It was strange landing in Chicago after 10 weeks in Asia. The flight was from LAX, just before noon, and it was almost uncomfortable to be around people that openly speak English. It seems like a blur, but for an obvious reason: our route started in Kyoto, Japan and ended in Beijing, China. In between we coasted along Kyoto, Nara, Kobe, Hiroshima, Matsuyama, Beppu, Kumamoto, Tokyo, Taipeh, S.A.R. Hong Kong, and then got to China to see Shenzhen, Guilin, Wuhan, Kunming, Li Jiang, Chengdu, Xi’an, Chengde and Beijing, and topped it off with 5 days of Honolulu. It is hard to put it all in one little blog, but I’m warning you, it might be a long one.
Augustana’s expedition with 74 students and 4 professors flew over Greenbay, WI to get to Japan; just a strait line over the North Pole. Japan was a shock in every sense, since humidity was high and we came from a pretty mild summer in the Midwest. However, Kyoto was a great place to have a culture shock since everything that is ancient in Japan is in the Kinki Prefecture. While in Kinki, we were able to make one whole-day excursion to Kobe, a city that was devastated by the earthquake in 1996, and Nara Prefecture, home of Todai-Ji temple and one of the biggest Buddha statues in the world. I also got to visit old friends, Yuki Serizawa and Masami Arai at Kobe City University for Foreign Studies, and they took me to the traditional archery class, Kyudo. Kyoto and Nara are two of the only places that were not bombed in WWII, thus they represent true Japanese heritage. They were lucky not to have military bases that should be bombed (unlike Tokyo and Osaka that were carpet bombed).
Our journey through time continued in Hiroshima’s Peace Park, where we had the unique chance to meet survivors of the atomic bomb attack. Still, their hospitality and message were clear: Hiroshima is the city of peace and should stay that way for generations to come, a reminder that nuclear weapons should never be used again.
From there we caught a ferryboat to Matsuyama in Ehime Prefecture on Shikuku Island. Matsuyama was special in so many ways, but particularly because we were able to connect with the locals, since we had a day to spend with families that wanted to host us in their homes for a whole day. My host family was a fun one, since my “host mom”, Michiko Izumitani, spent her college days in New York City and had a very clear picture of American college life and could relate to her students in Ehime University in Matsuyama. We happen to crash her mom’s birthday party, where the whole family was together after a while. Needless to say, the fiesta was exceptional.
The only big island that we haven’t seen is Hokkaido, which is on the far north side of Japan, since the most southern island, Kyushu, was next on the schedule. The main reason why we visited Kyushu is that it has natural springs in the city of Beppu (8 Hells of Beppu) and Mt. Aso, the biggest active volcano in Japan and even the world. About two hours southwest is Kumamoto, a city where Soseki was teaching as one of the most famous Japanese writers of modern time. Kumamoto is an old town in the south of Japan, and there is a lot of Dutch influence (bike rails and trams) since the south was the first part of Japan to trade with the Dutch after the trade embargo in the 17th century.
From Kumamoto we got a flight to Tokyo, where we were for a whole week. Tokyo was an exceptional experience, since it is the biggest metropolitan area in the world and has so much to offer (when you’re 22 and have all the time you want). We stayed in Yoyogi Park, which is Olympic Village that was built for the 1964 Olympics. Location of Yoyogi was perfect, since it is five minutes away from the Sangubashi metro station, and walking distance from two big districts on the north (Shinjuku) and the south (Shibuya). Other than those two, Tokyo has at least 5-6 different “downtown” areas that are spread all over the city. We also had a unique chance to meet Mr. Tom Dillon, an Augustana Alumnus that went on the very first East Asia Term in ’74 and was nice enough to come and tell us about his experience. Mr. Dillon’s a funny guy, and through his hilarious stories of Japan in the past 30 years, he told us that this Study Abroad program changed his life and the way he thought about Japan.
Another big thing while in Tokyo was climbing Mt. Fuji, the highest mountain in Japan some 60 miles southeast of Tokyo. Unlike the geology majors that were determined to reach the summit, my physique and conservation of energy allowed me to go no further than the 7th station of Mt. Fuji (summit is at the 10th station and we got dropped off at station #5).
But even on a regular basis, Tokyo was more than just a city. Its huge shopping district of Ginza make it so, along with its business district of Shinagawa, “Electric City” called Akihabara, diplomatic district of Roppongi, Imperial Palace and many others make it a unique place to visit and one where everybody wants to come back.
Transition to China was the biggest shock one could experience. Japan is a modern, developed society and the shock that I dealt with there is the one that has to do with the fact that others spoke a language that I was unfamiliar with, that the Japanese Imperial family is the oldest family in the world and that cars are being driven on the left side of the street. But everything in Japan went smoothly with people, and even if you did something that could be recognized as “culturally insensitive,” it could be fixed with a warm sumimasen deshita (sorry) and arigato gozaimasu (thank you very much). Other than the fact that both are physically in Asia, Japan and China don’t have much in common.
China’s is world’s second largest economy, and by far the fastest developing economy known to mankind (maybe Egyptians developed faster, but to my knowledge they didn’t measure wealth in gold coins before taxes, adjusted for inflation). Our Chinese journey started in the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong, the least Chinese of places in China. Perhaps because it was a British colony during the Century of Humiliation; but Honk Kong indeed is a global community with people from across the world working and living there. Even though the Island of Hong Kong itself is exclusive and modern, Kowloon Peninsula has the highest density population in the world, where people live in skylights in tiny apartments, stacked on each other.
First place to check out in actual China or People’s Republic of China was Shenzhen. Shenzhen is one of Special Economic Zones, and it got that title due to its closeness to Hong Kong. Shenzhen is also one of the biggest ports in the world, and a huge part of the Chinese economy because of the trade that goes through that area, along with Guangzhou.
After Shenzhen we ventured to Guilin. It is one of the most beautiful places on this whole trip, and some will say it’s the most scenic place in the whole world. If you gave a two year old a pen to draw mountains, that’s what they would look like. I would explain what happened to that soil, but as soon as Dr. Wolf said “50 million years ago, all these shelves and organisms full of calcium…” I lost him.
We took the night train from Guilin to Wuhan. Wuhan is the capital of Hubei Province, and one of the bigger industrial centers in Inland China. Straight off the train, we got to visit two factories, quite different in nature. One was a Singaporean shoe factory that employs just over 20 people and the other one, Coca Cola Hubei, is Coke’s biggest factory in Asia that employs over 1500 people. As such, air contamination in Wuhan is usually high, but we were still spending a lot of time around the city as it lays on Yangtze River. We also had a chance to meet students from Central China Normal University, and to talk about their student life, sports, and even politics. Furthermore, we got to see traditional Chinese dance and vocal performance in Wuhan Performing Arts School.
Next was the flight to Kunming. Shenzhen, Guilin and Wuhan contain people who are mostly Han Chinese. However, Kunming is the capital of Yunnan Province that is the home of the most of ethnic minorities in China. Not only do people in Yunnan look different than the Han, they have different traditions which become visible even after only a few days. Yi, Naxi and Bai are only some of the minorities, and the province borders Vietnam, Burma and Laos, thus the big ethnic diversity isn’t as much of a surprise.
While still in Yunnan Province, we got to see the old town of Li Jiang. Li Jiang is more northwest in the Tibetan Plateau, towards the Burmese border. It was always a trading city, and is also well known for its jade. In certain places around Li Jiang, we were able to see Jade Dragon Snow Mountain and parts of the Himalayas. One of the prettiest sights was the Tiger Leaping Gorge, which is a beautiful canyon in the same region. Due to its genuine style, the old part of the Li Jiang is untouched and draws millions of tourists from all over the world.
An early morning flight led us to Sichuan Province, and the primary reason for visiting Chengdu is its Panda Reserve- the biggest in the world. As a matter of fact, an Augie Alumna that went on the same trip in the 90′s made a connection there and is doing research on pandas in Chengdu for the past 10 years. Pandas only worry about when to eat, which makes their lives quite entertaining to watch. Maybe that is why they are approaching extinction.
After spicy food in Sichuan Province, we headed towards the historical heart of China, Shaanxi Province and its capital, Xi’an. Xi’an was the capital of the Chinese Empire for centuries, and has one of the Eight World Wonders, the Terra Cotta Soliders. Emperor Qin built a tomb and surrounded himself with 8,000 soldiers to protect him in the afterlife. This all happened 22 hundred years ago, and after that, the tomb was buried. Not until the 1970′s did local farmers, digging a water well, find a part of a solider, after which they dug out the whole tomb. Furthermore, Xi’an is the home of one of the biggest city walls in the world. Once on the wall, you can walk on top of the city walls for about 8 miles.
Next, we bussed to Yan’an. Some 5 hours north of Xi’an, in a small town called Yan’an, Chairman Mao started the Communist Revolution with less than 8,000 people (roughly 80,000 started the Great March). Yan’an is developing rapidly, primarily due to tourists that come visit this historical site, but also its closeness to the Gobi Desert and oil resources. Yan’an is located on the Loess Plateau, and is very scenic and tucked between the mountains. The Chinese celebrate Mao as the father of their nation and the leader that united China. A day later we returned to Xi’an.
From Xi’an we flew to Beijing. The flight to Beijing was only a convenient way to get to Chengde, a city northeast of Beijing where Chinese Emperors used to go during summertime when the weather in Beijing was too hot. Unlike us that got on a bus and drove there for a couple of hours, Emperors were carried there by the soldiers, and this process could take between two and three weeks.
Finally, Chengde to Beijing. Due to a cluster traffic jam, we came to the Chinese capital fairly late in the day. Beijing is a true capital and a city that represents a nation with its wide boulevards and huge squares. People in Beijing are different too, but only in a way people are different in any other big metropolitan area like New York, Tokyo, London or Paris. After visiting the mausoleum of Mao that lays on the Tiananmen Square, one of the world’s biggest squares, we were told that he never wanted to be embalmed. But following the Soviet model, the Chinese felt like Mao should not be cremated. Right across from there is the Forbidden City, a palace with almost 1000 different buildings, in which Emperors of China lived, and where just regular people were…well…forbidden. Not very far from there lays the Olympic Village built for the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. The Bird’s Nest stadium as well as the National Aquatic Center (the Water Cube) are right across from each other, but the village itself stretches on and on, as this is now a very expensive piece of land. While in Beijing, we got on a bullet train and came to Tianjin. Its long history of westerners living in concessions makes it a different area in China, but also China’s fourth biggest city in population. Overall, time in Beijing was well spent, as 10 weeks in Asia passed by rapidly.
Our very last international flight went through Tokyo to our destination in the United States, Honolulu,HA. I wouldn’t agree with some that coming to Hawaii can be matched with coming back home, since we were still in the middle of the Pacific, surrounded by beaches which certainly cannot be found in November in the suburbs of Chicago. After visiting Pearl Harbor we could compare and contrast WWII events, those that occurred just outside of Honolulu in 1941 and Hiroshima in 1945. However, the two can barely be compared since one is a military base and the other is a town, but that is subject to personal opinions which I would like to hear in the comments below. But for the most time, Hawaii was a way to reflect on 10 weeks behind us, as we visited second and third biggest economies in the world, the world’s oldest empires, world wonders, meet local people, et cetera. I think I used the word “we” more times in this blog than I ever did in my life, but “I” just doesn’t do it. With 74 students and several faculty members on the same trip for 10 weeks, there is no “I”. We left and we came back together; we were on one group visa, and we functioned as one (for the most part). We were a part of 2013 East Asia Term, and we will tell our grandchildren about it. Our intellectual interests rose along with our student loans, as we strove to truly appreciate other cultures for being different.
Posted on November 16th, 2013 by Vuk Bojovic
Filed under: Vuk Bojovic