China Part 1: To the Middle Kingdom

Hello, all! Sorry I’ve been absent for so long. If you couldn’t tell by the title of the post (and if you didn’t know already), I’ve been in China! Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately?), internet was not reliable during my stay, so I haven’t written any blog posts about what happened. So, starting now, this semester’s blog series will be a journal of my travels through and observations of China (specifically Shanghai, Zhujiajiao, Zhangjiajie, and Beijing in that order). The posts will be coming weekly, published on Monday mornings EST, so if you’re just dying to read it as soon as it comes out, there you be.

So, without further ado, welcome back to bythepathlesstraveled, and let’s get this journey underway!

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I began my journey to China on January 7, 2014, at 4 in the morning. I had commuted to campus the day before, braving a huge and dangerous winter storm that left dozens of semis flipped on the roads; the temperature outside was consistently lower than -20 Fahrenheit without wind chills, at least where I was coming from. The trip took hours longer than it normally does, and I was so thankful to finally be safe in a warm room that I loathed getting up again, even if it was to go to China.

I quickly packed my bags — one a carry-on-sized rolling suitcase and the other a backpack. These would be my only pieces of luggage for the entire multi-week trip, and I was fine with that. I’m a light packer, and I’m so small that I hate carrying around huge luggage. Not to mention that the size of my bag would make me reconsider buying huge, stupid things that I didn’t need.

Once I journeyed out into the cold again to meet with my group, I quickly found that everyone else was just as tired as I was. No one had really slept much, and with a flight leaving from Detroit at 7:30, we still had a few hours to go before we’d even be starting our trip. We waited a bit for some luggage vans, and one of my professors tossed me a few bags of dried plums that I had agreed to carry with me as a gift for one of our hosts. Since I had only 15 lbs of luggage (despite a maximum allowable 50), I had no problem toting around extra stuff for other people. More souvenir space later, right?

When the luggage vans arrived, we packed in our stuff and made the trip from Grand Rapids to Detroit. The horrid weather had improved slightly, but it still delayed our arrival by about an hour. Once we got to the airport, I was so ready to check in and finally sit down on an airplane and rest. I used a self check-in machine, registered my frequent flier number, and plopped my bag on the belt for the check-in lady after being sure to lock my bag with a TSA lock.

Aaaand then I left the keys to said lock on the bag handle, where they vanished when my bag went back into the dark depths of airport land.

Thankfully (and because I’m me, I suppose), I had two spares. At least I could get into my luggage once we got there.

As I stood around waiting for the rest of our group to check in, I overheard the conversations around the circle of people I had yet to get to know. Many of them were giddy about buying expensive, name-brand things for cheaper prices in China. Why? I thought to myself, wondering at the motivations of all the students going on the trip. Some of us would be going to experience the culture and language, right? I knew that I was. And I knew that we’d have some who were excited to shop. There’s no problem with that. But there’s a difference between being excited to shop and going to shop. Not my business, though, so whatever.

We went through security, where I submitted to a pat-down because I’d forgotten to remove my luggage keys from my person. No problem. Then we headed to the gate and waited the hour or so for the plane to arrive before we boarded, buckled our seatbelts, and got ready to leave our comfort zones for a new, exciting adventure.

At least, that’s what thought. But I tend to view life as an adventure worth taking. What the others were thinking, if they were afraid, or if they regretted this choice, I don’t know.

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On the flight, I was excited to have gotten an aisle seat. Not a minute after I sat down, however, I was approached by another member of our group whose name I didn’t know. “Can I switch you seats?”

I love aisle seats, and to switch seats with her meant I’d be in that loathed middle spot. But I took a look at her — a height that I’d peg at somewhere around 6’3″ or so, with long, long legs — and thought of what I’d wish someone would do if I were her. So I gave up my seat.

That wasn’t the best choice I’ve ever made. The nerve pain I’d been struggling with for the past 6 months reared its face like wildfire as I, without the room to stretch, cringed in pain for more than half of the flight.

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Thankfully, I had plenty of distractions on the flight as well. The Delta movie selection was, in a word, phenomenal. Close to 100 movies. I’ve never seen such a choice on any flight!

I started with Percy Jackson: Sea of Monsters, pausing in between movies to enjoy the soundtrack of Shingeki no Kyojin and play some Hanafuda and Maajan on my computer (ever the Japanese nerd, right?). As I prepared to get back into a movie binge, my touch screen stopped working. Thankfully, with a quick comment to a flight attendant, I was back in business in five minutes. I zoomed through Despicable Me 2 (which I watched in Japanese with no subtitles), Diary of a Wimpy Kid (because everyone I know seems to think it’s great), and Rango (because I’d never seen it).

We were served nice, large food portions of pasta with cheese, salad, bread, and a cinnamon brownie for our first meal, then about 10 hours into the flight we were given a small sandwich. About an hour before landing (much to my surprise) we were given another huge meal, this time with beef and rice with cucumber salad and orange juice. The beef was…not my style, I guess.

When we finally began our descent to Shanghai, it was 3 in the afternoon local time. At home, that was about 2 in the morning. Thankfully, baggage claim and all of that went smoothly and we were on our way to the ChangHang hotel in a jiffy. Shortly after we arrived and got settled, we were welcomed to a spectacular first meal of chicken feet, tofu, duck, broccoli, garlic peas, rice, meatballs, chicken, egg with cabbage, and a few other delicacies.

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At around 9:35 local time, I decided that I was done for. Unpacking my green blanket to supplement the semi-thin “comforter” on my bed, I dove under the covers and finally went to sleep.

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The next morning was a little hectic as we scoured our area of Shanghai for nice places to grab some breakfast. We found a Guci Bread and a convenience store next to each other, so I snagged a strawberry sandwich and waited patiently while the others went to McDonalds for coffee.

Finally, after everyone was back, we started our actual adventures into China by looking for the Jade Buddha Temple. The temple compound, which was located along a thin side street, was decorated in all directions with dragons, and the smell of incense permeated the place like a fog.

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Dozens of people carrying red packages offered incense and gifts up to the buddhas.

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As we walked around the temple, I also came across a beautiful koi pond hidden in the back.

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One wall of the temple, which was filled with buddhas, particularly impressed me. Because Buddhism is important to Chinese people, I felt honored not only to see their temple but to actually see them in the process of worship.

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Unfortunately, we didn’t have much time at the temple before we moved on to the People’s Square and Shanghai Museum. As we walked, we saw dozens of street vendors touting their wares (mostly food, like the meat buns that I know as nikuman, though that’s not what they’re called in China). I also noticed the huge amount of bikes all around. Chinese people love them some bikes.

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After a longish walk, we caught a glance of the famous Nanjing Road before passing on to the museum itself for a little while. There were certainly some cool things in there, but my feet were starting to hurt and I was ready to sit down. But I nevertheless enjoyed thousands of years of Chinese history, including beautiful jade sculptures and calligraphy.

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After the museum, we finally made our way to a section of Shanghai that I had been dying to see — the bazaar around the Yuyuan, or the Yu Gardens. Needless to say it was well worth it, not only for the lovely merchandise and exciting bartering but for the impressive, oriental views. As I walked through, I savored the hearty smells of cooking meat dumplings and the sweet tang of candied fruits, and the only thing that disturbed my wandering was the occasional exasperated shout of a man or woman who thought a price was still ridiculous. We were welcomed into a tea shop high in a building overlooking the city, and it was a great view. I wondered what the others were appreciating about where we were…whether it was the same as what I loved and why.

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We had a few hours to explore the bazaar, but it wasn’t enough. When we returned for a dinner of noodles and veggies, I eagerly showed everyone else how to use chopsticks and we struggled through managing a noodle pot together (noodles + chopsticks = frustrations, in my experience).

By the end of the day, I was exhausted from more walking than I was used to, so I wasn’t unhappy to resign myself to bed by 7:30. Jet lag and full days leaves one pleasantly tired, I think. And being pleasantly tired while on an adventure is a blessing indeed.

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