There was a school break during which we traveled to the classic old city of LiJiang, China. It’s located in Yunnan province in the Southwest of the country, right in the foothills of the Himalayas. There is a tiny domestic airport, where travelers often arrive having connected from KunMing, the capital of the province. The streets of LiJiang are cobblestoned and shop prices are chokingly high for the tourists. My family, against our usual style, decided to act like tourists in that town and do touristy activities, even though we’d lived in China for years.
â–º QUARTER FINALIST 2012 TEEN TRAVEL WRITING SCHOLARSHIP
After strolling the area, we picked a random agency from the many that have offices on the main square. We chose a tour from a brochure and scheduled a horseback riding day trip for about 20 USD a person. Similar to the elephant ride that had often gone on in Chiangmai, Thailand, this trip was a package deal. Our group got to do many different things throughout the day, like boating in the swamp where an old man caught fish and made food for us in an unsanitary-looking iron pot. There was a village of shops with tie-dye makers hanging sheets from their windows and water buffaloes that wandered across the roads. Across all this was a bright, clean mountain breeze that made me grin. I had an amazing time leaping my horse over little rocks on the dirt roads, rushing through the valley past rice paddies and soy bean fields with the countryside sunshine on me.
Late in the afternoon, we stopped at a tea house, to, well—to drink tea. Our guides had us get off our horses and go into a concrete building that wore a mask of traditional Chinese architecture. We were assigned a tea server in a medium-sized headdress. She pulled us into a small room and immediately began to recite a lightning fast spiel about the tea we were being given to sample. With raised eyebrows and little smiles, we looked at each other and realized that this was definitely a selling gig. She went through the history of the tea, and we ended up with a detailed cultural narrative of the people in that area. After I had zoned out a few times, suddenly we found ourselves hearing:
“As you know, the Han minority people of China greatly value being slender. For the Xi, however, being fat is valued. A girl always aspires to have a stomach like a watermelon and a butt like a pumpkin.”
I sat up. My parents and I looked at each other.
“Sorry? Did you say skin?” The Chinese words sound similar.
I have moments where I think “this is why I love this place.” I revel in the experiences and the wild cultural quirks that are so different from the US, that pop up in front of me while I’m in this country and present the sheer beauty of China. Sitting in that tea house by the swamp, in the LiJiang valley, under the great big sun was one of those vacation “winners” that I would not trade. Times like that have taught me to follow a pattern of adventure. To travel, to take the back roads, to dive into foreign cultures in the weirdest places, to eat the strangest foods I see, and to admire the richness of the lives of those peoples who are so different than I—these are traditions I will keep to as long as I am alive.
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