by Niall Doherty


The restaurant floor has become a trashcan. And an ashtray. Worse still, not only am I sitting here eating meat of unknown origin (and sometimes unknown animal), but I’m pretty sure my tablemates weren’t joking about that last mouthful being a bovine penis. Ah, fuck it. This is how they do in Chongqing, the famous hot pot feast, and I feel lucky to have been invited. I’ll leave my ethics aside for the evening and see what happens.


Not your typical Chinese girl. She’s traveled around India and the Middle East. Once in Kerala she was groped at a festival (as is common) and turned to find the offender grinning like a leech (as is not; usually the pervs don’t stick around). Not thinking twice, she shoved him to the ground and punched him twice in the mouth. Crowds gave her a wide berth the rest of the day.


Chongqing metro, destination unknown. Everyone looks but few hold a gaze. I close my eyes to leave them all behind, with Thom Yorke in my left ear: I can’t face the evening straight and you can’t offer me escape... I wonder if she’s listening and taking these words to heart. Seven hours from now I’ll have my answer, when she whispers that she loves me.


I’ve blanked two beggars this week, turned my back on them until they went away. One I shouldn’t have, could have easily bought the lady something to eat. I need a better system for handling those situations. I don’t feel bad refusing to give money, as it’s impossible to know if it will be spent in the person’s best interest. But if they’re asking for food and I can easily provide, that should be a go. Unless I’m in India. That place needs its own special rulebook.


Chinese guy, wants to move to Paris. I don’t see what the big deal is. Get a teaching job and move there. “But I don’t speak the language.” So spend six months learning, then go. Why is he making a mountain of this? On the walk home, I get it though. Paris to him is the software business to me. Everything is scary and difficult until you do it. Then you look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.

The (in)famous Chongqing hotpot

The (in)famous Chongqing hotpot


Popping sounds outside the window of this moving train. I look up from my book and see sparks lighting the sky. There were more fireworks further back. I take a moment to appreciate and wonder. Until a uniformed lady walks in alongside my bunk and pulls a curtain across the spectacle. She turns and walks briskly away without so much as a glance, and I can only sigh a laugh of disbelief. Fucking China.


I’ll be in Qingdao by morning, my last stop in China. People will ask why I didn’t go see this or that while I was here. The Great Wall. The Avatar Mountains. Whatever else. Truth is such sights do little for me solo. I’d be going just to take a few deep breaths and snap a selfie for Facebook. Which is why I was stoked last week when a friend suggested we hike Machu Picchu together in March. Hell yeah!


Can’t say I’m a big fan of China, haven’t been enjoying my time here. The weather isn’t helping. I don’t think I’ve seen a scrap of blue sky since I crossed the border from Laos. A cold grey fog has followed me everywhere. On top of that everything’s more expensive than expected, the Internet sucks, veggie food is hard to come by, and I find many of the locals to be lacking empathy. I’ll take the ferry to South Korea two days earlier than planned.


Christmas Eve and I’m sitting in a smokey Qingdao noodle shop, Francisco from Argentina across the table. We talk about travel, drugs, girls and, of course, the impending economic meltdown. I’m arguing that the dollar is destined to crash, and he’s disagreeing. At some point I realize that I don’t really know what the hell I’m talking about, just repeating what I’ve heard elsewhere. Admitting such is probably the smartest thing out of my mouth all evening.


I stand on deck as we pull away from the wharf, memories of Cochin fourteen months ago, except this time there’s more fog and the sound of loogies being relentlessly hocked (fucking China). Later I take a plush seat in the lobby and practice memorization techniques while ignoring frequent blank stares. In my mind there’s a passport in an oversized jar with pins punching holes in the lid.

Riverside in Chongqing, city of ever-grey skies. (And yes, that's a pirate ship.)

Riverside in Chongqing, city of ever-grey skies. (And yes, that’s a pirate ship.)


An old man on the metro calls me “gentleman” then flashes a thumbs up. And with that I’ve arrived in Busan, my final stop in Asia. It’s been the most intense month of my life, travel-wise. From Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang to Chongqing to Qingdao to my new home in South Korea. Something in the vicinity of 6,000 kilometers by bus, boat, train, taxi, tuk-tuk and metro. If only there was some kind of flying machine to make this travel lark easier…


I’m getting better at speaking my mind. Walked into a phone shop on a street full of phone shops today and the guy barely glances my direction, tells me he has no idea where I can buy a SIM card. I got appropriately shitty with him. Then the Chinese girl staying at the hostel who asked what I thought of her country. She didn’t much like my response. “You can’t say that. I’m right here!” Just being honest. Would you rather I lie?


I’m in a random restaurant asking for directions, but nobody here speaks English, and the name Mr. Kim doesn’t seem to ring any bells. I have his phone number but no SIM card, so I’m trying to communicate to the bloody-gloved cook that I need him to call this number on his phone and tell whoever answers that a strange waegukin is in a restaurant somewhere near his office and would he be so kind as to come find me?


Ten dollars for a punnet of strawberries. Three dollars for a can of kidney beans. They don’t have oatmeal but I’m sure if they did the price would be outrageous. Busan’s far more expensive than expected, reminding me of Hong Kong. And I hate this counting pennies shit. Running a tight budget is a massive energy drain, leaves me exhausted. Still no regrets about giving up the passive income stream though. I’m painting myself into a corner I need to be in.


Language barrier again, this time at another phone store, still trying to secure a Korean SIM. The guy helping me seems indifferent until he sees Ireland on my passport. “John O’Shea! Shea Given! Wobbie Keane! I know, I know! I like soccer ver much!” His excitement almost becomes orgasm when I tell him John O’Shea is from my hometown and point out the street he grew up on via a sat map. “Wow,” he gasps. “I so happy to meet you.”


Nobody lined up to hang out and no desire to go do the cold approach thing, I decided to stay in tonight. Must admit, I was feeling a little sad and lonely about the situation, stuck in a small apartment in a strange town with nare a friend. Then came a call from himself. We hadn’t talked in nine months, but fell right back into the depths of it. A beautiful, life-affirming way to end 2013. Love ya, Cuz.

My bunk on the ferry from China to Korea

My bunk on the ferry from China to Korea

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