By Thea van Diepen:
In the summer of 2013, I went to China to visit relatives – no, they’re not Chinese, they just live there. 😛
It was my first time ever being off the North American continent, my first time travelling alone, and my first time in a country where I only knew two words of the language (previously, I’d been to the U.S., Belize, and Mexico. So, yes, I know a little Spanish). It was also the first time I’d gone to visit my relatives, instead of seeing them when they came here to visit.
And it was super cool.
My relatives live in Chengdu, which is in the Sichuan province. The Sichuan province (“si” means “four” and “chuan” means “river”) borders Tibet, and a lot of Tibetan people live in the mountains of that province, as well as in the cities. It’s an area known for its spicy food, and Chengdu is known for being very hot and humid. And probably other things. But that humidity is pretty darn hard to ignore. 😛
For the first couple of days, I stayed in Chengdu with my relatives and processed all the newness around me.
Because everything was new. I’d made it a point before the trip not to have any expectations of what I was going to see and experience. Since I’d never been to China before and had only heard about it and seen pictures, I knew that none of the ideas in my head about it would be accurate.
Which was such a good idea.
I remember the ride from the airport to where my relatives live, seeing all the buildings, the signs, the cars. The traffic patterns.
The cars there are smaller than here in Canada, for one thing. And the shops are open at the end that faces the street (unless they’re closed, at which point it’s literal as well as figurative), which would be crazy here because of how cold it gets, but is perfect there because it lets the breeze in.
Oh, and the food is amazing. It’s the perfect amount of spicy for me, which is hard to get in Canada outside of Asian restaurants, and so, so flavourful. I returned from that trip with a lasting love for baozi (steamed pork buns, eaten for breakfast), numbing pepper (not spicy, but it makes your tongue numb for a few seconds when you chew it), and this one dish with pork and garlic shoots (which are sweet!).
Then, for about two weeks, we went into the mountains to see some Tibetan towns and villages, putting our lives in the hands of bus drivers. Seriously, they drive really fast there, and the roads along the mountains don’t even have the nice guard rails they do in Canada, so I spent most of the bus rides not looking down.
We stayed at guest houses, walked the streets, got asked by some very nervous police officers to sign a waiver written in questionable English, ate lots of in-season fruit, and enjoyed the beautiful, beautiful scenery and architecture.
I took in as many details as I possibly could. The shapes of buildings, the texture of stone, the way everything was on an incline because we were on the sides of mountains, the tell-tale signs of fields and houses way up in the mountains.
The colours are different, the mountains are different, the air is different. We were up so high, I felt like I could touch the blue curve of the sky if only I reached enough. And, fascinated as I already am with clouds, I loved how they would wrap around the mountains in mysterious, eerie perfection. The opening credits of Mulan with inked drawings in the background made a lot more sense to me after seeing that.
On the way back, we saw yaks, bought a pail of fresh yogurt, got giggly with a touch of altitude sickness, and tried to get our driver to dance to the music playing from his car as the valley spread out below us and the huge, huge sky.
We hung out in Chengdu during the last days of my visit, where I got to fulfill my second goal of the trip: buying an erhu! It’s a musical instrument, also known as the Chinese violin, known for its beautiful, emotional sound. If you’ve seen the first of the new Star Trek movies, then you’ve heard it in the music that related to Vulcan.
I also (finally) learned more Mandarin than just ni hao (hello) and xie xie (thank you), and I also learned some Amdo (a Tibetan language), all from the same teacher. She didn’t speak much English, which made our lessons interesting, to say the least, but we had a lot of fun and I really did learn quite a bit.
After that, it was time to head home.
And home was beautiful, too.
Many thanks to Thea for her guest post!