This post is part of a series I’m creating about my top travel memories from China. Watch this space for more short stories!
When I was 18, I had barely been outside of the US, apart from a couple of days in Canada and a two hour cruise stop in Cozumel, Mexico. Instead of just dipping my toes into the travel water like a normal person I decided to dive in head-first, and headed all the way around the planet to China for a study tour with a group of 13 others from my university.
Our professor, Dong “Laoshi” (teacher) was a small, middle-aged, extremely hard-core woman. She warned us that our itinerary was “not for the faint of heart” but as young and fearless as we were, we shrugged it off. What were to follow would be the craziest, most challenging, and most exhausting six weeks of my life. We managed to cram in basically every experience defining modern China, from the major tourist attractions to the neglected slums on the outer rings of Beijing, from having an internship to staying with a host family, from chatting with fellow university students to meeting business leaders and documentary filmmakers. We were kept busy from dawn until dusk… and sometimes even later than that.
Six years later, the Great Wall still stands out in my memory as one of the most amazing experiences of the trip. Remember how I said my professor was “hard-core?” Well, this excursion is a good example of what I mean. It was day two or three of the trip and we were all still overwhelmed with crushing jet-lag. Still, she dragged us out of bed at around 6 AM, piled us onto a bus, and drove us deep into the mountains to go to one of the “lesser-known” areas of the Great Wall: Jinshanling.
Now, when I say “lesser-known,” what I mean is that I’m pretty sure no one else has walked on this thing since like the Ming Dynasty. It was absolutely ancient, and consisted of steep, rugged hills and crumbling old watchtowers. Contrary to the parts of the wall that have been refurbished as cute little smooth roads for tourists, this one was rough and uneven, and walking on the thing was like repeatedly hiking up and down small mountains. For the entire walk we were shrouded in a thick mist, so it felt like we had just traveled through time to a moment hundreds of years ago. Being almost totally alone just added to the atmosphere.
Despite all this beauty, the Great Wall was also where I got to see my first really frightening Chinese toilet. Next to all the watchtowers were some public toilets, which were probably also built during the Ming. Basically they were just holes in the ground separated by the tiniest of barrier walls. No stall doors of course, and all located outside. Even many ‘good’ Chinese bathrooms don’t have toilet paper or soap, and this one was no exception. Bathrooms like these were probably one of the reasons we all finished the trip feeling like there were no boundaries between us…
Afterwards, we finished off the day by driving down to a Wall-side rural village, eating lunch that a family cooked for us using entirely plants in their own garden (d’aww) and then talking to the village leader about the politics of local government in the US vs. China. We even got to see all his pretty, shiny plaques from the Communist Party—hung all over his walls! Dream come true.
With its combination of ancient beauty and ancient plumbing, China is always a mess of contradictions. That’s just what makes traveling there so constantly entertaining!