This summer I was given the opportunity of a lifetime. It began last May on Twitter when a travel blogger tweeted, "Looking for high school students in LA for trip to China sponsored by Cathay Pacific." Me, a high school student in the LA area with an obsession for travel and an ever-growing urge to visit Asia, jumped at this.
What I found was the Green Explorer program, an environmental trip for high school students sponsored by Cathay Pacific, looking for 40 kids from around the world on a 10-day all expenses paid journey through China.
Their short application consisted of a 500-word essay on an environmental topic close to our heart and our community service background. I thought I didn't have as much as a background as they were looking for, but I applied, thinking, "Why not, what do I have to lose?" Two months went by before I received an email inviting me to interview over the phone. I couldn't even believe they were considering me.
When the time came for my interview I had never been so nervous in my life. I was interviewed by two Cathay Pacific associates on a range of community service and travel topics. I felt confident after the interview but I knew I had to stay realistic since there were so many other applicants. The next day I received the email stating my acceptance. I couldn't believe it when I read it and I instantly called my parents. I later found out that I sounded like I was shaking. I was going to China!
At times I became really nervous, thinking, "I'm going to be all the way in China all alone." Then I thought, "Hey, I'm going to be all the way in China, all alone -- that's really cool."
Before I knew it, August 11 had arrived and I was on my way to Los Angeles International Airport; it was finally feeling real! Greeted by the Cathay staff, it was no time at all before I was seated on a Cathay Pacific jet on my way to Hong Kong.
After an easy 15-hour flight, I arrived in Hong Kong and met the students representing United States and Canada. Though heavily dazed thanks to the 15-hour time difference, I couldn't stop smiling and thinking that I was actually half way around the world in China.
The next day I met up with the 39 other kids, people I later found to be the best group of people I have ever met. These high school students were from Hong Kong, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Australia, South Africa, Germany, and Canada. I loved meeting all these people from every corner of the world and learning that though they we live thousands of miles away from each other in a completely different culture, our lives are so similar.
That next day was spent in on a boating tour of Hong Kong's Geo Park, a beautiful, preserved area much like our National Parks. Here, we learned about the conservation being done in the parts of Hong Kong that are often overseen.
Soon after we were back at Cathay Pacific City, the airline's headquarters, for the opening ceremony of the program which featured a speech from their CEO, John Slosar. From there, all 60 of us shuffled off to Hong Kong International Airport to fly inland to Chengdu, China.
The next day at the Holiday Inn Chengdu, we were offered a breakfast of dim sum and Cocoa Krispies, a perfect combination! Soon after, we bussed three hours further into the heart of China's Sichuan province. From here on out, the trip was surrounded with beautiful scenery and humidity unlike anything I have ever encountered.
Later that day we visited Bifengxia, a giant panda-breeding facility and sanctuary, and a farmer's home, for a traditional Chinese lunch. As you might have guessed, Chinese food in China is delicious, and is unlike any Chinese food I have ever eaten in the United States. The Sichuan Province is best known for their spicy food and it is a local tradition to begin every meal with smoked bacon. And of course, there are only chopsticks, which posed a great challenge for some on the trip.
In Bifengxia, we were able to see pandas unlike ever before and learn about the extreme conservation efforts in place for the Giant Pandas of China. Regarded as sacred, they are protected by the government and poaching is punishable by death. We were able to witness happy, healthy pandas in environments very close to their naturals habitats.
At the end of the day, we returned to the Yingjing Hotel in the small town of Yingjing, China. This might be the most interesting town I have ever seen. Thoroughly developed, it was very clear that Yingjing was in the middle of China and had little if any signs of westernization. Walking down the streets, we were marveled at by the locals, especially the blondes in the group. Families came up to touch their golden hair, something they probably had never seen before. There was no English spoken anywhere and close to zero tourism in the area.
Later that day, we visited the Yufeng Temple, home of the largest Phoebe Zhennan in Southwest China. This was a major highlight of the trip where we were able to experience true Chinese religious culture. High up in the hills lies this huge temple complex where elements of Buddhism, Confucism and Taoism come together as one. Massive, ornate Chinese buildings house beautiful religious statues, one after the other creating one of the most amazing things I have ever seen.
The next morning we visited the Shanglii Ancient Town. Coined "the real-life Chinatown" by some friends on the trip, this small community really was like what you would find in your city's Chinatown. Beautiful buildings and shops were nestled around open courtyards with red lanterns dangling over, showing Chinese culture at its best.
The next day we traveled even further into rolling hills of China to parts only accessible by unpaved roads. In the forests, we learned how to install infrared cameras used to monitor the nearby animals. Led by Conservation International, we were educated on their efforts in the area to help conserve animals' lives and help the local community modernize with the environment in mind.
By this time, me and my fellow Green Explorers had bonded and became a family, 40 members from every part of the world, the best of friends. After a long day of hiking and romping around in the backcountry, we spent the night at the Hulin Ecological Resort. Surrounded by towering peaks, we each shared a cultural item we brought to China with us that represented our home country. It was amazing what some people brought, and it really educated us about culture all around the world. From lessons on how to make Malaysian tea to a demonstration of a Korean pop dance, this cultural exchange brought us even closer together while teaching us about different lifestyles.
The next day, we left the countryside and returned to Chengdu, where we were able to spend some time touring the city. Though not very well known to the Western world, Chengdu is the fourth-largest city in China and is home to over 18 million people. This bustling city has strong signs of Chinese culture but is clearly westernized due to the multiple Starbucks, McDonalds, Louis Vutton, and Tiffany & Co stores. We shied away from these familiar sights and took a trip to a beautiful night market in the middle of the city, where the goods sold represented the best of Chinese culture and Sichuan province heritage.
The next day we flew back to Hong Kong and it was time to say goodbye. Luckily, a few of us had long layovers that allowed us to go out and see the city. With only eight hours to roam the streets, we fit in all the sights of Hong Kong we could. Between strolling the Avenue of the Stars with views of the beautiful Hong Kong skyline, or walking through the Ladies Market, our short time in Hong Kong gave us a great look at the city's unique culture.
Looking back at this trip, I can't think of anything I didn't enjoy or anything that I would change. I had the time of my life in one of the most interesting places in the world, with amazing people whose friendships I will cherish throughout my life. While in China, I couldn't help but realize that though our different cultures may set us apart, it is what is beyond the eye that shows that we are really one.
Apart from a wonderful eight days filled with amazing sights, great friends, and too much fun, I learned so much about myself and came out of this journey a different person. Leaving this educational experience with the 60 greatest people I will ever meet has helped me change the way I live my everyday life.
I couldn't have asked for a better summer experience and I am so happy that I was able to be a part of Cathay Pacific's Green Explorer 2011 Program. I'd like to thank CEO John Slosar for allowing us this opportunity, and to everyone at Cathay Pacific for making sure it was so special: Tracey, Elin, and everyone at Cathay Pacific.