Language is a funny thing. Travel can be easier – more comfortable – when we know the host language. In our shrinking world (and imperfect translation apps), though, it’s easier to get around without knowing the host language, or much of it; more people know more languages, and when in doubt, we can pantomime.
But what about those moments when we might know some of the language – enough to be adorably endearing for trying, but not quite so much to be completely, comfortably fluent?
I found myself on a tour boat, in the middle of a mountain lake, surrounded by tour groups of varying sizes, listening to the tour guide up front explaining the various rock formations and their respective legends, and explaining the traditional songs wafting from boat to boat in days of yore (with kitschy, costumed, acted out demonstrations)…all in Chinese. I was the only Anglo participant on this boat tour, with only a vague idea of what was happening.
The thing is – I had a basic enough command of Mandarin when I arrived in Guangdong Province – where the lingua franca was Cantonese, of course – two years earlier. My vocabulary needed work, but I could comfortably order delivery over the phone from certain restaurants, and generally direct taxi drivers to my apartment building. I could get around easily enough – most of the time – when English was not a usable intermediary; and sometimes, even make someone’s face light up that I was even trying.
So I found myself in the middle of Hunan Province, in a town called Zhangjiajie, for the National Holiday during my final year in China. Zhangjiajie is a mountain town, noted by China’s official tourism board for its scenic beauty – something completely out of the ordinary for someone who usually tends towards the beach. I stayed a ways out of town, next to the entrance to Zhangjiajie National Forest Park. There’s plenty enough to do within the main park to “justify” the ~$40, three-day ticket – and your muscles will thank you (or scream) if you forgo the various cable cars in favor of the stairs and long paths. But the panoramas at the top of the staircases, at the end of the paths, make it worth it. Evidently, some of the tall, skinny mountains were a visual inspiration for the film Avatar – or, so the tourism folks like to tell us to sell more tickets. But oh, are the views worth it.
My first three days were occupied by my three-day park ticket; but I had two extra days, and more things to see. My last two ventures were to Baofeng Lake and Tianmenshan (“Heavenly Gate Mountain”), both at an insignificant extra cost. The trip to Tianmenshan was shrouded in mist, fog, and light rain, which added a sense of…mystery to the mountains’ (and occasional temple’s) austere beauty. Walking up, around, and down the narrow staircases and paths around Baofeng Lake, my eyes were accosted by deep, mossy greens, and sudden deep reds when temples would emerge through the trees.
Throughout the week I spent in Hunan Province, I encountered plenty of other tourists – it was the National Holiday week, after all – not quite as densely traveled as the Lunar New Year holiday, but still a week off for everyone in China, an excuse to go wandering. And yet…I did not encounter any other westerners while I was there (which is a feat, even in China). My very basic command of Mandarin – and my willingness to use it constantly – was certainly helpful, and seemed to be endearing.
But a basic knowledge of a language can only get you so far, especially when traveling alone – and without a pre-packaged tour, complete with translator – which is how I found myself on a boat, surrounded by Chinese tourists, listening to the tour guide explain the lake’s features. She spoke quickly – I only caught one out of maybe every seven words with any accurate comprehension, and so my ability to contextualize was…limited. But the lake was beautiful, and there were some songs from other boats, and she invited someone up to sing a song to a costumed performer across the way. (What would I have done if she’d called on me? I might have sung the one Chinese pop song I knew, which was at least 20 years old by then, the pop song I’d learned in my first year studying Chinese, which was certainly no longer on any current stations at that point.)
I’ve noted before somewhere on this blog that I often travel alone. I don’t have anything against the idea of a package tour – I’ve been on my fair share of them, and they were great. I appreciate them as a way for a novice traveler, or a newcomer to a region, to learn something in a common tongue, or if they might not have a lot of time to figure out where they want to go and what they want to see. But when I’m traveling solo, I read up in advance, but then…just see where my feet take me. Some may roll their eyes at the “inauthenticity” of a pre-purchased package tour; my view is, hey, travel responsibly in whichever way works for you. My tendency tends to be to follow my feet, and in this case, the easiest way to stay on the beam I was on was to board this tour group boat ride, and smile and nod and pretend like I knew what was happening.
Could I tell you any of the legends or songs I heard that day? No, of course not. Did I actually learn any of the actual mythology of Baofeng Lake? Probably not through this particular accidental tour. At the time, following the path I was on, I didn’t see another easy way across the lake; but non, je ne regrette rien. I made it across the lake with a song I didn’t quite understand, not from the actual words at least; I imagined they were love songs, or traveling songs, or wistful songs. About what else specifically, I still have no idea.
I made my way back down the rest of the mountain; and made my way back to the entrance to the main park to walk back to my hotel. All without using much English after all. On my way back to my hotel from the shuttle drop off, I stopped at what I can only describe as a…roadside diner, a sidewalk cafe, with Chinese characteristics. I had been there every morning for dumplings or noodle soup for breakfast on my way up the mountain. I had…some odd kind of bond with the morning staff, but then again, I was ordering things I knew how to say in Chinese.
On this particular evening, one of the staffers recognized me and asked me what I wanted for dinner as I slid into one of the sidewalk tables. My eyes wandered over to the sidewalk sign and landed on one of a handful of characters I still remembered: 狗. (In pinyin, it is gou; in English, dog.) I had made it two and a half years without yet eating dog; today was not the day I intended to start.
I smiled at the man and asked him if he had any pork (normally just referred to as meat, but in my foreign way, insisted that it please be pig meat). Please make sure it’s pork, I pleaded, and he assured me he would serve me pork. Through linguistic negotiation involving very basic Mandarin and a lot of patience, he helped me pick the vegetables to go with it, and a few minutes later I had a steaming plate of what I desperately hoped was pork, accompanied by celery and a side plate of cabbage, all spiced and cooked superbly.
I wouldn’t have a conversation entirely in English until I returned to my office the following Monday. I can’t say how different the trip would have been had I been more or less fluent than I was at the time – I have no personal idea how easy Zhangjiajie and its surroundings really are to navigate as a solo traveler, or a group without a guide. without at least a few sentences in Chinese. But my suspicion is that it’s far from impossible, given the signs and traveler’s notes I saw in English – but I imagine it’s a lot easier with at least a little effort both ways.