By Julianne Keskey
At the beginning of April I had the pleasure of spending seven days in China. This was the first time I had ever ventured outside of the US and I was just a bit terrified. I researched and prepared myself as best I could and set out for my solo journey at the end of March. From the time I left my house, to the time I arrived at my hotel room, forty hours had passed.
Inclement weather called for a re-route to Beijing and a cozy extra four hours of waiting in the plane on the tarmac. I spent a total of 22 hours on that plane but, I was lucky and thankful to have a kind and helpful Chinese women sitting next to me. She spoke English well and was always checking to make sure I understood what was going on. She even took the time to point me in the right direction when we finally arrived in Guangzhou. Whenever I seem to be in doubt that all human kindness is dwindling, somebody pulls through. And it’s always in the most unexpected places.
After I was finished re-booking my next flight and getting my airport to hotel transfer situated, I found a restaurant and sat down for my first overseas meal. While indulging in rice and a side of delicious dragon fruit, I heard a pop and felt a bunch of tiny plastic spoons come flying onto my table from behind me.
I turned around to find a mortified waitress with her hands over her mouth. She had opened a bag of spoons and it had gone completely rogue. As always in these types of situations, I could do nothing but laugh. A wave of relief passed over her eyes and, she too, joined me in a good chuckle. Neither of us spoke the other’s language but, it didn’t matter. We spoke to each other through one of the best universal forms of communication; laughter.
After a brief scare that I had lost my luggage at my final airport destination, my bags and I found the chauffeur that would be taking us to Luoyang, a two and a half hour’s ride away. At 1:00 a.m., haggard and relieved, I stumbled into my hotel room and giggled like a kindergartner who finds their name sweetly written on a card nestled atop their desk on the first day of school.
If I hadn’t already felt like I was on a different planet, my room was adorned with glittery curtains and portal windows adorned with space-themed images hung on the walls. Ground control to Major Tom, I had arrived.
Opening the curtains to the outside world is always my first task in the morning. Outside of my hotel room windows I found a bustling city below; buildings with signs in mandarin, a park with a lovely little pond, and a viscous sky of smog.
I made my way down to the lobby and found my way over to the registration table for the conference I would be attending. I was met with wide eyes and soon found my group leader who gave me a nickname that he would refer to me as for my entire trip: American Beauty. What a confidence booster!
After registering and retrieving my welcome bag, the rest of the afternoon was free until dinner time. I had shared the car ride the night before with a lady from Bulgaria named Yoanna. We bumped into each other in the lobby after I had registered and decided to eat our complimentary lobby lunch together before checking out the International Peony Garden. The hotel staff made note that Yoanna’s birthday had been the day before. While quietly enjoying our interesting buffet meal, I noticed a small group of staff walking up behind Yoanna with a cake, candles blazing. They sang Happy Birthday and gifted her with two stuffed chickens because 2017 is the Year of the Chicken in China. We giggled, how could the two of us possibly finish this cake by ourselves? And why had she just been gifted TWO stuffed chickens? Yoanna kindly handed one to me as a gift and we dropped the precious chickens off in our rooms before beginning our journey to the Peony Gardens. Neither of us knew how to approach getting a taxi so, I pulled out my google maps (forbidden in China, thank you Verizon for your international data access plan) and found that it was only a three mile walk from our hotel. Easy enough, right? At first we were guided by normal, city sidewalks with timed street crossing signs.
Suddenly, our path began to narrow and we found ourselves on the cover of a Shel Silverstein book. Our sidewalk had literally ended. Cars, vespas and motorized pedicabs whizzed by us as we thought we would surely become roadkill on our first day. Motor vehiclists don’t seem to slow down or stop for much in China. We were greeted by what seemed to be a public park when we turned down a street and figured it best to get off the road. Inside we found a beautiful pond with no way out on the other side. Upon further inspection and a chained dog that was just inches away from enjoying a scrumptious Bulgarian/American breakfast, we took our chances and headed back to the road. A mile later we saw a Ferris wheel in the distance and it was just between us and the garden on our route. As we walked up to the amusement park entrance where the Ferris wheel lived, we were greeted by horrifying statue renditions of SpongeBob SquarePants.
The park seemed more of a setting for a post-apocalyptic movie than a place for a joyous thrill; empty rides, zero attendants at game booths and the faint laughter of children in the distance. We continued on and Yoanna quickly realized that it was early Spring and they had probably just recently opened back up for the season.
Of course there was a reasonable explanation, my mind just always seems to go to horror shows and worst case scenarios! Soon enough after crossing a rickety bridge, we found a handful of families enjoying their Saturday.
We finally made our way out of the park after crossing some barricades with signs that undoubtedly said “No Trespassing” and crossed our fingers while nervously giggling at the thought of being arrested in China.
Hours later our destination was on the horizon. We made it to the peony garden and after paying our 10 yuan (not much more than $1) entrance fee, we were in! Walking around and exploring took less time than the adventure to get there but oh, was it worth it!
Beautiful, blooming peonies, cherry blossoms floating to the ground and ornate pergolas encasing young couples holding hands. We were lucky to catch an all-woman musical performance on the way out.
That would be the first of MANY performers we would be greeted with throughout the week. On our way back it was a mutual decision to flag down a cab. After a white-knuckled ride to the hotel and only 12 yuan later, we were in the comfort of our respectable rooms with an hour to relax before a formal welcome dinner. And formal it was.
Stayed tuned for Part 2!
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