Before the big one.

For the ardent traveler, buying a new backpack is a serious affair. Proper research is needed, and many factors should be taken into consideration; the size, style frame, fit, and so on before one “takes the plunge.” Nowadays, we are lucky to have, at our convenience, in-store experts and online reviews to help in the process. So, before I was to embark on my first cross country trip in China I choose to buy a backpack for the well-reasoned and thoughtful fact that it was orange. I liked orange.

The expert that helped me with the decision was a fellow ex-pat living in Nanjing. He was a lanky Southern who had bought a nice looking blue pack at the outdoor market and loved it.

“And heck man, it was only like twelve bucks.” he said with big goofy grin.

“”Perfect,” I thought, “This is shoe string travel at its best.”

I took a taxi to the market, found a vender and a backpack, and started with the negotiations. Keep in mind that bargaining in China goes something like this:

You: How much for this one?

Clerk: Very nice price. 500 yuan.

The best bet is to start hamming it up right away.

You: Holy crap! Highway robbery.–Too Expensive. Too Expensive. I’ll give you 5 yuan.

Now the clerk will collapse into a chair and grab at his heart reminiscent of Red Fox in Sanford and Son.

Clerk: You’re killing my children! No no no no. 490!

You: Now way bud. I’ll give 10.

At some point you should throw your hands in the air and storm out of the shop. He will chase you down and the routine will continue. Actually, you should probably use this strategy a few times during the whole escapade.

After 30 minutes or so, a price will be agreed upon. The final price should fall around 80-90% less than the original asking price. Like Dave Berry would say “I’m not making this up.” Following my bargaining exercise I was feeling pretty satisfied. I had just bought a brand new backpack for $10. Oh yes, high spirits after that—the Haggle Master.

I went back to my place and packed the new orange pack full of gear and clothing. It looked wonderful. I was now ready for the trip, which was to be a sizable one of train hopping, hiking, and camping. I was shooting for Inner Mongolia, then Xinjiang, Kunming, Yangshuo, and back to Nanjing. I had the pack, the train tickets, and now I was out the door.

I had almost reached the street when “Snap!” The left shoulder strap busted off. I didn’t worry though. The previous Christmas I was given a sewing kit to carry on my travels—Mom’s always looking out. Once on the train I unzipped the front pocket to retrieve the kit. I ripped the zipper off in the process. “Son of a…no no, calm down. These things happen.”

I sewed the strap back with thick purple string, and fixed the pocket with safety pins that came with the kit. When the train arrived at the station several hours later, I laced my left arm through the strap, and then the right arm and…”POP!” There went the right shoulder strap. I one-armed the bag to the other platform and waited for the next train. While waiting, I used up the rest of the purple string and some of the yellow thread, it was thinner, but held well enough.

After that train ride, I needed to transfer to a bus. I was walking from the station when the straps snapped again, only this time the break was from the bottom. “Mother…aghh, shh…no worries. It’s part of the journey.”

I used the rest of the yellow thread and all of the fine pink thread. The pink was too fine to be durable so I employed the rest of the safety pins, box tape (I don’t know why I even had box tape, but I did), and dental floss. The combination seemed to work. Add resourceful to the Haggle Master title.

On the bus, I put my pack in the rack and reached in a pocket for a book. I had read a few pages when I realized that the zipper was still in my hand. “Forget that pocket! It can stay open.”

I arrived at my destination and set out for a hike. The way the straps had been sewn caused the pack to tilt to the side and pinch my shoulders enough to cause my arms to fluctuate between slightly asleep and completely useless…but the rigging held. And for the next couple of days, though uncomfortable, I was moving along.

A few nights later, I readied to drop the pack to the ground and set up camp when the whole right side blew out. Not my stitching—the whole damn side. My gear went everywhere, and just to rub a bit of salt in, I split my pants in the clean-up effort.

To show that worthless pack that it wouldn’t get the best of me, I borrowed some yarn, blue this time, cut my ruined britches, green, into strips, and sewed the side back together. I even went ahead and reinforced the left side as a preemptive effort. The ordeal took hours. I didn’t even care about hiking or sightseeing any more. I wanted to get back to “civilization,” buy a new pack, and kill this one.

When I got to a hostel late the next day, my arms were asleep, my shoulders were sore and worn raw, and my back hurt from the lopsided sit of the pack. I was beat. Inside the hostel, another traveler caught sight of the multicolored monster of a sack.

“Whoa, mate! That’s the craziest looking backpack I’ve ever seen.”

“You can have it.” I said.

“That thing looks like it has seen some things. How long have you had it?”

“About a week.”

The comment set off a round of laughter

“Where you heading in such a hurry?” someone asked.

“I am headed to the roof to burn this rotten thing. Wanna watch?”

They did, so with the permission of the hostel we went to the roof and burned it in a big chimney type thing—a sacrifice to the gods of raw deals and needling thread. Afterward, I got online and skyped that friend back in Nanjing.

“You idiot! That backpack was a real piece. Nothing but trouble. I thought you said you’re backpack was great!”

“You mean that blue one I got at the market? Hah, come to think of it I never used it, but it does look good. I love the color.”

4 replies
  1. Michael Falk
    Michael Falk says:

    haha, oh Nate! You should have got some closeup pics of this monstrosity of a pack! One thing I can’t stand is a uncomfortable backpack so throw that in second next to Jenny’s Shoes. Uncomfortable is one thing but one that keeps falling apart is another….

  2. Elmer Cruz
    Elmer Cruz says:

    Lessons learned:
    1. Always carry a sewing kit complete with safety pins and box tape
    2. Don’t be afraid to use colour, especially when it feels like you’re life is running out…coloured threads make you feel good.
    3. work out before you travel with back packs made and bought from China, you never know when you will have the Aron Ralston 127 hours experience from lugging that monster around
    4. never use these backpacks for their intended use, they may be nice to look at so hang them on your tree next christmas
    5. use the $10 to buy a box, duck tape and straps…this should prove to be more durable and you are helping the environment by using recycled materials.

    Look at it this way, mate…you helped put food on the table of a family with that $10…there’s always a bright side! :)

  3. Michael Falk
    Michael Falk says:

    “coloured threads make you feel good”…haha! Those are all great points Elmer. Nate just didn’t know the backpacks intended purpose while his friend did all along…it was just made to look pretty, not actually carry stuff :)

  4. Jennifer Choban
    Jennifer Choban says:

    Indeed- along with shoes, packs are an item where I feel it’s worth spending the money to have good gear. I’ve had excellent luck with North Face packs. My large one has even been on some trips that I haven’t.


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