Lessons Learned From A Month On The Road

I give my final thoughts on my month traveling through Asia

Today was my first day back in classes, and I’m glad to be back teaching in Cili. That said, I still have all the memories of being on the road for a month. I’m really proud of myself for packing for a month of traveling in a carry-on suitcase, and that I did all the things I did. From cheering on the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s (OAR’s) men’s hockey team in the Olympic finals at their hospitality house in Pyeongchang, to playing with elephants in Thailand, I can’t believe how fortunate I am to have these experiences. I wanted to wrap up my trip, as far as the blog is concerned, with some things I was grateful for, and some things that I would have done differently.

Things I’m grateful for on this trip:

  • I’m grateful I packed so lightly. A lot of traveling places focus on shopping opportunities, and while I understand that helps the tourist economy in those areas, that’s not a priority for me, and I’m grateful I had the self-restraint to avoid buying a ton of souvenirs. Plus, what with all the mass transit I took, I was so grateful I didn’t have a giant suitcase to lug onto planes and trains and buses. That said, I could probably have gotten away with packing a slightly larger suitcase since my bag started to get a bit stuffed when I got a few things like my Jiji mug and my harem pants.
  • I’m grateful everything went as smoothly as possible. Especially on transit days, I got super anxious (like when I feared I’d miss one or both of my flights to Chiang Mai), but I was just grateful it all worked out. In hindsight, I would rather have a longer layover than rush through a shorter layover and risk missing my flight, but I’m grateful it all worked out with the times I had.
  • I’m so glad I had local recommendations. My Airbnb host in Chiang Mai not only was really open with communication, but they also sat down with me my first day in Chiang Mai and gave me some awesome recommendations for places to go in the city! I stayed with a family friend in South Korea, and she and I had a lot of fun going to the places that she loved in Seoul. If I didn’t have these local recommendations, I would have been so clueless, and I feel like I wouldn’t have enjoyed my time as much as I could have.

Things I would do differently next time:

  • Maxi skirts are not a wise packing decision. As I described in my packing article, I packed two maxi skirts and rotated them rather regularly throughout the month. They did the job—they covered my body in a pretty manner, they provided ideal coverage in the Buddhist temples of Thailand, and I could wear leggings underneath them in Seoul and Japan. That said, they are not practical for travel. In the month I’ve traveled, not only did they take up more space in my bag than I would have liked, but also the hems of my skirts have gotten caught on the wheels of my suitcase, the decorative finials on an umbrella stand, the skull of a water buffalo (?) on display at a roadside market stand (luckily it didn’t break), the track of a moving escalator in Tokyo Station, and (are you ready for this?) the closure clasp of my backpack when I set it on the floor. In the future, much as I despise jeans, those or loose-fitting trousers like harem pants (which I ended up buying a pair of in Chiang Mai) might have been wiser options for being on the move so often.
  • I would have gritted my teeth about the weight and brought my laptop. While my iPad and phone were more than sufficient to do the things that mattered (e.g., check emails, update social media, post blog articles), it would have been nice to have my computer to back up photos (my phone’s storage capacity started to complain halfway through the trip). Plus, while doing blog articles on my iPad is possible, I’m so used to writing them on my computer that it was something of an adjustment process to work with my iPad. I will say, though, my iPad is much more portable than my kind-of-clunky laptop, so depending on priorities, which one to bring is a dice roll.
  • I would have brought a backup pair of glasses. My old glasses had a really bad tendency to fall off my face and onto the floor, but it would be while I was away from home for a month when they would break on impact. I have a backup pair in China, but I didn’t bring them with me, so I had to make an emergency trip to Zoff and get a new pair. A vision test, frames, and lenses cost me ¥9,000 plus tax (about US$90), which is a steal compared to how much glasses cost in the U.S., but it’s still ¥9,000. That said, I love my new glasses, but I could have avoided the emergency purchase and the stress of broken glasses if I had brought my backup pair (I’m nearsighted, so this might as well have been a non-negotiable purchase).
  • I would have paid extra for free checked bags on my flights. One thing that was acutely annoying with flying through AirAsia (I flew with them in and out of Thailand) is that they have a seven-kilogram weight limit for carry-on bags (for non-metric-system-using readers, seven kilograms is about fifteen pounds—the weight of an average school student’s backpack, if not lighter). Because my suitcase was 10kg (22 pounds, which I think is amazing, considering I was packing for an entire month), checking my suitcase from Tokyo to Bangkok to Chiang Mai set me back about $200. Grrrrrrr. (In my defense, I was not aware of this until after I purchased my non-refundable tickets.) The plus side is that I didn’t have to pick up my suitcase until I was in Chiang Mai, and I was able to put my in-flight essentials into a separate bag and put my bulky backpack in the overhead bin. I’m okay with no free meals or beverages (I normally fill up my reusable water bottle before my flight anyway and buy snacks), but no free checked bags, and a ridiculous (there, I said it) baggage weight limit on top of that? I have to draw the line somewhere.

Hopefully, I’ll have some more opportunities to travel and write some more articles for the blog before I return home for the summer! There are some plans in the works for a possible trip to Guilin in the next few months, so we’ll see if that works out! See you next time! Zai jian!

Around the World in Fifty Pounds or Less

To bring or not to bring—that is the question.

To bring or not to bring—that is the question. Preparing for a trip is always the most nerve-wracking part of a trip for me, and my preparing for my year abroad in Hunan Province was no exception. Almost everything from a fancy formal dress to my knitting projects were up for debate. Ultimately, I decided that I would do my best to avoid my habit of being a serial over-packer, and packed only what I knew I would need for my adventure of teaching spoken English for a year in Hunan Province, China.

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This was me in my head when I learned I got accepted for the program
(GIF from Tumblr)

I purposefully packed lighter than I usually would for this trip for a few reasons: 1) I was going to be in China for a year so buying extra things would likely be inevitable, 2) this was sort of a kick-start for me to practice minimalism, and 3) I would likely be so busy planning lessons and going on trips with my cohorts that I wouldn’t have much time afterwards to do things like knit, paint, or cross-stitch. Along with the guidance from WorldTeach about what to pack, I used guidance from the blog Lauren Without Fear; the link to her post about packing for a year in China is here.

 

Things one can buy in China:

  1. Shampoo and conditioner. They have brands like Pantene and Head & Shoulders in China. Bring a travel-sized one to get you started, and then buy a full-size bottle while you’re here.
  2. Makeup/beauty supplies. For some reason, I was under the impression that I wouldn’t be able to find nail polish remover while I was here. I was able to find some at a local convenience store, as well as at a local Watson’s (a convenience store chain that sells Western products like Neutrogena).
  3. Laundry supplies. Most convenience stores I’ve been to in Changsha have some kind of laundry detergent for sale. I’ve also found a lot of drying racks at local supermarkets, so I’ll likely buy one when I get to my site (clothes drying machines, in my experience, are virtually nonexistent in China). If you must bring your own laundry detergent, bring a small amount of powder detergent; a little goes a long way. (Be advised, though: one thing I haven’t been able to find here are color catcher sheets like these.)
  4. Toothpaste. This falls under a similar concept to the shampoo and conditioner. Unless you have a brand that you absolutely love or need to use, bring a travel-sized bottle and buy a full-sized tube when you’re here.

Things one should bring with them:

  1. Deodorant. Roll-on deodorant is relatively hard to find in China, from the accounts I’ve read. I’ve seen some spray-on options for ladies’ deodorant, but I’m not sure how well they work. I took no chances and brought a year’s supply.
  2. Feminine hygiene products. Ladies, if you use tampons, bring them with you. From what I see in Chinese supermarkets and convenience stores, most if not all Chinese women use sanitary pads. I don’t even remember seeing tampons in the Watson’s nearest to us in Changsha. If you use a menstrual cup, you should have no problem; if you’re worried about washing the cup with tap water (which is not safe for drinking in China, though I’ve been brushing my teeth with it and have had no problems thus far :knock on wood:), use bottled water, which one can purchase for three kuai (about half a US dollar) at any convenience store.
  3. Dental floss. From the accounts I’ve read, decent-quality dental floss is not as easy to find in China as it is in the U.S. Again, I took no chances and brought some with me.
  4. Medications for digestive issues. If you’re going to be in China for a while, bring medications for diarrhea, gas, and other digestive issues. La duzi (“pulled stomach”, or traveler’s diarrhea) is common among travelers that aren’t accustomed to greasy, spicy food, and Hunan food is both. I remember having la duzi while I was studying abroad in Beijing, and that made homesickness worse (I remember I had some medications like Pepto-Bismol, but I was being stubborn and didn’t take them that much—that’s another issue). Worst case scenario is that you have it but you don’t need it; it’s better than the other way around.

After reflecting on my previous long-haul flights from China to the U.S., and also flights from the U.S. to other countries, here are my tips for surviving the flight to China (or any other long-haul flight you may take):

On the flight

  1. Stock up on entertainment. I don’t sleep easily on most flights (and if I do, I can’t do so for the entire flight), so for me, a full iPad with TV shows, movies, and Kindle books is essential. If you fell behind on your favorite podcasts, now’s a great time to catch up. I meant to catch up on “Welcome to Night Vale” on my flight to Beijing, but I forgot to download the episodes. Oh, well; it gave me the opportunity to finish Throne of Glass by Sarah J. Maas. (As I’m typing this, I’ve just started A Court of Thorns and Roses.)
  2. Pack a good portable charger. Especially if you don’t have an in-seat charging station (or you do, but a not-so-courteous fellow passenger is monopolizing it), this is practically invaluable, especially on long-term flights, or if you have multiple stops and can’t take a break to recharge. My dad let me borrow his for my time in China, and it’s been practically invaluable with us being on the go so often.
  3. Bring slippers. To save on space and weight in my suitcase, I wore my bulky hiking boots on the plane. Sure, they were comfy and supportive for walking through four airports, but they’re not comfy enough for sitting on a plane for thirteen-plus hours—also, they’re not the most convenient going through security checkpoints, despite my reasons for wearing them. Slip off your shoes and put on some slippers (over your compression socks, if need be). Your feet and legs will thank you later.
  4. Layers, layers, layers. On a recent trip to Europe, I think my family expected the stereotype of a super-cold airline cabin. That was not the case; especially on our flight back to the States, we were miserably warm. Layers that are easy to take off would likely be your best bet, especially if you’re going from a cold climate to a warm one (or vice versa).
  5. Bring a bottle of water. Especially on long-haul flights like my most recent flight from New York to Beijing, hydration is key in the very dry airplane air. Get a large bottle of water to carry onto the plane with you, and avoid ordering sodas, caffeinated beverages, or alcohol on the flight. Some airlines might even refill reusable water bottles! If in doubt, just ask the flight attendant.
  6. Bring a sheet mask. This ties in with bringing a large bottle of water, but because I get really bad anxiety when I travel, it also ties in with the idea of reducing stress. I like to imagine that as my skin absorbs the moisture from the sheet mask, the sheet mask is absorbing my stress. If nothing else, your skin will thank you after a long flight of dry airplane air. My mind goes back to when I packed my lip balm in my checked luggage for a flight from Beijing to Houston, so I spent thirteen hours with dry, chapped lips. Oy vey.
  7. Resist the temptation to over-pack your carry-on. I didn’t know how much we were “expected” to pack for the fellowship, and I didn’t want to be that person that ridiculously over-packed (Galinda in the musical Wicked comes to mind). So, I ultimately decided on one rolling suitcase that would be my checked bag, and a large duffel that would go in the overhead bin. After lugging a decently-sized backpack and an at-least-thirty-pound duffel bag through four different airports, I regret that decision with every bone and aching muscle in my body. If I had to do it over again, I would have likely swallowed my pride and forked over the money for another checked, rolling suitcase.

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Galinda in Wicked (Photo from Pinterest)

Around this time next week, I plan to be in my placement of Cili, Zhangjiajie District. Until then, we’re practicing teaching in a Chinese classroom setting with trial lessons before we start at our schools, so my time is mostly spent planning lessons, having classes and group discussions, and exploring Changsha with my fellow cohorts before we all disperse throughout the province. I hope to be back here with another article next week! See you then! Zai jian!

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are my own, and do not reflect the views or opinions of WorldTeach or its affiliates.

 

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