I went to Yangshuo (Southern China) for free at the end of my TEFL placement in a summer camp roughly two hours north, by train. The company I went with (‘GoToCo’) offer a five-night stay for all participants, where you get to meet everyone else who’d been in China that summer at various schools and camps. The four of us, who’d been atop the side of a mountain together for 5 weeks, with no one but each other, our Chinese coach friends, and our 8-14 year old students met a consecutive stream of fresh faces, and heard amazing accounts of everyone’s experiences, which varied enormously: one guy had arrived to find his camp didn’t exist yet… but got some sort of organisational role, whilst two girls had been working all the hours god sends together in a very posh school. We played cards, ate out, explored, chilled in bars, and shared stories, gaining a more rounded understanding of our times in China and what were common mishaps and musings.
Yangshuo truly is a wonderland. It’s hard to sum up, retrospectively, or in actuality, in pictures, or in words, because it is just quite honestly hard to believe it exists. It’s one of the sites of Avatar‘s filming, and felt like a fictional world. I’m not sure if it’s that I hadn’t done my research much, before, but, for me, what makes it so special, is partly its secrecy: unlike more famous destinations it felt like this entirely closed-off haven we’d discovered, and delighted in, all to ourselves. It’s difficult to capture what went on, for me, there, because it was context-dependent: we’d just had what I can only describe as a life-changing experience, that felt totally detached from anything I’d ever known before, completely disconnected from anyone but each other and children who didn’t yet speak our language, in a space we, and no-one back home, had ever previously heard of. We were coming out of this, and to some extent back to reality (to other English speakers with some closer connection to our own cultures), but we were coming out of it to the most unreal place.
One of the reasons I’ve been putting off putting words to these images for so many months is that I know I can’t – and almost shouldn’t – do it justice. Yangshuo and what occured there is something of this magical secret only I and three other people share, and I’ve wondered if, perhaps we should keep it, unspokenly, between ourselves, forever. I’ve also been afraid of sounding cliche; perhaps my writing skills aren’t strong enough, yet, but I can’t quite rinse out words that’ve been used and reused in mocked travel journals and Facebook posts. My best attempt at a conclusive phrase is the only one I could find to write on my last day, on the bus, leaving everything behind: ‘it feels like there’s no going back, now’.
It seems like an irritating attempt at faux-profundity, or a pretentious brag if I try to capture how my time in China, and especially ending it in Yangshuo, made me feel. Really, though, in all honesty, leaving here broke my heart. There was no going back from Yangshuo, because I felt like I had realised things, seen things, and now knew things I could never forget, and which would alter my perspective, forever. I feel differently, now, about so many areas I didn’t even know travel could affect, from my understanding of the world, its cultures, its geography, to my beliefs about the future, what can even possibly happen, and what life can centre around and include. I will never un-know, now, that there’s a whole other world out there, where it feels like what I’d confined to ‘the fictitious’ actually exists, and that no matter how set I become in my beliefs, my priorities, and my mindset, these are open to so many alternative interpretations, and there are so may other ways of doing things and so many different lenses we can adopt.
We were only there for five nights, but every second felt like a dream. Its landscape is so other-worldly and the way you engage with it is so active and intimate: every moment we were moving, on mopeds winding around mountains I couldn’t believe existed, with road stretches that seemed to recede forever into this ceaseless sea of limestone, all at such a scale that made lorries, buses, and trains seem minuscule and which truly taught me the meaning of a phrase I’ve so often misused: ‘jaw-dropping’. If not on transport, our feet were carrying us, racing the sun up steps to a peak above the clouds, or diving into lakes we’d stumbled upon long after it had gone down. We saw landscapes that exploded concepts I thought I’d grasped by age 5, from ‘ocean’, to ‘heaven’, to ‘sky’. I think I finally understand where myth-makers get their inspiration.
Of course, this sense of wonder always felt weirdly eclipsed by our awareness of its unreality: it was 5 measly days following our 5 weeks, reclused, together, and we knew something so rare was ending. I think part of me doesn’t want to open the story back up, or return to its location, because it’s a little bit spectacular just holding it as something of a dream, and I’d hate to scrutinise it or try to recreate it. Some things are so perfect even the slightest touch is a mark, and I want to keep believing this happened as it happened in my memory.
The lovely thing is that there really is no going back from what was revealed to me, here: real adventures, amazing stories, and all-altering experiences are out there, however fleeting, and with however few friends they are shared. Since I can’t go back from that, the only way is forward, and I await the next memory with the most blissful discoveries of all: hope, excitement, and curiosity.