ourselves

Sara and I have been fortunate to learn, time and time again, that if you do some serious planning and take the extra time, you can always get away from the crowds and find yourself in truly breathtaking situations (and you can read about them here, here, and here). But in China, a country where the crowds themselves are breathtaking, we weren’t sure if that feeling of solo exploration would be possible.

Spoiler alert: it is. But I’d be lying if I said we never doubted ourselves.

Being 6,000 miles long, there are many points from which to access the Great Wall, each with different amenities: some are fully infrastructured, with restaurants and shops on the wall itself, while one section features a toboggan slide (which is something that I would totally do on a return visit!), but also, of course, major crowds. However, far along the eastern end of the wall, where the Chaohe River flows in from what was once Mongol territory, is a little town called Gubeikou (‘old north gate’). It has a very weird internet presence in that many travel sites mention it, but few offer any concrete details about how to get there or what to expect. The two stretches of wall on either side of the river are called ‘Crouching Tiger’ and, you guessed it, ‘Hidden Dragon’ (okay, technically it’s actually ‘Coiled Dragon’, but why else would a dragon be coiling unless it was hiding??). All of these seemed like good enough reasons to give it a try.

Finding our way to the bus through Beijing’s massive Dongzhimen station was technically uneventful, though it felt like an adventure because it was our first time being completely on our own in China, having to memorize the characters for our destination and then search for them on literally thousands of buses. One perk of being in the most populous country in the world is that the buses leave every 10 minutes, but even then we found ourselves sardined in the far back between our backpacks and the collection of shiny new kitchen appliances that someone had bought in the big city and was taking back home with them.

After three hours we arrived at the city of Miyun, at which point Sara used some very impressive bartering to get us a spot on a van that was going to Gubeikou. The van was filled with Chinese tourists, and knowing that Gubeikou was not a large place, we figured we were all going to the same hostel.

Forty minutes later, however, the driver pulled over, shouted ‘Gubeikou!’ and we found ourselves on the side of an empty highway, alone with our backpacks. To our right, there was a town that did vaguely resemble a photo I’d seen (a decorated arch, an ornate stone building, and beautiful winding canal), but that photo had clearly been taken before some kind of zombie apocalypse that had evidently occured since. The ornate stone building now had padlocks on the doors and boards over the windows, and the canal was literally clogged with logs and branches. Worst of all, there was not a Great Wall in sight.

I got the sinking feeling one gets when one finds themselves in a Chinese ghost town without internet or a vehicle and it’s getting dark and there isn’t even an unlocked building where one might spend a chilly, disappointed night. We wandered up the cobblestone road, only to find more of the same, when suddenly a single taxi came trundling out of the shadows. We stood shamelessly in the middle of the road, hellbent on getting into it and going ANYWHERE.

The driver (who already had a passenger, but seemed pretty chill) didn’t seem to recognize anything on the map we showed him, but kindly let us in and drove us a couple minutes out of the ghost town to what seemed like a sleepy but inhabited town and stopped outside of a building that said, in English, ‘Teachers residence’. Very appropriate, but no luck at actually finding someone inside willing to take us in for the night.

It was pitch black by now, and we had lost all sense of direction as the cab meandered through an uphill labyrinth. We stopped by some sort of field, and suddenly the driver was talking to an older gentleman who had come running from the void. From their facial expressions (which we are apparently terrible at reading), we thought that they were both equally confused. Suddenly, however, the driver let us out and the other man led us to a low building, opened the gigantic square iron door (classic China!), and welcomed us to our hostel.

The man turned out to be the hostel-owner’s father, whom she referred to in text messages as Master Ho, which of course only added to his mystique. As a gesture of good will, he made sure to procure several chives from the darkness outside for us to add to our instant noodles. He and Sara had a long conversation that was completely unintelligible to either of them, but she thinks it may have been about my height.

I woke up the next morning still hesitant about where we’d ended up. But when I set out to find some eggs for breakfast, breathing in the relatively smog-free air, my doubts were immediately assuaged.

The spine of the Crouching TIger…

At this point, we had to choose which section of the wall we were going to attempt. ‘Coiled Dragon’ was lower, gentler, and marked on a detailed GPS map. ‘Crouching Tiger’, meanwhile, was steep, winding, and accompanied by the following instructions: cross the bridge and look for some steps on the right.

We deliberated for a moment…then set off towards the bridge. I’ll let the pictures speak for themselves.

That’s tiny me at the bottom of the roller coaster.

The scrubby landscape sloping up the steep flank of the Crouching Tiger’s spine makes it easy to imagine (or actually see, if it’s the year 1200) Mongol hordes invading from the north.

The Trans-Siberian Railway trundling under our feet, straight from Moscow.

We had hoped to get away from the crowds…we never dreamed we’d manage to get away from all of humanity entirely. I alternated between feeling so incredibly connected to history and feeling like a kid on the world’s biggest play structure. Even though the modern Mongolian border was hundreds of miles away, the sense of being on the very frontier of something ancient was palpable. Awe is usually a momentary state, but this lasted the entire six hours we were on that wall.

 

Now and then the path veered away from the wall, into fields of pink blossoms and unearthly white rock.

The view from below

The view from above

Gubeikou, you had us worried for a moment, but you were truly unforgettable.