Our first stop was Beijing, and then Shanghai (both very briefly). Shortly after, we flew to Zhangjiajie for its famous mountains. We were disappointed by the immense fog that presented itself upon our arrival (and the rain thereafter) because of visibility concerns, but I figured - hey, #chasingfog is nice - and this could be a good opportunity to see what the summer tourists don’t usually see.
Zhangjiajie itself is a rather small town - the “city” part of it quite small, with many neighboring mountainside countryside villages. I laughed upon seeing the motorcycle umbrellas because of its shape, and almost was inclined to bring one back with me to the US :)
Zhangjiajie is most famous for its national forest park, which is huge and spans almost 19 square miles. In it, you’ll see these freestanding rock formations. In case you think it looks somewhat familiar - this is where Avatar (the James Cameron movie) was filmed. We only had time to explore and hike a few parts of the park.
Other than the rocky mountains, we saw many wild monkeys running around.
The lifestyle of a person living in the countryside of Zhangjiajie was very simple. To keep warm, people often used small fires with a thick blanket piled on top. Local vendors sold a lot of chestnuts and sweet potato on a stick.
I spoke with Xiao Peng, our tour guide, about the region, whose residents are mainly of the Tujia minority. It turned out that my suspicions are true - the mountainside villages are rather poor and don’t have many jobs, so young people tend to move away to find work. Children even go to elementary school in a boarding school elsewhere - there aren’t any schools in the area of Siqu (4th neighborhood). He told me that he himself probably wouldn’t have the chance to visit the U.S. in his entire life, because of time, money, and visa issues - but especially money. You can’t really save up much here, he said. It turns out he went and worked in bigger cities like Shanghai after college, but he prefers Zhangjiajie, since life is simpler and he knows the community. Your life must be very luxurious/happy (Xinfu), he commented. I agreed, feeling bittersweet.
Our final stop was the Yellow Dragon Cave, which was famous for its millions-of-years-old stalagmites. The ten thousand year old 19.2 meter tall Sea-Suppressing Needle is a highlight. It’s currently insured for 100 million yuan.
Our next stop was Changsha, the capital of China’s Hunan province.
Through a friend of my mom, we ended up touring 2 local middle schools (~1700 students each) and 1 elementary school (2400 students) in Changsha. They were all brand new with state-of-the-art facilities and teachers. I hadn’t seen such high quality schools in China before, having only seen schools in the countryside, and was quite impressed. We spent the day visiting an elementary school and a middle school. We toured them and got an idea of how they do things, and met the principal of each. We talked about the differences between the Chinese and American ideals of education.
These are shots of Hunan University, a local university: an art class taken outdoors, a wall of post-it “wishes”, and an academic building entrance.
Our next step was Wuyishan, a mountain range just 2 hours from my father’s hometown of Zhouning. When we were discussing whether or not to visit, my mom exclaimed to my dad, “You promised to bring me here since we were married, but we haven’t been yet!” And so, it was settled. :)
We ended up going to a mountaintop platform with a view, stopping by a tea place to try different local teas and mushrooms, and then went to a river rafting experience. The raft went really slowly, but it was peaceful, and we enjoyed Chinese style tea the whole time. Somehow, my dad and the chauffeur ended up starting a whole conversation with the raft guide about how much she and the men guiding the raft make per hour and per month. Apparently, salary is a totally normal thing to discuss in China!
We arrived at Diyuan, my grandfather’s village, where preparations for the opening of the family temple were already under way.
This photo above shows the home that my grandfather grew up in - renovated since then, of course.
Finally, the day arrived for the family temple opening. Though, as a Christian, I felt strange being around extended family and friends who were focused on these traditional rituals, I found it fascinating that it brought so many people together from different places, who all valued family and wished for prosperity so deeply.
The day started off with fireworks at 5AM (you read that correctly), the unveiling of the temple plaque, and then a day filled with music, incense, prayer, and most importantly - feasting.
After the day-long ceremony, we explored the countryside and small villages nearby, as my dad visited his old friends. The natural beauty was breathtaking, and there was so much to take in.
The rest of our trip in China comprised of quick stops to several cities; the first was Shanghai.
Our last stop in China (before we headed to Taiwan - but that’s for another post!) was Xiamen. Here’s a shot of Gulang, a popular tourist island nearby.
My entire China trip was a long, beautiful, and eye-opening. I saw the most natural beauty, delicious food, and children (there were honestly so many young children in each city) I’d ever seen, but I’d also seen the most construction and pollution. I hope that the country continues to evolve and grow in a way that’s environmentally sustainable, healthy for all, and in a way that provides basic needs access for every citizen. And while they’re a ways away, they’re definitely on their way there.