A Study in Travel Study

Eden P. is currently a junior at SYA China and a blogger for the Campus Reporter program. She comes to SYA from The Brearly School in New York.

It was a little past seven in the morning, and we wanted to watch the sun rise over the ancient city walls of Xi’an. We had taken an overnight sleeper train from Beijing—fourteen and a half hours of completing homework, chatting in Chinese with fellow travelers, getting sleep interrupted by the man having a very loud phone call at midnight in the bunk below me, and repeating, mostly to ourselves, “We’re really doing this.”

Aja and I were the first ones of the SYA class of 2020 to take an independent travel trip. And we decided to go three provinces out. No big deal. We saw the terra-cotta warriors, eyes wide despite how tired we were. We stuffed ourselves full of baozi, a staple food for us, and suanmeitang (sour plum juice), something new. She hated it; I proclaimed it my new religion. We rested, explored, checked into the hotel, and dealt with a faulty key. Our Chinese, at least, was being put to good use, though our exhaustion wore us thin – even just that was amazing. I could write an essay on the terra-cotta warriors, on the intersection of modern-day tourism and an appreciation for the past; on the way that this army represents China and its complicated relationship with its own history. I could probably write an essay on suanmeitang.

Biking the wall, I felt like I was flying, though my back ached and my cheeks stung against the cold air. Flying forwards into something—the rest of my trip, my stay in China, my life. Lights flashed below me, glinting off of buildings and car hoods and reflecting the night into my eyes. We hadn’t been able to see the sunrise that morning—the air pollution was too bad—but the moon could have been the closest star in the solar system at that moment, for all I knew. I heard Aja laughing behind me. I wanted to take my hands off the handlebars and not hold myself back. I’m smarter than that, though, and prevented a scraped knee and a bruised ego, and dismounted at the West Gate. I said, for what was probably the thousandth time, “This is our life.” Verbalizing that didn’t make it any more real. It didn’t make it any more real as we walked through the night markets of Xi’an, feasting on local treats (and drinking more suanmeitang), and it didn’t make it any more real as I fell into bed, head still spinning.

I slept peacefully that night. We got coffee and breakfast, visited a pagoda we had learned about in Chinese history, connected the past to the present and felt a little more sure about our place in the future. Mediocre chain restaurant fast food for a quick train station lunch, and then we were on a train again, only thirty-two or so hours later. 

As we shot through the Shaanxi, Shanxi, and Hebei landscape, Aja sat next to me, editing a compilation of clips we’d taken to document our journey. Some of them were stupid and a lot of them were effectively useless, but all of them were proof that we’d gone there. We’d done that. Two sixteen year olds had uprooted themselves from a place where they’d just been freshly replanted and crossed miles and miles to take less than two days to explore. No guidance but the language we had learned in class and used in our day-to-day lives. I talked to as many people as I could, and I didn’t feel unsure about myself for one moment.

This is my life. We really did this. I’m already planning another trip.

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