Chinese Holiday

A Buddha carved directly from the wall of a cave in the Yugang Grottoes greets visitors.

This year, I am studying Chinese (along with fellow UNA student Brandon Pennington) at Tianjin Foreign Studies University in Tianjin, China. It is truly an amazing experience!

From October 1-7, the entirety of China was on holiday for “Chinese National Day,” the anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party.

My friends and I decided to travel, so Brandon, Italian students from Venice and I packed our backpacks and boarded a nine-hour train to Inner Mongolia.

When we arrived in Hohhot, it was almost 2 a.m. We crashed in our hostel and took some much needed showers.

The next day, we boarded a van at the hostel for the first part of our tour, the grasslands.

During our journey (which included many beautiful hours through the mountains), we had to stop for gas. Our driver then turned the key in the ignition.


“Um, is everything okay?” we asked, in Chinese. The driver told us we needed to get outside and push. So, he threw the van in neutral, 10 of us pushed the bus and it finally started. We had to run and jump into the van as it was rolling away!

Three hours later, we finally arrived at the grassland, where we met our guide. She was a young Mongolian woman named Haha.

We stayed inside a Mongolian hut called a yurt. It was actually really cozy — the floor was heated by lighting a fire under the concrete floor. We slept on little mats and a big pile of blankets and pillows (which didn’t make it any warmer, I’m afraid).

To light our fire for the evening, we had to collect dried cow poop to use as kindling. It was surprisingly fun. The fire did not smell good, though.

The next day, we got up early to go to the desert. Once we arrived at the desert, we piled out of the van and were immediately ankle-deep in sand. It was interesting, because I expected the desert sand to be similar to the beach, but it was super fine and very soft, like brown sugar.

We then met our ride to the campsite — a pack of 16 camels. They were all two-humped camels with saddles in between the humps. I never would have guessed, but camels actually respond to commands such as “Zuo!” (sit!).

It took about an hour to arrive at our camp site via camel. They are not exactly the fastest animals. But it was okay — the 360 degree view of nothing but sand was incredibly beautiful. Villagers ran up when they saw us riding along to take our picture. Understandably, a pack of white people on camels in the middle of the Gobi desert probably is not an everyday sight! Sometimes I wonder if I go to tourist attractions, or if I am a tourist attraction.

Once we arrived at our campsite, we placed our things inside our yurt. This one was slightly less fancy — it had only a dirt floor.

Shortly thereafter, we climbed one of the tallest sand dunes around and used a makeshift sled to slide down. Who needs snow when you can dune-sled?

The next stop on our backpacking journey was the city of Da Tong. Da Tong is famous for its relics and temples, which we were eager to see. We stayed in beautiful hostel that had a dog named “Obama.”

We visted two temples in Da Tong – the Hanging Temple, and the Yunggang Grottoes. The Hanging Temple is a temple built suspended into the side of a mountain. It was beautiful, but being a national holiday, it was simply too crowded for my liking.

What I really enjoyed was the Yunggang Grottoes. They are a series of Buddhist temples and shrines carved directly out of a chain of caves. The Buddhas were huge — hundreds of feet tall. The statues were all in various conditions. Some were nothing more than a basic shape, and some were still incredibly well preserved.

Thankfully, we were able to sleep on our train trip to Beijing, which was six hours. Because I originally bought my train ticket at a different time than the others, I did not have a seat. I had a standing ticket, and I was going to have to stand for the entire six hours. Thankfully, my friends are truly amazing, and we stood in shifts.

The shower I took in my Tianjin dorm room was the best I had ever taken, and the nap that followed was the best sleep of my life. I had an amazing week, but it was good to be home!