By Julianne Keskey
I had journeyed to China to meet some of the other travel professionals attending the Pacific Asia Travel Association Adventure Travel Conference, and the welcome dinner was my first opportunity. In order to keep us all in tow for the jam-packed itinerary, we were assigned to numbered buses. We were told to meet outside of the hotel at a certain time to be shuttled to dinner and I was assigned to “The number 7 bus.” I will never forget these words that were engraved in the memories of all its passengers. The sweet volunteers and leaders of our assigned groups were diligent in keeping us herded like cattle for every occasion, and they were good at it!
Upon arrival, we were greeted by eloquent young ladies dressed in elaborate dresses with makeup as perfect as a porcelain doll, and not a hair out of place. This would become a normal site throughout my stay. I found my name card at a large, round table and began to introduce myself to the others eagerly awaiting a hot meal. I quickly realized that the Americans and Australians had been seated together… did they already know our drinking habits?
If they didn’t, they would soon find out what alcohol damage we were capable of.
At the center of each round table was a rotating glass plate. Once service started it was an hour of constant dishes being placed in the center and slowly turned for each guest to take their fill. Wine was poured in tiny glasses, comical to us English-speaking lushes. But as small as the glasses were, they were never left empty. Every table had an assigned server clutching a decanter and the eyes of a hawk standing guard to fill the void of an empty wine glass. I watched as the “dignitaries” of the conference were served by an orchestrated staff. The women who had greeted us upon arriving to the banquet room were stationed to serve the head table. I watched as they floated so beautifully with the tempo of the live violins.
After we were all stuffed to the gills with local cuisine, rice wine, welcome speeches and choreographed waiter routines, we all shuffled back onto our respectable buses and dropped off at our hotel. We were all exhausted but not too tired to have a couple of beers in the lobby bar.
The next day was a day for the business part of the trip and it was packed full of vendor meetings between buyers and sellers. I attended as a buyer for HE Travel and met with 20 different people from all over Asia. It was a wonderful opportunity to build relationships and gather information on potential places to develop tours. The meetings were 14 minutes long with 1 minute in between- just enough time to get to the next booth. During one of my meetings with a lovely lady from Thailand, I had realized that I REALLY need to use the restroom. Once I found out that the restrooms were a short walk outside of the gate of the area we were in, I began to panic. How was I going to make it to the bathroom? The next break was over an hour away and I had been doing the dance towards the end of my previous meeting. While being shown beautiful images of an organic farm in Thailand, I finally spoke up. I apologized profusely and let the woman know that I needed to excuse myself right away before I had an accident. She was surprised, but kind, and signed my sheet of paper to show that I had finished the meeting. I got up from my seat, grabbed my belongings and ran in my heels through the guarded gate and over the brick pathway to the outdoor restrooms that seemed like a lifetime away. I managed to make it there, completely out of breath but with all of my bodily fluids right where they should be. To my horror, there was a line of women waiting for a stall and it was at a complete standstill. I waited for what seemed like hours before I muttered aloud, “I can’t hold it,” covered my face with my notebook and ran into the men’s stall right next door. All I could hear as I darted into a stall were the gasps of disgusted women behind me. My reaction was a guttural chuckle to myself- I had no shame. Once I was relieved, I covered my face with my notebook again and ran out of there and didn’t stop until I made it to my next appointment, laughing all the way. You may be thinking, “Ew, gross! She didn’t even wash her hands!” Thank goodness for my need to carry hand sanitizer whenever I’m traveling.
By the end of the day I had a complete list of signatures- I was even able to stop at a couple of extra booths leaving me with a total of 22 John Hancocks. From our day of meetings, we were hauled straight to restaurant for Luoyang’s Traditional Water Banquet. The meal consisted of 26 dishes, mainly soups and steamed foods (that’s where the “water” part comes into play) and the meal was presented with just as much flair and gusto as the night before. The first dish brought to the table was a giant sesame seed cracker ball. The ceremonial dinner begins with somebody cracking the ball with a spoon. For some mysterious reason, I was chosen with this utter honor. It could have been that my eyes bulged out of my head when it arrived at the table or he squeals that echoed in my clenched mouth. But really, I have no idea. All I know is that I cracked that cracker ball like a pro! And oh, was it so delicious.
After day full of business meetings, 26 different dishes, more gut-burning rice wine and Chinese beer, we were all ready for a long night of rest. But, that wasn’t in the cards tonight. We all filed into our buses at headed to the theater for a Zen Kung-Fu performance. At this point, there wasn’t one of us who wouldn’t have rather been in the comfort of our hotel rooms but, alas- a performance it was! This became very regular in our dinner excursions. After days of jam-packed itineraries, large dinners filled our aching hungers and performances filled our souls. This Zen performance was breathtaking. Being uninformed in the art of Kung-Fu, I was unaware of how the two would fit together and I was so pleasantly surprised. The most incredible performer of them all was just a young boy, about 6 years old, who stole the hearts of the entire audience. It’s really a show you need to see with your own eyes to truly appreciate the art of it all. China is in no way void of talent. By the end of the performance, jet-lag was in full-swing and we were all ready to hit our beds and get sleep for the busy day ahead.
The fourth day was reserved for the Pacific Asia Travel Association Adventure Travel Conference. Exhaustion had set in at this point and sitting in a chair for four hours with a translation headset was grueling but well worth it. As I’m new to the Travel Industry, there were many tips to be learned. I quietly got up from my seat to use the restroom and was stopped in the hallway by my group leader. He was with the local news station and wanted to interview “American Beauty” about how I was enjoying my time in Luoyang, China. I was told exactly what to say when asked certain questions and there was a nod of approval from behind the camera when I was finished with the interview. I never saw footage of the terror I felt rush across my face knowing that this would be broadcast on their local news station but, I like to think that I had a few fan-girls commenting about how much they liked my hair and how it inspired them to be rebellious and rush to the nearest hair salon.
At lunch, a few ladies and I skipped out on the buffet and took a cab to the Old City. For some reason, this part of Luoyang was nowhere on the itinerary and we found it absolutely necessary that we explore while we had the opportunity. This happy excursion outside of the itinerary turned out to be one of my favorite parts of my trip to China. We were dropped off at a large, beautiful gate that connected two walls containing the oldest part of the city. Once inside delicious smells of freshly made candies, noodles and fried scorpions filled our noses. Wait, did I just say fried scorpions? Yes, I did. If you’re curious about what it’s like eating scorpions, don’t worry.
We continued down the cobbled streets, stopping at vendors to purchase gifts for our loved ones back home. I had to try a bowl of noodles so I dipped into a little restaurant and wolfed-down a bowl of the steaming hot broth and homemade noodles. It felt so surreal at that moment to be sitting alongside an ancient street in China eating authentic cuisine. It’s these moments that I often find myself saying “thank you” out loud, to whoever is there to hear me. Saying thank you internally just isn’t enough sometimes.
The buildings appeared to be older as we continued on our path. It was as if they had burst right out of the pages of an old, dusty book that had been pulled from the shelf of an abandoned library. A local artist brought us to the top of her studio to show us stunning paintings that were clearly out of our price range but visually enriching nonetheless.
After a couple of hours of shopping, eating and taking silent moments to appreciate this hidden gem in the city, we made our way back through the gate to the main street to find a cab back to our hotel. There was time for a quick rest and freshen up before a night of delicious food, performances and drinks at a restaurant close to the hotel. The following days were what I was looking forward to the most: excursions to famous ancient landmarks and onward to the mountains to visit the Shaolin Temple.
But, that’s for another blog.