Long Way Home – Acknowledgements

***Now that the trip has ended, I will soon be using this website to start a collection of women’s travel stories. Stay tuned! I’ll be looking for contributors.

“Well I stumbled in the darkness
I’m lost and alone
Though I said I’d go before us
And show the way back home
Is there a light up ahead
I can’t hold onto very long
Forgive me pretty baby but I always take the long way home
Come with me, we can take the long way home
Come with me, together, we can take the long way home”
– Long Way Home, Tom Waits/ Norah Jones (song)

An incredible number of people were part of this journey and I have all of you to thank. This trip has been yours. From the ones who first inspired me to travel to the strangers who graciously accepted me into their homes, I am truly blessed with all your wisdom and grace.

A few people deserve special thanks:

Sally P, for encouraging me despite all my doubts and fears, for all your wise words and pep talks, for always cheering me up, and for always being my number one fan.

My MITOC family – Rachel, Anna D, Aaron, Ben S, Thaddeus, Michelle, Jon, Francis, Nadine, Natasha, Jess L, Michele, Maddie, the Gilbertsons, everyone who worried about me, checked up on me, followed me, and flew to Istanbul to see me. There’s so many of you and you’re the best friends in the whole wide world!

My previous bike companions – Orian, Nate, Quinn, Karen, Ariel, Seager for teaching me all I know about bike touring and inspiring my first bike trips

The bike companions I had on this trip – (Virtual companions) Sage Cohen, Jana and Alex, for guiding my way through the vast expanse of Mongolia. (Actual companions) Mehdi and Mahyar in Armenia, Moshii in Kyrgyzstan, Marko in Kyrgyzstan.

Enesh in Turkmenistan and Ulugbek in Uzbekistan – for becoming my sister and my brother

Sara B – for always making me laugh! Crystal – for your wonderful friendship all these years

Sean Collier and Kate Goldstein – for teaching me the important things in life; the thought of you will forever bring smiles to people. This trip is dedicated in your memory ten times over.

Brother and Philip – for your web and tech savy skills (and dealing with my quirky eating habits for 27 years).

Dad – for being a traditional yet non-traditional Asian parent in all the best ways, and Nancy – for taking care of Dad

Last but not least, Mom, Dai Yi, and Po po — the most courageous women in my life who have struggled through life’s hardships with a love and determination that words can only superficially describe. I know I can be strong because I know I am part of you.

Inshallah, I shall see you all again soon and for many years to come…somewhere on my long way home.

I Drift Like a Cloud – Epilogue

“I drift like a cloud,
Across these venerable eastern lands,
A journey of unfathomable distances,
An endless scroll of experiences…
Lady Zhejiang here we must part,
For the next province awaits my embrace.
Sad wanderer, once you conquer the East,
Where do you go?” 
– Tom Carter, China: Portrait of a People (book)

After finishing the trip in December, I spent January to April getting back into normal life in Boston. Though life on the road was exciting, I was very much ready to be home. I could finally let my guard down completely and not have to worry about where I was going to sleep that night. I wouldn’t have to repeat the same conversation of where I was from and where I was going to every person I saw. Some people who start traveling remain vagabonds for the rest of their lives, but I have found that friends on the road can never replace my community at home. Being amongst friends and family, feeling close with others, having deep conversations, going to the movies, hiking in the woods–normal things–these were all things I missed. And most of all, I missed being a nerd. It was my delight then, when in April I found a new exciting job in San Diego and engrossed myself once again with plugging calculations, being awkward, and arguing about science.

Now that I am back to “normal working life”, most of the time it feels like all a dream. Every once in a while, there is something that tries to convince me that it wasn’t–that the person who rode that bike was indeed myself–but often it’s not convincing enough. When Ulugbek showed up at New York JFK airport, I still wondered how I could have possibly met him in Nukus, in the desert, speaking Chinese with a bunch of Chinese construction guys. What?! Nonsensical.

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Red China Blues

“Living in China has made me appreciate my own country, with its tiny, ethnically diverse population of unassuming donut-eaters.”- Jan Wong, Red China Blues (book)

Being in China this time was very different from times before; I noticed issues that I hadn’t before. In my life, I never really paid attention to Chinese politics much. I am, afterall, an American, having lived here practically all my life. But a few issues struck my attention on this visit.

The first issue was China’s censorship. I now realize the extent to which the Chinese people live in a very insular bubble. Because of the censorship, China has created its own social media outlets such as QQ, WeChat, and weibo. With everyone in China glued to these social media channels, everyone there believes that the way the world works is the way China works. When I met the Chinese road workers in Mongolia, they could not understand how I didn’t have QQ.  “But everyone has QQ!” they said. I tried to explain that China, and only China, has QQ. I wrote down my email address for them and they stared at it as if they had never seen an email address before. Maybe ignorance is bliss?

The omnipresent control was evident in the internet cafe system too. In order to use a computer, you must swipe a Chinese ID card into the system. Because I don’t have a Chinese ID card, often I wouldn’t be allowed to use the computer. Only if I were lucky could I get the internet cafe worker to use their own ID cards to turn on a computer for me to use. It was frustrating when there were a million internet cafes in town, but I couldn’t use a single one. So, note to foreign travelers in China thinking they can use internet cafes–not an easy endeavor!

The second issue that I could not escape was the pollution. Looking out the window in Beijing and Suzhou, the high-rises just across the street were hard to see through the haze. Just a 30-minute run in Suzhou, and I could feel my lungs burning by the end of it. The air pollution wasn’t even considered too bad at the time by locals. It got worse in the summer months; people said when the pollution was really high, the sky was yellow. Besides air pollution, I stopped drinking boiled tap water (what locals drink) because I realized that though the tap water would not kill me tomorrow, it might have heavy metals and god-knows-what-else to cause health problems in the long term. I started drinking bottled water, but even that, who knows where the bottled water came from?

P1040094 air pollution in Suzhou

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China – It All Ends With Mao

***As promised, the final chapters of the journey.

The train from left Ulaanbataar at 6pm and before I knew it, I woke up 13 hours later just as the train was pulling into the border town Zamiin-Uud. The train arrived at 7am and I was eager to get across the border to China early. But my hopes sank when I found out that the luggage department where my bike was didn’t open until 9am. Even until my last moment in Mongolia, it was true: things never happen quickly in Mongolia.

The border crossing into China was a slow process. I was not allowed to ride my bike across the border area, so I had to find a jeep to take me and my bike. People were friendly though and before long, a Mongolian woman and her son took me in their jeep. We went from the border checkpoint across some no-man’s land, then through a Chinese drug test drive-through that was much like a car wash, before arriving at the immigration building.

The funny thing about being Chinese-American in China is getting treated differently depending on whether you are Chinese or whether you are a foreigner. At first when the Chinese border officials saw me wandering around at immigration not sure where to go, they would yell at me “What are you doing”! But after they looked at my passport and saw that I was American, they gave me special privileges like getting moved to the front of the line, or letting me pass through the border area on my bike instead of getting in a jeep. Time and time again in China, I encountered this double standard. If others knew I was a foreigner, I would be treated like a special guest. But more often people just ignored me since, at first glance, I was just another one of the billion Chinese people in this country.

There are some borders that simply lie in a field and change nothing; other borders are thresholds to a whole new world. I first experienced the latter a couple of years ago cycling through the Ethiopia-Sudan border at Metema. Now I experienced it again at the Mongolia-China border.  On the Mongolian side, the town of Zamiin-Uud was only one small street with a couple of small buildings and the train station. You hardly saw anybody on the streets, except for the jeep taxi drivers who lingered by the train station hoping to grab customers while smoking their cigarettes. But upon entering China, I was greeted by not just a border town, but a border city. Here in Erlian, China, though on the edge of Gobi Desert, there were things–lots of things–including a KFC! The experience was both dazzling and dizzying. It was immensely comforting to see the KFC logo with Colonel Sanders smiling down on me. Gone were the terrible roads in Mongolia. In China, the streets were covered with endless smooth pavement, exceptionally wide bike lanes, signs to tell you where you were supposed to go, and bike-lane traffic lights to tell you when to stop. The streets were bustling with people, shops, scooters, and electric bikes. There were large commercial banks, furniture showrooms, fancy lobbies, cosmetic shops, and shopping malls.

But the best of all was that there were so many places to eat. Oh, the sweet aroma of noodles, steamed buns, dumplings, congee, hot soy milk, and fried pancakes! The food of my childhood and the food of my dreams! No more Mongolian mutton soup! The side streets were filled with the brilliant colors of all the fresh fruit and vegetables you could think of. I could not help but stop at every food stand. Needless to say, I didn’t bike very far that day.

China border city Erlian (Erenhot) on Mongolia-China border

P1030916P1030915In the province of Inner Mongolia, road signs are in Chinese characters and Mongolian script. The road signs also sounded like propaganda slogans. “Protect the road, everyone has responsibility!” and “Please don’t drive when drowsy!”

P1030922P1030919Dinosaur fossils were found nearby Erlian in the Gobi Desert, so the Chinese decided to build giant dinosaurs to attract tourists.

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Dear Kate

“The effect of her being on those around her was incalculably diffusive: for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.” – George Eliot, “Middlemarch” (book)

I met Kate in 2011 a year after I moved back to Boston for a new job. I was still looking for new friends and activities in Boston, so I started revamping the windsurfing community at MIT. Kate showed up to one of the events at the MIT Sailing Pavilion with her contagious bundle of energy as usual and I instantly wanted to be her friend. She was one of the few experienced windsurfers, which meant that we could go on advanced trips together outside of MIT. After meeting her that first time, I realized that her name sounded very familiar. The next day at work, as I flipped through my notes from a recent energy conference (NESEA), there was Kate’s picture front and center. She was featured as one of the standout Women in Energy. I was starstruck–I had become friends with one of the most influential women in the industry!

Over the next few months, Kate and I hung out often. We went on a couple of windsurfing trips and we met up with other folks to party, to gossip, to play basketball, to talk about life, and to help others with their life troubles. She invited me to work out with her, sometimes at the MIT gym and sometimes at South Boston Yoga. One night coming back from yoga, she told us about a women’s conference that she had gone to the year before. It wasn’t a feminist movement or anything; it was simply a bunch of women from all walks of life telling stories. The experience deeply inspired her and she wished to share that sense of empowerment with people in her daily life.

That was when she started a group called Powerhouse Women. She emailed all the women she knew from all her circles and set up a monthly get together where she would cook dinner for us. Not only was Kate’s cooking always amazing, Powerhouse was a space to tell stories and chat about anything–relationships, career, family, success, or just pure gossip.

Kate was best at bringing people together. Last year, just before I set off on my big adventure, she helped prepare board games and dinner for my going away party, and she and her mother insisted that they would pay for the food. Even though I was intensely nervous about the trip, she was so excited for me and often expressed her support for what I was doing.

A week later, I had set off into rural Turkey when the Boston bombings happened. It was April 19; Sean had lost his life and night had fallen around me. I stopped in the village of Incir, knowing that I needed to be around people even if they didn’t speak the same language. The locals allowed me to set up camp under a small tin roof. Teenage boys kicked around a deflated soccerball. The villagers were kind and invited me for tea. But when the moment came to crawl back into the tent alone, there was nothing left to distract me from reality; I couldn’t fall asleep, haunted by the bombings and the details of Sean’s death. At a loss for what to do, I texted Kate, but did not expect to hear back from her because international texts are always unreliable. To my surprise, Kate responded within seconds and Skype-called my cell phone. Our chat was brief, but she gave me an update about things in Boston, and suddenly I didn’t seem so far away anymore.

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