Monthly Archives: October 2014

Going Down South

Every semester, IES organizes a mobile learning trip for each program. We go with our teachers to other places in China besides Beijing and practice Chinese while we are traveling. Since my program has so many people we got two trips to chose from. We could either go to Guangxi province or Guizhou province. Both of them are in the southern part of China and both of them are different than anywhere else in China that I’ve been so far.


I chose to go to Guangxi. It looks nothing at all like Beijing as far as the general landscape is concerned. It is greener, has lots of rivers, and has mountains everywhere. The most unique of them are the karats, which is a very unique type of mountain. Guilin in particular is famous for them. Guilin is tourist city, much like Beijing in that regard, but it is much smaller. We went to see the famous two pagodas on a lake and then tried to go see Elephant Trunk Hill but it was too expensive. And that is about the extent of the “famous” sites there, as opposed to Beijing which has hundreds of famous tourist sites. Nevertheless, the natural sites in Guilin, such as the Lijiang River, are well worth the trip. The water, surprisingly (if you’ve read about China’s rivers in history class that is), was very clear. I could see plants waving on the bottom of the rivers and tiny fish darting around. We even swam in a river in Yangshuo, another city in Guangxi. The locals though we were crazy to do it, but we just waved and smiled at them (well what else do you do in that situation).

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We also stayed in three villages. One was called Longji. It is particularly famous for its  terraced rice fields. If we’d come a few weeks earlier we could have seen them golden and full, but the rice had already been harvested. We did get to see them burning the unused stalks, drying out the raw rice, and prepping the fields for the next season. The people working the fields were primarily minority people. In Longji, they were mostly Zhuang minority. This is the largest minority in Guangxi province. They have their own clothes, food, songs, language, and holidays. Many of these traditions are maintained by the older generation because most of the young people have gone to cities for education or are only learning Mandarin to prepare for a better life.


Our second village was about half Zhuang minority and half Yao minority. Yao minority people have their own unique traditions and customs as well. The long hair of the Yao women is particularly famous. They only cut their hair once a year because they believe that long hair signifies long life. They keep their current hair and last years hair together wrapped around their head for practicality. These women are anything but stay at home moms; on the contrary, they are in quite good shape. They hike up and down the mountains and rice terraces hauling heavy loads on their backs in baskets.


Our last village was the most different of them all because it was a farm village. They had traditional houses and very minimal modern technology. If they wanted to eat chicken, they had to kill one. They used old tools to dig up their crops, and so did we when we dug up sweet potatoes during our stay. They don’t have machines to help take their yellow beans out of their pods; they do it by hitting the pods with a large stick. Once they collected all the beans up in a dust pan, we helped them sort the good from the bad by hand. The good ones can be used to make tofu; the bad ones we threw at each other behind each other’s backs. Don’t blame us. The teachers started it. We learned a lot about minority groups and rural people on this trip, but what we also learned a lot about each other. In the natural beauty that is Guangxi we all bonded in a way that would be impossible in Beijing. There’s nothing like digging up sweet potatoes, hiking for six hours through the terraced rice fields, and swimming in a river to bring people together.


Xiangshawan Desert: China’s Disney Desert

The desert looks like it should be blazing hot as we pull up to it in our tour bus. To my surprise, the wind is so chilly that quickly reach for my jacket. As we approach the ticket office, Rocky, our Mongolian tour guide, tells us that this weekend is one of the last weekends that people can tour Inner Mongolia. It gets so cold after that point that even the Mongolians retreat to the city for warmth. That certainly explains why we had to wait in line for half an hour even to get into the desert by cable car.
A tumbleweed rolls past my feet. An autumn breeze swirls my shoulder length hair, cooling it down even as the sun beats down on us all. A particularly strong breeze surrounds us, blowing sand into our eyes and mouths as if to welcome us to the desert. Sunglasses were definitely a good idea today. The temperature isn’t bad either; I’ll take mid 70’s with clear bright blue skies any day.

As we pass through a stone gate, I do a double take. I thought I was coming to see a desert, not an amusement park. I see three very large swimming pools. There are little kids in bumper floaties shaped like animals in one, no one swimming in another, and an adult on a water bicycle in the third. The huge deck around the pools holds about a hundred beach chairs. I can tan poolside in the middle of the desert in Inner Mongolia. Huh, who knew? The rest of the space underneath the colored marque is filled by about 15 restaurants and food booths. I can get knock off Burger King in the desert, or I could play sports here as well. There is a basket ball court, three beach volleyball courts, and what they are calling beach soccer, which is basically soccer goals placed in the sand around an area big enough to kick a ball around. It would be kind of cool to say that I played desert volleyball, but unfortunately they don’t have a ball we can just use. I bet you have to pay for it or bring your own.

Walking past the strange modern oasis, I see circus looking buildings in the distance. There are also dome shaped bio toilets that look like they should be in a science fiction movie. Apparently “bio toilet” means they use no water. I wonder how that works. It might be environmentally friendly but it doesn’t sound very sanitary.
No matter. We aren’t here to see the sand, the tumbleweeds, the sand castles, or the bio toilets; we are here to ride camels. Not just any camels – Asian camels. I guess I should explain that. Only camels in Asia have two humps; the camels everywhere else, including Egypt, have one hump. I’m glad for this because the two humps on our camels is helping me stay on. Riding a camel is not really like riding a horse at all. First of all, it’s a smoother ride than a horse so you don’t get saddle sores (though that could have been due to the fact that the camel ride was only like five minutes). Second of all, a camel gets up unevenly. They sit so you can get on their back and then they abruptly stand with their front legs first. This leaves you unbalanced like you are the heavy person on a see-saw. Same thing when you get off. The camel sits down front legs first. I almost got thrown over its head because I leaned forward instead of backwards. At least a face plant in the sand would have been better than face planting on the grasslands.

As we exit the so called “Disney Desert”, I can’t help thinking that it is so different than deserts are in other places. I’ve never seen so much commercialization in a natural landmark like that. In America, when you go to see a mountain or a lake or some other natural site, it is generally pretty, well, natural. Even our natural parks are less commercialized than the Xiangshawan Desert. I suppose this is just the nature of Chinese tourism. Almost all their famous sites are primarily for tourism; in recent years it has been more about the tourism than the historical or natural significance of places like the Great Wall or the Forbidden City. On one hand, it makes me a bit sad that this beautiful desert has been basically turned into a theme park, but on the other hand it is a one of a kind experience that I wouldn’t trade for anything; if nothing else, it makes for a great story and for some unforgettable memories.