When I was at Torchbearers Bible school in Leptokarya, Greece back in the winter of 2005, the program directors divided us students up into small groups of about twelve people. We had meetings twice a week in which we studied the Bible and shared with each other. Then, at other various points during the program, they had us do these things called “initiatives,” and I’m pretty sure that we all hated them. The idea was team building, and the challenges that they set for us to “overcome” together were frustrating, annoying, and to me, seemed rather pointless. One day we had to transport our entire team over a piece of rope tied between two trees about six feet off of the ground without touching the rope. Another day we had to all share a pair of extended skis and walk to a finish line. My three months in Greece were tough on me for a number of reasons, not the least of which were some personality conflicts within this small group that I was placed in, and I dreaded initiative days.
Now, I think the world of Ryan, Callie, and Graham, so it wasn’t like I had to learn to like them, but those moments dragging luggage around the city of Weihai and navigating through the subway system of Beijing, up and down multiple flights of stairs, taking turns waiting at the top or bottom while the guys generously ferried bag after bag up or down, wishing for escalators, going through security check-points, and dragging suitcases along seemingly endless sidewalks reminded me of those days of initiatives back in Greece. You see different sides of people when you’re dealing with frustration together and it’s true what they say, that overcoming obstacles together helps to bring people together and creates a sort of bond that often can’t be fabricated in any other way. There was something wonderful in the shared excitement about the three yuan (fifty cent) McDonalds’ ice cream cones we had halfway through our seemingly interminable but realistically short walk in the stifling heat from the subway station to our hostel, and about the communal elation as we lugged our bags up a final flight of stairs, opened the door of our room on the fourth floor of Sanlitun Hostel, and flopped on the beds for some much needed rest. All these years later, I see what our program directors were trying to do, and if I was in charge, I would probably do the same thing. My K-group (as they were referred to) did overcome challenges; both the physical and the other type that we dealt with, and I look back on those people, one or two with whom I still keep in occasional contact, and I’m glad that we overcame our differences, that we managed to learn to get along, to understand better what teamwork means.
Our week in China was everything it should have been: fun, educational, and full of moments that make you chuckle. I had the privilege of traveling with three great people, and was grateful that Callie had done all the necessary research before we embarked on our adventure. Had we followed her advice and boarded tourist bus #867 from the bus station by our hostel instead of listening to a Chinese woman who told us the that #980 was better, we would have avoided the drama of being escorted off the bus by a man trying to obtain an exorbitant taxi fare from us, and eventually being dropped off at a bus station in the middle of nowhere with no way to the Great Wall but to barter with men in unmarked taxis. We learned our lesson. Callie knows best. After an exciting day of walking along one of the world’s great wonders, and taking a toboggan-type slide back down the mountain, we took tourist bus #867 back into Beijing.
We ate dumplings and duck, and attended a very secure soccer game, complete with soldiers with riot shields. We explored the Forbidden City and touched all sorts of random old things, supposed to bring us luck. We ambled around Tiananmen Square, and took a nighttime stroll around the city. We took another overnight train and ended up in the beautiful city of Xi’an, where we stayed in a fantastic and excellently priced hostel with a wonderful cheap breakfast. We took a bus out to see the nearby Terra Cotta Army, and I was intrigued by being able to see the various stages of an excavation in progress. We joked all day about the Chinese Emperor who, at the age of thirteen, decided to start planning for his death and mausoleum, by ordering the construction of thousands of terra cotta warriors, each with a unique face, and somehow resisted the temptation of buying a picture of ourselves as Terra Cotta warriors. We ate dinner at a slightly sketchy authentic Chinese restaurant, and went to see Avengers at the theatre. We exchanged currencies at a local bank with a man whose allegiance to the bank seemed somewhat uncertain as he was standing on our side of the counter, pulled out a photocopied sheet of paper with exchange rates on it, a calculator, and Chinese currency from the fanny-pack he was wearing and traded money with us.
We left Xi’an behind and took a day-time train to Zhengzhou. After admiring our conductor’s ability to cram luggage into spaces where it didn’t look like it would fit, the four of us exchanged seats with people in order to sit together for the eight hour trip. We passed the time by playing the “m&m game.” It’s nice to know that even in our mid to late twenties we can still make life interesting with candy.
We had booked a hotel within two minutes walking distance of the train station, but because that seemed too easy for us with our piles of luggage, we thought taking the wrong exit and making a thirty minute loop of the “block” would be a better idea. However, this did provide us with the opportunity to experience a random dance-a-thon taking place in the “town square” on the back side of the train station. We eventually found our hotel, checked in, and then Ryan, Callie, and I went on a hunt for some food. And what did we discover? McDonalds and KFC heaven. Literally within five minutes walking distance, there were seven separate KFC restaurants, and about five or six McDonalds’. We picked one McDonalds for our late night snack, and then went to a different one for breakfast.
The next day we rose bright and early and got on a bus out to Shaolin Temple, where the martial art of Kung Fu originated. It still operates today as a martial arts school, and it was fascinating to watch the kids and teenagers practicing. We attended a short show and were impressed by such feats as popping a balloon with a needle through a piece of glass, and all sorts of Cirque-du-Soleil type twisting. The four of us then spent a chunk of time doing a photo-shoot of our best Kung Fu impressions in the park outside. I mean, how else would you conclude such a day?
My final night in China Callie and I stayed up late into the night chatting, and we awoke early the next morning to catch our trains. After one more McDonald’s breakfast, we made our way to the train station and said our goodbyes. Ryan and Callie headed to Shanghai for a few days, and Graham and I embarked on an adventure back to Beijing and beyond. We took trains, subways, buses, and planes, not to mention the walking and the waiting, and it was another one of those hot, sticky, luggage-dragging, crowded, stair-climbing, sweat-dripping, bond-creating, will-this-ever-end days. We boarded a plane on Qatar Airways, which I have to say, had great food and entertaining safety videos, and arrived in Doha, Qatar a number of hours later in a world that was nothing like the Asia we had left. After being told that we couldn’t change our Chinese currency for the local currency we wandered through the airport to see what we could have bought had the situation been different, and then went our separate ways to our respective gates. Graham got on a plane back to his homeland of England, and I boarded a flight to Kuwait, where entirely new adventures awaited me.