My girlfriend and I had been studying in China for four months. Our language professor was strict and we often would study late into the night to keep up with the course demands. His expectations left us with a surprisingly good handle on the language and a very sheltered experience in China. Like many college students entering the world with new knowledge we had all the right tools but hadn’t yet applied them. Now that we were finished it was our chance to experience China more freely, our first destination was DaLi, a small ancient city, walled on all sides, on one side was a beautiful high elevation lake on the other side tall peaks towered above us. The mountains were beautiful and dominated every background of the photos we took. Naturally we wanted to climb them.
Being stubborn young backpackers, we decided we could see the local mountains much cheaper than a guided tour would cost us. So we set out on foot to the base of the mountains, where we could catch the gondola up. There was a local festival in Dali and the streets were crowded. Vendors with microphones and speakers blaring bad pop music made the crowded streets all the more stressful. When we finally escaped the crowds, we started getting accosted by a particularly persistent hawker trying to get us to go on a tour we were so boldly going without. For this hawker it was a numbers game, she was alternating her time between us and another nearby tourist. I’m not sure if we were corralled together by the hawker or if we huddled together for protection.
Either way within minutes we were walking and talking with the other victim. Qian was Chinese and like us was also a college student, taking some time to see China between semesters. We communicated in both Chinese and English, although her English was far better than our Chinese. Once we arrived at the gate of the national park, we realized that we had made a mistake, the cost to ride the gondola was about twice the price of the total tour –which had included the Gondola ride! Qian approached the ticket office and we slowly backed away, assuming like many Chinese tourists we had observed, that when on vacation no expense was spared.
While we stood there discussing whether to admit defeat Qian approached us. Her eyes were wide, “Wow, so expensive!” we nodded in agreement and relief, as we assumed she was going to try and convince us to splurge on the ticket.
She then asked us if we would be interested in climbing the mountain on foot, the park rangers at the front window had told her of path that would go through some ancient graveyards. Which to a couple of young backpackers that seemed like the perfect way to enjoy the mountain. That is getting a unique perspective while managing to stay within budget. So we paid the basic entrance fee and started to head up the mountain.
The path was steep but beautiful, and as we got higher the ancient town, lake and valley started to shrink and unfold below us. The natural mountain beauty was very reminiscent of Idaho, and the dry evergreen forest held the same earthy smell. There was one stark difference however, along the path were ancient tombs, which predated the founding of our own country by several hundred years.
After two grueling hours of uphill climbing we finally reached the upper trail, which cut across the side of the mountain, thankfully at a very slight slope. This is when things started to get really beautiful. The trail wove through caves, over waterfalls, next to ancient Chinese pagodas and above cliffs hundreds of feet tall.
Qian was constantly having us stop to take photographs next to the impressive vistas. After one photo she would tell us to change poses! And we’d shyly try something different. Qian’s hobbies and interests were much the same as many of my friends from Idaho. She took lots of time off between semesters to travel cheaply, staying in hostels, mostly to hike, and to enjoy china’s impressive nature and delicious local dishes.
Getting to know Qian I was starting to realize my knee jerk reactions to China and Chinese people were often based on generalizations and limited observations. And that isn’t to say that intellectually I wasn’t aware that China is a very dynamic country with a dynamic population. But even though I knew this, it was all too easy of me to fall into this trap.
After 4 miles or so we came to the gondola that would have taken us up the mountain, we had hiked to an elevation of 8000 feet. Tired from the uphill climb, our energy sapped by the thin air made riding the gondola down a tempting prospect. After much internal struggle, we stuck to our guns, our somewhat arbitrary guns and decided that we still could enjoy our time on the mountain for much less than a cost of a cookie cutter tour. So we hiked on, we became more tired and the weather got colder, but the views continued to be impressive and we were now in the heart of the park. Many beautiful sculptures were on the side of the trail. Including giant rocks inscribed with calligraphy, and large fountains.
By the end of the day we walked over 12 km, ascending and descending several thousand feet. We were exhausted, when I say we were exhausted I mean Marley and I, Qian seemed like she would have been perfectly content walking another 12km and urged us to join her on a bike ride the next day. That bike ride never happened, I think we spent the next day mostly enjoying Chinese food and lounging about, resting our sore legs. But I remained in contact with Qian afterwards and I hope to be able to use her as a pen pal as I return to studying Chinese again this fall.
Friendships are important when you are traveling to a new place, because friendships are based upon a more dynamic understanding. With that kind of understanding you can start to break down the barriers between cultures and have a really genuine experience. China like America gets a lot of international press, and any American who has travel abroad has surely ran into bizarre generalizations people have concluded on their own. Maybe sometimes these generalizations even have a grain of truth, but being extremely large and diverse countries (China is home to 55 ethnic groups, the Chinese language group includes 7 languages each with many dialects) it is silly to try and make broad assumptions about such large and diverse places. As I wade through the regular sensationalized news about china, I am grateful for my education and experiences there, as it is an incredibly interesting place and is very relevant in a global understanding of politics, economics and current events.