I gingerly lower my worn brown boots into the gently rocking boat and duck my head beneath the bright yellow tin roof. I hear giggles and excited squeals as my group begins to slowly move away from the dock. I glance out the window and I’m greeted with the playful face of the decorative dragon perched on the boat’s corner. I stupidly smile to myself in disbelief and mutter, “I’m in China…” We’re all adjusting to the entirely new world we’re finally encountering after a brutal sixteen-hour flight, and my silly grin confirms my giddiness.
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Our first stop is SÅ«zhÅu, commonly called ‘Venice of the East’, and as we glide down the Grand Canal, we’re pleasantly surprised by the attention we receive from the locals of this remote village. Modest homes line either side of the sloshing water, and each bend reveals a new set of beaming faces and fluttering hands. Children eagerly follow the boat along the edge, craning their small heads to see the equally enthusiastic foreigners. I smile happily at each willing face, as the boat glides under an ornate bridge. I contemplate the anxious months leading to my long-awaited journey, when I religiously practiced my Chinese and internally cursed my inability to pronounce Yùshì. The Chinese culture had always fascinated me, and I had never expected to one day learn such a harmonious language and visit the historically rich country. A startling nudge from my right quickly removes me from my trance. As we leave the boat, we hurriedly say Xièxiè and Zàijiàn.
Our visit to the Garden of the Humble Minister, and its exquisite carefully constructed gardens, has whizzed by and we’re already exploring the historical Panmen Gate. As I walk past the Ruiguang Pagoda, a feverish woman interrupts my sightseeing, flinging her hands in my face and firing Chinese at me at unimaginable speeds. My amused Chinese teacher explains that the excited woman would like to take a photograph with me. People nearby flock around the spectacle, and the brisk interaction rapidly evolves into a comical photographic shoot with various strangers pleading for pictures with members of our charmed group.
The hectic day’s end has gone unnoticed. The following morning, I find myself in Hang Zhou’s LingYin Temple. The aroma of lavender mists the air above the serene paths, and I observe Buddhist Monks furrowing their brows in concentrated prayer. I return subtle head bows in countless directions and admire the simple lifestyles and uncomplicated ways of those who surround me. The equally tranquil Green Tea Planation soon replaces the peaceful atmosphere of the temple, and I find myself at an elongated wood table calmly sipping a cup of delicious green tea. Little did I know then that that innocuous moment was the beginning of an unsavory green tea addiction.
The quiet ambiance suddenly disappears at the bustling atmosphere at the Chinatown of ShànghÇŽI, where I’m bargaining heartily with shopkeepers, guided by their approving nods. The following days flew by as we saw the magnificent lights of ShànghÇŽI buildings on a night cruise, witnessed an acrobatic demonstration where bodies flew in inconceivable ways over the stage and I determinedly climbed the Great Wall.
Barely a year later, I remain awestruck at the remarkable opportunity I had to immerse myself in an exceptional culture and receive such a warm welcome. My affinity for traveling has now fledged into full-blown wanderlust and I can’t wait to explore the rest of the world. China’s distinctive culture and vast history now have a place in my life and I couldn’t be more satisfied about that.
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