When it comes to traveling; I plan. I’m a planner. Book the flights, find the hostel, research restaurants, read countless blogs in search of local “hidden gems”, the list goes on. I sometimes obsess over every variable to the point that each day of my trip is predetermined.
Don’t get me wrong, I think it’s important to plan to some extent. Booking flights in advance is usually cheaper, and reading a review or two before booking a hostel can save you from a nightmare experience. But sometimes, I feel like planning every little detail can lead to a synthesized travel experience. When you over plan, everything you do fits into your preconceived notion of how things should look and feel. In turn, you miss out on the potential for truly authentic experiences that could’ve happened if you left room for spontaneous events to materialize.
A great example of this was on my trip to Bali over Spring Festival. I had planned everything to a T. Weeks spent pouring over Airbnb listings, countless blogs, hours of research invested into this trip. I had mapped out the parts of the island to stay on, which temples and beaches to see, where we could learn to surf, etc. And while all this planning wasn’t inherently bad or wrong, one of the most memorable nights of the trip happened completely by chance. One evening, our dinner plans fell through and instead we stumbled across a hole-in-the-wall local bar with free delicious BBQ, cheap arak (Balinese rice liquor), and adorable puppies. That night was the most authentic experience of our entire trip and it happened spontaneously. No amount of planning could have generated that experience; it was completely spur of the moment.
To shake my habit of hyper-planning, I decided that on my next trip I would go against my usual inclinations and plan as little as possible. I wanted to try to go with the flow and see where the trip went. The perfect opportunity to apply my freeform travel philosophy came in the way of terraced rice fields nestled in the Fujian countryside. My trip to Bali had really sparked my interest in rice terraces, and when I got back to Fuzhou I began combing through Google for terraces in China. Sure enough, I found some webpages with small blurbs about terraced fields in Youxi, Fujian. The few pictures I was able to find looked beautiful and to my delight, Youxi was only a 15RMB train ride away from Fuzhou.
From talking to the Chinese staff at my school, I found out that my teaching assistant Rita was from Youxi. Though she had never been to the terraces herself, she was familiar with the area and had relatives who had visited them. She was kind enough to send her cousin a message, who told her that the terraces were located outside of the small village of Lianhe, and could be reached via bus from Youxi.
So there it was, my rough plan for the weekend. Take a train to Youxi, bus to Lianhe, figure it out from there. My girlfriend Ashley had also loved the rice terraces in Bali and was excitedly on board with my vision of unfettered adventure in search of rice terraces in rural China.
This trip really afforded itself to freewheeling because there was little available information about where we were going. We were headed off the main tourist trail to a place usually visited by passing Chinese tour groups. There wasn’t much precedent for two foreigners who didn’t speak Chinese in this part of China.
The morning of our trip, we caught the train to Youxi and by 10am we had arrived at the outskirts of town. Many the people who got off the train (Ashley and myself included) headed directly for the city bus. So many people crammed onto the bus that is seemed to be bursting at the seams as it crawled away from the station. There appeared to be a bus stop every 100 meters and though no one got off, there was always a person or two waiting to get on. The bus groaned with each new passenger. Ashley and I standing in front of the exit sporting our large backpacks definitely didn’t help the situation. When we finally arrived at our stop we quickly jumped off the bus, thankful to be able to breathe normally again.
Inside the bus station we were immediately approached by a woman who spoke a decent amount of English. She confirmed that we could take a bus to Lianhe, but didn’t think that there were any hotels there for us to stay the night. She recommended that instead we hire a taxi to drive us to see the terraces and back to Youxi. According to Didi (Chinese taxi app) that was going to cost us 300quai. Though this was more than we wanted to spend, it seemed like the safest option. I was about to order a taxi when I was hit with a realization: this weekend wasn’t about safety, it was about risk, impulsivity, adventure! At the last minute, we followed our gut and hopped on the bus as it was pulling out of the station.
The ride to Lianhe was beautiful, we drove past lush countryside along a river winding its way up into the mountains. When we arrived, we tried to communicate with the bus operator to figure out how to get from the village up to the terraces. All forms of translating (Plecco, Google translate, Wechat, and good old fashioned TPR) were getting us nowhere. The most we could glean from the bus driver was that his wife was willing to drive us to the fields and back in her car for 300RMB. In comparison, our total combined transportation costs up to that point were under 60RMB. 300 quai for a ride there and back was unacceptable to us. We were becoming increasingly frustrated and started to wish we had just hired a taxi in Youxi, when our saving grace game in the form of a little girl named Jessie. She noticed that we were struggling and told her mom; who spoke some English, to come and help us. Her mom told us about a hotel on top of the rice terraces and helped us hire a motorcycle driver to take us there (for only 50RMB). Just like that, with the serendipitous help of a total stranger, we were on our way to a mountaintop terrace getaway.
As our motorcycle wound its way up, the sun was shining and the air was crisp and clean. The sky was the most intense shade of blue I have ever seen in China. You could see for miles in every direction. We cruised past rice terraces, fields of wild flowers and groves of bamboo on our way to the top. The sun was warm and the mountain breeze was cool. Sitting on the back of that motorcycle I was awash with happiness and contentment.
We were dropped off at a quaint hotel on top of the mountain which had a perfect view of a large terraced field below. There were only a handful of other guests staying at the hotel and Ashley and I were met with “What the (insert explicative) are these two foreigners doing out here” looks from all of them. The owner was friendly, and kindly showed us to our room. We quickly dropped off our things, packed day bags and set off to explore the sprawling terraced field below the hotel. We spent the day meandering through the terrace, stopping frequently to take pictures, look at flowers, munch on snacks and enjoy the beautiful mountain scenery we had come to be so deeply immersed in. As the sun started to get low on the horizon we found the perfect spot overlooking the terraces, uncorked our wine, unwrapped our brie, and settled in for the spectacle of colors that was about to unfold.
The sunset was spectacular. We blissfully sat in silence as we listened to the soothing riffs of Jerry Garcia. The sky bled pale hues and vibrant fuchsia streaks. The sunset dusted the terrace pools below with gold, purple, and silver. As I took another sip of wine, I ruminated on how true happiness can come from the simplest things: a bottle of wine, a beautiful sunset, and someone to share all of it with.
That night we drank more wine and gazed at the stars from the roof of the hotel. In Fuzhou, you might be able to see a handful of stars, but in Lianhe, you could see hundreds. I was even able to pick out constellations for the first time since moving to China, it was truly incredible.
The next morning I took a peaceful walk through the countryside before hopping on a motorcycle and heading back to Lianhe to catch the bus to Youxi. When we got back to Youxi, we had a couple of hours to kill before our train. We found a little park and set up our hammock to relax and enjoy another beautiful spring day. As I dozed in the hammock I thought back our serendipitous encounters over the last couple of days. From the lady at the Youxi bus stop, to Jessie and her mom in Liane. Whenever we found ourselves in a difficult situation, someone seemed to materialize out of the ether to help us. Without any concrete plan or destination, we had left ourselves a bit open. I think people could sense that, and time after time strangers demonstrated random acts of kindness to do what they could to help us on our way.
When the time came to head home we started walking to the bus stop as the sun dipped behind the mountains. We stopped to watch the sun slowly drift away, leaving the sky a warm, rich shade of orange. The perfect culmination to an incredible weekend.
As I sat on the train riding back to Fuzhou, I reflected on our weekend and the notion of traveling without attachments and adhering to minimal expectations. I think that when you leave yourself open to spontaneous experiences it can be scary because you are vulnerable in some ways. But that vulnerability and openness also leaves room to have these, little, beautiful and real connections with strangers that give you an overwhelming sense of the general goodness in people.
This weekend was an awesome experiment in letting go of the reins and being spontaneous. The result was a trip that involved moments of uncertainty but was overwhelming full of authentic and wonderful experiences. If you are like me, and tend to over plan, I strongly encourage you to relinquish some control and let the Universe manifest some travel magic on your next vacation!
Sam Quackenbush is a teacher from the USA, currently working at our Rong Qiao branch.