To Travel Is To Open Your Eyes

Light peaking over the tops of a yurt village in Inner Mongolia.

I experienced culture shock like never before in the two weeks I spent in China. However, my fear of the unknown and unfamiliar turned into an appreciation for the little things and comforts in life. And shout-out to American toilets; I missed you during those two weeks more than you know. The only upside to Chinese toilets is that I became a professional squatter. We were a group of ten high school girls who traveled from New York to the other side of the world for a Chinese cultural and language immersion. And it was an immersion for sure.

Now onto my story…

It was a beautiful, temperate, sunny day and we had hopped onto our personal travel bus in Beijing. It sat two passengers on each side but I was happy to get a row all to myself. With all the traveling we’d been doing, I could only listen to my entire iTunes playlist so many times. I was preparing myself for the five plus hour bus ride and hoping that all the unknown sights and sounds of China would provide me with some entertainment. The large windows allowed for great, unobstructed sightseeing. My classmates and I were saying goodbye to a city filled with ancient Chinese history. Beijing is home to seven UNESCO World Heritage Sites–The Forbidden City, Temple of Heaven, Summer Palace, Ming Tombs, Zhoukoudian, The Great Wall, and the Grand Canal. We were able to see many of those sites in person, resulting in brains full of ancient Chinese history. Our trip was about to take a major turn. As we drove out of Beijing, the buildings got smaller and less frequent, disappearing from our sight. We were leaving modern day life behind us (literally).

Nightfall came upon us. From what we could see through the large windows, the stars lit up the night sky. It truly took my breath away and made me realize the natural beauty of the planet. A thousand stars at home was rare, as nearby Manhattan cancels out the luminous stars due to light pollution. We had been on the bus for about 6 hours when we finally reached our destination. Our squeaky bus came to a steady halt and we were greeted by utter darkness outside. All we could see were the lampposts that dimly illuminated the yurt camp in Inner Mongolia. Yep, I said it. We had arrived at a yurt camp in Inner Mongolia for a two-day excursion. For those who don’t know, a yurt is a portable, round tent covered with skins or felt and traditionally used for nomads in the steppes of Central Asia. Yurt living is certainly a way of life that none of us had ever seen before. No technology. No running toilets, just the typical hole in the ground. As I mentioned before, this is how I became a pro squatter. Finicky electricity and water that dripped out of the faucet of our yurt “bathroom.” Two days in a yurt camp was doable but it made me realize how much we, as Americans, rely on the comforts and luxuries so easily accessible at home. After arriving, our sore, jello-like legs hobbled over to dinner. We sat around a circular table; white rice, lamb, and an tomato and egg dish had been served. I was starving and simply wanted was a cheeseburger, french fries, and a chilled Coca-Cola. But that wasn’t an option. The food was not my cup of tea, especially after having to eat the same food for all three meals each day. I will tell you it’s not like the food from your favorite Chinese take-out place. I wish. The lamb was plopped onto the table. It was cooked but dead, in full-form. I couldn’t help but think of Bambi. It was a sight that made my stomach queasy. However, the locals didn’t even question it and dug in. To no surprise, I decided to skip out on the lamb that night and ate white rice…for the third time that day.

This is an image of the yurt village we stayed at. The village was surrounded by flat land that went on for miles and miles. 
My classmates and I sitting inside a traditional Mongolian yurt. 


As I climbed into my rock-solid twin bed that night with my friend, Catherine, in the bed next to me, I couldn’t help but feel disconnected and vulnerable. I was thousands of miles away from my family with no way to contact them. There was grass growing through the floorboards of the frigid yurt and a door that was locked only by a weak latch. The howling winds shook the yurt. We were five hours or so from civilization and that truly frightened me. But then I realized that worrying wasn’t going to do me any good. My sweet grandfather always said, “Your greatest worries are those that never come.”Consequently, I began thinking of the incredible opportunity I had been given to see China at the young age of fifteen. I realized I was with classmates who had a similar desire to experience the unknown, learn about others’ cultures, and push themselves beyond their horizon. The flat land, home to a plethora of diverse animals, stretched for miles and miles and acted as a protective barrier. The stars and constellations lit up the night sky and acted as a natural guide for those who may feel lost and or scared. I was safe, no matter the distance I was from home. Thinking about the earth’s beauty and naturalness allowed my mind to drift off into a deep, much-needed sleep. The two days in Inner Mongolia came and went in the blink of an eye. I actually missed the serenity and openness of the land once we arrived back to the hustle and bustle of Beijing.

An image of the vast land and amount of space surrounding the yurt village. 
This is an image of the sunrise in Inner Mongolia at 5:30AM. It is still one of the prettiest I’ve ever seen. 

I’m not going to sugarcoat it. China was a tough immersion yet eye opening at the same time. The trip included many “firsts” for me. The fourteen-hour flight to the opposite side of world was my first international flight and therefore, also my first time leaving the United States. I was stunned at the sight of scorpions on sticks. Where were the burning marshmallows on sticks over a burning wood fire? Even though I’d prefer that, I’ve learned that others may not. Some may actually prefer scorpions on a stick. Everywhere we went, people looked the same, which stunned me. America is a cultural melting pot and we are accustomed to the diversity in our peoples’ appearances. Little to no English was spoken among locals, making me feel even that much further from home. Traveling to China was also my first time truly pushing myself outside of my comfort zone and experiencing a dose of others’ lifestyles. Nowadays, I continue to look back on my experience there and appreciate all that my life has afforded me. Do I want to hop on a plane to China tomorrow? No. But I would love to go back one day and try that lamb in Inner Mongolia…and maybe even a scorpion on a stick.

Photos Taken By Sally Smith & High School Classmates


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