Walkabout Love in China
Story and photos by Dustin Grinnell

A writer taps his savings, quits his office job, and starts a year-long walkabout by backpacking through China. A trip in search of solitude, however, turns into one of found companionship.

China mountains

A Chinese teenager with puffed cheeks sprang from the seat beside me, begged a man for his lunch bag, and filled it with peach-colored vomit.

The driver stopped the bus at a roadside store. I bought the girl a Ginger Ale to tame her stomach and then slumped into my seat as the bus roared alive and continued along switchbacks toward Lijiang in northwest China.

China route map

I’d recently ended a four-year-long relationship and wanted solitude during my three-week trip through China. I was prepared for long stretches of alone time, even bouts of loneliness. My trip had not turned out that way. 

As I watched limestone cliffs pass through my window, I thought about a Chinese woman who was now just a memory.

China rafts on a river A Bamboo Float Down the Li River

I had met Jenny four days earlier on a shuttle bus in Guilin in Southeast China. She tapped me on the shoulder from the seat behind. I turned to see a young Chinese woman with long black hair that hugged an adorable, slender face.

We were both headed to the Li River for a bamboo raft ride. As we left the shuttle and walked toward the water, she told me she’d never been on a boat and couldn’t swim.

Jenny was a third-year college student. She had a gentle way about her, a kind and innocent soul. She said she’d wanted to visit the Li River ever since writing an essay about its waters in the fifth grade. “It makes a woman's skin more beautiful.”

As we snaked down the river, we passed colossal limestone hills with mist swirling around knife-edged cliffs. From the 600-year-old stone-arched Dragon Bridge, we watched anglers use cormorants to catch fish. The region of China had a mystical, old-world mood. It wasn’t difficult to see why it had attracted artists, poets and seekers for centuries.

We talked about relationships on the bus back to Yangshuo. “I’m not willing to take a boyfriend casually,” Jenny said, admitting that she had never even kissed a boy. She wanted to wait for her first kiss from her first serious boyfriend. 

As the shuttle pulled into town, we retrieved our bags and came in close for what I thought would be a goodbye hug. Instead, I learned she had changed plans and decided to stay at my hostel.

She asked if I had plans for the evening. I had battled food poisoning the night before. I was exhausted, and just wanted to be alone.

“Maybe we take a table?” she asked.

I agreed, reluctantly.

Taking a Table in Yangshuo

As we explored the streets of Yangshuo searching for a table, I sensed something romantic stirring. Throughout the day, Jenny and I found subtle, polite ways of making contact. She took my hand and led me into a shop to show me a flute she had played in school. I placed a hand gently on her back as we crossed a street.

We chose a restaurant and Jenny showed me how to use hot water to wash our chopsticks and plates. White rice and vegetables were then served, followed by the main course, a delicious stew of fish, spices and vegetables.

In the plainest of terms, I explained my desire for a radical life change. I told her I broke from Corporate America and flew to China. When I returned home, I would ride my motorcycle to Southern California where I would support myself on freelance articles. I confessed that my whole plan might fail spectacularly, but I figured I’d learn some things, either way.

Jenny hadn’t worked a “real” job, so I got the impression she didn’t yet understand the ennui that could accompany the workaday. Nonetheless, she admired my temporary split from the workforce.

“Not everyone has the courage to give up a comfortable life, but you’ve been searching for what you want and always fighting for it.”

Later that night, we hugged tenderly and retreated to separate rooms. The next morning, I joined Jenny for a van ride to Silver Cave, which features a mile and a half of crystal stalactites and calcites. After our tour, we strolled to Jenny’s hostel, pausing on the front steps to say our goodbyes.

China silver Cave

"When will I see you again?" Jenny asked, somberly.

I was leaving for another town in the morning. "We probably won’t see each other again,” I confessed. We hugged and I left for the bus station.

I found myself not wanting to hug Jenny, but to hold her, to kiss her. I felt like jumping off my bus before it left town to tell her how I felt. 

Jenny was also smitten. She later messaged me through WeChat. “When we separated, I didn’t know why I was sad. It made my heart hurt. It was the first time I had this kind of feeling.”

She posted a picture of our bamboo ride to WeChat’s newsfeed. It was an image of our shoes side-by-side. The caption read:

“Meeting was a beautiful thing, but the worst is to leave. Thank you for giving me the most happy and impressive memory.”

The Woman on a Walkabout

China Kathryn hike Several days later, a mile into a hike in Tiger Leaping Gorge, over 12,000 feet deep in places, I met an English woman in her late thirties. Kathryn had a fit body, piercings in her nose and tongue, and short curly hair with swirls of gray. She was an intellectual and a free spirit. We got along famously.

Kathryn’s job teaching English had taken her all over the world. She had gone on motorcycle rides across Europe and was in China on a walkabout, this time without her bike.

The idea of a walkabout piqued my interest. A “walkabout” is an Australian rite of passage where a young man enters the wilderness alone to make the spiritual journey into manhood. Had I not crossed paths with Kathryn, I might not have fully realized the reasons I left home. I was not just grieving a lost relationship. I was on a quest exploring myself, examining the questions I did not have time at home to explore. Why am I here? How should I live? Who should I love?

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Read this article online at: Walkabout Love in China

Copyright (C) Perceptive Travel 2017. All rights reserved.

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The Genius Dilemma

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Without Limits

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