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An ocean away: Guilin, Yangshuo

Ever since my mother adopted me in China, it had been her dream that one day we would travel back together. Last summer, that dream became a reality. 

For two weeks we toured the country. Not only was I able to share the trip with my mom but also with some of my closest friends. I have kept in touch with several of the girls whom I was adopted with, and we meet every two years for a reunion. This past year, we got to reunite with our birth country. During our first stop, Beijing, we hiked the Forbidden City and the Great Wall. I think I walked more steps in those two locations than I did for the rest of the trip. Though they were the most physically draining, that only meant the following cities would be much calmer. 

From Beijing, we flew to Chengdu, famous for its pandas, spicy food and opera. We experienced all of them and more. Our stay was short, and before I knew it, I was already in another city: Xi’an. There, we biked on top of the city wall and visited the Terracotta Warriors. After that, our time in China was half over. We saw and did a lot, but there was still so much left in store. Next, we were off to Guilin.

We landed at the airport around 9 p.m., not making it to our hotel until well past 10 p.m. We only stayed for one night, so it was useless to unpack. We weren’t planning on doing any activities in the city; it was merely a pit stop. Guilin is located on the Li River, and just 40 miles south is the town of Yangshuo. Both places are common vacation destinations; river cruises between the two are popular, so that’s exactly what we did. 

We were some of the first people on the boat, boarding at 8 a.m. We snagged a table next to a large window to enjoy the scenery. On the second floor, there was an open deck to walk out on for a full view of the scenery. Then up a flight of stairs was a smaller top deck that gave a 360-degree view. There was almost never a time when it weren’t crowded. The river wove through the Karst Mountains, which were unlike any I have seen. They weren’t wide with a pointed peak, but instead, the bases were narrow and rounded at the top, with greenery growing all over them. I spent much of my time outside trying to take mental pictures of what it looked like, smelled like, sounded like and felt like. 

I wanted to remember everything.

During the middle part of the ride, we were eating lunch at our table when I noticed a swarm of people coming inside. I overheard a man mention it was starting to rain. I looked to my friends eagerly; however, most of them did not share the same excitement. I asked if anyone wanted to go up with me; two of them agreed. I tried to convince the others, but they thought the three of us were insane. 

We went to the lower deck, and what we hadn’t realized was that it wasn’t just raining: it was pouring. I looked back at them, with “Are you sure?” written on my face, but they were ready. We went out. There was one person who was still there, but he was already headed inside. We climbed the slippery steps to the top. The deck that was once crowded was now all ours. After a few seconds, we were soaking, so we figured there was no point in trying to keep dry. We stayed out until the rain let up, slipping and sliding, dancing and laughing. We were completely drenched and didn’t have any extra clothes, but we didn’t care. 

The sun came out soon after, allowing us to air dry before docking. When we got off, we were but a bit damp, which was still better than looking like we had fallen overboard. The dock wasn’t much of a dock but instead a skinny cobblestone path that I kept losing my balance on. At least five other boats were also unloading, which made it even more challenging. It was difficult not to get lost in the sea of people on the way to the shuttles that would take us to our hotel. 

Population of Chinese cities

Beijing: 20.5 million
Chengdu: 9 million
Xi'an: 8 million

The ride was 10 minutes, but just in that brief period of time, I could sense the town was small. Our guide told us that the population is only 300,000, which, compared to Beijing, or even Chengdu and Xi’an, was minuscule. It would be like comparing the population of Missouri (six million) with the population of the entire continent of South America (430 million). There weren’t many locals because it was a resort town, but the herds of tourists made up for the lack of crowds.  

My socks were still squishing in my shoes when we arrived at the hotel, but for the most part, the rest of me was dry. Thankfully, I had a couple of hours to get settled in and cleaned up before the next item on the itinerary. 

Late in the afternoon, there was a cooking lesson scheduled for the kids, while the parents had downtime to shop. The restaurant where our lesson took place was a short walk from our hotel. It was on a pedestrian street nestled among other eateries and boutiques. We went up to a room off of the kitchen to make our meal. There were two lines of woks and burners set up, along with all of the ingredients that we would need. At each of our work stations were bright orange aprons and striped paper hats that made us look like we worked at In-N-Out Burger. They were embarrassing to wear at first, with all of our parents taking pictures, but the look grew on me.

Unfortunately, putting on the hat and apron was about all I could do correctly that afternoon. I tried to follow the chef to the best of my abilities but she was zipping through the demonstrations. When I finally completed one step she’d be finished with the dish. I would look around the room to see if anyone else was struggling, but for the most part, it was just me. It didn’t help that my friends and I distracted each other, except they had the ability to multitask while I would become completely confused. I have blocked out most of that experience in my head because I went into overdrive, running solely on stress. One thing I can remember, however, is how incredibly hot it was in the room. After heating up 20 woks in one room with only one door and one window, it felt like a sauna. I wasn’t just a frantic mess; I was a sweaty frantic mess. Surprisingly, my food tasted good at least that’s what my mom said, but I don’t fully believe her. 

After feeding our families, we had the chance to roam around the street. There were all sorts of different shops lining the streets: food vendors selling octopus and mealworms, gift shops with knick-knack souvenirs, craft stands displaying handmade pottery and calligraphy and so many more interesting stores. Everyone left the restaurant in small groups at different times, breaking off, each finding their own way to the hotel. 

I left with several others, but then one of my friends and I strayed from the group. As we wandered, somewhere along the way we took a wrong turn. We didn’t recognize anything around us anymore, and for a good 10 minutes, we were completely lost. Luckily, we spotted some people we knew and followed them all the way back to the hotel. 

At that point, I was ready to pass out from our eventful day, but it wasn’t quite over yet. That night we attended Impression Liu Sanjie, a show performed on the Li River with the Karst mountains in the background. It integrated lights, music, dancing, acting and more than 600 performers to tell a story. Zhang Yimou choreographed the show. He is best known for directing the opening ceremony to the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. I thought there would just be a single stage on the water, but I was greatly mistaken. Each person moved around on a small bamboo raft, creating the illusion that he/she were walking on water. There were animals incorporated into the show, like oxen and cows that would walk on sturdy platforms floating on the water. Massive props, like a crescent moon that rocked back and forth, helped bring the show to life. The most impressive aspect to me, however, was when enormous, powerful spotlights lit up the mountains, fully illuminated them. The production was a jaw-dropping experience that I am still unable to fully put into words. 

There was something about Yangshuo that intrigued me, maybe it was the people, or the scenery or the ambiance of it all; I don’t know. What I did know was that I didn’t want to leave. I had only spent a day in the town, and I knew that there was more to discover. The scenery alone could have kept me for another week. Compared to the rest of China that I saw, the mountains reflecting off of the river was by far the most stunning.  

The next day we returned to Guilin by a far less attractive mode of transportation: bus. After checking back into the hotel, we had the entire afternoon to ourselves. For the first time of the entire trip, we had true free time. Before, we would get to go off on our own in a designated location, but now, there was no schedule. We didn’t have to be in a certain spot at a certain time; we could go wherever and do whatever. Most of us girls decided to take a much-needed lounge by the pool, although once we were sitting poolside, we couldn’t resist getting in. 

That evening, for dinner, we traded swimsuits for dress clothes. It was the final night of the main cultural tour. After that, families would be going their separate ways to visit their own birth cities. Our travel group of 15 families would dwindle to five. We ate in one of the hotel’s ballrooms. After the meal, our guides organized a talent show where anyone could show off his/her skills. There was a stage at the far end of the room with microphones and speakers. Once one person got up, it wasn’t hard to get volunteers. There were people who sang, some better than others; one of my friends did one of her kung fu routines and others told dad jokes. It gave us one last fun, entertaining opportunity to bond before parting ways.

It was hard to say goodbye, much harder than I thought it would be. Though I was on this trip with friends that I already knew, I also made new friends with the girls from the other families on the tour. We all became incredibly well acquainted with one another in the short week and a half together since we were around each other so often. As our dinner and a show was concluding, everyone was scrambling around making sure to say goodbye to every single person. There was hugging, laughter, pictures lots and lots of pictures. None of us could believe it was already the end. 

Even though our group was parting ways, my time in China wasn’t quite over yet. A few of my friends and I went on an extension from the group tour, which allowed us to visit our birth city: Yangchun. As sad as it was to leave my new friends, for me, the best part of the trip was yet to come.

Who would you be willing to dance through a rainstorm with? Let us know in the comments below.

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