In April this year, my wonderful mother came to visit me in Beijing. She hadn’t taken an international trip alone for a few years. Well, she hadn’t left Europe alone for something like 30 years. (Having kids changes things like that, I would think.) So she boarded a plane from Norwich to Amsterdam, Amsterdam to Beijing, and arrived with me on a Friday morning, a little before 9.
We were overjoyed to see one another. It had been nine months since I’d left home, since I’d sent her home with a pile of stuff I’d had to jettison and we’d had our last hug at Heathrow airport. That was the longest we’d spent apart in the nearly twenty-six years since I was born.
It was difficult for me, but it was I who had made the decision to leave. I can’t imagine what it is like for a mother to watch her child move abroad, not knowing when she would see her little girl again, nor knowing anything of what her little girl would see. My mother still says, her chin barely reaching my shoulder as I squeeze her a little too tight: “how did you get so big? Where did my little squidge go?”
I know it was difficult for her. Especially so since I had decided to stay in Beijing for a second year. Seeing me in April was a big deal. Plus this was the first time she’d ever been to China. I had to make this a more-than-memorable trip for her. I had to show her how China had captured my heart and might never let me go. So I set about planning an itinerary for an adventure she would never forget.
We skipped across China, hand in hand from one province to the next, for a little over two weeks. We spent entire days climbing holy mountains, spoke broken Chinese to beekeepers in rural hillside villages, met Chinese families who gave us boxes of tea, ate unbearably spicy dinner with young English major students, took painfully long bus rides through winding valleys and got terrible altitude sickness in the Himalayas of western Sichuan.
My mother is a brilliantly fun patient travel partner. She bore everything in good humour and often surpassed me in physical stamina. She told me constantly how impressed she was that I could speak enough Chinese to make sure she got no meat in her food.
Towards the end of our second week of travel, we’d made it Litang, a small town on the China-Tibet highway. At 4,012 metres above sea level, it just so happened to be the highest point either of us had ever been to. Our bus journey there had taken us form below 3,000 metres to above 5,000 metres and back down again. I had sweated and vomited almost the entire journey, my ever-calm mother talking me through it moment by moment.
So, after three days in Litang, most of it spent huddling, heads aching, under the blankets in our hotel room while drinking five-flavour tea to counteract the altitude (apparently all the ingredients are picked at above 5,000 metres, and none contain caffeine, so it is especially good at curing altitude sickness), and some spent exploring the plains, the nearby temple and the sixth Dalai Lama’s birthplace, we just had a few last hours before the sun would set on our final day in the Tibetan world around us.
The kind, well-spoken Tibetan woman who ran the hotel had told us about hot springs nearby, recommending again and again that we go, so we finally let her arrange for her husband to take us. We hadn’t read anything about this place, so were excited to get beyond the Lonely Planet suggestions for Litang. I imagined a vast open space overlooking the town, where hot, clean water bubbled from the ground, forming a small pool before trickling down the mountainside. Mum said we should prepare for the wind at that height, and we both hoped the extra altitude wouldn’t be a problem.
As we prepared to leave the hotel, the owner explained that her husband would drive us there, drop us off and come back an hour later. We were confused, but we climbed into the car. As the engine started up, she leaned towards me in the passenger seat and advised me not to get my hair wet because there was no hairdryer there. I looked at her blankly, a vague understanding of the situation dawning in the back of my mind.
“We haven’t got towels. Do we need towels?” I asked her.
“Yes, they do not have towels”, she told me. “Quickly, get towels!”
I ran up to our room and grabbed both of our blue travel towels (the use of which my father always compares to drying oneself with a plastic bag) and hopped back into the car moments later. We’d already paid for this, we had to at least try to enjoy whatever was awaiting us at the end of this drive.
Twenty minutes later, we pulled up in a courtyard surrounded by low buildings, numbers painted above the numerous doors. A quick exchange in a language that was neither Chinese nor English, but Tibetan, led to a woman unlocking and opening one of the many doors, shoving a wadge of something fabric-like into a corner and loosening a huge plastic tap. Water poured forth into a very basic paved concrete pool. Our chaperone pointed to his watch, said “one hour” to me in Chinese and waved goodbye before he drove us. This was it. The hot springs we’d imagined dissolved before our eyes, realisation dawned. This was simply an elaborate ruse to get a British mother and daughter into a hot bath together for the first time in 20 years.
In actual fact, it was lovely. We stripped down shyly (and quickly, thanks to the bitter cold) and sat on the cold tiled edge for a while, trying to acclimatise to the heat. Sinking slowly into the water, we relaxed completely. The heat stripped away the tension that days of cold and discomfort had bestowed, leaving us energised and talkative.
It was the best bath I’d had in years.