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欢迎来云南!Welcome to Yunnan! Part 1!

By Meili Burns

The Beijing Center takes students on a two-week excursion every semester. In the fall, students travel the route of the Silk Road; in the spring, students travel around the Yunnan Province. Yunnan means “south of the clouds” and its weather is known as being eternal spring. It’s the furthest province south in China, bordering Myanmar and Burma. I’ll be writing about my day to day experiences and perceptions of China for the next two weeks of my excursion travels.

Day 1- Feb 1- Beijing to Kunming

We left Beijing and headed to the airport around 9:30 AM by bus. Driving in the big yellow bus reminded me of when I first came to UIBE. It was like I was seeing Beijing in a whole new light, literally. Since it was daytime I was able to really see life outside of UIBE on a typical weekday morning.

While waiting for the plane, I was able to have a long conversation with our director, Nick, and Dr. Paul who joined us on our excursion and would help if any medical issues arose. It was interesting to listen to Dr. Paul’s story, and it was fun sharing my own story and answering questions.

After a 3.5 hour flight we prepared to land; we couldn’t see anything out of the windows due to the dense fog that blanketed Kunming. Then, all of a sudden, the runway appeared outside our window and the tires screeched upon hitting the pavement. After leaving the plane, we quickly discovered that Kunming was sadly not eternal spring. It had gotten a cold front just before we arrived, so that put a damper on the hope for warm weather, and a slight concern for me since I didn’t pack a lot of winter thermals with me.

For the next two nights, we stayed in a hotel on the campus of Yunnan University. The shower was amazing! Great pressure, and the best part was that the heat was adjustable! It was a luxury that I definitely miss from home. At UIBE you can’t adjust the heat, so it’s either extremely hot, cold, or in the middle.

Day 2- Feb 2- Kunming

Today we started off the day with breakfast, but some of us couldn’t find the restaurant we were supposed to go to, so we just found a baozi (they’re buns filled with meat) restaurant. Afterwards, Dominic (a fellow TBC student) and I walked around the outside of campus for a long time. However, we had gotten the start time of the next activity wrong and ended up running back to the hotel. Since I haven’t been able to run on my own since I left Chicago, I’m definitely out of shape, but also adding to my windedness was the smog during the day.

After some student presentations the group left for the Yunnan Provincial Museum. It was a great museum, but it was so cold. Since it’s almost always eternal spring, there is no insulation and all doors are open, so for this unexpectedly cold spell, it was very cold to walk around. Afterwards we went to Guandu Old Town to have lunch and explore. It was a huge market street lined with vendors, vendors galore! For lunch we had yummy traditional Kunming noodle soup. I then purchased a really cool sugar animal. The vendor took some sort of melted sugar, and poured it onto what looked like a block of ice in intricate patterns of all sorts of animals. You name it, he made it. I got a beautiful crane for only 5 kuai (less than $1)! It was my favorite part of the market.

We then got back on the bus and went to the Yunnan Ethnic Museum. We tried buying simple embroidered shirts, but they were 5,000 kuai (almost $800)! After the museum, we went to feed Siberian seagulls at the Green Lake, which is the largest lake in Kunming. There were thousands of seagulls! They fly all the way from Siberia to Kunming for the spring weather. It was fun to feed them, and to watch people’s reactions to flocks of birds flying towards them. A few TBC students even got pooped on!

Once we were back to the hotel, a few of us walked through the Yunnan University campus. It’s beautiful! There were gardens everywhere, mini pagodas, and traditional Chinese buildings. It put the beauty of Loyola Chicago’s campus to shame.

After wandering the street vendors and getting more food, we prepared for our first homestay at the Yi village.

Day 3- Feb 3- Kunming/Yi Village

We packed up and left Kunming for the Yi village in the morning. I was so excited, but didn’t know what to expect. This was our first homestay out of two. The bus ride was unexpectedly beautiful! I’m used to doing 4.5-hour car rides, but that’s all flat land. In China, it’s all breathtaking mountain, lake, and village views. After a few hours of our crazy driver speeding around curves of the mountain we reached the Yi village. We were greeted by the Yi women and children dressed in their traditional clothing. The women were dressed in beautiful red tops completely embroidered with tassels and matching black embroidered pants. They wore red shoes and a beautiful large intricately embroidered hat. They sang a traditional song and preformed a dragon dance.

We were then paired with our homestay families. I was with Carlyn, Megan, Molly, Jessie, and Jessica. We were brought into their beautiful traditional house with a large “hole” in the ceiling which allows sunlight to come in and air to flow out. This is traditional architecture of the Yi people because they live in spring weather all the time. We were served delicious food, but there was too much of it! Our host grandma continuously fed us and got mad when we didn’t finish the food. I basically ended up eating five full meals for lunch. Halfway through lunch, I had to go to the bathroom since we hadn’t gone since our last rest stop on the bus. Something that definitely caught me off guard was the toilet. I was expecting a squatty potty, but their bathroom was a giant latrine with two sets of bricks to stand on. Let’s just say that I am no longer squatty shy.

After lunch, the Yi people preformed more songs and dances, and we were given the opportunity to learn the traditional dance and the dragon dance. Surprisingly, it was easy to pick up and I was pretty good at it! The dragon dance was a little hard to do since the dragon was heavy, but it was fun! The leader holding the head faces the rest of the train, then moves the head in an infinity pattern, and after the person follows the path two seconds later.

After dinner we climbed a small mountain that overlooked the Yi village. It was a beautiful view!

Even though many people complained about the homestay, I loved it! I loved the grandparents, even though the grandma kept feeding us. She was so open and welcoming. She taught us how to properly do certain things, even though she barely knew us, and she treated us like her own children. It helped that I went in with an open mind, but I also respect that this is how the Yi people live. They have equally as fulfilling lives as we do, even though they don’t have the same luxuries and technology we have. After this homestay, it was very easy to separate the two types of people who study abroad; the ones who study abroad to party and live comfortably, and the ones who fully immerse themselves into the culture to experience it firsthand.

Day 4- Feb 4- JianShui

The next day we had breakfast with our host families, said our goodbyes, shopped around, and left the Yi village headed to the city of JianShui. It was another four hours of traveling in our squished yellow buses, but I didn’t mind the traveling. Besides sleeping, I often found myself staring out of the window looking at the endless mountains, crops, and village views. I would journal, but I often found myself lost in thought about the Yi village and my expectations for the rest of my trip. The Yi village gave me mixed emotions. I loved learning about the traditional culture of the village, but I didn’t like that everything was a show. The whole day was about performances both by TBC and the villagers. We weren’t given a lot of time to explore the village, or even our own host family’s home. What bothered me what that the host family wouldn’t eat with us. The six of us would eat crouched over a small wooden table, while the host family was nowhere to be found. I understand the importance of the concept of holding guests higher than oneself and saving face by giving guests the best accommodations possible, but I still can’t get over the reasoning behind not eating together.

After arriving and checking into our hotel in JianShui, I was able to take a warm-ish shower, then wander around the city. Many cities in China are not based on a grid system, so I was constantly getting lost. A lot of students got really sick after the Yi village, a handful of students and even our TBC director and the doctor had to stay behind and not go to our next destination, the Hani village.

Day 5- Feb 5- Hani Village

Noodle soup is now one of my favorite types of meals to have in China! Noodle soup is typically served for breakfast, but I could honestly eat if for every meal. Whatever mixture of vegetables, leaves, and meat put into the broth creates a heavenly taste when combined with noodles. After breakfast and getting lost trying to find my way back to the hotel, we checked out and started our five-hour bus ride to the Hani village. To get to the village, we have to climb the mountain taking twists, turns, and almost falling off the edge a few times. I would recommend to never try and pass vehicles on mountain roads, especially in a big yellow bus. We were all relieved to arrive at the village unscathed and only slightly scarred from our bus driver’s crazy driving.

Immediately after stepping off the bus, I noticed big differences between the Hani and Yi villages. The Hani people live in houses primarily made of clay and stone, usually with thatched roofs. The Hani village was much more dirty than the Yi village. I will spare the details of the bathrooms, but let’s just say I would take my host family’s bathroom over the Hani bathrooms.

We were greeted by three groups of women: young girls, young adults, and a group of grandmas (see a recurring theme here?), all with different traditional clothing. The elders wore white tops embroidered with black, purple, and blue with matching black pants. The younger adults wore pink embroidered tops with green pants and intricate hats that looked like black donuts. It was a type of tightly wrapped black headpiece with a hole in the middle where a braided bun filled in the gaps. The young girls wore multicolored outfits with small pieces of jewelry or coins sewn into it making a jingling sound. The young girls’ hats were very intricate and unique as well. It only covered the back half of the head, and it spiked upwards with their ponytails holding it in place.

A banquet was waiting for us when we finished trekking through the village. Circular tables were pushed together in a straight row called a long-street banquet. We were fed meat, spicy vegetables, red rice, undistinguishable dishes, mango juice, and a select few had bai jiu (a common drink found in China that is an extremely concentrated alcoholic shot. Be careful if it’s ever offered to you.

After lunch, the young girls lead us to hike the rice terraces. This was the part everyone was excited for! We wanted to see the beauty of the terraces and be true tourists and take tons of pictures. As we started hiking it was clear that, like the village, everything was covered by fog, and the fog was not going to lift. This is the first time in 10 years of the TBC program running that it had been that foggy. However, I flipped by switch (thanks mom J) and enjoyed my hike through the terraces. It was mind boggling how big a single rice terrace was. We even saw a group of villagers carving out room for another terrace. Something sad that I saw, was that there was garbage everywhere. Water bottles, wrappers, tissues, everything was just thrown on the ground, and will probably never be cleaned up.

Walking uphill through the terraces and back to the village gave me a new appreciation for daily life in the villages, particularly for the elders. All the elderly I have encountered have been super strong, mobile, and the heads of their households. In the Yi village, our host grandma did everything, from cooking, to bringing out the food, moving tables, all while refusing help. In the Hani village, there were elders walking uphill with loads of grains in baskets on their shoulders, and they didn’t even look tired. In Beijing, the elders are the ones we see who are taking care of the young children. It’s just amazing how crucial they are in society for both the family and their village.

After a long and slightly disappointing day we looked forward to getting to our hotel and taking showers and relaxing; however, that didn’t happen. One thing that is the hardest thing to accept about travel, is that not everything will go the way you plan. Our hotel didn’t have any running water and was the type of hotel a normal traveler would not go to. For those of you who know of my travels to Wuhu, it was like that hotel but much less clean and accommodating. In the end, I ended up having a sleepover with two of my friends, Megan and Silvia for the night. My roommate sadly had to stay in JianShui because she was sick. We ended up watching a movie and kept warm with all the body heat (there was also no heater in the hotel).

Day 6- Feb 6- JingHong

This was one our long boring parts of the trip. It was an eight-hour bus ride from the Hani Village to the city of JingHong. We were headed to the Southernmost tip of China. One of the highlights of the bus ride was when we stopped along the roadside with tons and tons of fruit stands! Apples, oranges, dragon fruit, star fruit, and bananas galore!! The closer we were to JingHong, the more abundant bananas were.

After our long journey and catching up with all the TBC members who skipped the Hani village, we checked into our hotel. When we walked in, I was so relieved. It was a beautiful hotel with heat, water, and the most comfortable bed I have slept on since being in China. After coming out of the shower, my words to my roommate, Bailey, was “I think I died, went to heaven, and came back”. The hot water (which was adjustable) was a luxury after the past 3 days. Even the dorms at UIBE don’t have adjustable water temperatures!

That night a group of us went to a popular western café called MeiMei Café. I thought the food was pretty good, I had a burger, fries, fresh squeezed lemonade, and fantastic chocolate brownie with ice cream. Afterwards we went to the midnight market and looked around and shopped. The market was vendors on vendors with trinkets, scarves, clothes, bags, jade, you name it! Too bad we only spent one night in that amazing hotel. The next day we were on our way to our final homestay in the Dai village.

That about sums of the first half of the amazing excursion. Keep on the lookout for part 2! 再见!