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Semester Abroad



A chill ran through my body as the airplane left the gate. I watched out the window as the plane taxied away from the terminal of Beijing International Airport. I treasured every last glimpse of China. As the plane took off the buildings on the ground got smaller and smaller until I could see them no more. Then there was nothing but clouds and passengers.

"Where are you going?" I asked the girl sitting next to me.

"Austin. I'm going to get ready for my first semester of overseas study at the University of Texas."

"How about you?" she asked.

"Bloomington. Indiana University. I just studied abroad here last semester," I said.

And so the summer had ended. We were both going back to our universities. She would start an adventure in a new country. I was ending my adventure and going back home.

I turned on the anime show The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya on my iPhone and sat back, relaxed and enjoyed the flight.

"I entered high school with no particular vision in mind…" the narrator, Kyon, said.

I never wanted to study Chinese in the first place. After taking foreign language classes for six years in middle school and high school and flunking out of Spanish, I wanted to be done with it. But foreign language was a requirement at college. So why not pick one of the hardest ones? China was rising, and I didn't want to be left behind. Surprisingly, I liked it, so there I was at Nanjing University spring semester of my junior year.

The first week in China felt wild. It was my first time abroad on my own, and everything in China felt different than in America. The afternoon I arrived and met my classmates, we walked down an alleyway with market stalls and said ni hao to the vendors. They smiled and said ni hao back. Despite being such an ordinary occurrence in, walking along the crowded streets and looking at interesting products on display felt like a real adventure.
With one week before class started, we went to Xiamen for a few days to enjoy our last days of homework free nights. Sitting on the beach of Gulangyu Island at night, choking down rice wine bombs, we did a toast to the semester ahead.

Then the semester started.

I woke up at 5:30 for the first day of school and it was raining, and my homestay was half an hour from school by bike. Into the cold rain, I went. Chinese people sped past me. "Ai ya!" an old lady yelled, as I nearly hit her when I turned. There were people on all sides, people cutting through traffic, and cars coming up behind driving in the bike lane. It was absolute chaos!

Early on, we foreign students tried to do keep from falling into a boring routine. We would play basketball with the Chinese students after class and explore the city. On Thursdays, we went to Ellen's where they gave free Tsingtao beer during happy hour. Eventually I got tired of the routine of speaking English to other Americans in the expat bar all the time. I wanted something more out of study abroad.

I started going off on my own looking for things. I went to 1912 bar district and was thrilled by the bright lights of the bars blasting music in the crowded courtyard area. Inside the bars, there were crazy designs. One had a suit of armor by the door, one had lighted floors, and nights of clinking glasses with strangers, dancing, and singing karaoke piled up.

One morning halfway through the semester, I woke up in a pool of my own vomit in the student conference room. How the hell did that happen? There was even a strange text message on my phone asking for 2,000 RMB. I ignored it. After all this, what had I found?


On my iPhone, Kyon was telling Haruhi, "You can't do something that doesn't exist. In the end, humans have to settle for what's in front of them."
For the rest of the school year, I didn't go out so often. I went home after school, ate dinner with my shu shu, my homestay "uncle," studied, then went to bed. I had already done enough liver damage.

"Shu shu, what is the most beautiful place in China?" I asked one night at dinner.

"That would be tough to say," he said. "Everywhere in China is extremely beautiful. But if there is one place you shouldn't miss, I would say Yunnan, Tiger Leaping Gorge especially."

When the school year ended, I flew out to central China to see my friend Dora who had returned back to China from IU for the summer. After that, it was a journey through the provinces of Hunan, Guangxi and Guizhou until finally ending up in Yunnan, and then going to Sanya to relax for a week.
It was raining when I got off the bus in Sanjiang, in the far west of Guangxi. I ran under an awning. A girl said, "Hello, do you need help?" in English. I replied in Chinese, "I need to find a hotel." Her name was Yang Yang. She was studying English and wanted to be a tour guide. She was my tour guide for the evening.

Like most people in Sanjiang, she is an ethnic Dong. She showed me around Sanjiang and introduced me to Dong culture, starting with the big wooden drum tower in the town square.

"It's used for town meetings and events," she said.

For dinner, we ate sour and spicy Dong food with pickled peppers.

She told me how to get to Chengyang the next morning. Chengyang is known for its pristine examples of Dong architecture, such as the drum towers and wind and rain bridges. Sanjiang, being in the far west of Guangxi, just across the border from the Qiandongnan Dong and Miao Autonomous Prefecture of Guizhou, is the gateway to Dong culture. "Watch out for cheaters," she told me that night. "Chinese peddlers in the countryside think it is easy to take advantage of foreigners."

The next morning I ate a local breakfast of oil tea, a cereal dish with puffed rice, cereal balls, peanuts, and green onions served in a bowl with tea from fried tea leaves.

Then I went to the line of taxis waiting on the main road and asked, "How much?"

"60 RMB."

"Don't think I'm an idiot," I said, using the colloquial curse word that roughly translates to... actually, I'm not going to say it. Moving on.

The driver quickly cut the price to 6 RMB and meekly stated, "60 RMB is the price for one person to rent the whole van," a sorry attempt not to lose face considering there were already other riders in the van. If you display your proficiency at swearing in Chinese, Chinese peddlers know you aren't going to be an easily-cheated foreigner.

Arriving in Chengyang, I was greeted by the hundred-year old Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge over the Linxi River. It's one of the longest and oldest wind and rain bridges in the world. These beautiful, intricately carved bridges of Dong lands are held together with mortises and tenons, wooden pieces hammered in place.

Chengyang Wind and Rain Bridge


Playing local instrument, Lusheng (芦笙)


Dong girls singing


Dong’s favorite food, Kebab


The next morning, I went to watch the daily Dong cultural performance in the town square. Before the performance started, two old ladies surrounded me waving lucky knots in my face.

"No, I don't want," I said, but they wouldn't leave. These women were indefatigable. Even cursing didn't get them off my tail. Instead, another woman joined them. Sometimes they

with metallic collars and black skirts. They wore hats with metal points and multicolored fuzz balls extended. The women danced, twirling umbrellas, while the men, dressed in white button-up shirts, black pants and black hats, played the lusheng, a reed pipe.

After the show, I began walking around the town. Chengyang consists of eight villages that are linked together by paths. Each villages is centered around a drum tower. Between the villages, there are rice fields. Whenever a path crosses over the winding Linxi River, there is a wind and rain bridge.
On the main street running between the villages, there was a market. Live animals and produce were displayed along the road.

"Watch out, that one is escaping," I said, as a crawfish somehow had clawed his way out of the wire enclosed bin he was in.

The ducks in the middle of the road had their necks and bodies stuck through bags to prevent them from flying.

On the bus ride to Congjiang two days later, I heard a cluck coming from the luggage of the passenger sitting next to me. He had a chicken in his bag.
The road was bumpy and unpaved in parts. Driving by the Duliu River was scenic, with lush meadows at the bottom of mountains and villages where people periodically got on and off.

I certainly didn't come to Congjiang to see Congjiang. The city of 300,000 people in its entire administrative area was just two roads on both sides of the river. But, as the capital of Congjiang County, it was just 10 kilometers away from the Miao village of Basha, home to one of the last hunting tribes in China. I would see the Basha Miao the next day, but that night, I was staying at a run down Congjiang hotel with cockroach carcasses in the stairwell. When I opened the door, a roach ran across the room and under one of the beds. Out of sight, out of mind.

Since I didn't have a local tour guide in Congjiang, I didn't know which van to take the next morning, so I just followed the road to Basha, walking past smashed metal cars displayed alongside mountain curves to warn about the dangers of reckless driving.

I knew I was in Basha when I saw Miao men walking down the street in black robes with muskets on their shoulders. Women carried babies on their back.

The Basha Miao held a hunting performance in a circle of log benches in a field. The men moved in measured cadence, their guns aimed, while the women sang. At the end, they all fired their guns into the air. Afterwards, a young Miao man knelt in the middle of the field, and a village elder sheared his long hair off, leaving a bun, a rite of adulthood of Basha boys.

After the show, I went to talk to some of the Miao. Private gun ownership is banned in China, so I thought it was pretty cool to see the display.
"We are a traditional hunting tribe," one of the marksmen told me. "The government still lets us own guns because of our history and their minority policy."

"But not all Miao are hunters like us. In fact, there are really many different groups among the Miao, not one whole ethnic group."
I kept asking him questions about his gun, then he asked me one: "Want to shoot it?"

He led me to a clearing in the woods with a target posted to a tree. With a burst of smoke and a deafening bang, the bullet shot forward and the gun shot back into my shoulder. I needed a little bit more experience before I could become a Basha Miao, though.
On my way back to Congjiang, I caught a ride with some Chinese tourists in their car. They told me about a relaxing Dong village called Zhaoxing, so I went.

I spent nearly a week there walking through mountainside terraced rice fields, generally relaxing and forgetting about anything else. Eventually I resumed my journey towards Yunnan. En route to Guiyang, where I could buy a train ticket to Kunming, I had to stay overnight in Rongjiang.
Rongjiang is another county hub city, somewhat bigger than Congjiang, but just as dirty and boring. The main industry there seemed to be counterfeit clothing. I bought a T-shirt with a picture of a Chinese celebrity and the "LFVI'S" logo. ("LFVI'S jeans are and have always been the undeniable icpm tijat screans individaulity," the shirt said.)

The worst thing about Rongjiang was its lodging. In Congjiang, a foreigner could walk into any roach-infested dump and get a room. Not in Rongjiang. No, foreigners could only stay at the nicest hotel (or rather, the most expensive).

Saying something is the nicest hotel in Rongjiang, is like saying something is the tastiest snack in a Guangzhou bitter tea shop; it's only a matter of degree. It did have a bedside shelf with light switches on it that actually worked, but it also had a discolored carpet and peeling paint. There weren't any cockroaches, but when I was done showering, a spider with a leg span about the size of the palm climbed up the wall and joined me while I was still naked. I detached the shower head nozzle from the wall, turned the temperature all the way up, and sprayed it at full force. It descended quickly and ran away.

On my way to Guiyang, I continued through Sandu, a Shui ethnic city, and eventually made it to Guiyang by the end of the day. Even Guiyang, the provincial capital of Guizhou, isn't big by provincial capital standards. It only has about 4 million people in the municipality, and it didn't seem too exciting.

I went to the train station the next morning, hoping to buy a same-day ticket and get to Yunnan as soon as possible. Train stations in major cities in China are what the tenth circle of hell would have been if Dante had added one more; punishment for those without the means or the knowhow to purchase tickets online. I wasted some time in the automatic ticket machine line then resigned myself to having to stand in the even longer standard ticket line when the ticket machine didn't have Kunming tickets. Of course they didn't have same-day tickets. The earliest available was two days later at night, and there were no beds left. Wanting to get out as soon as possible, I settled for that.

Spending a few days in Guiyang wasn't so bad. They had an international tea expo with hundreds of vendors giving out free tea samples. It didn't look very "international." I was one of the few foreigners, and Chinese tea vendors were excited to give me tastes. One of them even took a picture of me posing with their products. They gave me a few free boxes as payment. I like to think that someone somewhere recognizes me as the green tea foreigner.

My car on the train to Kunming was full of college students leaving Guiyang after the semester had ended. Sleeping in a cramped seat on a Chinese train car is hard enough when everyone is quiet; but its even harder when everyone is playing guitar, talking and making merry. Still, my seat was probably more comfortable than those people who couldn't even get a seated ticket. Many bought "no seat" tickets, and they just sat on the floor on top of crushed cardboard boxes or stood the entire way.

Arriving in Kunming, I walked like a zombie towards the taxi stand to go to the bus station. When we arrived in Xiaguan, or "Dali New City," as the urban area is called, five hours later, it felt like not a day had gone by since the day before.

We were still about 15 km (9 mi) away from Dali Ancient City. No one wants to visit Dali New City, and the taxi drivers know this. Leaving the bus station, I was swarmed by drivers trying to grab my bags and lead me to their car. The strategy for arriving in a new city in China always requires you to get away from the taxi scam artists and find a local bus or a legitimate taxi. But in Dali, no one seemed to know which bus to take. I asked Chinese people where the bus stop was, and even they didn't know. All of the taxi drivers said they wouldn't use the fare flag. They were offering the same prices to Chinese people. The taxi drivers in Dali are very well organized. If you catch a ride with some other travelers, you should end up paying 15 to 20 RMB each for four or five people going to Dali Ancient City.


Dali Bai Ethnic Dance


Gate in Dali


Foreigner’s Street in Dali




Dali Bar


By the time I got there and checked in to my guesthouse, evening was setting in. I wandered around on the stone, waterway-lined streets, admiring the houses with nature scenes painted on their walls, until I ended up on a commercial street with lights, apparel stores, and restaurants and bars. Foreigner Street, it was called. One bar had a sign on its window written in English: Public Relations Staff Wanted. I spoke to the manager, and he told me the job involved standing outside the doorway at night and inviting people in. Kind of like those men who invited me to their table one night from outside the bar at 1912, I thought. It sounded like fun, and it paid 30 RMB an hour, so I agreed to do it the next night.

There were two girls standing by one side of the door - they are often Dali University students working on a temporary basis - and I was on the other side yelling at people passing by.


"Hello, please come in and take a seat! Watch our music performance!" I said with a smile.


Chinese tourists thought I was so cute standing there promoting the place in Chinese. I even wore a red neckscarf, like the Chinese primary school children wear, for added effect. "Look! The foreigner is wearing a hong ling jin!" some tourists screamed and pointed at me. If the bar would have charged each person who took photographs with me, they would have made a fortune.


Across the street from the bar was a drum and apparel shop with a Bai woman weaving Bai designs in thread. Dali is the capital of the Dali Bai Autonomous Prefecture, but among tourists it's not as popular for its authentic ethnic tourism as Guizhou is; he shop was selling African drums. Next door another shop was selling Indian stars. The young, artistic kids who come to Dali for a few months and lay out blankets on Renmin Lu sell a lot of trinkets they bought in Tibet or Nepal.


Dali has a relaxing 'hippie' lifestyle, and at night tourists like to let loose on Foreigner Street. Chinese people sitting in the outdoor seats kept giving me beers and doing ganbei's all the time I was working.


When I got off work, a group of tourists invited me to their table to play Russian Roulette: six glasses are poured, some filled, some empty, and you roll the dice and either drink or fill the corresponding glass. Some time later, we walked to the shaokao barbecue skewer market down the street and started eating and drinking more there. Outdoor tables under the stars (some of which you can actually see in Dali), late nights, urinating in a dark alley in between hotel rooms… Isn't this why so many students study abroad?


From Dali, I went to Lijiang, and I was approaching my final destination. The road to Lijiang went over curved mountain roads, narrow at times, and there were expansive views around each bend. But it was hard to enjoy them with the constant fear that the bus would go rolling down the side of the mountain.


The Lijiang bus station is across the street from Lijiang Ancient Town, so I could go walking in a side street without paying the entrance fee. I was amazed by the winding maze of stone streets and stone buildings, but I was never going to find the hostel recommended to me by Xiao Wu (a friend I had met me while I was working at the bar in Dali). The stylized map I had was beautiful, to its credit, but it was more useful for decoration than for navigation. And it had just started raining. With the help of a Chinese tourist, I eventually ended up at the door of the hostel soaking wet, but the hostel was full.


Lijiang, it turns out, is always full. The demand from visitors is huge, but the size of the town is limited; the government even built some new "expansions" on the edge of the old city to help cope.


I eventually ended up in a nearby hotel in a room so small that the luggage could only fit under the bed. After showering and changing, I met Xiao Wu and her friend in the courtyard of my hotel, and we went out to dinner. We ate yak meat and ham cake and drank local soy milk.
Walking around Lijiang Ancient City after dinner, it sometimes feels as if the entire city is Foreigner Street. There are so many shops and bars, and some locals have left. Lijiang Ancient City is very popular as a domestic drinking and leisure destination, and very fun, as I found.
Some of Xiao Wu's friends were already in one bar, so we joined them. In the Chinese tradition of hospitality, one man was paying for the whole thing. Walking in with Xiao Wu on my arm and the other girl in tow, I said, "I brought the girls, you brought the beer." The bar was less Yunnan and more Shanghai. Apart from a Nazi (an another ethnic minority of the region) woman who went on stage to dance for a few minutes, there wasn't a lot of local flavor.


The next day, I was falling into melancholy. It was raining once again in the morning. Late summer is rainy season in Yunnan, and it had been raining almost every day for an hour or two. I explored the city when the rain stopped, enjoying the scenes of suckling pig roasting over a fire and the wishing tree with wood pieces hanging by the waterwheel, but something bothered me. I only had about a week and a half left in China before my flight home. Tiger Leaping Gorge was the reason I came all the way out there, but lethargy had descended upon my soul.
Nearing the end of the long journey, I was being lolled into complacency in the resort town of Lijiang, cocooned in the false security of shops and bars and the easy living.


Online commenters had said, "Don't hike Tiger Leaping Gorge in rainy season!" But people always exaggerate the difficulty of trails. Relying on those reviews seemed more like an excuse for not wanting to get on another bus over crappy roads and set up accommodation and do it, and wanting to go straight to the beach paradise of Sanya instead.


The flight attendants were coming through with breakfast. We were a few hours away from Los Angeles. On my iPhone, Haruhi was under a tree, saying, "I have a feeling that I no longer know what I'm doing myself."


In the end, I knew I would be stupid not hike Tiger Leaping Gorge when I was already in Lijiang. I spoke with a tour guide, and he reassured me that it was no problem to hike it in the rainy season, even if you only have running shoes. The road to Qiaotou, the town the trail starts near, indeed sucks. It gets bumpy and muddy in rainy season, sometimes being affected by landslides, often causing long traffic jams. I checked into a hotel there and woke up at 5:00 the next morning, ate "convenient noodles" and got going, leaving my luggage at the hotel.


The road to the trail head is lined with farmer's homes, each with vicious dogs chained up in their yards. With each house I passed, dogs barked incessantly and rattled their chains. I got a bit lost and walked past the trail head.


On my way back, I saw two dogs running down the road at me, barking loudly, with their jaws snapping. There I was, all alone in the Yunnan countryside, far from a city, about to be attacked. In a split second, I raised the metal pole I had purchased the night before as a hiking stick. I began swinging it around in front of me in a circular motion, with the two dogs, meters away. I didn't know how long I could keep it up as the dogs little by little got closer, converging from angles. My heart began to pound against my chest and my adreneline pierced my spine; I was ready for a show down.


Suddenly, out of nowhere, the dog's owner appeared down the road, calling the dogs back. A close call, indeed. The rush really got me going, and I survived the easy way, but who cares; I was ready to hit the trail.
The trail started out flat, curving along the slopes above the Jinsha River. The 28 Bends, the steepest part of the trail, came early on. Towards the top of the series of switchbacks, a trailside vendor asked if I wanted any snacks or water.




"How about some marijuana?" (Yunnan is a major source of drug trade in China). Wow, I thought, these guys just never give up!


I kept walking past the guesthouses, through the woods and then along to where it opened up into views of the gorge. The rest of the trail was mostly flat and scenic. There were clouds everywhere, but at least it wasn't raining. Even with clouds, the views deep into the river gorge were astonishing. I walked over a log fence, probably erected by a villager to bar off the area and charge viewing fees (but he wasn't there), and marveled at the sights from the ledge of a cliff. At the bottom, I could see a group of tour buses parked by the river. That's what domestic tourists usually mean when they say they're going to see Tiger Leaping Gorge. I texted shu shu and said, "Guess where I am? Tiger Leaping Gorge!"

I continued along the trail at a brisk pace, only slowing down to pass the three waterfalls at the end. One of them ran over the rocky trail, overflowing with water in rainy season. Once again, the hiking pole came in handy, as I carefully chose my steps.


After that, the trail descended quickly, and I arrived at Tina's Guesthouse at 15:00. I did it! The next place to go was Sanya then home. Sitting in the lobby of the hostel, eating leftover fried rice I had bought on the trail, I thought about how Shangri-La was to the north, Tibet was to the west, and Xishuanbanna was to the south. It didn't matter. Tickets were already purchased, and the school year was going to start in fall no matter what. Even if I went somewhere else for a few days, I was going to have to be in Beijing at the week's end.







Tina's Guesthouse


 The Leaping Tiger


Middle Rapids

I woke up from my daze to watch Haruhi say, "It feels as though I can't settle down."

Sanya was fun and relaxing. The beach there was gorgeous. I sat on chairs reading Anna Karenina for as long as I could before the hotel staff kicked me off. I went swimming, ate lobster and fish, and played pool with Rose at night. After two months on trains and trails, it was a week well earned. The perfect end to a long, strenuous trip.

And now here I am on the plane watching Haruhi Suzumiya and reminiscing about my glorious summer.

As Haruhiis sitting under a tree contemplating at the end of her semester, she stands with a jolt.

She looks at Kyon and tells him they will start a band next year."Can you play any instruments?" she asks. "After some practice, you will. After all, there's still one year to go!"


Sanya Beach Chairs



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