Before I left Harbin I took a day to visit the 老虎园, or Tiger Park. The park is home to over 200 tigers, as well as lions, panthers, cheetahs, and ligers, OH MY! Some highlights of the day include:
1. Feeding a live chicken to a tiger! I held the still-warm chicken by its wings and flung it through the cage that protects visitors from the animals. (Sorry no pictures, my hands were full with the chicken and didn’t have time to grab the camera post-fling.) A group of seven or more tigers pounced on the flailing chicken in a giant scrum, and the quickest one snatched the bird in his mouth and tore across the grass to a shady spot under a tree where he began devouring the chicken. Feathers were flying everywhere.
2. Watching two hungry tigers battle it out in the water for a piece of uneaten duck that one of the tigers had discovered underwater.
3.Going on an “urban safari” in a reinforced school bus. As we drove through the open land, we watched tigers stalk the armored Jeeps that delivered their food. (Although the Jeeps were reinforced with metal bars for safety, the driver still had to open his door to throw the chickens to the tigers. Design flaw? Definitely.)
It was nice to spend a beautiful sunny day at the Tiger Park with some of my friends from the program. The park is a must-see for anybody who lives in Harbin. Perhaps if I go back I will bring along some extra cash and buy a whole cow to feed to the tigers…
My feelings about heading back to the States.
I now have
12 11 more days left in China.
Here are some things I’m looking forward to about going home:
—seeing my brother
—putting my clothes in a washing machine and then subsequently A DRYER
—driving my car, windows down, relishing the space in which I’m not rubbing elbows with six strangers at once and in which I get to pick the music
—seeing Alden when he drives across the state to welcome me home
—singing as loudly—in ENGLISH—as I please, in my room, in my yard, in the shower, while I wash the dishes, wherever.
—breakfast the first morning I’m back (which I’ve already planned: scrambled eggs with fresh tomatoes, spinach, mushrooms, green onions and LOTS OF CHEESE)
—lunch the first day I’m back (still undecided but will definitely contain LOTS OF CHEESE)
—dinner the first night I’m back (decided: we’re going to Five Guys Burger & Fries, and although I’m not necessarily a cheeseburger person I will probably ask them to slap a slice of American on that patty)
—seeing my aunts, uncles, cousins and grandmas and sharing my study abroad pictures and stories with them
—sitting on our back patio in the sunshine with an ice-cold Oberon (Kzoo represent!)
—being able to communicate my every thought exactly instead of using the half-Chinese/half-charades version of speech I’ve become quite adept at speaking here
—meeting the beautiful baby boy my friend Dana gave birth to this past January
— and most of all, flushing toilet paper down the toilet.
Here are some things I’m definitely going to miss about China:
—all my new friends, especially my girls 贝佳，洋子，美林。 <3
—REAL Chinese food. Specifically 茄子, 锅包肉, 串儿, 混沌, 奶茶, 家常凉菜. (I know that means nothing to you, but I really don’t know the best way to translate most of those things. Because we just don’t have them in America.)
—the fact that the polite way for a stranger to address a person of my age is 美女 which means beautiful girl, and I get addressed thus pretty much every day. Self-esteem boosts are always nice.
—walking past the kindergarten near my campus in the afternoon and seeing all the small children playing outside, waiting for their parents to come pick them up. I still maintain that Chinese children are the cutest in the entire world.
—the accessibility of hot water machines EVERYWHERE. A tea-drinker’s paradise.
—being told multiple times a day that my Chinese is really good by the people who are so excited to meet a foreigner who has taken the time to come to their country and learn their language. More self-esteem boosts.
not being able to flush toilet paper down the toilets.
Here are some things that are going to be just plain weird about being back in the States:
—crossing the street at the corner and only when the crosswalk light says it is safe to do so
—not needing a VPN to get on to Facebook, YouTube, etc.
—not spitting wherever I please
—forming an organized line for anything
—seeing the sun on a regular basis and breathing truly fresh air. Maybe even running outside and not feeling like an asthmatic.
—figuring out precisely what these foreign inventions called “Instagram” and “Draw Something” are. I am so out of touch here in China.
—going to a Chinese restaurant and not understanding any of the food offered on the menu, but NOT because it’s all written in Chinese.
—not continuously feeling the eyes of strangers following me as I go about my daily business. I can’t say I’ve truly gotten used to the sensation of being on display here, but it will be strange to return to a country where I blend in because my appearance fits the “rule” rather than being an exception to it.
—flushing toilet paper down the toilet. I think that one is just going to take some time.
Just got back from a long-weekend trip to Dan Dong, a city located on the border between China and North Korea. It was a relaxing weekend and a fun way to spend time with other CET students, their roommates, and a few of our teachers. It was also very surreal being so close to North Korea all weekend long. The DPRK is a place so wrapped in mystery that it usually feels very far away, no matter your actual physical distance from the country. So it was strange standing a literal stone’s throw away from the border, watching North Korean people go about their daily lives and trying to fathom what those lives were like.
This is what North Korea looks like standing on the Chinese side of the Yalu River:
The bridge closer to the camera is the Broken Bridge which was bombed by the U.S. Air Force during the Korean War and no longer connects the two countries. The bridge in the background is the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge, constructed by the Japanese when they occupied Korea and the north-eastern region of China which they renamed Manchukuo.
The occasional car and train crosses the Sino-Korean Friendship Bridge (left), and pedestrians are allowed to walk the length of the Broken Bridge (right).
Standing at the very end of the remaining portion of the bridge, you can see the wreckage as a result of the bombing behind me.
I just thought this was a cool picture of the gears that allow the bridge to swing sideways open to admit tall boats, so I’m including it! (We didn’t see many boats other than the tourist cruise boats and some freighters.)
We stayed for an evening at a Manchu minority guesthouse where we saw a performance that highlighted traditional Manchu culture. We also had a lamb-roast and taught our Chinese roommates how to make s’mores. None of them had ever done it before!
*Quick side-note: This weekend I was able to share a little bit of American culture with my roommate for the first time! Aside from the s’mores, we also ate at a Western-style cafe in Dandong called Pete’s. She had her first American hamburger and thought it was pretty good. There was also a funny moment when we checked into our (really nice) hotel in Dandong. We walked into the bathroom and she exclaimed that there were so many towels, she didn’t know which to use for what. I explained that one was for the floor to step on after you showered, one was a hand towel to use when you washed your hands, one was a washcloth to wash your face, and the biggest and fluffiest was to use after you showered. It was also a small reminder of how privileged and comfortable our lives are in America—I’ve grown up expecting hotels to provide simple items like towels. Here in China, you might get one hand towel which you may or may not use because the water and electricity have been turned off. (Yes that happened to me at the place pictured below.)
The guesthouse had lots of cool artwork painted onto the sides of the buildings, and was a rather colorful exception to the drab surrounding landscape.
The highlight of the evening performance was getting to watch a traditional Dragon dance.
We also got to visit the eastern-most section of the Ming Dynasty Great Wall, which nudges right up against the border. Hiking around the wall we got closer to the border than anywhere else. We could have shouted hello (‘anyang’, in Korean!) to the people we saw working in the fields.
Being so close but not being allowed to the enter the country was frustrating and tempting all at once. Out in such a remote, rural place who would notice a couple of foreigners wading across the river? We would be safely back on the Chinese shore before they had time to react….Alas, nobody tried to cross the border, adhering to the rules on these signs:
Yes, I was about to dabble, but then I caught sight of this sign and thought better of it. =)
The mountain on the right is China (the Great Wall winds around it) and the fence on the left is North Korea.
On the last day we took a cruise down the Yalu River and got quite close to North Korea. It’s very bleak.
Other than a few factories, there’s nothing there, a stark comparison to the developed city of Dandong. At nighttime, the brilliantly-lit bridges disappear into complete darkness as they span the distance between China and North Korea.
(Photo courtesy of Katie Baier.) The contrast of the brilliant bridge and the surrounding blackness seemed like one giant taunt. “We have electricity, and economic development, and FOOD. What do you have? Oh, that’s right: gulags.” On this particularly dark and cloudy night, I joked that we couldn’t see any stars because they don’t have those in North Korea either.
The following photo doesn’t look as cool as the one above, but you get a better sense of just how engulfing the darkness was on the DPRK side of the border.
(Photo courtesy of Katie Baier.)
Sometimes you’re having one of those days where everything seems to be going wrong from the start.
It’s pouring outside; you have lots to do but don’t feel like getting started on any of it; you get a 3rd degree burn on your hand from a bowl of wanton soup; the bus you ride to your one-on-one class hydroplanes the whole way and, for the first time since you’ve been in China, you legitimately fear for your life; the bus you’re supposed to ride back from your one-on-one class breaks down and the swarm of Chinese people forced to de-bus then cram themselves onto the next few buses forcing you to admit defeat and hail a cab to get home, but not before you are almost run over by the packed bus you attempt to board because it started moving while you had one foot in the door and one still on the slippery pavement; by the time you make it home your socks and shoes and pant-legs are completely soaked through and you can’t feel your fingers or toes; and you are greeted by a large pile of homework, including the oral presentation you must write for the following day’s test.
But then you remember that during your one-on-one class you finished learning a very complex Peking Opera song, much to the delight of your teacher who kept beaming at you; when asked to read aloud in class, you realized just how good your Chinese pronunciation has gotten in the few short weeks you’ve been here; the residential director seeks you out to ask for a photo of you because it turns out they WILL be printing the essay you wrote about your plans to become an English countryside-dwelling glassblower in your retirement; when you stopped at the take-out window to get sushi for dinner on your way home the nice lady waved you inside so you didn’t have to wait out in the wind and rain; upon finishing a rather lengthy essay about Netflix’s recent economic woes you are filled with pride at how coherently you were able to discuss the situation in Chinese and feel much less stressed about the coming day’s test; and finally, after a hot shower, you are able to snuggle into bed with a hot mug of tea and listen to Jim Dale’s mellifluous voice read you to sleep.
Not such a bad day after all.
Once the bane of my existence, crowded buses have ceased to bother me. No more sweating because I’m jammed so close to other people. No more nausea if I happen to be in a position where I can’t face forward. No more shoulder pain when all the low-swinging handles are taken and I have to stretch a little bit to grasp the yellow bar above my head to hold myself steady as the bus screeches and halts along its path.
Even boarding a crowded bus would be daunting to a foreigner—sometimes you can’t even squeeze in the door. But I don’t count myself a foreigner any longer. There’s nothing better than the satisfied feeling of truly belonging to this country that I get when I cram myself onto a bus as it pulls away from the curb, clinging to the still-open bus door and shoving my bus fare into the collection box. That’s right, China: I can push and shove my way on to public transportation with the best of them.
A few pictures from each place I visited over spring break in Yunnan Province.
I just returned from a week-long trip to Yunnan Province, a place I have wanted to visit ever since I read about its year-round spring-like temperatures and amazing scenery in my sophomore Chinese textbook. In short, this was one of the most amazing trips of my life. In just a few days, four friends and I traveled to four distinct locations within the province, hiked an approximately 20km trail from one end of the world’s deepest gorge to the other, visited every long-distance bus station and train station in Yunnan’s capital city of Kunming, encountered four of the numerous ethnic minority peoples that populate Yunnan (home to the majority of all China’s ethnic minority groups), explored the crags and crevices of a karst geography gem, met several amazing people with fascinating stories to tell, endured bumpy—and sometimes harrowing—journeys on overnight buses, watched many sunrises, touched a pig, avoided water buffalo poop, brushed our teeth in public places, stood on the back of a moto-rickshaw as it zoomed through sprawling rice terraces, learned that our Mandarin was better and our pronunciation more standard than most Chinese people in the province, and applied LOTS of sunscreen.
Our trip began with the flight from Harbin to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. The only hiccup of the flight was when they confiscated my lighter and jars of peanut butter going through security. Our arrival in Kunming was glorious: the sun was shining, the world was full of lush green vegetation, and we immediately stowed our jackets for the remainder of the week. We had several hours to explore a corner of the city and stock up on snacks and water before departing from Kunming’s West Bust Station (Bust Station #1, Overnight Bus #1) bound for Lijiang where we would catch another bus to Tiger Leaping Gorge. We decided it was a good idea to brush our teeth before boarding the bus, and did so right in the middle of the station which was endlessly fascinating to those around us, one man in particular who edged closer and closer to us. He stared at us as if we were animals in the zoo—a phenomenon that became the norm for the rest of our trip. My traveling companions and I anticipated the overnight journey with varying levels of enthusiasm; the boys, being simply Too Big for China, were not looking forward to being crammed into a tiny bed all night long. However, our first journey via overnight bus turned out to be relatively pleasant. The bus was not full, it didn’t smell, we each had our own bed (compared to horror stories we’d heard about sharing beds with smelly strangers), and neither the constant chatter and chain-smoking of the driver nor the careening and bumping of the bus disrupted our sleep too much.
When we arrived in Qiaotou, a small village at the west end of the gorge, we met two other travelers who hiked the trail with us. Sam is from the U.K. although she has been living in Beijing for the last 2.5 years teaching maths at an International School, and Nicholas—from France—is currently traveling for 4 months all over southeast Asia before beginning a new job in Switzerland in the area of medical research. We were glad to meet new people and I think they were glad to be hiking with a group instead of alone. It was only after hiking the gorge and coming home that I became curious about some of the gorge’s stats so I did a quick Wikipedia search and came up with these specs:
Tiger Leaping Gorge is the world’s deepest river canyon. The gorge itself is approximately 15km long and runs between the Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and Haba Snow Mountain which are both over 5,000m in elevation. The gorge is named after a legend in which a tiger escaped a hunter by leaping across its narrowest point. The trail that we hiked is about 22km long and averages 2,700m in elevation.
We split the hike into two days, the first of which was the most exhausting. We hiked about 17km in 7 hours. The first part of the trail was the ascent. We hadn’t even been hiking for one hour before I began to doubt I would be able to finish the trail. I was breathing heavily, my 30lb backpack already felt like an anvil weighing me down, and my legs were screaming in protest with every step I took. It didn’t help that we were followed for several hours by a local leading a horse which you could rent to ride or carry your packs; the presence of the horse was such a tease, although our pride kept any of us from giving in to the temptation of renting one. That first leg of the journey was the most difficult for me and I realize now it was probably the challenge of adjusting to the altitude, but at the time it was a test of mind-over-matter. I had no option but to keep putting one foot in front of the other, because if I did not climb that mountain I would not get to sleep in a bed that night.
Our group quickly recognized that Katie, an ROTC student from Trinity University who will be an Officer in the Air Force when she graduates, was the best leader. She set a good pace, made sure we stopped for plenty of water and snack breaks, was attentive to the needs of every member of the group, and constantly encouraged us with her positive attitude. Ian, having the longest legs and being in the best shape, made sure we never gave into the temptation of resting too long, and reminded us of our goal to reach the hostel before sundown. Guy liked to bring up the rear and was constantly empowering the tired stragglers to keep chugging along. Nicholas and I were the two who liked to stop and take the most pictures, and I was glad to have a fellow photographer because I never felt like I was holding everyone up. Yoko was perhaps the most challenged because her heavy backpack reignited some pre-existing back problems and she stumbled and hurt her ankle at one point, but she never once complained. Her silent perseverance inspired me to make it up every incline and around every steep bend in the path. Sam was a cheerful and interesting companion; talking with her made the time pass quickly and all of us enjoyed her British accent!
By the end of day one, I realized that without every single member of our group, we would not have made it to our hostel and had such an enjoyable experience in the process. I think the best moment of the day was when we made it through the 28 Bends, a steep and rocky section of the trail that takes hikers to an approximate elevation of 3,000km in a series of 28 switch-backs. By the time we reached the Bends, we had already been hiking for 4 hours. The local women stationed at the entrance of the Bends tried their best to get us to rent a horse for the most brutal section of the trail that they said would take 2-3 hours to hike. After assessing our condition and contemplating the prospect of the trail ahead, we decided against renting a horse and came up with a game plan: we would rest for less than a minute at the end of each bend to catch our breath and if the Bends got the better of us we would surely be able to find a horse to rent somewhere further up along the trail. We made it through all 28 Bends in one hour and enjoyed the downhill and flatter remainder of the trek to Half-Way Guesthouse.
The Half-Way Guesthouse looked like heaven on earth when we stumbled into it just half an hour before sundown. Every room in the hostel had an amazing view of the adjacent mountains, including the bathrooms which had walls and a door on three sides and were open to the mountain scenery on the fourth. We scarfed down a delicious meal, showered quickly and passed out in what felt like the biggest and most comfortable beds in which we had ever slept. We woke early the next morning, bodies aching with the exhaustion of the previous day. But the beautiful sunrise coming over the mountain peaks and the delicious breakfast of pancakes and omelettes put us in a great mood to start our much more leisurely trek along the last 5km of the trail. In two short hours we made it to Tina’s Guesthouse at the east end of the gorge. After eating a quick lunch we decided we’d walk “around the corner,” which was where the woman working at Tina’s had told us the Tiger Leaping Stone was located.
It turns out that Tiger Leaping Stone—the point from which the legendary tiger allegedly leapt—is actually located at the very bottom of the gorge in the middle of the rushing rapids of the Golden Sands River. What we had anticipated to be a relaxing day turned into an equally exhausting one when we descended 1,000m down the mountainside; traversed large boulders, rickety wooden bridges, and the Sky Ladder (57 steps vertically down the cliff); carefully edged out onto the giant stone in the middle of the surging river; and then went straight back up the way we came, all in under two hours because we had to catch our bus back to Lijiang.
The bus was delayed by two accidents that occurred along the winding mountain roads. The first was a short delay where a truck had driven nose-first into the side of the mountain as it rounded a bend, most likely in an effort to avoid a collision with an oncoming vehicle. The second was a much longer delay that caused traffic to back up all the way down the mountainside as far as we could see. It turns out that a vehicle had driven off the edge of the cliff as it came around one of the turns in the road, and we heard that the driver had died in the crash. It was a scary reminder of how dangerous the roads could be and I was glad our driver was vigilant about honking as he approached every bend in the road to alert oncoming drivers to our presence. The delay also meant that we missed the last train out of Lijiang back to Kunming, so we were stuck in Lijiang for the night. This turned out to be the biggest blessing of the trip.
We booked five beds at Mama Naxi’s Hostel located in the Old Town of Lijiang, which is a Word UNESCO Heritage Site. The hostel is run by a warm and welcoming woman whom everyone calls Mama. We shared a room with a Polish man in his 60’s who has been traveling the world for the last 8 years. He lived and worked in Southern California for a period of his life, and when one of his best friends there died of heart complications in his 50’s he decided that life was too short, quit his job, and has been traveling ever since. Although we had parted ways with Nicholas when we left the gorge (he was continuing on to Shangri-la), our extra day in Lijiang meant that we got to spend more time with Sam who was staying there for several days. We wandered through the winding, stone-paved streets of the Old Town, basking in the sunlight and admiring all of the hand-made souvenirs for sale in the rather touristy but still quaint town. Lijiang is home to the Naxi ethnic minority who are very interesting because they are the only people in the world who still use a pictoral writing system. (Think hieroglyphics.) Their writing truly looks like colorful drawings.
We ended our day by relaxing in the courtyard of Mama Naxi’s before dinner, where other guests spontaneously formed a band of a djembe drummer, a guitarist, a kazoo-player, and a tambourine player and entertained everyone with their music and acrobatics. At dinner we met Max, Walker, and Andrew, three guys who have traveled extensively all over China and just met one another in Lijiang. Listening to their stories I was envious of how much of this giant country they had seen. But at the same time, they were equally interested to hear about our studies in Beijing and Harbin and were envious of our ability to speak the language. Despite all their time spent in China, none of them has learned any Chinese except for a few useful phrases. I can’t imagine how much of a crazy adventure it must be for them to travel this country without speaking Chinese.
That night, we successfully caught the last train to Kunming and began the following day bright and early by journeying to Kunming’s East Bust Station (Bus Station #2) where we boarded a bus to Shilin, in English the Stone Forest. Shilin is a 270 million year old example of karst geography. Literally a forest of massive stone that has been sculpted by years of wind and rain erosion, Shilin was described in stilted English on one sign as the “Primo Wonder in the World…renowned for its ‘mighty, peculiar, steep, elegant, serene, profound, and vast.’” (Yes, it was they who forgot to include the noun which all those adjectives modify, not me.) Shilin was by far the most touristy and the priciest place we visited, but deservedly so. I’ve never seen anything like it in my life. We wandered through the labyrinth of enormous stones for hours, following the occasional arrow or sign pointing toward sites such as Deep and Narrow Valley, Sword Peak Pond, Elephant on a Platform, and Looking at Sky and Earth through a Hole. All of the park workers dressed in traditional Sani clothing which was brightly colored and included large beaded and spangled headdresses. One of the most interesting things about Shilin was that we encountered only a handful of foreign visitors, the rest of the tourists were all Chinese. It was a perfect example of the growing phenomenon of national tourism in China. People are finally able to afford to travel and they are eager to see their own country. And they’re downright excited to meet foreigners like us who speak their language.
We all conked out on the bus ride back to Kunming (with the exception of Guy who was reading a fascinating book by Peter Hessler called Country Driving which comes highly recommended as a very accessible book for anyone with even a passing interest in China) and then traveled to Kunming’s South Bus Station to board an overnight bus to Yuanyang, home of Yunnan’s famous rice terraces (Bust Stations #3, Overnight Bus #2). As we waited in the bus station (once again brushing our teeth over trash cans) we attracted a small crowd of men and station workers who were enthralled by the colorful foreign game we were playing: Uno. When they discovered we spoke Chinese, it led to a hilarious conversation about cross-cultural norms including the use of umbrellas. They saw that we were a bit sunburned and asked why we didn’t use an umbrella for shade. We explained that we didn’t use umbrellas in the sun, we used sunscreen, which prompted them to ask, “Do you have umbrellas in America?”
By the time we purchased our tickets, the bus was already pretty full and choice of seats was slim. We ended up at the very back of the bus where five beds stretched across the width of the bus in a sort of loft. We piled onto the loft and packed ourselves sardine-style onto the narrow mattresses that were separated only by a thin metal rod. This bus ride was not pleasant. It smelled like feet, all of us were Too Big for China (Guy and Ian, especially), and none of us were able to sleep for any length of time because every bump in the road caused us to fly into the air and come crashing back down onto the metal rods of our beds. Overnight buses stop periodically to let people use the bathroom, eat some food, or take a smoke break, and in my semi-conscious state I looked forward to those stops as the only time I would be able to sleep uninterrupted by the jostling and bouncing of the bus.
And yet, we made it to Yuanyang where we were able to sleep on the bus in the station for an hour or so before an eager mini-bus driver boarded our bus, herded us out of our beds and into the pre-dawn morning shouting about the beauty of the sunrise. We were all a bit tired and testily told him that no, we did not want to pay him money to drive us to a scenic area to view the sunrise; we just wanted to go to our hostel. He was perplexed by our lack of interest in the amazing scenery which most tourists come to enjoy, but agreed to take us to the hostel anyway. A small Chinese man with a giant camera tagged along for part of the ride and at one point remarked to our driver, “Why aren’t they taking pictures?” We did eventually get over the Morning Grumpies and snapped some amazing pictures of the sun rising over the terraced hills of rice patties before arriving at the aptly named Sunny Guesthouse.
The life of a tourist in Yuanyang is much softer than the life of the Hani and Yizu people who inhabit the rice terraces. They are up before dawn working the land which they have sculpted out of the mountainside. We saw men standing knee-deep in the rice patties spreading manure through the water as fertilizer and women strapping back-breakingly heavy loads of brick to themselves and carrying them down the mountain-side to building sites. People herded water buffalo and pigs through the streets, and women paused their digging of trenches that formed irrigation systems along-side roads as we passed by. Every person broke into a smile as we greeted them with a friendly “ni hao.” One smiling grandmother was particularly excited to encounter us foreigners and she reached out and honked Katie’s boob as she passed by. It was startling, hilarious and, we realized later, probably the only opportunity that woman would have to do such a thing in her entire life.
Out time in the Yuanyang Rice Terraces was the slowest-paced and most relaxing of the entire trip. We told ourselves we had earned the right to take hot showers and indulge in naps during the afternoon. Every morning we were there we spent some time sitting on the roof-top patio looking out over the terraces, soaking up the sun, and catching up on our journals. One morning Katie and I had a mini-devotion; she was reading her daily Psalm and it happened to fit our trip perfectly, all the way down to the mountain goats: “He wraps himself in light as with a garment; he stretches out the heavens like a tent and lays the beams of his upper chambers on their waters. He makes the clouds his chariot and rides on the wings of the wind…You covered [the earth] with the deep as with a garment; the waters stood above the mountains… He makes grass grow for the cattle, and plants for man to cultivate—bringing forth food from the earth…the high mountains belong to the wild goats; the crags are a refuge for the coneys. The moon marks off the seasons, and the sun knows when to go down….The man goes out to his work, to his labor until evening. How many are your works, O Lord! In wisdom You made them all…May the glory of the Lord endure forever; may the Lord rejoice in His works—He who looks at the earth, and it trembles, who touches the mountains, and they smoke.” Psalm 104.
Sunrise and sunset are prime tourist times because the angled sunlight reflecting on the flooded rice patties creates spectacular views. During the day, however, there isn’t much for a visitor to do. We wandered down twisting roads into a little town at market time and were unwittingly swept up into an Yizu funeral procession that involved lots of brightly colored tissue paper decorations, loud music, and the parading of flanks of raw meat through the town, which served as an offering to aid the deceased in passing on to the next life. Men lit firecrackers in barrels along the side of the street, presumably to ward off evil spirits. At one point we hailed a moto-rickshaw to take us to another small village. The village wasn’t much different from the ones we had already seen, but we enjoyed the bouncy ride in the covered wagon-style rickshaw, especially when Katie, Yoko, and I took turns standing on the back ledge of the truck bed and looking out over the roof of the rickshaw as it wound through the mountainside.
Back at the hostel we met still more fascinating people: Josh who has just finished four years of service in the Air Force and will be attending Cal Tech in the fall to study hydrology, and Tomer and Nephar, an Israeli couple who are both part of the Israeli Special Forces and Intel. At night, we sat up on the roof-top patio of the hostel enjoying a beer and gazing at the stars. Katie borrowed one of the hostel’s guitars and she and I had fun discovering the many worship songs we both knew how to sing. Before dawn the next morning we hiked the short distance to the scenic viewing area where we watched the sunrise together. Although it was too cloudy to create the breathtaking colorful reflections on the patties I had seen in pictures, watching the sunrise was still very cool. Afterward, we retired to the hostel for a short nap and spent the early afternoon relaxing on the porch of the hostel and enjoying the strong Israeli coffee Tomer had brought with him. I’m not a coffee drinker myself, but I thought it tasted pretty good—very spicy and earthy. Tomer called it “muddy.” We were sad to leave the last stop on our trip when we had just made such great new friends, but thoughts of possible future spring break trips to Israel were already floating through our heads…
The bus ride (Overnight Bus #3) back to Kunming was smoother than the previous one and mostly without incident. I got sick in the middle of the night and officially became a Chinese citizen when I shamelessly used the street as my public bathroom for both vomit and other waste. Our flight back to Harbin was comfortable and the flight attendants were tickled by the fact that we requested a copy of the newspaper when they were passing them out to all the Chinese people on the plane. (Katie and Guy have both been taking a newspaper reading class this semester and enjoy seeing how it has paid off by thumbing through the Chinese paper.) By the time we had navigated our way through three airports, had our lighters confiscated again, and ridden the bus back to campus, we were happy to collapse into our own—stationary—beds.
There are countless reasons why this trip was one of the best of my life. For a start, I got to see an entirely new part of the world that was unlike anywhere I’d been before. I also had the pleasure of embarking on an adventure that I had planned myself, knowing full well that things probably wouldn’t go according to plan. I had a lot of fun in the weeks leading up to our break researching the different areas we would visit, booking hostels, and puzzling out which buses would get us where we needed to go at what times, but I had even more fun when the five of us had to problem solve when things did go wrong.
This trip was not only a vacation but an accomplishment. It proved to all of us just how much we’ve learned on study abroad. In fact, it was odd to be in a place where every Chinese person we talked to told us our Mandarin was more standard than theirs. (Harbin-ers pride themselves on the clarity and “standard-ness” of their Mandarin, so we were edified to know this program has drastically improved our pronunciation.) I was proud of how well the five of us navigated the province, how many things we were able to see, and the limits to which we pushed ourselves. It would have been easy to take a vacation to the beach and sip Mai-tais for a week, but I think this experience was much more rewarding and much more memorable.
Perhaps my favorite part of the whole trip was our interactions with new people. I have been anxious about my future lately, mostly because the Next Step is so unclear, but meeting all these new and interesting people and hearing about their life experiences has reignited my enthusiasm for discovering just what my future will hold. It has also reminded me what a blessing and an opportunity it has been for me to come to China to study Chinese. Study abroad has already opened so many doors for me; I just have to pick which one to walk through. As I listened to people tell their stories, I was envious of all the amazing adventures they had had, but then I realized that my story is getting pretty interesting, too. I returned to Harbin with a renewed vigor, ready to finish this semester and make the most of every opportunity I’m given. I expected to spend a week in Yunnan climbing rocks and looking at nature, but I came away refreshed, recharged, and with a new perspective on life.
My life has settled into the relatively boring rhythm of study, eat, and sleep over the last several weeks, which is why I haven’t updated my blog in a while. There just hasn’t been much of interest to share.
My mid-term exams are coming up tomorrow and Friday (agh!) and then I’m off to Yunnan province for Spring Break. Now THAT should be interesting! I’m looking forward to posting lots of pictures and anecdotes when I get back.
Meanwhile, here are a couple photos of the essay I had to write about Peking Opera for my one-on-one class final exam. I showed it to my mom the last time we skyped and she thought other people might be interested in seeing it, too. Probably the most interesting thing about it is the paper on which it is written: a 20x20 grid of little boxes, one character per box.