IN mid-September I set out on a journey to China. I feel that it is significant to note that I was on my own.
No kids, no husband, just me alone for the first time in a decade. This harassed parent needed some time out.
As luck would have it I was travelling to China as a sovereignty dispute broke out, and is still ongoing as I type between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands, as they are known in China, but the Japanese call them the Senkaku Islands.
This dispute, combined with separate protests from the Chinese Muslim community over that movie on YouTube, led to violence and the closure of some major tourist attractions temporarily.
Our guide was very guarded when it came discussing anything about it, and requested that we not ask any political questions because they "loved their family". Secret Chinese political madness aside, I did have quite an adventure, albeit an exhausting one.
After a while I got used to seeing the vans full of heavily armed riot police and army men pass us by, and the closed off streets where I assume the Chinese Muslims lived.
It was explained that because we (being British and Australian travellers) look like and I quote "big nose Americans", it may not be the best idea to go out alone in some places. Security was very tight, my bag was X-rayed at many locations and I was physically patted down so many times I lost count.
This did little to curb our enthusiasm, however. Everywhere I looked there was something unusual to see, right down to the little alleyways. I found myself seeking out the home life, I wanted to see how an family in China went about their daily lives compared to my own. I couldn't wrap my head around the idea that they ate Chinese food everyday, whereas it is our sometimes food for special occasions, here I was having it for breakfast and not once did I find a lemon chicken or beef in black bean sauce.
In a convenience store I found dried salted chicken feet for sale in packs as if they were crisps, actually I didn't see potato chips anywhere and boy was real chocolate hard to find.
Come to think of it, I saw only two over weight locals the whole time.
Despite my best efforts (falling asleep listening to lessons), I did not learn as much of the Mandarin language as I would have liked. I am able to ask for water, where is the bathroom and ask what something is. Understanding their response being my next problem.
I accidentally consented to trying out stir-fried sea slugs and a cricket on a stick, which were not as bad as you may think.
That is if you are thinking about consuming say, boiled frog entrails. I made the pilgrimage to the places I'd watched my childhood Kung Fu TV stars play out their stories. The Forbidden City, Summer Palace, Terracotta Warriors and the Great Wall are compulsory sights to be seen, and apparently you haven't been to China if you haven't seen them. I stood in awe on entering the enormous archeological site of the terra-cotta warriors in Xian, they constitute part of the tomb of Emperor Qin Shi Huang who was the first Emperor of China.
They were discovered in 1974 by a farmer digging a well, that farmer is still working on the site signing autographs for a fee. The Yu Gardens in Shanghai were another favourite, and the story goes that it is also the place where the design for the famous willow china plates was painted. I think everyone has at least a teapot at home with that pattern on it.
Nobody warned me about the lifts, but then given that the population of Shanghai alone is more than the whole of Australia, I really shouldn't have been surprised. I found myself standing cheek to cheek in a lift on many an occasion, with the overloaded bell ringing and only the tourists being polite enough to fight their way out so the lift could move. I feel like I have spent two weeks battling the crowds at the Sydney Royal Easter Show.
Traffic lights, give way signs and pedestrian crossings are seemingly in place as decorations as nobody has told Chinese drivers what they are there for.
Traffic flowed in every direction at the same time in intersections.
I don't know how but somehow it all worked. Four lane roads would be accommodating seven cars across, with bikes zooming around between them laden with entire families on their handlebars.
I started watching out for these bikes and their cargo, which got more unusual as the trip went on. I was very impressed by a bike being peddled along containing a three piece living room set.
If you really have to cross the road, the best way to do so in packs. I can see that being marooned on the block where you live is a definite possibility.
People with carts full of fruit set up their shop in the middle of the roads, I think this is because they couldn't go any further.
Everywhere you go there is somewhere to shop, at any time of day. I became an expert haggler.
I even found a shop half way up the very steep mountainside at Beijing, when I was climbing the Great Wall. I could fill a newspaper right now with details of my adventure, and I took over two thousand photos (any volunteers for a very long slide night?).
I've heard it said that travel can change a person, and while I won't say it has changed me, it certainly has altered my point of view and I'm already plotting my next trip.