Polly Evans’ Fried Eggs with Chopsticks is a hilariously relatable account of her trials and travels in China. Her ambitious itinerary starts in Beijing, goes through several smaller rural towns to arrive in Xi An, then continues to more cities to get to Shanghai, and many more after that to arrive in Hong Kong, her final destination. It is a journey not for the faint of heart and I doubt even native Chinese speakers would want to attempt. From excruciatingly long bus rides to traditional massages, Evans has tried it all. Though the book was written 12 years ago, I found her personal experiences to be universal although the China she visited has vastly changed.
One section I’d like to share comes from her struggle in finding food after getting off an especially unpleasant and long journey to Taiyuan. She is dehydrated and is in desperate need of some food to fuel her body when she goes into a dumpling restaurant with no English menu. She becomes frustrated and leaves, on the verge of collapsing when she sees heaven.
Then, slightly blurry, I saw them. On the other side of the road, rising golden above the asphalt and trees like a gateway to Eden itself: the yellow arches of McDonald’s.
I can’t even recount the number of times McDonald’s has saved me during my own personal travels. McDonald’s was a shelter for me and my friends when we missed our overnight bus in Berlin, a way to save money on food in Milan, and a rest stop for our tired legs in Budapest. I smiled reading description of her simple but comforting meal of burgers and fries and understood her taking advantage of the public restroom. In my time here, I have only sought refuge in McDonald’s in Hangzhou, when we woke up at godforsaken hours to see the sun rise though I know I can always count on it being there for me in my times of need.
An incredible aspect of Evans’ journey is that she used all sorts of local transport to get from one place to another. At one point, she misses her bus and takes a taxi to drive to Shahe, four hours away. Her driver has never been to the town and I can’t even imagine how one decides to take a risk and just go. However, I need to remind myself that that was how people used to travel- by maps, cars, and your own judgement.
In the age of Travel 2.0, I find it harder and harder to rely on my own judgements in making decisions. I use all sorts of review apps to plan my days and trips, even using them to mediate contact. I use DiDi (Chinese Uber) rather than flagging one down and scan endless restaurant reviews before deciding to go. In planning a last-minute trip to Huang Shan, I had about 20 tabs opened at once for 4 different hotels, 2 booking sites, and many other TripAdvisor tip pages. I can’t imagine what it was like for Evans to jump the gun and embark on her journey without the help of these digital tools. I feel like these apps definitely make my travels far easier and more pleasant than hers though I’m not quite sure they are as authentic.
As an avid worrier, I am worried about my upcoming trip to Huang Shan- mostly because it is last-minute but also because it’s my first long-distance trip in China. I’m not quite sure what to expect but Evans’ description of the mountain sounds promising:
A peak of rough-hewn rock rose in the foreground with pine trees protruding at improbable angles from its sides. Then, suddenly, the brume beyond lifted and revealed in the abyss a far-flung range of crags and peaks that stood immutable above a sea of eddying, undulating white… That one minute of incredible, otherworldly beauty had instilled in me a sense of wonder and calm.