Story time: On Saturday night, a cab driver picked this Andrew Belle song to play on the drive home especially for my friend and me. He also travelled with a medium-sized pup who enjoyed sticking his head out the window, sitting on passengers’ laps and being just the sweetest lil guy. I think I tipped more than the fare.

Notes, Part 2.

Jessica and I have had a thing for pandas going way back, so far back I don’t know why we have a thing for pandas but I know they featured heavily in both our 21st birthday parties. So my first experience with these bundles of joy in real life was kind of a big deal, and it was a really big deal we got to share the experience together halfway around the world. Just me, Jessica, a dozen bears and probably 2,000 fellow zoo-goers. It was insanely crowded. We were squeezed and sling-shotted through exhibits. We cut some lines. We took some pictures of sleepy panda butts. We squealed and danced. This zoo also, I was told, has a dog and cat section, but we skipped even more crowds there in favor of the Great Wall.

Just an hour north of Beijing, after you clear the smog and realize it’s a city actually surrounded by shrub-covered mountains, the Great Wall curves close enough to touch. The wall takes a random ribbon path over the hills, choosing the steepest routes and switchbacks. What nobody seems to tell you about the Great Wall before you’re actually standing on top of it is that it might be the world’s longest failure. Built as a barrier to attack, the wall was easily and almost immediately breached. Today, there’s a Great Wall marathon — which I’m sure is much more effective at killing anyone who attempts it.

Just for kicks, the three of us flew a few hours south the next day to Shanghai, which is ultra-modern compared to the temples and hutong neighborhoods of Beijing, and chockfull of eye-catching skyscraper design. We toured the Oriental Pearl TV tower, which included time to dance on the glass-floored observation tower 87 stories in the sky and wander through the basement museum of Shanghai history, which boasted the most disconcertingly realistic wax figures in opium dens I’ve ever seen.

The next day’s adventures gave us a chance to contrast sleek Shanghai with Zhouzhuang, an old water town about an hour outside the city where we ate pig hooves on the rickety balcony of a restaurant overlooking the gondolier-clogged canals.

Back in Beijing, a jade saleswoman tore out some of Jessica’s hair during a heated bargaining session and we got lost in the galleries and back alleys of 798, the art district on the outskirts of the city. The idea is if government officials get wind of unpatriotic exhibits, it takes them long enough to travel from the city’s center to shut it down that the artist and his work have time to disappear. You can also buy $3 Kanye West CDs and the most-delicious tofu veggie paninis here.

Jared also DJs in Beijing, which is how Jessica and I met some pushy Frenchmen on my last night in the city who liked his brand of dubstep and the only state in the U.S. they’d had the great pleasure to visit, West Virginia.

On the plane home, I sat next to a tiny boy and his Balinese mother. The sun was rising as we approached the coast of California for a stop in San Francisco, and I put my hand to the window shade to raise it. In my exhaustion, though, I wondered whether opening the window would violate some level of the boy’s innocence his mother was trying to preserve. Is seeing the ground like a dollhouse village from the air some mystery of youth — like death or sex or the pureed vegetables Mom sneaks into your brownies — that only a parent should reveal? After some soul-searching, I slid the panel up. The boy’s eyes widened and I waited for the revelation, but my fears were unfounded. He never looked down.

“Look, Mama,” he said, staring out only at the sky and horizon line of clouds just off the wingtip. “Blue and white and yellow. The best colors.”

The thing I love most about travelling is how it makes me feel braver when I come back.

I want to wear more of what I want — bright colors and patterns. I want to do more cooking with vegetables and tofu. I want to go out and explore — to say yes to experiences out and about more than PJs and frozen pizza (though those definitely have their place). I want to be friendlier. I want people I meet to feel like they’ve known me forever, but still want to know more. And I want to know more. There’s so much to see and hear and eat and dance to.

Next year in Spain/Iceland/Paris/Argentina.

Notes, Part 1.

I’ve been picking at the scab of my China story for a week, wanting to bleed some kind of structure out of it. I’ve been answering all the typical questions from friends and family with “amazing,” “fantastic,” “crowded,” and “tofu.” So here it is in a few more words — snagged from my short-lived travel journal and badly summarized from memory.

A lean, plaid-wearing young man asked to trade seats on the 13-hour flight from O’Hare to Beijing so he could sit next to his friend, who he only referred to as “dude.” As in “Dude, did you get the goods from the carryon?” The goods = Ambien and M&Ms.

This put me in the window seat next to a tiny Chinese grandma-type. I smiled a greeting. She said something long and pointed to me in Chinese. I smiled in acknowledgment. She asked me, in Chinese, to help buckle her seatbelt. Or at least that’s what I inferred from the hand gestures with the seatbelt. If not, I just wrapped my arms around the waist of a poor woman who just wanted the time.

Dozed. Woke up over the North Pole. A quick glance out the window and I assumed we were above a blank sheet of cloud, but the cover soon revealed sharp cracks and glints of subzero water in the otherwise flawless white of polar ice. Melting seamlessly in the crumpled-paper white mountains of Siberia, benign from 36,000 feet. I made a quick list of Arctic crash priorities: 1. Put on my extra sweatshirt. 2. Make friends with wolves.

The trip after landing in Beijing is more difficult to recount in detail. Jessica and I shared a 7-months-long reunion hug and from there the trip was non-stop. No hours in a plane seat to jot down every fold of the landscape.

My notes from here on are basically one continuous list of foods we sampled, starting with Yunnan province cuisine like scrambled eggs with jasmine blossoms, spicy tofu scramble, potatoes sprinkled with mint, marinated cold eggplant tentacles, rose petal pastry and sweet rice wine. Then sticky rice, sweet tofu pillows, veggie dumplings, pumpkin pizza, egg tart, taro pie, panda-shaped Twinkies, dim sum, Beijing duck (you dip the crackled strips of duck skin in white sugar and they melt in your mouth in an explosion of pure fat and sweet and ohmygod), dirt-colored hard-boiled tea eggs, milk tea, an endless parade of dumplings, green bean ice cream, black sesame baked goods, pig hoof and lamb skewers.

I can proudly say jet lag never got me down. We didn’t give it a chance. The first night was full of food and meeting J’s fellow expats (such admirable, welcoming people — I felt like I’d known them forever after just the first chopstick lesson), and Jared’s DJ gig. J and J took me brought me to Lama Temple, one of hundreds of Buddhist sites converted from an old imperial palace, this one home to progressively larger statues of the Man himself as we meandered through the shrines, and progressively sleepier orange-clad monks.

I learned quickly how crowded China is. I knew it would be, I guess, but the word “billion” is one thing, the practice of “billion” — on the street, in cars, bikes, rickshaws and subways — is another. And it almost ran me over many times. Beijing is smelly and smoggy and full of hacking and spitting and chatter in the most wonderful, alive way. Old men fished amid the tendrils of just-blooming weeping willows in a river that is most definitely polluted. Perfectly imperfect.

And then we tried to go to the zoo on a national holiday…


Well. I didn’t post anything at all last week.

I promise I’m working on writing something (anything) about China. But it’s hard. And all I’ve wanted to do is sleep and spring clean the apartment. I haven’t done much of those things either, but just thinking about all of it has taken up most of my time.