A Week-In-The-Life of Barbara Weibel: Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel

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After years of working 70-80 hours per week at jobs that paid the bills but brought no joy, a serious illness made Barbara Weibel realize she felt like the proverbial “hole in the donut” – solid on the outside but empty on the inside. After recovering her health, she walked away from her successful but unfulfilling career and sold or gave away most of her material possessions to pursue the only things that had ever made her happy: travel, photography, and writing. Four years later she is more convinced than ever that we are all more alike than we are different and that travel is one of the most effective tools in the quest for world peace. But life on the road isn’t always easy. Please enjoy this week-in-the-life of Barbara Weibel in China, while she has a few challenges to contend with!

This post was originally published in 2011. It has since been updated for accuracy of links and content.

I fancy myself an experienced independent traveler. Most of the time I arrive in a country without reservations and just wander, taking the advice of locals for accommodations, restaurants, and especially little-known destinations just begging to be discovered. Although this mode of travel can occasionally present challenges, I’ve always been able to find creative solutions, until my recent travels in China, which had me questioning whether I had lost my travel savvy.

Day One – Thursday:

Hole In The Donut Great Wall of China, photo by Barbara Weibel

Land in Shanghai after exhausting 15-hour flight. Emerge from immigration and customs and am immediately accosted by a throng of private taxi drivers. Knowing they are much more pricey than the official taxis I waive them all off and go in search of an ATM machine to get local currency. The “Chinglish” on the machines is barely decipherable but I give it a try. The first cash machine doesn’t work. The second one also rejects my debit card. Since my bank had mistakenly cancelled my debit card and reinstated it just hours before my departure for China, I begin to worry. Besides my debit card, I carry only one credit card, which I never use in ATM’s because of the high interest charged on cash advances. When the third machine spits out my card I start to panic; fortunately a friendly flight attendant explains my error. After punching in the desired amount of cash I had been pressing the button labeled “Correct.” Instead, I should have been pressing “Continue.”

See also: The Ultimate Guide to Traveling With Money, including best practices and tips on using credit cards, debit cards, and ATMs

Seeing cash in my hand, the private taxi drivers resume their high-pressure tactics and I finally relent when one drops his price, as I don’t have enough energy to hunt down the official taxis. The driver starts out cheerily enough but halfway through the ride pulls U.S. dollars out of his shirt pocket and starts applying less than subtle pressure for a tip. Not happy with my mute reaction, he claims to have no change for my larger bill upon arrival. Aggravated, I grab my travel luggage, tell him to wait, and get change from the hostel front desk. It is the one and only time the hostel helps me during my stay.

Haul my luggage up two dark flights of stairs to a dorm room that is cooled to arctic temperatures. Find the thermostat but the directions are all in Chinese. A steady stream of water is dripping from the fluorescent ceiling fixture (I assume the air conditioning condensate line runs above it); I am afraid to turn on the light and so unpack using only the dim light from the hallway. Decide a shower will make me feel better. Find the shared shower room but the water reeks of diesel fuel. I give up and just go out to explore Shanghai’s waterfront, despite my jet lag and stressed-out condition.

Day Two – Friday:

With only three days in Shanghai before I must meet my cousins in Beijing for a rare diversion from my solo travels, I inquire at the front desk of my hostel about purchasing train tickets and they direct me to a nearby ticket office. I walk three blocks in blistering heat, ducking and weaving between shade umbrellas carelessly wielded by short Chinese pedestrians who threaten to put out one of my eyes with every other step. No one speaks English at the ticket office. I point to the calendar, say “Beijing,” and pantomime sleeping to indicate I want the night train; the agent shrugs her shoulders, says “mei you,” and turns her back on me. Back at the hostel I repeat the “mei you” phrase front desk clerk and learn this Mandarin phrase means “I don’t have.” From the treatment I get each time someone says it to me during the next ten days, I also suspect it means “I don’t care.” The clerk suggests I try the day train rather than the night train. He scribbles a note on a scrap of paper for the ticket agent and I head back to the ticket office. But this is also not possible. I traipse back and forth between hostel and ticket office for three hours, each time carrying a different notes before giving up.

Speculating that the international hotels will have travel agencies or concierges that can help me I walk a mile further and try the Radisson, Holiday Inn, and the Sheraton, but none of their travel agents speak enough English. Next I try a huge Chinese travel agency across the street from People’s Square, where more than 50 agents sit in front of computer screens. The greeter at the door, who is the only English-speaking person in the company, tells me in no uncertain terms that to travel independently in China I must speak Mandarin. Further on I try two more government ticket agencies and finally find one woman who speaks a little English and is able to find me a ticket. With a huge sigh of relief, I slap my credit card on the counter but she shakes her head; they only accept cash and I am not carrying enough with me. In the relentless heat I rush three miles back to my hostel to get cash but by the time I return the ticket is no longer available. Abandoning the idea of taking the train, I spend the rest of the day in the hostel searching for plane tickets. I find an affordable fare on one site but in the last step of an onerous online booking process I get an error message; purchases can only be made on computers using Internet Explorer. I am on a Mac. I start over. Finally, Ctrip.com allows me to book a flight, for which I pay a small fortune.

Chitwan-Dugout-Canoe


Day Three – Saturday:

With all these problems to sort out, I have not yet written a word for my blog or kept up with my social media conversations, so I decide to work all day in the hostel cafe, where the employees play “Girl from Ipanema” over and over again. Knowing that China blocks many social Internet sites, my cousin had set up a virtual private network on his home computer before traveling to China. Unfortunately, it turns out to be the wrong kind of VPN. I cannot access Facebook, Twitter or YouTube, and the connection speed is so bad that I cannot even upload photos to my blog. Ten hours later I solve the problem by purchasing a subscription for a VPN-SSL service that gains me access to all the sites I need while in China.

Frazzled and exhausted I shut down the computer for the day and go in search of food the famous Shanghai food I have heard so much about. I am a vegetarian but I have planned ahead by purchasing a Chinese-English translator app for my iPhone that allows me to display the Mandarin symbol for vegetarian. (Unfortunately my cleverness is useless. Throughout the trip restaurant after restaurant serves me dishes with chicken and pork. Apparently the Chinese think vegetarians eat everything but beef).

Day Four – Sunday:

Though I’ve hardly seen anything of Shanghai, I board a plane for Beijing and meet my cousins, who are also arriving that same evening from California. All three of us are shocked by the pollution, which is so thick that we cannot see the tops of the high-rise buildings. Our hotel, though booked for three, has only two beds and I end up sleeping on the floor with no pillow or blanket.

Days Five & Six – Monday & Tuesday:

Hole In The Donut Great Wall of China2

We are picked up at 9 a.m. by the China Guide Tours for a two-day excursion to a remote portion of the Great Wall that includes sleeping overnight atop the wall. On the first afternoon we climb up for sunset, back down again for dinner in the village, and then back up in the pitch black on treacherous stone steps with only wind-up flashlights to light our way. At the top, we hoist ourselves up one final section of crumbling stairs and snuggle into our sleeping bags. I say a silent prayer that my 58-year old bladder will make it through the night so I do not have to avail myself of the bucket at the far end of the watchtower. When my stomach begins to rumble from eating too many dumplings I panic. Using the bucket is one thing, but we have been told that if we need to do #2 we will have to “commune with nature,” which means climbing back down the tumble down stairs, all alone, and finding a scarce patch of flat ground amidst the steep drop-offs that surround the wall. Fortunately, my stomach settles down and I sleep until dawn. All in all, this is the best part of my China tour, as our guides translate for us and make sure I suffer no meat in my meals.

Day Seven – Wednesday:

forbidden_city_beijing_china_32_original

We return to Beijing and check into a guesthouse near the city center. Given my experience with sold-out trains, we immediately ask the manager about getting tickets back to Shanghai two days hence. He picks up the phone, orders them and they are delivered within the hour. Beijing people are much more friendly than Shanghais. Aside from a minor flood whenever anyone showers, our room is comfortable and we enjoy the next two days exploring the Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Unfortunately, we must return to Shanghai to attend the World Expo, which presents another whole series of problems. But that is a story for another week….

Having wandered for nearly four years, Barbara Weibel recently fell in love with Nepal, specifically the town of Pokhara. She planned to stay in Nepal for three weeks but has already extended her visa to three months and is researching setting up an NGO to help fund Nepali schools for underprivileged children and provide micro-financing for people who cannot receive loans through traditional sources. She is now spending a month or two in Laos before heading back to the U.S. to set up a non-profit entity for donors who wish to help with the Nepal cause, before returning to Pokhara. Follow Barbara’s adventures at Hole in the Donut Travels!

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5 thoughts on “A Week-In-The-Life of Barbara Weibel: Hole in the Donut Cultural Travel”

  1. At some point during the first two days, I think I would have lost it big time. But then again, I always get frustrated with red tape etc. Glad you got to see the great wall Barbara, that is one thing that I would like to do but the stories of strenuous hiking puts me off!

  2. My hat goes off to you Barbara for traveling solo in a difficult country. It doesn’t sound the least bit glamorous.

    My husband traveled to Beijing about 8X over 18 months and on one occasion the air quality was way better than average and he said you could actually make out the distant hills. He also said you could taste the air there and concurs with them being very friendly.

    One Nepal charity that I have the utmost respect for is Olga’s Nepal Youth Opportunity Foundation. She is out of California and would probably be a fantastic resource.

  3. I traveled through china (touring with a ballet) waaaaay back in 1993, and I found it to be quite an intimidating experience…I felt like I was on another planet! Granted, I was still very young and relatively untraveled back then…I wonder how I would fare in China now. I’ve heard so many tales of people loving China, and others of it being a tough place to be. My own hats off to Barbara for sticking through these adventures! Such is the adventure of solo travel…

  4. China can be challenging. It’s worthwhile learning a bit of Mandarin; English isn’t really an important language there. Hiring a guide is an option as well – and not very expensive. China is a wild and beautiful country. Hope you get a chance to visit again and have a better experience.

    You know, the pollution bit actually reminded me of Los Angeles. I was there a few weeks ago and noticed a chain of tall mountains right outside the city (or so it seemed) I had never seen before. I was told they’re usually invisible due to pollution and smog.

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