Pamela MacNaughtan

“China? WHY are you going to China?!” my boss exclaimed, “There was a seat sale”, I replied calmly. And I was calm. In fact, that moment was the most calm I had been in months. Plus China was the furthest place I could go.

I was running a grocery store in a small town in Southern Alberta, and life sucked eggs. When I had taken the position of store manager (my predecessor was very popular, before being advised to quit by head office) the assistant manager decided he should have received the promotion, so he decided to go on medical leave. Have you ever tried to run a grocery store as a new manager, without an assistant, at Christmas? Yeah, it blew chunks. I was more stressed than I had ever been, and my soap opera life had no end in sight.

Until I was finally given permission to take my two week vacation in April.

I remember it as though it was yesterday. My 2008 trip to China was my first big trip in 10 years. I know what you’re thinking, ‘A two week trip is NOT a big trip. Humph. You were not a traveller back then, you were just a tourist‘.

Trust me, a two week vacation to China felt like a BIG TRIP at the time!

I Popped My Asia Cherry in China

[I was totally going to make the above subheading the title of this post, but I thought I should try to restrain myself. You know, first day of 2013 and all.]

My first trip through China definitely had some iconic highlights. At the time I had no plans to return to China, so I wanted to see iconic tourist sites like The Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, The Forbidden City, and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I started my trip in Beijing, staying at a hostel located in one of the hutongs (traditional housing areas of Beijing).  The hutong blew my mind. I couldn’t believe I was in the middle of a city that was about to host the olympics in just three months. I spent a lot of time aimlessly wander through the tiny streets of the hutongs in Beijing.

I’m still getting use to the idea of being in China. It seems so surreal at the moment. Today I travel to the Great Wall at Mùtiányù, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty. The trip itself is a bit of a splurge, but I think it will be well worth it in the end.” [Apr 7, 2008]

I didn’t stay in Beijing for very long. The air was too polluted for my lungs, and I left for Xi’an, where I met locals and expats that shaped the rest of my trip. Xi’an was magic. I spent a few hours at the Great Mosque where locals (who I couldn’t understand) fed me steam buns stuffed with spicy meat and vegetables, and served me cup after cup. After cup, of jasmine tea. Nikki (an American working at the hostel I stayed in) suggested I try cruising down the Yangtze River. An old Chinese woman tried to lift my shirt and check out my boobs on a busy street, and Ariel (a local working at the hostel) took met to funky shops, and then Korea town for dinner.

I travelled to Chengdu, took a bus to Chongquing, then boarded a boat and travelled along the Yangtze River for 3 days. I stayed in Wuhan, then travelled back to Xi’an for the remainder of my trip.

I’m not sure that I want to leave China on the 20th. I can see myself selling everything I own and moving here. Just travelling through Asia and the Middle East, and using Xi’an as my base city.” [Apr 11, 2008]

My time in China had been magical. I cried the day I had to leave China and return to my life in Canada. I cried while I sat on the curb in the early morning hours, waiting for a taxi to take me to the airport. I cried on the plane. I cried when I saw my parents at the Calgary airport. Every part of me hated the idea of returning to my job, but I did it.

I returned to work, and then quit 7 months later. I planned to return that autumn, but I ended up working in a hostel in Niagara Falls instead (which I loved). When the hostel closed for the season, I returned to Alberta, and started a job as a manager with a major book retailer.

China, Two Years Later

Two years later I finally made it back to China. This time I really was on a big trip. I had QUIT my career, sold everything I owned, and I was pursuing my dream of travelling in Asia. This time around I had taken a 15 hour boat ride from Northern Thailand to Jing Hong, China; then travelled by overnight bus to Kunming. I wandered streets. I visited the marriage market. I hung out with a couple bloggers. I took a 36 hour train ride from Kunming to Beijing. And for some silly reason I took an INSANE overnight bus to the Mongolian border.
[Video]Taking an INSANE overnight bus from Beijing to the Mongolian border…

Travelling in China was not always an easy task. There were a lot of challenges (like staring, taxi drivers not wanting to drive me), but my love for China was greater than my hate. And I figured out how to conquer China.

Yes, China Saved My Life

My trip to China in 2008 opened my eyes to the awesomeness of the world around me. It helped me realize how utterly unhappy I was, and how I needed to make some big changes in my life. My job was crushing me (all of me, not just my soul). I was hating the town, the people, work. Yeah, I quit in July 2008, and then went back to retail management in January 2009, but the wheels were in motion. I was making baby steps. When my grandmother passed away Dec 2, 2009, I knew it was finally time to take the plunge.

China sparked my love affair with Asia, and I cannot wait to make Asia my HOME very, very soon.


  • January 1, 2013

    I think it’s amazing you were able to have that experience to push you to make changes in your life. I love China, too! Looking forward to reading more about your transition to living in Asia soon. 🙂

  • Michael

    January 1, 2013

    Hi Pamela
    Happy Year Year to you and good travelling. I think the locals would be a little upset with your description of their hutong homes as “slum like areas” !! Traditional, yes, slums NO.
    What part of China are you going to base yourself and for how long ? If you happen to visit to the NE part (Jilin, Liaoning, Heilongjiang),give me a shout – I’ll show you the local area.
    Cheers Michael

  • Michael

    January 1, 2013

    Pamela – word of advice – DO NOT use the sleeper buses, they are potential death traps – too crowded and weary drivers. Too many VERY bad crashes lately. Stick to planes, trains and regular buses !!

  • January 1, 2013

    The title of this post really caught my attention since I was nearly run over by a Shanghai taxi yesterday while breathing in seriously polluted air. But it has been pretty great getting to explore China for the past year and I look forward to more adventures in 2013. My previous life in cubeland was boring as Hell, but I CANNOT imagine running a grocery store at Christmas with no help. But look at you now!!

  • Joy

    January 1, 2013

    I lived in Xi’an for almost 2 years. I’m home for the holidays but I’m returning to Nanjing, China this month. it took me a long time to enjoy living in China. Even now when I talk about it people don’t understand why I’m going back. Maybe I should have taken a trip there first and fallen in love because I think that’s a much different (better?) way to see it initially. I never had the ‘oohh I love China’ feeling when I first arrived and was thrown in life. Now I really like it though. I like your story. Mine is actually similar except I took a long weekend trip to London and decided I NEEDED to make a change when I came back. I shut myself in my apartment until I made the decision of what to do next. I have looked back and often wonder if I SHOULD return to my old career. It seems like the responsible thing to do but not necessarily the most fulfilling. 🙂 Good luck with your move to Asia! Can’t wait to hear more!


post a comment