A whirlwind Chinese adventure

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A tiny blob of light became visible through the airplane window. I blinked a few times, still groggy from sleeping for the better part of 15 hours, and as the blob grew bigger and bigger, a familiar feeling crept up inside me, at once exciting and mundane. I was about to land in China.

Even though I usually went back to my homeland every couple years or so, each excursion was an adventure to me. This visit was going to be no exception — I had a whole lineup of new experiences to be had and great memories to be made.

My first stop was Hong Kong. It was Christmas Eve, and instead of spending the night at home as usual, my mom and I opted to live it up in one of the most beautiful cities around the holidays. We wanted excitement, and Hong Kong delivered.

As we made our way through Kowloon District, every square foot not occupied by a human being was lit up. Neon lights sparkling red and green adorned skyscrapers. Bridges were bedazzled with signs shouting, “Merry Christmas!” And as if to match the loud lights, people filled the streets, creating a commotion of their own. A jazz band decked out in Santa hats played festive tunes, and carolers’ voices filled the crisp air. Couples took selfies by Victoria Harbor, where the water twinkled with reflected light.

One of the many lit-up buildings in Kowloon.

The next morning, we headed to the Avenue of Stars, a miniature Hollywood Walk of Fame for stars hailing from Hong Kong. Like the typical tourist I am, I made sure to take pictures with Jackie Chan’s star and the statue of Bruce Lee.

A day or so later, it was time to embark on a trip within a trip — my mom and I were traveling to the Yunnan Province for four days. One thing about Yunnan: It’s a popular tourist site, but this usually only applies during the summer, when there are beautiful flowers everywhere. As we quickly found out, Yunnan was rather devoid of pretty-looking wildlife during the winter. However, its saving grace was its rich culture — Yunnan is home to 25 of China’s 56 ethnic groups — and its majestic, snowy mountains.

The Naxi, one of China’s minority ethnic groups, use creative hieroglyphs in their written language.

To my delight (as I’m a wimp when it comes to the cold), we didn’t start climbing the snowy mountains right away. Our first stop was Lijiang, a town known for its Gucheng (Old Town), Mufu Wood Mansion and many other tourist destinations. We meandered through the city, eating delicious street food and admiring the beauty of historical sites. Mufu Wood Mansion particularly stuck out to me: Home to the Mu Clan — local rulers until the 18th century — its ornate architectural design and brilliant red, blue and green paints rivaled even the splendor of the Forbidden City in Beijing. 

The courtyard of Mufu Wood Mansion.

The other noteworthy destination on our minitrip was Shangri-La County. Renaming itself after it claimed to be the inspiration for James Hilton’s Lost Horizon, Shangri-La is located at an uncomfortably high elevation for us lowly sea-level folks and boasts a population of about 130,000. The high altitude became even more unbearable when we trekked up Shika Snow Mountain, mostly by means of cable car, because at 4,000 meters (I still have trouble visualizing metric units in my head) above sea level, we would’ve all passed out if we had to climb all the way on foot. It was so hard to breathe that each of us was required to buy and use an oxygen tank, and if I went up the stairs, I’d feel like I was having a heart attack (unfortunately, this is not hyperbole).

But it was all worth it when I beheld such a spectacular view few people would get to see in their lives: Through the clouds, the late-morning sun danced on the snow-covered peaks, and the air was so crisp and clear I could see several small towns in the great distance. I completely forgot about the wind whipping my hair, cold biting my cheeks and oxygen from my tank flooding my lungs. I was at peace.

Traveling to see this kind of view was quite literally not for the faint of heart.

So, in a mere few days, I had replenished my excitement levels, which had depleted dangerously during finals week. From the hustle and bustle of a metropolis during the holiday season to the history and culture of a quaint little town to the breathtaking natural beauty of a mountain, I embraced it all.

Contact Michelle Nie at [email protected]