Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Spring Break, China-style!

Hello friends,

Do I have stories to tell you! I just returned from 10 days in Mainland China. An adventure that began in Shanghai for Chinese New Year and ended in some smaller but incredibly beautiful towns in the south. I'm sorry for the delay in any email responses - but trust me, the novel that you are about to read will more than make up for it!

Let's begin with the mayhem that was Chinese New Year in Shanghai... did you know that there are absolutely no restrictions on fireworks there?! Literally, at dusk on New Year's Eve, the loud crack the firework noise makers and sparks resonated throughout the streets of Shanghai, being set off in front of every store for good luck. I was traveling with two girls and three boys, so you can imagine the display that we were adding to the excitement. The fireworks in Shanghai were nothing like anything that I have seen for the Fourth of July in the US. Sadly, the pictures can't do them justice. I guess you'll just have to go China next year and see for yourself :-) i highly recommend it.

The day after the festivities, we took a day trip to Hangzhou, which is famous for its huge lake that local families vacation to for hiking and sailing. Probably the best part was riding on the train and trying to have a conversation with people with just our Mandarin phrase book. Small children laughed at us. But I actually enjoy being laughed at here... because I'd laugh at me too (especially if you look at my hair in ponytails!) Obviously, Shanghai was a full trip filled with walks down the infamous Nanjing Road (there was a sephora there!), exploration of city center at the Bund, and our very insightful visit to the Chinese Sex Culture Museum. But I'll try to just give you the highlights because the true adventure began in Guilin.

Leaving our four star hotel complete with KitKats on our pillow, we took an hour plane ride from Hong Kong to Guilin, where we student hostel hopped. My friends and I were looking for the local experience, and we definitely found it. Did I mention that the toilets in Mainland China are in the ground? Let's just say I conquered my fear of squatting and am now an expert - it actually makes much more sense than regular toilets! But I digress...

So Guilin was a bit of a tourist trap. They charged us for EVERYTHING - they even charge admission to walk around a local park. Luckily of tour guide who went to school for English Business, knew were to take us. Our day began with a forty cent meal of rice noodles at a little hole in the wall downtown. We then spent our afternoon touring a famous local cave with a light show inside and took a ski lift up a huge mountain to see the hazy view of the countryside. The highlight of our guided adventure was taking a little bamboo raft in the Li River where we got to paddle. The guide had us pull over to shore to walk around (and I learned how to skip stones for the first time!) and converse with a local fishing family. It was here that the most wonderful and fantastic thing happened... I got to hold a BABY! He could not have been more than 2 months old and was ADORABLE. I'm starting up a collection when I get back called Buy Cheryl a Baby Fund. We accept cash, credit card or illegal kidnapping services ;-)

Moving down the river... we took a 3 hour boat ride to Yangshou. It is a cute little town with a busy mainstreet and lots of vendors trying to sell you things that you don't need. During the two full days that we were there, we saw a lot of the countryside by bike. And let me just say that biking for 4 hours made me realize that I have a limit to my threshold for nature. haha The first day, we stopped to shoot hoops with a couple kids in this random little rundown town. Most of the towns that we visited (we later learned) are 1000 years old! The babies are sooooo cute!! The second day, we had this local girl (our age) who took us to her village by bike (2 hours away) and we had lunch at her house where every part of the meal was either grown/caught in her village - even the delicious flower tea. In the afternoon, she took us to a famous cave where we took a bath in this dark and rather disgusting natural mud pool and then rinsed up in the cave waterfall (it had a ceiling over 90 meters high!) It was sooooo cold in the water!!

Finally, on the last day, we took a two hour excursion to the Ping an village that is at the top of a mountain and was completely isolated from the rest of the world until just a few years ago. It is famous for the women who only cut their hair once in their lives (when they marry at age 18). The average income per family is about US$40 per year. They seem happy though, living off of the rice terraces and drinking pure mountain water. We totally got suckered in to paying to have our picture taken with their long hair. Before we could stop them, they started dressing us in their clothes haha imagine our shock! The hair, that they insisted that we hold, was heavy and touched the ground. The old women never get grey hair, and this is attributed to the fact that they only use rice water to wash it. And I was freaking out not having my Panteen Pro-V! The hike around the rice terraces was beautiful. They only harvest the rice once a year in June. The village is so small, I don't know how they do it.

Well, that was my adventure in a serious nut shell. It was probably the most amazing thing that I have done so far. It really tested the boundaries of my comfort zone. And, I'm proud to say, I passed. Don't believe me?

Until next time! I LOVE hearing from everybody so please keep in touch :-)