The highs and lows of travelling China without my husband

written by Alison Armstrong July 19, 2018
China tour solo travel cycling Yangshuo

I’m in my hotel room in Beijing, sobbing. I let the wave of grief wash over me. I’m missing Don, my husband of twenty years, so badly it feels the same as if he had died. A prelude, a sneak peak into how I’ll feel if he dies before me. I am broken-hearted.

Don and I got together later in life. I was 48 and he 56, and we’ve been pretty much inseparable ever since. From 2011, for six years, we lived a nomadic life travelling the world. We were together 24/7, and when you’re together all the time you become really close. I really didn’t want to travel solo. It came about by accident.

We’d ended our nomadic lifestyle because I had some medical issues, but we were not done with travelling. High on the list of places we wanted to visit were Japan and China, so as soon as I was well enough we started making plans to do an Intrepid tour in China preceded by some time in Japan.

China tour Great Wall

China had been on my bucket list for years

Right before having to commit to the tour Don developed a medical issue. It was not serious but without warning could become an emergency. He felt it was too risky to travel and we agreed that I should go ahead alone.

I was terrified. Travel without Don? It seemed unimaginable to be without his presence, his support, his love. And there was so much he always took care of – maps and logistics, currency and visas, all the details for accommodation and transport. Suddenly I was faced with having to be responsible for myself.

I arrive in Beijing after nearly three weeks travelling solo in Japan, having discovered that yes, I can do it alone, but I don’t like it very much. Finally the dam burst. The gaping hole left in my life by Don’s absence had built up over this time and I let the tears flow.

Now here I was about to join a group of fellow travellers on Intrepid’s 21-day China Experience tour. I was looking forward to the company, to be travelling with others, to be with like-minded people, fellow explorers. Perhaps Don’s absence wouldn’t affect me quite so much when I had others to share the adventure with.

China tour Yangshuo cycling

Cycling near Yangshuo with new tour friends


On the second day of the tour our group is gathered in the hotel in Beijing. There’s another tour group there and I overhear a conversation. Someone in our group says to someone in the other group what a great group we have and how well we all get on together. The person from the other group replies, in a lighthearted way, but perhaps not entirely joking, “Wait ‘til you’ve been together for three weeks”.

The thing is, after three weeks it’s still true, only better.

How lucky to land in a group of eight people, plus our incredible guide Peter, who are all kind, generous, fun, and willing to look out for each other. We range in age from 26 to 76, but it doesn’t seem to matter. Together we travel the length of China from Beijing to Hong Kong. We eat peking duck on our first dinner together, in a restaurant in one of the back streets of the Beijing hutongs. Some of the group have had it previously and show us newbies how to wrap the duck and other ingredients in the thin flavourful crepes. It’s just the beginning.

China tour solo travel dinner Beijing

Dinner in Beijing


From the Great Wall and the Forbidden City in Beijing we travel by overnight train to Xi’an. Six of the eight of us, plus all our luggage, are crammed into a tiny six-berth cabin. Somehow we make it work, figuring out together where to stow the cases and backpacks so we can all be comfortable. I am allotted the top bunk not more than three feet from the ceiling. Yikes! Bhakti, the youngest in the group, is kind enough to swap her middle bunk with me. I’m not sure even Don would have done that!

In Xi’an we explore the Muslim Quarter, dating back to the days of the Silk Road, and the jaw-dropping Terracotta Warriors, which date back even further. Then we board the next train, from Xi’an to Emei Shan. It is an even longer journey: overnight and most of the next day.

It is at the many group meals and on these long train journeys that the group solidifies. We have nowhere to go but to be with each other. We spend our time reading, writing, gazing out the window, and chatting as a group or in twos and threes. Long, fun, relaxed conversations. We laugh a lot. It feels safe and easy. I miss Don less. Travelling “solo” with a group of like-minded people is really fun.

China tour solo travel sleeper train

Relaxing on the train with my Intrepid group


At Emei Shan we hike into one of the many monasteries that are scattered across the mountain’s sides. It’s a long hike, mostly upwards. We all do pretty well until the last 1200 steps. Yes you read that right 1200 steps. Up. I’m slower than the others. So are Thea and Mieke. Us three “old” ladies take our time. We don’t need to win the race. We just need to get there. We arrive after the others, but not by much. I have the support and company I need. Don who?

Peter gives us information in each town so we can find our way around during free time, but I don’t always pay attention. It’s the kind of thing I’d rely on Don for. One night some of us are getting street food for dinner and we need to find our own way back to the hotel. I stick with the others, for the company of course, but also because I haven’t a clue how to get home. Once again I have the help I need, even though I’m travelling alone. Though not alone at all. I have a whole new group of friends, and a fierce guide, who look out for me.

I also learn to pay attention. Near the end of the tour I know the way home and help one of the others.

China tour cycling Xi'an

Cycling on Xi’an’s City Wall

At our farewell dinner Peter says he wasn’t sure how the age range would work, but it is never an issue. Did I stop missing Don? Of course not, but being with all my new friends sure softened it. In between missing Don it was exciting and fun and a whole huge group adventure.

I’d do it again in a heartbeat.

Ready to take the plunge and visit incredible China for yourself? Check out Intrepid’s range of small group tours.

(Image credits from top to bottom: Peter Wang, Intrepid Travel, Alison Armstrong x2, Peter Wang, Alison Armstrong. Read more of Alison’s stories and see more of her photography at

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