An ocean away: Beijing

An+ocean+away%3A+Beijing

Riley Kerns

At a young age, the travel bug bit me. Anytime I was out of school on break, my grandparents would take me on road trips, showing me how much there was outside of Columbia. Recently, I have begun to broaden my horizons from domestic to international locations. Places like New Zealand, Greece, Peru and so many more I have yet to visit fascinate me, but none so much as China. I always knew that no matter what, I had to visit the country at least once.

I was born in the city of Yangchun, which is in the southern part of China, and spent the first year of my life in an orphanage. Luckily, the Chinese government matched me with an American family who traveled to China to adopt me. I don’t remember anything about my birth town since I was merely a baby, but I have always wondered about what everything was like, the people, the city and the culture, and how different my life would have been if they had not adopted me. 

My soon-to-be mother and grandmother flew from Missouri to Yangchun with a travel group, consisting of other families who were adopting from the same orphanage. By the end of the two weeks they spent in China, the group of strangers became friends. Since then, around 10 of the 16 original families meet for biennial reunions, each in a different place depending on the host family. The group is strung out over the eastern half of the United States, in Tennessee, Florida and Maine, to name a few. We have had a total of eight reunions, each lasting about seven days, and though they are never very long, it is always the best week of the year. 

For our most recent gathering this past summer, seven of our families were lucky enough to travel back and explore our birth country for two weeks. 

My mom, three other families and I were all on the same 14-hour flight from Detroit to Beijing, the first city of our tour. It was late in the afternoon when we landed, so we headed straight to our hotel to meet more of our friends, those who had arrived earlier. They were all waiting in the lobby, ready to welcome us with hugs and squeals of excitement. Everyone was smiling even though we were all exhausted, but no amount of rest would prepare us for our first, quite full day. 

Our departure time from the hotel was 8 a.m. sharp, which gave us a good 10 hours to get adjusted to the time difference. We piled onto a charter bus, with about 50 other people, and headed out to explore. First, we went to the Forbidden City, which served as the Chinese imperial palace for almost 500 years between 1420 and 1912. The architecture alone was breathtaking. Crimson red pillars supported golden-tiled, ribbed roofs topped with animal figures at the corners. Directly below the rooflines were hand-painted designs that wrap around the building. Though as a whole the architecture appeared uniform, each building within the 178 acres is unique depending on its purpose. The amount of detail and thought that went into creating the city is astonishing.

As the day went on, the temperature increased, and so did the number of tourists. Our pace began to quicken as we wove through the crowds, dodging umbrellas and selfie sticks. We were all starting to get hungry and just wanted out. 

After the one-mile-but-felt-like-500-mile hike, we were able to catch our breath on a rickshaw ride to a locals’ house for a home-cooked lunch. This gave us a more off-the-beaten-path experience rather than eating at a high end restaurant. The hosts made us feel like family, not tourists. The rickshaws were like pedicabs in New York City that you take to tour the city. The driver took us through a hutong (a narrow lane or alleyway in a residential area) where we passed by some of the residents. We ate in the dining room of the family’s home, where we experienced our first traditional Chinese family-style meal. There were about a dozen dishes on the table that we had to start stacking because they wouldn’t fit. We passed them around, serving ourselves throughout the entire mealtime, until all of the food was gone.

For the rest of the afternoon, we wandered through the hutongs, encountering the everyday activities of the locals. There were women hanging out laundry, kids jumping rope and old men watching the day go by. As we were exploring, we came across a large, manmade lake where we sat at the water’s edge. We spent quite some time there, taking in the peace and quiet and enjoying each others’ company. Eventually, we had to return to the hotel and rest up for the next day. 

For our second day in Beijing, we conquered the Great Wall. The section we visited was the Juyong Pass, one of the most famous passes of the wall. There were two options for us to hike: to the right was one long set of steep steps that continued on to the other side of the mountain, and on the left was a shorter trek that only had six towers and then ended. We had heard that the left was the harder climb, even though it didn’t look like it, so, of course, that was the direction we picked. All six of my friends, two of our moms and I started off, thinking the hike wouldn’t be that bad. We were wrong. 

After getting only to the first tower, all my friends and I were done. Our legs were already burning, we were panting like dogs and we couldn’t bare the thought of continuing any farther. The height of the steps were uneven, and the incline was like walking straight up. The seven of us wanted to quit, but, surprisingly, it was the moms who were kicking our butts. They were already about 100 meters ahead of us, yelling at us to stop being babies, as we were still trying to be able to breathe again. We couldn’t let them taunt us, so we continued on. 

Each tower acted as a “checkpoint,” and every single time we reached one, we wanted to lay down and die. We started playing music to pass the time, which made the climb a little more manageable. The first song we played was none other than “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” by Donny Osmand from the Mulan soundtrack. The lines, “I’m never gonna catch my breath. Say goodbye to those who knew me. Boy, was I a fool in school for cutting gym,” defined the entire trek for us. Listening to the song about 10 times, along with the rest of the movie soundtrack, helped to motivate us during the most intense workout of our lives.

Channeling our inner Mulan, we reached the last tower. Inside was a little gift shop where you could buy “I have climbed the Great Wall” merchandise, as well as ice cream and cold drinks to help cool off. We all decided to get souvenir medals because I don’t think any of us were planning on doing that again.

After a well-needed, and well-deserved, 20-minute rest, we began our descent. Going down was just as difficult as coming up, except this time, one misstep and gravity would take over, pulling us down multiple flights of stone stairs. To change things up, we switched from the Mulan soundtrack to the musical Hamilton. We knew we needed to be re-energized, and what better way to do that than rapping about founding father Alexander Hamilton? We sang; we danced. We laughed and we ignored the weird stares from other people. We were having the time of our lives through the simple act of ironically singing about United States history in China, and before I knew it, we were back at the entrance. 

With Beijing as our first stop, our introduction to China was less “dipping a toe in” and more “falling head first into the deep end.” Those two days were by far the most strenuous, but luckily that meant the cities we were going to visit next, (Chengdu, Xi’an, Guilin, Yangshuo, Yangchun and Guangzhou) would be much more laid back. If the rest of the trip was even half as fun or exciting as our first two days, then I knew I was in for the experience of a lifetime. Without my closest friends, however, I wouldn’t have been as comfortable or willing to do as many of the things that I did. They are the only people that I would want to share those moments with. 

We have become a giant, dysfunctional family where we all feel connected, like each others’ honorary mother or daughter or sibling. All of the parents started calling us group of girls “sisters” because, essentially, that’s what we are. We may not be related by blood, but, somehow, that has made us even closer.

Who would you want to climb the Great Wall with?  Let us know in the comments below.