It is a little crazy to think I have not been home a week since that epic trip to China. Our itinerary was so jam-packed with sights, smells, tastes, and sounds that it felt impossible to blog in real(ish) time during the journey. Up every day around 6AM and to bed by 11PM or later, along with trying to fit in time at each end of the day to connect with my family at home, left few moments for reflections and writing. While out and about, it was great jotting down a word or two in my notes on my cell otherwise all the days would blur together. While the trip was intense and exhausting, it was also amazing and rich and I want to make sure to do the memories and experiences justice. But at the same time, SO much happened within that scope of 13 days that it is a fool’s errand to try to capture it all exactly as it was. The best I can do is provide some impressions and captions to accompany the many moments of that trip.
Did you know that the city of Beijing is as large as the country of Belgium? According to our tour guide, Martin, this is true. What I found to be particularly interesting is how driving out of the vast city expanse there was an immediate hard stop to the country line. While we might have miles and miles of suburbia sprawled out between Boston and the farm lands, what I could observe in the Beijing to not-Beijing transition was abrupt. City and then country were more definitive. Packing ourselves up, we took a long bus ride to visit the Great Wall. This might have been my most favorite day. Having seen images and videos of the wall, I was eager to see it in person. It did not disappoint. The massiveness of the the wall along with its beauty and seemingly endless quality were breathtaking. You might be looking out from a tower to a far off mountain and then spot the dragon-like snaking of the wall far off in the distance. It was amazing to behold and hard to imagine how humans built this through grueling conditions in order to do one profound thing: keep enemies out. It gave me a lot of pause to consider this idea as our own country talks about building “the wall.” As though some magical boundary will “protect” us from foreigners. What I saw and heard on the wall was this: the wall did not protect ancient China. It was breached and today instead of acting as a divider between inside and outside, between friend and foe, between us and them, it acts as a point of unity. A point upon which people from all over the world converge speaking a multitude of languages and from innumerable places to walk together on top of the wall.
While at the wall, we walked through six towers spanning wide landscapes and stopping for all the glamour shots! On the way down from the wall, students rode a toboggan and I came down with my fellow chaperone, Shanshan, in a chair lift before a farmer’s lunch of eggplant and soup and a visit to Beijing’s 798 district. Trying to warm up from the chilly temperatures at the wall, we sat in a local cafe and I enjoyed the best cup of coffee of my whole trip. As a completely caffeine addicted individual, I was in heaven. We shopped around a bit and I found this great ring but struggling with wrapping my head around the conversion rate, I walked away without the ring but am haunted by its memory (dramatic much, but true). We hopped aboard a jet at 9PM and like zombies flew from Beijing to Chengdu finally settling into our hotel at 3AM utterly exhausted and happy to have a bed.
This is the morning our group met Allen. The tour group that brought us around, Alpha Exchange, made our travels so painless and easy. From engaging guides, to immersive itineraries we were well cared for. And our guide in Chengdu won the hearts of the Beaver students. He introduced to us the idea of the Panda way of life: To enjoy good food and good rest was to embrace Sichuan living. While riding on long bus rides between our sites he shared truths like: time is money but enjoying your time is life. Deep Allen! Chengdu is not like Beijing. Where Beijing felt like NYC tenfold, Chengdu was warm and sweet smelling and fully in bloom. Shanshan is from this city of 16 million and meeting her parents was the best most delightful part of the journey. Their welcome and open-heartedness made falling in love with their city easy. I had this feeling in Chengdu that “I want to see everything.” The food of Sichuan was promised to be the most delicious of our journey and our Chengdu lunch with views of the river set that tone. Student embraced the local dishes and even tried some fish eye and bubble tea. Then it was time to see the Leshan Buddha. The magnitude of the Buddha was amazing to take in as we descended the side of the ridge towards its feet. Taking the staircase single file allowed for some pensive thought as we approached the feet of the buddha. It reminded me of my nanny who often collected various Buddha statues. Being halfway around the world and having such a vivid reflection of my nanny was a pleasant surprise of this day. Once we climbed our way back to the top, we found a secluded veranda and enjoyed a tree top tea just us chaperones. It was these quiet, stolen moments away from wearing the hat of the chaperone that helped reset the day and remind us that this was amazing.
This day was a bit of a struggle for me. In the morning, I was not able to get in a great conversation with the boys or David. They were settling into the bedtime routine at home in Boston. And it was hard not to really connect with them. They were cleaning the playroom and tackling dinner and pjs, and it hurt my heart to feel so detached and distant. Then it was time to leave the hotel and I left in a complicated mindset. We boarded the bus and were warned that the ascent and descent of Mount Emei would not be easy. That the bus ride would likely make us sick and the altitude could make us lightheaded. You know the guide is serious when he preemptively passes out sickness bags. As someone with a gentle stomach, I was nervous and still emotional from the morning call it was going to be a day. The ride up took a little over an hour. We were driving up through the clouds and made our way toward the Golden Buddha. When we disembarked from the bus ride, the fresh cold air never felt better! We hiked for another forty minutes to the top of the peak. It was worth the journey and threat of illness. Once we reached the top, the clouds opened up and the elephants flanking the buddha were beautiful. While we were hoping to see the phenomenon known as the sea of clouds, were not able to see it with true crystal blue skies, but there was a moment when I sat on a wall overlooking the fog and closed my eyes. Leaning up to the sky, a pocket of sunshine opened and warmed my face. When we descended the mountain and returned to Chengdu, the students left to go stay with their homestay families. It was hard to watch them walk away, I might have teared up a little bit as they left for their next little adventure in the homes of Chengdu families.
After a good sleep and satisfying breakfast, we headed to the local high school for a welcome ceremony. It was amazing how formal the ceremony was including name tags, speeches, flags, gifts, and lots of love and applause. In building the new bond between our schools the principal wanted to demonstrate how much he saw the fostering of this relationship as a true investment in the future of our student communities. We cut and ate a cake and were overwhelmed by their kindness and the lovely formality of it all. Our students were given their formal school track suits in a morning assembly with the 2,000+ students of the local high school and our first day of shadowing classes began. Students took a class on Confucian, on dragon dancing, and calligraphy. In the evening, Dave and I walked the city riverside and without student obligations found our way to an outdoor bar to share a German beer.
The one part of temporary life in China that was hard to get used to was the driving and all the cars. When walking out of the hotel to the sidewalk, one must look both ways to make sure none of the motorcycles on the sidewalk get you! If you just take a breath and close your eyes, you can trust that even though it might not seem like it, the drivers of the various vehicles will stop for you. Trust them. Our second day at the high school brought us to the second campus. Here students took a drawing class and we toured the beautiful campus complete with ponds and gold fish. It was truly idyllic. Students also did a little kung fu and then Shanshan and I slipped away to visit the people’s park where we spied retirees putting on a musical performance and then visited the wide and narrow alley for some shopping and dinner with her uncle. The food was fantastic and the company so welcoming. Our path intersected with our third chaperone Dave and we attended the Opera together and then walked to a nearby massage venue for a two hour trilateral massage! There was a lot of stretching involved and it was hilarious to be sitting in-between my colleagues for a deep tissue massage. I am not sure our school’s lawyer would have approved but it was hilariously fun and relaxing. And we had our first experience with cupping and I won’t lie, I was a little nervous about the size of the flame near my feet!
We woke up early. And meeting up with our group we trekked over to the panda breeding center. While panda’s may be a cultural treasure of China, when you see them lounging about or munching on bamboo, you cannot help yourself from wanting to climb the fence into the enclosure! They are just SO cute. I struggled so hard not to buy all the panda things from the gift shop after visiting the pandas for the morning and watching them enjoy the slow and steady pace of their sleeping and eating daily routine. And then there was the Hot Pot Dinner which just knocked my socks off! After our delicious dinner, we visited Tai Kai Lee outdoor shopping and the local beer garden to kick off the next 24 hours in which the chaperones were “off” to explore Chengdu alone while students were fully immersed in their home stays.
Chaperone Day Off: I slept in until 9:30AM. What? It has been literally three years since I have done such a thing and it was glorious. After my slow morning, I walked over to Starbucks and enjoyed a little American treat in a far away place. Shanshan’s family hosted me for the most delicious lunch including pan-friend dumplings, steam dumplings, duck, pork belly, veggies galore, and so much more. It was my FAVORITE meal during the whole trip. Dave and I then went on an adventure to Tianfu Square where we talked to a police officer donning forearm pads with little intimidating daggers in order to get directions. He might have pointed us in the wrong direction but we eventually made our way to an antique market, back to the wide and narrow alley where a bought my favorite little momento from the trip these four baby buddhas, and then ended the night having dinner at a Chengdu’s teacher’s home, Huang. We talked a lot of during dinner about the importance of food in a country that has experienced famine and a lack of food and how that shapes culture. It was a heavy boots discussion which let me with so much to think about.
I woke up to my last day in Chengdu feeling quite sad to pack up and have to leave after feeling like “I just live here now.” Huang and Dave picked me up and we left Chengdu to visit a museum park outside of the city center. As we approached the mall of museums Huang noted, “this is our history is it real, I do not know.” And this statement haunted me for the day as we explored exhibitions to Mao Zedong, the cultural revolution, WWII, Japanese war crimes against China in the Asia-Pacific war, and the Red Times. There was so much to reflect upon and think about moving through the exhibitions. When we stopped at a plexiglass box full of food ration tickets, an older woman walked up to us and shared how she remembered her childhood in which those tickets were her everyday reality and that during these difficult times in China she lost both her brother and sister to famine. With no food and no work for a generation, it puts into great perspective the current focus on the importance of education for this new generation.
Good Morning Shanghai! We flew in and settled into our hotel at 2AM and were up and out to explore the city by 10AM. The morning flew by with a visit to the beautiful Yuyuan gardens, soup dumplings, the bund, some gift shoppings and drinking cheese berry flavor tea. We walked around the riverside and then had the chance to take a river cruise at night to see Shanghai shine in the moonlight.
I was up all night with incredibly anxious thoughts. Sweating and sleepless, I was very confused as to what was going on. Not sleeping even an hour, heading out to a second day in Shanghai was a little intimidating. One of the students on the trip also had a rough night and with a terrible stomach needed to stay home and rest in the hotel. I sacrificed myself as tribute to stay back with our student and attempted to get some rest myself. I napped from 9-11 and trolled social media most of the rest of the day. I felt rested but lightheaded and enjoyed a super hot shower and a little walk outside. I made it to KTV with the students in the evening but felt pretty rough by the end of the night and knew that I was sicker than I was letting myself feel. Traveling home was going to be rough, but at least we were heading home and I was going to see my babies and David after so much time away from home.