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Busy in the City and a Weekend Away

The past month and a half has swept by for Bridge Year China. As more and more of the trees lining Kunming’s streets have lit up with the oranges, reds, and yellows of their autumn canopies, we have developed fast bonds with our host families and continued to strengthen our Mandarin with the help of our enthusiastic teachers at Kunming University of Science and Technology.

We have also devoted a significant amount of effort to finding our footing at our service placements. Between the eight of us at our eleven different NGOs, we assist with tasks as disparate as translating dense environmental policy documents into English, documenting the medical information of children born with cleft lips and palates before they undergo life-changing surgeries, aiding victims of sex trafficking as they practice jewelry-making and other skills that will allow them to live independently, working alongside and facilitating workshops for adults with mental disabilities, and providing the children of rural immigrants a stable supportive presence as they adjust to their new lives in Kunming.

Another focus of ours throughout the month of November has been to learn more about our first focus of inquiry (FOI) topic: the complex interaction China has with the environment. (Each month will be dedicated to a different FOI.) For our environment FOI, we toured the world’s second largest seed bank on the outskirts of Kunming; researched and discussed the social, environmental, and economic ramifications of China’s massive hydroelectric dams; and reflected on how individual habits and national policies can reduce the harmful impact humans have on the global ecosystem.

All this activity has at times left us dizzy; while we’ve relished the challenges of our first month fully settled into Kunming, we were also ready to pause for a moment and have a breather — and, thankfully, we got to do just that on our first (mostly) self-directed excursion out of the city this weekend.

This month, as in every month going forward, we had one weekend away from Kunming to take a break from the hustle and bustle of urban life, as well as to practice planning excursions in preparation for our completely self-directed month of travel in May. In keeping with November’s FOI, we took on the additional challenge of going zero waste for the weekend, i.e., not purchasing anything with parts that cannot be composted or recycled after use.

We departed early the morning of Saturday the 24th, taking a train to the city of Jianshui (建水县) about two hundred kilometers away from Kunming. Jianshui was established in 810 CE, during the Tang dynasty; the city is notable for its historic role as a trading post between Kunming and regions to the south, and for its eclectic mix of Confucianist and Islamic traditions, a result of Muslim governors who ruled in the Yuan dynasty. Our stop was in the city was brief, but we had the chance to eat two of the local specialty foods as part of lunch: qiguoji (汽锅鸡), a chicken soup steamed in a clay pot, and caoya (草芽), a tender water tuber that can be grown year-round.

Our next and final stop was the Hanyi village of Azheke (阿者科) in Yuangyang County (元阳县), which is famed worldover for its beautiful rice terraces. After taking a bus out of Jianshui and transferring to mianbaoches in the evening, we arrived in Azheke where, under the pale glow of a strikingly beautiful moon, we were greeted by a swarm of children along with Echo, the owner of the village house turned guest house that we would stay in for the weekend. Construction projects shrouded in darkness stood to either side of us on our way down the stone path to the guest house. Ducking under the low door to the building’s first floor room, which according to Echo had traditionally housed cattle, we were met by a long row of delicious dinner dishes already waiting for us. We checked in and made plans for the next day as we ate, and some of us settled for the night into beds warmed by electric blankets immediately thereafter; the rest of us wandered onto the rice terraces, which under the moon’s light looked like giant sheets of ice, and spent hours watching a sea of fog rise and fall in the valley below.

The next morning, a few of us got up to see the sunrise but were disappointed to find fog clouding the rice terraces and the surrounding mountains, leaving the sun hidden from view. And yet, we were nonetheless mesmerized watching the early morning village activity — villagers with construction materials and crops on their backs came and went, ducks swam by in the terrace pools, and dogs ran past on the paths weaving through the rice paddies. And then, when the fog cleared later in the morning, the sights before us took our breath away. Incredibly clear blues rippled in the waters of the paddies, reflecting the skies above us, and the warm rays of the sun left the world golden. As Michal remarked later in the day, the view was so beautiful that it could bring a person to tears.

We reluctantly peeled our eyes away from the amazing display and returned to the guest house to eat a hearty breakfast, and then we spent the next hour preparing activities to teach English to some of the children from the village. The kids met us at the guest house and led us down to a viewing platform overlooking the rice terraces; the rest of our morning was filled with dancing and singing, piggyback rides, and wide smiles on our part. The kids even taught us some Hanyi words for fruit based on one of the activities we had organized for them.

After lunch at the guest house, we headed back out to the rice terraces. This time, led by Echo and some of the village kids, we hiked our way down rocky paths to discover yet more transfixing views, and we stopped all along the way to climb over and onto boulder formations to admire the swathes of reds, blues, and greens stretching into the valley before us. We made our ascent back towards the main village with the sun setting behind the mountains, and the light it cast on us made us feel that we were being kissed by mother nature. Although we have become enamored of the city of Kunming, moments like these are hard not to miss.

On Monday morning, after a late night together watching the movie Princess Mononoke, the group began the trip home to Kunming. A long day of travel in which we encountered and overcame numerous transportation challenges eventually returned us to the city, and we were thrown right back into the fast pace of life upon arrival at Kunming Railway Station, where bright lights and loud chatter were inescapable, permeating the fabric of the night. For this one weekend, Azheke village in Yuanyang provided us with a break from life in the city, and now, we are back to class and work.