For a day and a half, our lovely group had the opportunity to live in a cloud. Settled in the Zhongnan Mountains, two hours outside of Xi’an, our spacious mountain abode served as a much-needed vacation house after a packed (absolutely incredible, informative, and thoroughly enjoyable) city experience. The weather was perfect- misty with some light rainfall and a relieving chill after some intense humidity from the days before. Luckily, we had plenty of spicy food options cooked by our hosts to raise our body temperatures in the cold.
We spent our time during our serene stay writing in journals, braiding each other’s hair (all genders included), finally having unrestricted access to the internet – which provided a chance to contact our families, splitting into our small groups for Mandarin lessons after a short hiatus, and enjoying our striking surroundings with small hikes in the area. Taking advantage of the place’s natural beauty, our walks ranged from hikes up and down slippery stone steps in the woods and inspiring scenic strolls. Between our various activities on the first day, four of us took a walk around a small lake with our instructors. As we strolled, we admired the mountains that gradually appeared as the thick wall of fog atop the lake lifted. It was absolutely beautiful. Having the lake all to ourselves was an unforgettable experience- sometimes I find myself forgetting where I am, and how special it is that I am actually in China, and on a gap year right now. We have this wonderful opportunity to travel to secluded villages in central China, studying a language that some of us began studying our first day here and one that others have studied for the past seven years of our lives. Standing on the edge of this lake, known only to the residents of the village, with not a soul other than my new friends in sight, I began to feel the weight of this year of opportunity. We rejoined the group just as the sun set with the gentle haze of the night sky cradling us. We walked over the bridge leading to our temporary home feeling joy and excitement to rejoin the group for another meal.
We enjoyed a high-energy dinner that evening as a few group members presented three different riddles during our meal. Spending at least half an hour on each one, some of us figured out the riddles immediately and looked on smugly as the rest of the group sat there racking their brains for the clever hidden answers. It was always obvious when one person had figured it out, marked with a cry of relief and followed by a frustrated look on their face when they finally realized how simple the answer was. After our pants fit more snugly around our waists and we began to fight over who would tell the next riddle, we finished our group “Life Stories” around a fire. The evening ended perfectly with each of us opening up and finally getting a glimpse of the past behind the people we will be spending the next eleven weeks with.