This was my first trip to America, and to start in San Francisco, or “Old Gold Mountain,” (旧金山) as it is called in China, was a dream come true. The air in San Francisco is so clean, and the temperature so moderate, especially in July when Beijing is very hot.
I loved staying on campus. It made me feel like a college student already. The Bay Area has some wonderful universities. Berkeley and Stanford are world famous, and just to walk around their campuses gave me a great feeling.
More than that, San Francisco is a place where a Chinese person can feel right at home. I never realized there would be so many Chinese restaurants, serving all kinds of food from Guangdong (Canton), Sichuan, Hunan and many other regions.
But I also loved Boston, the home of MIT and Harvard, perhaps the most famous university in the world to people in China.
Of course, even though I am a little ashamed to say this, the highlight of our stay in Los Angeles was visiting Disneyland. People complain about the long lines, but we are used to even longer lines in Beijing.
Visiting all the famous universities made me even more determined to study in America. I will be applying soon, and even if I do not get accepted by one of the top ten, I am still sure I will have a great experience.
In Xi’an we visited two archeological sites: Banpo and the Terra Cotta Warriors. I had never heard of Banpo, but I found it very interesting. It’s a large partially excavated site of a Neolithic settlement, dating from 5600 to 6700 years ago. The area around Xi’an is very fertile with rivers, so it is easy to imagine a thriving early human settlement there.
Next we went to see the Warriors and Horses. The scale of the excavation pits is amazing. It is huge, and it goes on and on. Each warrior was made by hand and has a different face. You can even see that they are different sizes with different facial features depending on their origin / region of China. The pits were discovered by mistake when some farmers were digging a well for water in the 1970s. There’s so much more to hear about them which will stun you. This should be on everyone’s bucket list.
The food in this part of China is different from Beijing as they do not focus on rice – instead noodles and dumplings are favored and are really delicious. Most of the noodles are hand-made and different than what you’d expect – one was 3-inches wide and over 4-feet long! I loved the food in this part of China – and especially the people – they are very friendly and welcoming.
I love animals. All of them. From Fireflies to Elephants. Don’t get me wrong: I certainly enjoyed the sights, sounds and smells of Bangkok, but the highlight of my trip to Thailand was seeing the fireflies in Amphawa and caring for elephants in Chiang Mai.
In Amphawa, we were lucky that the weather was clear, and there was no full moon the night we ventured out in search of fireflies. We took a long-tail boat on the Mae Klong River. I was blown away by seeing fireflies lighting up entire trees along the banks of the river. What is even more amazing is how these beetles (because that’s what they really are) synchronize their blinking. How do they do that?
The park I volunteered at provides sanctuary for disabled, blind, and orphaned elephants that have often been abused as working animals and for street begging. More than that, the camp also cares for dogs, cats, birds, buffalo and other rescued animals.
Unlike some places that lure tourists so they can get pictures of themselves riding on elephants, our camp did not allow riding. Instead, we learned to care for the animals, feeding them and bathing with them. In our spare time, we had lovely walks, and the staff taught us a lot about Thai culture and animal conservation.
It changed my life.
I never thought I would find a water lizard of all things in Bangkok! But there it was, emerging lazily from a pool in the beautiful garden of the lovely restaurant where we had just enjoyed a truly wonderful, authentic Thai meal on the east bank of the Chao Phraya river.
That epitomizes Thailand for me. You read the websites and think you know what to expect, but the country always manages to surprise you. I thought I had a fair idea of what it would be like to live in a rural Thai village. But I was overwhelmed by the generosity of the people. Most of them are really poor, but they insisted on plying us with local delicacies and refused to take any compensation in return. For them it was enough that we foreigners had chosen to spend a few days with them. The fact that we were teaching their children and grandchildren English at the local school was just a bonus.
The day and night we lived with monks was just as amazing. I suppose I had imagined long sessions chanting or meditating. What I was not prepared for was getting up at four in the morning, taking a cold shower, and almost immediately starting a really hard day’s work. At the end of our too-brief stay, I had come to develop a deep appreciation for their devotion to a unique way of life.
I thought I would like China, but I never guessed I would love it. It was scary at first to work with Chinese students, but they made me feel welcomed, plus it was easy to laugh together – especially during morning exercises in June when we danced to the tune of Jingle Bells.
At first I was overwhelmed at how huge Beijing is – it’s so crowded that the cars are restricted from driving on certain days based on the license plate numbers. Of course, the pollution is a big wake-up call to all of us – to figure it out as soon as we can, as our worldwide population expands.
In the modern mix of Beijing, I loved the night markets – even if I was afraid to eat much of what they sell on sticks: snakes, tiny sharks, beetles, grubs, starfish, you name it! Very nearby, they have a Godiva ice cream shop where you can get a cone for $10!
China is the kind of place that you will love, and what you don’t love will amaze you – for better or worse.
I didn’t expect the highlight of China to be the rural part. Staying at the yurt camp with other students in the mountains was really fun. The camp is surprising – everything is eco-friendly which is the way of the future in China. Learning about the impact of humans on the local area including the health of the river was very interesting. I also liked living with farmers whose current lifestyle could be centuries old – which is unexpected in an otherwise modern country.
The Great Wall goes all over China, and on the trip I got to see two very different versions of it: one part was in ruins – and the other is beautifully restored. I liked both but my favorite part (outside of the gondola ride up at Mutianyu) was riding toboggans down the track to bottom with my friends. The countryside and mountains are beautiful.