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Pre-Travel Freakouts: Seventeen Days in China Edition!

Tears poured down my cheeks and into my gourmet hot dog as I sat across from my friend Meg, less than a week before my flight to Beijing and the subsequent 50-something hours of trains and buses I will take through Chongqing, Yunyang, and Shanghai.

Before travel, one's head can feel like this.
Before travel, one can feel like this piece of public art!

“I’m sorry,” I choked out, “but I’m always a complete mess before international travel. Every little thing makes me freak out: an offhand remark from a friend… a sad article… realizing I need to buy floss… Everything!”

Meg looked surprised. “Wow!” she exclaimed. “I had no idea! You seem like this totally together travel expert. If you really feel like this before every trip, why don’t you ever write about it on your website?”

And so now I am.

Travel is a privilege and a miracle… and it can also be really scary, no matter how many times you’ve done it! See that lead photo of the upside-down person sculpture? Meg and I passed that piece of public art on a late night walk back from Kendall Square in Boston, and I instantly saw myself in it. That sculpture is how the days before intense travel feel: You’re flipped upside-down, and your head is deep inside a (figurative) bag of tennis balls!

Upside down person public art statue
This may be my favorite piece of public art ever.


In the weeks before I left Boston in 2009 to travel around the world for nine months, every tiny thing would send me into a flood of tears. Some folks would be confused, responding with: “You’re about to do something amazing! Why are you crying?”

Others would really get it, and would wrap me in a bear hug and whisper, “I know… it’s a really crazy thing to travel that far and for that long. It will be all right!”

Now, planning and packing for nine months around the world was one challenge, but this seventeen-day voyage through China is proving to be a challenge of a different kind. As you may or may not know, China has extremely strict regulations, each of which costs substantial money, time, and organization to hurdle.

For example, to enter China, you must apply for a tourist visa: a process which involves a several-page-long application form, a photo of you, a courier service or trip to the nearest embassy (there is none in Boston), many days, and a total expense of at least $200.

A view of the whole art display in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA.
A view of the whole art display in Kendall Square, Cambridge, MA.

Then there is pre-planning in-country transportation. When I was traveling alone and for months on end, I could do transport as I went, on a whim. Now, however, there IS a time constraint, there are two other great people in our travel pack to coordinate with, and… transport in China is, to say the least, foreign.

Thankfully, we have our friend Gareth who has been teaching in China for a year to help guide us. Stressfully, however, her internet connection is flickering in and out, and I am sitting here in Boston trying to coordinate our trains and planes while technical difficulties gallop across our connection.

Right now, both of us are having problems pre-buying transport online, because of the incompatibility of American and Chinese systems, and my online payment for an in-country flight just got denied. Oy!

Packing nervousness is also zinging through my veins. Given that I’ve written about fifty articles on packing tips, you’d think this wouldn’t be a source of stress. And yet– oh, that sinking feeling when you get on the plane and you realize you forgot to pack the one thing that you need and cannot buy in your destination country! Argh! Fear of that moment is making my Google Document packing list longer and longer and my heart beat at a constant anxious thump.

Oh beautiful Boston night, guide this traveler through China!
Oh beautiful Boston night, guide this traveler through China!

And then, deepest of all, there are emotions. Once you’re on the road, everything is FINE, but it’s the days before a trip, when your life gets sharply in focus and your regular routine gets sizzled. Everything you had been doing for work or socially, and everything you had been taking for granted at home is about to be put on hold, and you’re walking into a space that feels like a dark, cave-like blind spot.

No matter how psyched you are about a trip, the quantity of unknowns on the horizon make you dizzy. My sunny Boston apartment today feels so soft and safe right now, but soon it’s time to walk away from it and onto that plane!

So there you have it: This weekend I am leaving for China for most of August, and I am so excited and wouldn’t have it any other way… but I am also FREAKING OUT! Readers, chime in: what’s YOUR experience of the days before you travel?


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Sunday 29th of May 2016

Hi Lillie, I am so thankful for your sharing experiences. I have learned so much on traveling just from reading your articles. I am flying to Guangzhou, China in July of this year for my ultimate vacation. I have friends there so I am staying with them for 30 days. I am overwhelmed now that I am waiting on my Visa, packing and thinking about the long flight. The longest flight I have been on is from US to Jamaica. I'm also concerned about what to take. I have been told to take very few clothes, as I can buy everything there..Is this true from your experience? What about customs that you found most important? This will be my second trip out of the country so I am clueless.

My greatest concern is leaving my sons back home (20 and 21). Although they're very excited for me to have this experience, I keep asking them do they want me to go---or stay for a shorter time.. I only know a few words in Chinese Mandarin, (but I'm learning as much as I can right now) so communicating or the lack of is very frightening. I'll probably be completely silent until my friends meet me at the airport...


Sunday 29th of May 2016


Thanks so much for your kind message, and glad my articles have helped! How exciting that you're about to embark on this fabulous trip! The key is that you are visiting and staying with friends. That makes all the difference in China in terms of translating customs and language, so once you're with them, you will be fine.

Regarding clothes, one rule is, "Take half the clothes and double the money." That means that you'll have more room in your suitcase and budget to get cool items there, because there are plenty, and prices are usually good. That said, if you're bigger than a size 6 (like me!) it's really hard to find pants, shoes, or bras that fit in China, so definitely pack those! Also, if you don't like buying too much stuff abroad (like me) you might as well just take more, especially since you're staying in one place and don't have to pack and unpack much. 30 days is a good chunk of time.

I think this trip you're about to take will be the experience of a lifetime, and though it may not always be easy (simply the anticipation is stressful, and China is not an easy country to travel in), you will get SO much out of it, and will always remember it. If you have time, please let us know how it goes! Bon voyage!

Noelia M.

Monday 11th of June 2012

The work of art looks extremely real. What a random work of art. What was his inspiration?

Abbie Y.

Tuesday 15th of May 2012

At first when I look at the picture, I was confused. I was like "What! Is that a real man upside down with the head in a basket full of apples?". After I read it, i realize it was a artist who made that. The artwork looks so real and it would have been creepy if it moved while you are sitting on the couch in front of it. I would be screaming really loud and run to a safe place.

Sofia L.

Friday 2nd of March 2012

That piece of art seems really cool. The people created this must have been very creative when figuring out how to design this room.


Friday 12th of August 2011

It's such a weird set of contrasting feelings for me. One part of me is always super excited for my next adventure and raring to go, but another part of me starts to get nostalgic about the life I'll be leaving behind and how good I have it.

It's nice to be made aware of those things, obviously, but it does make for some up and down emotions when I'm already stressed out packing and planning.

Hope you have a blast in China. Shanghai was very nearly my home for 2011, haha


Monday 22nd of August 2011

So well put! Thanks for the China well-wishes. Very cool that you almost lived in Shanghai!

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