An Unexpected Encounter
This article is an excerpt from my book KAILU, The Open Road, a story about my cross-country in China meeting the Chinese Changemakers in sustainability.
I’m late. I leave Kunming in the afternoon and realize that my next destination is much further than I had anticipated. A feeling of adventure and excitement comes over me, and I decide to see where the road takes me, and where we will spend the night. As the blue sky turns into different shades of pink, I pull up my camping app and it shows me a place where I can park for the night in the middle of the mountains.
At this point, I am surrounded by lush green mountains on newly built highways with little to no cars on the road. The navigation has us take a dirt road which takes us up the hill. Twenty minutes later we arrive at near small parking perched just above a small village. From there, the navigation app tells me to continue into the bush. A bit unsure as to where the path leads, I make the executive decision to hike the remaining of the road and stretch our legs after long hours in the car.
We cross pine forests, small lakes, open spaces in the middle of the trees, and plots of land with different crops, but definitely nowhere to camp. Wild camping is tricky for a foreigner in China, it depends a lot from region to region. I am hesitant to give it a go. As the sun begins to set, Khailou and I trace back our steps to the car. The village has no hotel, and no guest house, which means it’s time to prepare the car for a comfortable night’s sleep.
Since the beginning of my trip, I’ve emptied my trunk quite a bit, which helps to make space for my bed. First, my personal belongings have to move to the front seat, the passenger side. Secondly, the folding chair, tripod, and outdoor shade go on the floor of the backseats. I push 2 backseats down, roll out my yoga mat to serve as a mattress, and roll my clothing storage on his side to make space for my feet. Throw my bedsheets over it and voilà!
It’s officially dark out and the only light comes from the parking light pole. There’s no cell network up here. I walk out to the light pole in the hope to have some cell phone reception.
My first night in the car! I’m very excited. This is the adventure piece I was craving. Sleeping in cramped spaces, with no comfort, surrounded by nature and its millions of inhabitants, creates a sense of normalcy with the bare minimum.
It reminds me of something I heard in an interview with surfer Laird Hamilton, where he talks about finding life on the edge. He was referring to the idea that being truly alive means having a relationship with the fact life can end at any moment, and that’s also an honest way to live.
I find myself being able to relate to this idea at such a deep level within my own personality and how I want to live and conduct my life. As a child, I’ve always been very adventurous and that discomfort is something I always seek. When I’m getting closer to the execution of stepping out of my comfort zone, I can sense an internal debate between fear and excitement, weighing out the pros and cons. There are many times I stepped back, and then there are times I stepped into that fear and this has always brought me to places and situations that had me grow as a person.
This trip in itself is an example of that, but up until this point, it hasn’t really satisfied the level of adventure I was seeking. We might get a bit closer to it this evening.
As I am trying to gain more bars on my cellphone network, I hear multiple cars coming our way. Out of the bush comes one large 4x4 driving, and then another one. Two minutes later, two others join them, and within 5 minutes there were around 8 large 4x4 SUVs and Jeeps in the parking lot surrounding us.
Out comes a group of people looking very content to have arrived at their destination. While they wait for everyone to get off their vehicles, we exchange some eye contact and hidden smiles, until one of them nods a shy ‘Nihao’ to which I reply ‘Nihao’. Instant change in the atmosphere, I am in a full conversation with them now.
"Oh, you speak Chinese! Where are you from? Where did you drive from? Is that your car? Is this your dog? Did you have dinner yet? Where will you sleep? Are you hungry? Come and join us for dinner! We have a room waiting for us down the village. Come, come! Let’s walk together."
Once again, Chinese hospitality doesn't disappoint. As a solo female traveler, you will never go hungry or lack a roof over your head in this country. At least according to my experience. We walk down to the village together, where I am able to pronounce a quick "Yes", "I don’t know", "I agree", and "I’m not sure" in between the many questions fired my way.
We arrive downstairs, at the restaurant, we’re obviously the only ones there. I leave Khailou outside on a leash right in front of the door where he can see me, and vice-versa.
The group is made up of a few couples and then a few younger men. They’re all friends from Kunming, where I just came from, and they’re driving back this evening, but not on an empty stomach... The guy that spoke to me earlier in the parking lot explains he’s a tour guide here in Yunnan, and from what I understood he also does quite a bit of off-roading in this part of the country, as his name points out: Dawn of Heroes (yingxiongdeliming).
We all gather around low tables and sit on the tiny red stools you find at most street stalls and restaurants in the Chinese countryside. The food comes out and it smells heavenly, there’s the rice, of course, different types of tofu, vegetables, and of course various meat dishes. They ask me about my work, my love life, my country, what I think of China, and how long I’ll be staying here, no privacy whatsoever, but I wouldn’t have it any other way. Dawn of Heroes asks me again where I’ll sleep and I tell him I’m planning to sleep in my car this evening. He laughs and says my car is too small for that, to which I reply, [meibanfaduiba?] I don’t have another solution, do I? He smiles and mutters, "Fine. At least let me talk to the lady of the house here and tell her they have to leave you alone until tomorrow. That way they are reassured and you get to have a good sleep." I’m still not used to this kind of care from strangers, and you’d think that after living here for 7 years I’d know better or at least get used to it, but it remains a pleasant surprise to be cared for in this way. The collective societies that I have been exposed to have always shown incredible hospitality to the point where I feel almost indignant to receive that amount of care. And dare I use the word ‘love’ to describe how good this feels? My culture is individualistic and while both societies have pros and cons, I’m learning so much from people like Dawn of Heroes and my other friends from these different cultures. The human race is so rich.
It’s starting to rain outside, the dishes are almost empty, and the cigarettes are lit, which marks the end of dinner. My new friends still have a couple of hours of driving to do.
After having spoken to the elder couple of the house about their guest in the parking lot (aka me), we walk out of the village.
We exchange WeChat and Dawn of Heroes tells me to call him when I get back to Kunming so he can show me around and treat me to another dinner. Sounds like a plan!
Not much later, the 8 cars drive off into the bush and into the night.
I take my toiletries into the public toilets across the car and get ready for bed. The only sounds that night are the insects and the wind razing over the hills.
- September 2021 (Somewhere between Kunming & Dali in Yunnan Province)