I was not looking forward to a three-hour drive the day after my arrival in China. I was expecting the debilitating mental fog that comes along with jet lag and was terrified of making a bad impression on the family that was taking me into their home, as well as their extended family, with whom we would be traveling.
But almost immediately after heading out I was glad. I needed to get on my feet in the country I had been looking forward to two years to visiting again. Even throughout the car ride, which turned into a brutal five-hour trek with the traffic that we hit, I was quizzing my characters on the highway signs and drinking in the landscapes, from the flattened endless urban settings just outside Shanghai to the picturesque mountains rising around us as we neared our destination.
To call our first stop a cave would be an understatement. I honestly had no clue what to expect, having no way to communicate with three of the five people I was traveling with and only limited chances with the other two; all I knew is we were going to a cave. That’s it.
Walking down the steps into the touristy entrance didn’t set me up to be impressed; a set of stairs leading into a tunnel no more than six feet high and painted with stars. It felt like being swallowed. And I immediately began wishing it would hurry up and be over. And then we stepped into the real attraction at the cave -- an endless string of caverns more massive than any explanation will do justice. Lit only by colored lights, it looked like another world, as if the tiny, claustrophobic entryway led to a new dimension of colored stalagmites and rippling columns. On and on went the stone steps weaving through the colored waves of jade, eventually opening into a room with a pool, temple lit with colored lights. Around us echoed flowing verses of Chinese spoken too fast for me to actually understand but narrating a story of myth and magic. While lights danced around the inside of the cavern and indistinguishable words flitted around my ears, I had to stop and truly marvel at where I was and what had brought me here.
Our next excursion took us to a traditional Chinese village filled to the brim with activities that were apparently like a rural family-day-out kind of place with kid friendly activities and "culturally accurate" amusements. And while that description makes it sound sadly like a snore-fest even as I write it, the place was actually awesome. We started out in a little square, pulling water up from wells in buckets and giggling at the statues of animals all dressed in their ribbons and bows of new year’s finery. Next came tottering around out stilts that nobody could stay on for more than a few seconds. Making our way further we found a playground that resembled the classic idea of a military bootcamp contraption with rope bridges and gigantic thick ladders much too dangerous for any children to attempt. There were tunnels under the woods and hidden little temples, gigantic mazes made of wooden fencing and rope bridges.
After a solid night’s sleep, we continued our excursions into what TongLi had to offer. We arrived at our next venture before noon and right off the back were trekking through a forest of bamboo stalks thick as my leg. We have bamboo in Vermont. But not like this ... nothing like this. The stalks rose far above our heads, creating slices of sunlight hitting the ground in a patternless print. Carved into the stalks were unidentifiable characters, names of previous tourists, like the names of couples carved into trees at home.
Past the bamboo we entered a different kind of fairyland. An arching, weaving path of stone beside a river too blue to be real. Bridges arched and made of solid stone, or swinging bridges of wooden paneling or of woven rope netting, criss-crossed the river sending us back and forth across it. Stairs carved into the ground itself curled up the mountainside leading us to a small, restaurant nestled into the crook of mountains. With two things on the menu we ate an outdoor lunch of sticky rice with vegetables stuck into the inside of a shoot of bamboo as thick as my wrist and rich, pink watermelon slices, cut with a knife resembling a machete right at out rickety bamboo table on the porch
Originally published on Feb. 4.
Zoe Perra is a recent graduate of Brattleboro Union High School. She is taking a year off between high school and college to experience life in China. Visit her blog at oneteenagerstravels.weebly.com/blog.html.