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Photo by Sampor Burke, Mekong Semester.

Week Three in Review (Goodbye China)

October has come and we have finished our stay in China. Over the past week we have spent time in major cities and on majorly long bus rides. We have become more vulnerable with one another, felt more comfortable exploring areas we do not know, and mastered the use of chopsticks.

As we arrived in Dali, so did hundreds of Chinese tourists, as it was the national holiday, Golden Week. October 1st marked National Day, and patriotism was rampant; as we descended from the Tibetan Plateau to Dali, we saw thousands of Chinese flags flying from rooftops, shops, cars, and fields. As it comes with most holiday weekends, folks were enjoying their vacations in rented jeeps and convertibles, in busy shopping centers, and at town squares watching song and dance performances. In Xizhou, a village outside of Dali, we had the chance to participate in traditional dances from the hillsides and listen to the music of that region.

One particular highlight in Dali was having the chance to cook dinner at Gong’s house. Ben and Annika joined some of the instructors for an afternoon at the market finding ingredients and then went to Gong’s home to prepare a meal for the whole group. The rest of the students found their way by bus to meet the group at dusk. We set up a dining space in the shell of Gong’s beautiful home of hand-hewn logs, and watched the sunset over a magnificent spread.

From Dali we took the bullet train to Kunming, Yunnan’s capital city. The ride was smooth, and we traveled at speeds of up to 197 km/hour, passing through countrysides that morphed into suburbs. Our time in Kunming was short, but it was long-enough to eat gelato, visit Green Lake Park, go to the cinema, and read many folktales from Yunnan. At the movies we watched the recently released film “Me and My Country,” which focuses on China’s recent history through the eyes of seven different characters and their experiences and triumphs during many of China’s milestone moments. It is highly nationalistic and an interesting perspective to gain as visitors.

A bus took us to Jinghong, a newly expanding city that flanks the bank of the Mekong. Our day in Jinghong was spent tea tasting and visiting a tea factory. We had the opportunity to sample tea from trees that were over a hundred years old and to learn about the processing methods. The renowned pu’er tea comes from Yunnan Province and we had the chance to try it in its raw and fermented forms. Tea production and processing has had a boom in Yunnan within the last fifteen or so years, making it more accessible to visitors and tourists to experience a taste of the hills and mountains. Tea cakes–dried and pressed tea leaves–are used almost as investments; tea gets better with time, and tea from older trees can last for decades, adding value and flavor with age. Some of us bought tea cakes and loose leaf tea, to drink in the weeks to come, and years down the road.

Our final evening in Jinghong Mikey introduced the talking-staff ceremony. Using a walking stick that had been stripped in YuBeng and decorated by all members of our group, we passed it around to share thoughts, observations, encouragements, gratitudes, fears, and worries. We sat on a boardwalk by the Mekong and watched the sun go down and the lights of casinos and apartments flare up. We used this time to give thanks to Gong, who had spent three weeks taking us through his home country and acting as translator, mentor, teacher, and friend. It was a perfect way to round out a day–preceded by three weeks–of travel and introduction to this course.