Ni Hao, Beijing!

China Trip about to Depart

In the spring of 2013, 18 students from HVRHS embarked on our biennial trip to China. For nearly two weeks, students travelled the country, including a four-day home stay with students of the Shendong Experimental High School in Jinan. The route took us from Beijing to Shanghai, but not on a direct route at all! It is truly an extensive tour of the country, mostly in the northern and eastern portions.

Assistant Principal, Ian Strever, along with Nick Pohl and Erin Curry from HYSB led the trip, and their journal posts are below. The trip will happen again in 2015, so start planning now to be a part of it!

Days 1-4: Beijing

New Experiences

IMG_0904 After a long and arduous journey that began at 2 AM in Falls Village, we landed in Beijing, twenty hours later, and after a solid night’s sleep, we hit the ground running. Our first day took us to some of the iconic spots in the city, including the Forbidden City and Tianamen Square, where we posed for the obligatory group shot before moving on to other sites.

It has been an incredible learning experience for the students in every respect, and I am extremely proud of the flexibility, respectfulness, and intrepidness of our HVRHS students. They are willing to try all kinds of foods, and they were very eager to experience “real” Beijing- the city that lies outside of the tourist bubble in which we travel for a lot of the time. After two days of such touring to the Summer Palace and the Temple of Heaven, students were thrilled to take a ride in a rickshaw through the hutongs of old Beijing, where they saw the old city, traditional houses, and afterwards experienced some authentic Chinese-style bargain shopping at the Pearl Market.

IMG_1158The weather has been temperate but very windy; on the plus side, that means uncommon visibility, but on the negative side, it has been pretty brisk. The students are all troopers, though, and the girls managed to find a way to turn it into a photo-op. As day leads on to day, the students are growing a bit weary of eating strictly Chinese food, and they were glaad to see more western-style fare at our last few stops. Additionally, the reality of Chinese life has taken some of them aback, whether it be the very public, squat-style facilities (the girls have adopted a five-star rating system for all restrooms) or the crowded, hectic way of life. We are fortunate to have Nick Pohl and Erin Curry from HYSB along for the trip, and they have been fantastic resources for helping students cope with all of the change.

Perhaps the most trying event so far has been the overnight train last night to Xi’an, where students roomed in rather cramped quarters on firmer-than-firm matresses, with limited bathroom facilities. Nonetheless, they all got some sleep, and they all had positive reports this morning as they wolfed down breakfast. We are about to embark for our excursion to the Terracotta Warriors, a site which, along with the hike up the Great Wall two days ago, seems to be a real landmark for the students.  It is another bright and sunny day, however, so I should have some great photos to share with you tomorrow!

Day 5: Xi’an

Visiting “The Eighth Wonder of the World”

The Terra Cotta Warriors Archeological Site in Xi'an
The Terra Cotta Warriors Archeological Site in Xi’an

We moved onto Xi’an today, which is a much smaller city in north central China, with a population of seven million. It was the capital of China in the early years of the country, and it holds a lot of history. Fortunately, our tour guide, Lily, has a rich knowledge of Chinese history that she is sharing with us.

This city seems to be much more our speed. Gone are the high winds, cool weather, and big city bustle of Beijing, and we found ourselves on a fragrant warm side street this morning as we toured a factory where they produce imitation clay terra cotta warriors before visiting the actual site. The site itself is truly impressive. Discovered in 1974, this 2200 year-old creation is a wonder to behold. Experiences such as this one really put our 225 year-old country into perspective for our students.

They enjoyed the experience as much for the history lesson as for the cultural one. Our students found themselves the objects of attention from many rural Chinese who were visiting the site this morning, and they posed for many pictures with Chinese people who rarely see blond or red hair and green and blue eyes. It seems as if every day, our students spend awhile exchanging poses with some Chinese group, and it makes for a magical exchange.

Our group outside the site.
Our group outside the site.

We finished the day off with a veritable feast of dumplings, and a small group took a stroll down the main avenue here to burn off some of the calories. We will tour the local museum and mosque here tomorrow, which should yield interesting insights into the culture, also. It will once again be a full day, though, as we board a plane for the trip to Jinan and the home stay that so many of the students are both eagerly anticipating and anxiously awaiting. It is the centerpiece of a trip that allows students to test themselves to try new things while providing the safety net to approach new and unfamiliar settings with confidence. We will have some interesting updates for you after their stay!


Day 6-7: Xi’an to Jinan

Summer Weather in the Spring City

Henry and Michael on the Tour de Xi'an
Henry and Michael on the Tour de Xi’an
The Market in the Muslim Quarter
The Market in the Muslim Quarter

If you want to know about three thousand years of Chinese culture, go to Xi’an, Chinese people will say. In addition to the Terra Cotta Warriors, the city features a traditional “inner city” contained by an immense wall, with only four entrances. Fortunately, the wall is also wide enough and smooth enough to allow modern tourists to rent bicycles to pedal around the inner city in about an hour. It was a perfect day for a ride, with moderate temperatures and a gentle breeze that was strong enough to support the kite festival that was happening on the northern gate as we rode by. After the ride, students had some free time in the Muslim quarter of the city, where they experienced one of the most vibrant, exotic open-air markets in the world. It was a feast for the senses, from the multicolored fruit and nut stands to the aromatic food vendors to the cacophony of scooter horns, languages, and ethnic music that greeted each step.

There was a religious theme for the day, as we moved from the ancient mosque to the Wild Goose Pagoda, where Buddhist monks still maintain the beautiful gardens and grounds. By the time we reached late afternoon, however, it was clear that the above-average temperatures were getting to the students, who were a bit listless as they headed into dinner. During the week, we have had conversations with all of them about the home stay that begins this weekend, and as it has gotten closer, students are getting both more excited and more apprehensive about it. Fortunately, these conversations have allowed students to process their feelings about the days to come, and most of them are ready for it to begin.

Abbie and  Ana with their Host "Sisters"
Abbie and Ana with their Host “Sisters”

We boarded a late-night plane from Xi’an to Jinan, and this morning, students were dressed up to meet their host families for the first time. It was quite momentous for us as chaperones to send them off; it was a little taste of what it must be like to send them to college someday, and that is certainly one fringe benefit of this trip. For the next four days, they will be living with a new roommate in Jinan, experiencing Chinese life in a real Chinese family. We are all eager to hear about their experiences, and our next post will feature some thoughts from the students themselves about it.

Days 8-11: Home Stay in Jinan

Walking in Another Man’s Shoes

IMG_1563There is a line in Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird, that reads, “you never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view.” No other line captures the spirit of the China trip so perfectly. During these few days, students have lived with students from the Shendong Experimental High School, mirroring their routine as closely as possible.

While it hasn’t always been easy, students have learned more about Chinese culture in the past few days than they knew collectively beforehand. They are eating the same food, going to the same classes, and living the same lives as their Chinese peers. In some cases, the partnership was perfect, while in other cases it was strained. But such is life. One student walked to school while another rode a bike. One student ate western food while another ate Chinese fare. As is true in America, everyone is different, and some people are more compatible than others.

(from l. to r.) Gabe, Lauren, Abbie, and Amelia display their paper cuttings.
(from l. to r.) Gabe, Lauren, Abbie, and Amelia display their paper cuttings.

This morning, the group participated in two art classes, practicing the traditional Chinese arts of paper cutting and calligraphy. The students enjoyed the peacefulness of the two crafts, and they also made the most of an hour they spent with Chinese students, discussing all aspects of their lives as high school students. One group even helped their Chinese student select his own “American” name. Congratulations, “Simon”!

The students did not stop talking about the various aspects of their experience throughout the day, but they are also commenting on their rush to get to sleep each night to compensate for all of the day’s exertions. In addition to the considerable physical strain, the amount of intellectual activity is a drain on their batteries, and they are beginning to feel the pull.

We leave tomorrow for Shanghai aboard a high-speed train, but not until we tour the city market for one last time with our hosts, who have been incredibly hospitable and generous. Our suitcases are bursting with gifts, and all of us are eager to unload them on our friends and family back in Connecticut. Nonetheless, several students were overheard saying that the trip has gone all too quickly and that they wished it weren’t going to end so soon.

Day 12 (I think): Travelling to Shanghai

Not Through with China Yet!

The girls try their hand at paddleball dancing. Our last day in Jinan brought a mixture of emotions: some students were sad to leave their host families, yet others were eager to travel homeward, while others felt both sentiments. Many students left with armfuls of gifts and snacks for the trip to Shanghai, but before we left, we visited the cultural market and underground mall of Jinan for some one-of-a-kind sights such as the miniature scorpions for sale, and students also took a few lessons in paddleball dancing and hacky sack from the senior citizens at the nearby square.

From there, we reconnected with the Canton contingent, who had been staying with host families from a middle school in nearby Jining. They have been amiable traveling companions throughout the trip, and our students were glad to reconnect with some of the new friends they had made from Canton. Together we boarded the high-speed train to Shanghai, and the Chinese countryside whizzed by us for three hours at nearly 200 mph. As fast as it was, students appreciated the chance to see the more rural face of China. Coming from such a quiet part of Connecticut, many of us were curious about life in the country for Chinese people, and while we did not stop anywhere, we were able to at least enjoy the view of someplace outside the city.

"The New Shanghai Skyline at Night" Image Courtesy of
“The New Shanghai Skyline at Night” Image Courtesy of

Shanghai promises to be an entirely different locale. Although it is metropolitan, it is much more fashionable and chic than Beijing. The billboards for Audis, Mercedes Benzes, and Jaguars gave us some idea of the standard of living here, and the brilliant skyline reflects the buzz and glamour of Shanghai, especially at night.

Tomorrow is packed with activity; we will visit Nanjing Road Shopping District, take a cruise on the Huangpu River, and visit old Shanghai as well. If all goes as planned, students should be pretty exhausted by the time they get back to their rooms to pack for the flight home tomorrow. That in itself is no small feat. Most of us have had to jettison work out clothing and any unnecessary sundries to make room for all of the gifts we’ve acquired along the way. Prepare your mantelpieces, closets, and kitchens for all kinds of souvenirs!

Day 13: A Shanghai Blitz

If it can be done in Shanghai in 12 hours, we did it.

Old Shanghai
Old Shanghai

Our wonderful tour guide, Vivi, planned our most ambitious agenda for our last full day in China. Right after breakfast, we visited The Bund, the waterfront boardwalk that provides the most incredible view of the Shanghai skyline. Unfortunately, this was also our most smoggy day in the country, and the view was obscured by low-lying clouds. As we walked away, many of us remarked how great it would be to see the vista under cloudless conditions. We had no idea what the day would bring…

From there, we visited a silk factory and learned about the process of silk production. Students had ample opportunity to pack their suitcases with last-minute gifts, starting with the silk store, then moving onto chic Nanjing Road, and ending up in the tourist market later in the day. Some travelers took the opportunity to check out the Shanghai subway for a quick side trip to ride the Maglev magnetic train to the airport and back. Why do that, you ask? Well, when that train travels at a top speed of 431 kph, the ride alone is worth the price of admission, and when you travel at that speed, it’s not a long trip anyway.

We took a brief tour of Old Shanghai before dinner. The area has been largely commercialized, which was all the same to most of the students who ducked into Starbucks for a hot drink to take the edge off today’s blustery conditions. Still, the architecture was unique in comparison to other locales on the trip, and especially in comparison to the ultra-modern designs that figure prominently in the Shanghai skyline.

Speaking of which, we rounded out our afternoon with a river cruise that took us from dusk to darkness, and we were able to see the city in all of its iridescent glory, now shorn of its hazy cloak. It really is a stunning sight, a little bit Manhattan, a little bit Las Vegas, and just exotic enough to let you know you aren’t in America.

We’ll head off early tomorrow for a long journey home, and although we’re not quite home yet, I must say that this has been a remarkable trip, and mostly due to the fantastic students we brought here. They have been exemplary travelers, and they managed to stay healthy and safe the whole time. This has been an unforgettable April for all of us, and we can’t wait to get home to share the stories with you in person!

New Shanghai, lit up like a Christmas tree.