The bus from the hotel to the Huangshan transport depot was brief. The other teachers from the school had risen early with visions of a hearty hike before them. According to guide books and a thorough wiki-ing, the steep walk could be evaded by cable car, and one could be treated to the splendours of a half-dozen mountain peaks and hours of trudgery without ever having to climb up one long, bleak side of the mountain itself.
A few of the others balked as I purchased the single ticket to the alternate destination. They were a posse of eight, forging up into the wilderness and the unknown of China, while I was one, alone. I would be solo on a mountain for hours, with no real knowledge of my companions or when I might meet up with them. I had a decent, though vague, reconstruction of a Google map imprinted on my brain which I would consult along with my compass. I had a good book, a nice camera, and money to purchase water and goods on the mountain top.
I had no companions and no one to talk to. Cell phone reception would probably be spotty at such altitudes. I would definitely be on my own. I waved my goodbyes, shouldered my backpack, and soldiered on.
It was easy then, standing on a distant cliff, Chinese cities spanning out before me in tiltshift tinker-toy madness. One trail closed out, forging off the side of one mountain but blockaded in rusting razorwire and great coniferous trees. Another mountain loomed off to the east and I slid across the rocks and the stairs, buffeted by unhinged winds. My only company was the din from my earphones, the sound of my feet, and here and there a rugged mountain monkey.
Solo travel—solo anything—isn’t always so easy. There’s a certain terror that comes with having no back-up, with knowing that your fate rests entirely upon you. When you book tickets, when you get a meal, when you board a train, it is all left to your skills and knowledge. If you’re late or injured or eating something crawling with parasites, there’s no one to blame and no one to help. You’re all you’ve got.
But with no one to blame, there’s also no one else to credit. The first time I managed an airport by myself I was wowed by the simplicity, and also by the fact that I had done it. As a child the entire process had seemed labyrinthine and bewildering, a kind of Sisyphean arc of constant torture and frustration. Everywhere the adults around me turned would be another scowling fell-beast in dreary navy blue uniform, and each would be tasked with handing down paperwork or questioning the legitimacy of your birth and citizenship. I remember the fear that stalked my heart as I walked into my first airport alone. I remember it just as well as I remember the frisson of joy that took me as I vanquished immigration and customs, my passport my shield, my no-more-than-7-kg carry-on my trusty sword.
I remember my first mountain alone, my first roads, my first cities. I remember the forests that I walked through under my own direction, I remember the meals I selected on my own. Sharing a dish, sharing a walk, sharing a ride can invite you to reminisce, to mutually construct your recollections. But keeping it to yourself forces you to savour. No one else is going to hold onto this memory for you—it’s just you and your neurons, so you’d better hold on to what you can.
Sometimes on mountaintops it’s nice to have someone to turn to, someone to trace the edges of the universe with. A partner, a friend, an acquaintance passing by on this particular dusty trail on this particular day in this particular fragment of the world. A person to take your picture, a person to share a drink, a person to give you a smile and a high five and a cool, firm assurance that you’ve really made it. Someone to catch your echoes, someone to chase your shadows, a familiar voice in a familiar tongue on an unfamiliar path.
But being alone isn’t being lonely, or at least it shouldn’t be. Sometimes its nice to claim a mountain hand-in-hand with the humans of your choice, and sometimes its nice to claim a mountain by your own. Sometimes the still of a peak or the taste of a soup in a darkened alley feels special when it belongs only to you. When you are a stranger among strangers, when your path is laid out only by your whims and the direction of your shoes.
Letting go, walking on with no hands to hold, can be difficult at first. It can be terrifying and unnerving, knowing that your fate is ultimately your own. That your failures and your troubles are yours to shoulder, that your burdens will be carried by no others. But as goes your woes, so go your triumphs. There is something to be said for taking to the road with your only friends being a compass, a map, and the trust you have in your feet.