Nicole, Jesse, Wu and Zhong met us early in the morning at the long distance bus station called Zongzhimen. It was our first time truly navigating the city on our own, so one of our colleagues wrote on a business card how to get to a nearby subway station so we could navigate from there. We left with just over an hour to get there, unsure of how bad the traffic and subway system would be. The ride to the bus station only took 30 minutes so we swinged into the McDonalds so Lauren could get a caffeine fix. I was feeling awake, so decided to just sit and listen to the same Chinese song (or maybe it was an advertisement) play over and over again inside the McDonalds. We slowly made our way to the bus line, and believe me it was a line - I've never seen that many people packed so closely together waiting for a bus. It's as if the Chinese have very little concept of personal space. They pack in the subways (which I can understand) but even if they are waiting in line, they act as if they think that by slamming in close together and touching the person in front of them that somehow it will make the bus or whatever they are waiting for come sooner or something.
It was kind of stormy the morning we left for Miyun County. But after riding the 80 km outside of Beijing, the air was cleaner and the sky was blue. We got lucky for sure. Nicole had planned every aspect of the weekend and written a detailed itenerary, which I appreciated because I find it nice to at least have some sort of initial game plan. After getting off the bus, she was approached by a van driver who uttered something in Chinese to her. Before I knew it we were piled into this little van and driving in what I thought was the direction of the restaurant where we were supposed to have lunch. During the van ride, Nicole and the driver seemed to have a heated discussion or debate about soemthing. Of course, the entire conversation was in Chinese, but by body language and voice levels, I assumed neither party was entirely happy with the other. Only later did Nicole tell us that the driver essentially refused to take us to the restaurant we asked to go to, but instead "recommended" a different one and drove us there. All ended well though, the food at lunch was excellent, but I'm convinced the driver must make commission from the owner there. For lunch we had hot tea, whole fish from the nearby reservoir, a soup with tofu, fried shrimp (i did not eat these), fish tail, pancakes and some sort of bitter green vegetable. Honestly, as someone who doesn't eat a lot of fish to begin with the idea of putting a giant fish (or half fish, as the case was... we got the head) on a plate whole and digging in with chopsticks kind of revolted me. But I was pleasantly surprised, the fish was DELICIOUS, and I left the meal completely stuffed. To go to the bathroom after our meal involved walking through the back of the restaurant and outside. I'm so glad I did this after our meal, because we looked into the kitchens and storage rooms and they were filthy. They would not pass health inspection standards in the US.
Once we'd all filled our stomachs and picked some unripe apricots (they were sour ,but interesting to try) from the nearby tree, the driver drove us to the Reservoir. Here's the thing about the reservoir. It's beautiful. The water is clean and blue, it reflects the images of the mountains and trees along its shores and stands in stark contrast to the smog and business of Beijing. The reservoir also provides all the potable water for Beijing, and a couple other nearby cities. Because of this, the Chinese are incredibly protective of the water and terrified that someone might poison it if they get too close. I can understand not wanting people to swim in the water, or urinate in it or anything, but they don't even want you within throwing distance of the shores. Naturally, our group wanted to get close to the water to take pictures because it was a beautiful place and we wanted evidence of the memories we were making. We had to pay 10 yuan to a woman running a fruit stand to let us in to the gate to the reservoir park area, I'm convinced she's paying off the police in the area. We were told to walk along the paths and if the Waterway Patrol ask you, say you are picking fruit. Sure enough about 2 minutes into the walk we were stopped. We told them the story, but they said to go back. Instead we walked into the garden and because apparently the male police said we could go down but the women were not as friendly. Eventually we made our way nearer to the water where the police hollered at our friends again saying "we told you to go back up." Even with the tense encounters with the police, the views were worth it.
After our hike to the Reservoir, we waited on the side of the road for the Hostel owner to come pick us up. We bought some apricots from the fruit stand for very cheap, and they were so delicious. Even though we'd only spent a little bit of time together, I can already tell some big differences in our four Chinese friends.
Nicole: Her Chinese name is He Junqing. She is 20 and is almost finished with her first year at CUC. She's got strong features and short black hair. Her laugh is infectious, and she desperately wants to make sure everyone around her has a good time. She meticulously planned our weekend, and confessed she had lost sleep worrying that the trip would not be as fun as it ended up being.
Jessie: Jessie's Chinese name is Chen Wenjie. She is 19 years old and one of the most beautiful young women I've seen here so far. She's got these big eyes and soft features. She's soft spoken, but kind and generous. She invited me to her hometown of Guanxi after her school lets out in late July, and I'm really considering taking her up on it and going.
Zhong Yinyan is a 20 year old freshman. She's somewhat reserved, but has a beautiful smile and is very easy going. She doesn't have an English name, but is very interested in asking questions about America and getting to know us as people. I very much enjoyed my time getting to know her.
Wu Xujun is very quiet. She almost seemed disengaged or disinterested, as if something was weighing on her heavily. She's kind-hearted and seems painfully shy. I honestly didn't get much of a chance to get to know her because she always was wondering off away from the group and had headphones in when we were together.
The hostel we stayed at was a family-run hostel. We had two rooms, one of which slept 4-5 people on one large bed called a Kang. They are traditionally found in the north of China, and during the winter fires are lit underneath them to warm the bed platform from below. The hostel was relatively clean, the people were friendly, but the bed was very hard. One woman was making Zongzi, a traditional food eaten during the Dragon Boat festival. It was neat to see it being prepared by hand.
Our dinner that night was interesting, and very good. We ate tomatoes with sugar, wild greens, small reservoir fish, shrimp, veggie and tofu soup, Chicken in some sort of brown sauce, bell peppers with pork, and eggplant. The food was really good, and by the end I was stuffed. The food might sound good, and simple enough, but let me tell you - it wasn't. The fish were whole, and eating them required not only finding the meat but sucking the meat off the bones before spitting the bone onto the table. It's really an attractive way to eat. The chicken, too is served whole. It's as if they took a giant knife to the chicken, chopped it up and threw it in the bowl. Lauren reached into the bowl and pulled out a chicken claw... after much prodding she decided to go for it and gave it a taste. She said it "tasted like chicken," but that there really wasn't much meat. When I reached in, I came up with the chicken head. There was NO way that it was going in my mouth, and our Chinese friends said they didn't eat it either, so we threw it to the puppy. It was hard to know exactly which piece of meat you were getting, and you always had to suck it off the bone. It tasted good, but was an experience for sure. I was so exhausted by the end of the day after walking around the reservoir, the village and all the travel that I fell fast asleep pretty early.
The next morning we woke up to begin our day of hiking. We went to a Chinese National Tourist attraction called Black Dragon Pond. I figured that getting there at 10:30 in the morning would help us beat some of the heat, but I was mistaken. Who ever said the suburbs weren't as hot must have been crazy, because I found the park to be very hot. We walked along a path in a gorge for about 20 minutes before the "hiking" set in. I use the quotes because the entire way was paved with stones, but in some of the areas we were climbing pretty steep staircases up to different pools and waterfalls. These waterfalls must have been beautiful before the climate of the region shifted and became much drier. I was underwhelmed by the water, but let me tell you how beautiful the views were. I can't even count the number of times I said, "wow, this is breathtaking," to Lauren. And it was. Towering mountains with yellow-colored rock cliffs surrounded us. Green trees filled out the mountains and the valleys, and contrasted with the pure blue of the sky, it was really magnificent. I had thought I'd have to travel so much further than just an hour outside of the city to find such beauty.
We ate watermelon and cucumbers for lunch while inside the park, and the meal was light, filling and utterly refreshing. After lunch we made our way out of the park and began the trek home. We all were exhausted but I know the memories and new friends I made this weekend will stay with me for a long time. I'm so thankful Nicole and Jessie invited "the Laurens" to join them on their mini holiday.