Standing at the snow covered fork in the road atop a slightly wooded ridge where I could look down at the group of sheep herders (shepherds, I suppose) that were pushing their flock into a truck I wondered if this was as far as we were going on this hike. Four hours after we had set off from the school we had seen nothing interesting, had done nothing interesting, and had seemingly wasting away an entire day just walking for the sake of walking.
This was not my idea of fun.
For lunch, two vans had brought up boxes full of some sort of wrapped Korean sushi-like item. Needless to say I did not enjoy it, and I did not eat much of it. I knew that as long as I didn’t think about being hungry, it wouldn’t be that much of an issue.
As the vans pulled away the students lined up in their rows like they had at the beginning of the day and did some more of their “stretches”. It was time to start the long journey back. It was 2:00.
“I AM POSITIVE . . . I AM CAPABILITY . . . I AM RESPONSIBILITY,” Lambert yelled.
“I CAN DO IT!!”
We start the walk back down the hill while some students were straggling behind making snowballs and horsing around. I quickly find myself at the head of the pack following only a couple teachers. Gavin is near me talking to The Principal in Chinese so I begin to listen to them while we trudge along. I tried not to think about the impending soreness that was sure to overcome us very soon.
Having been here for two months, I have started to pick up some Chinese and can understand conversations remarkably well if the people are talking slow enough and I am listening carefully enough. I still can’t really talk very much on my own, but if Gavin is talking to somebody and they are talking slow enough; I usually have a pretty good idea of what is going on.
I guess it’s kind of like how I was in my Economics classes at Notre Dame. If I listened enough in class, I usually had a decent enough understanding of what was going on, but I really had to study for the tests in order to recreate this knowledge on my own. The problem here, as it was there, is that I usually got/get bored of listening very carefully and zone out. While this usually led to me playing Solitaire, outlining Observer columns, or napping in my classes back at school; here in China on a hike through the countryside it led to me thinking my mind around the world about how at that very moment some of my friends were at Finny’s and my sister was at Fever (come on Julie) because in South Bend it was 2:00 AM Thursday while here in Yanji it was Friday and 3:00 PM.
Having already zoned out of the conversation between Gavin and The Principal, I decided to listen to some music for a while. Six hours had gone by since we left the school and my legs were definitely sore. My boots were dripping in mud and my jeans had some splattered up the back. Some of the students were starting to get restless, and I approached the guy leading this expedition to ask how much further we had to go.
As it turns out, we had made a wrong turn a little while earlier and actually had farther to go then we should have had. The good news was that the new road we were on didn’t have as many hills, so we should be able to make it back in about three hours. Shocked at the time estimate, I asked him how long the total hike was supposed to be and he told me that we would be going about 32 kilometers today. Quickly thinking back to my cross country days, I figured out that a 5k is about 3.1 miles; I figured out that we would be walking nearly 20 MILES overall.
While lots of thoughts went through my mind, two things stuck out. The first was that this was probably the most pointless hike I have ever done in my life. There was no sense of accomplishment because we weren’t really accomplishing anything. We saw no interesting sights or views. There was no point.
The second thought was that NO SCHOOL in America would ever put their students through something like this. None of the students seemed to be enjoying this, but none of the students were questioning it either. Everybody was just blinding following each other just because one person said to (an idea that really separates Americans from Chinese people).
Everything was beyond ridiculous as the hour got later and we walked father. When we briefly stopped for a rest I put my sweatshirt, coat, and winter hat back on, but I continued to listen to my iPod. If anything was going to pass the time it would be a randomized mix of Taylor Swift, Blink-182, Green Day, The Shins, The Killers, the Red Hot Chile Peppers, Death Cab for Cutie, and the occasional classic rock song thrown in for good measure. It was 4:00.
By 4:00 in Yanji at this time of the year, the sun is setting. Figuring that we would be walking for a good couple hours in complete darkness I wondered if any of the supposedly responsible teachers were aware of this. Evidently walking through a dark, cold night on an unlit one lane country road had been the plan all along because as dusk descended upon us we were still quite far from the city.
We approached a point in the road that was under water and had to make our way across the water by stepping from rock to rock across. Since I was at the front of the group, this wasn’t much of a problem, but once I got across and up the nearby hill I saw a car coming. Thankfully the car slowed down as it approached the water-covered section of the road, but many of the kids that were crossing on either side definitely got wet.
We kept walking. All the students were aching from the distance walked. Many were wet and not wearing enough clothing. The sun had set, it was getting darker by the minute, and some teachers decided that this would be a great time to stop and take a rest. Knowing that my legs would only feel worse if I stopped walking, I continued ahead with the lead group of a couple teachers and one of my third year students, Jack.
It was 5:00 and completely dark outside when we first saw the lights of the city in the distance. I didn’t think we had walked that far, but the lights still looked incredibly far away. “This is so terrible,” Jack, the one student in our group yelled. “So terrible.”
I put my iPod headphones back in and was listening to Party in the USA and thinking about my next Observer Column when a truck barreled over the hill in front of us and came careening down the road. Quickly getting off the road, I looked behind at the line of students walking up the road. I could barely see them if not for the handful of flashlights and couple dozen cell phones that were flashing so that the group could be seen. The truck slowed down a little as it passed the group, but not nearly enough to comfort me.
“This is SO horrible,” Jack said—I couldn’t disagree with him.
Not too long after the truck drove past, a red sedan slowly came towards us and opened the windows. It was Principal Paul coming to check up on us. With a big smile on his face he asked how we were doing, and we said we were ok. I mentioned that it had been a long day, and that we were thankful we were almost back in the city and off of the country roads. He continued to smile and drove down the road to see the rest of the group.
While it couldn’t get any darker than it already was, it continued to get colder and my legs continued to get sorer. Having walked so far I felt like my feet were going to fall off or something. I envisioned the scene from Terminator 2 where the bad guy starts walking while he is being frozen and his legs break off and crumble. I was tired, hungry, cold, and sore.
Around 6:00 we were back on actual multi-lane streets (not that lanes actually matter much here) and walking towards the center of the city. We hadn’t walked long on the actual streets when we stopped at a seemingly random corner, and the teachers lined up all of the students. After talking to them for awhile about what a good job they all did, the students were dismissed. I wasn’t exactly sure where we were in relation to the school, but apparently it was not a problem to let the students leave at a seemingly random location.
As the students were leaving, some cars came and started shuttling the teachers to a restaurant where we were going to eat dinner and drink beers. Desperately wanting nothing more than to just take off my boots and lay down in bed, I got to the restaurant and finally sat down in a chair. After a long day of walking it was finally time to eat, to drink, and to relax.
Thankfully we had come to my favorite restaurant here in Yanji (at least out of the dozen or so restaurants I have been to). At this restaurant the tables have openings in the center where coal is put. Skewers are then brought out with raw meat on them and somebody at the table cooks the meat over the coals. Everybody gets small plates for some spices as well as a dish with sauce in it. Meat with spices and dipping sauce, coupled with beer, makes the meals that I have had at this place some of the best; and a very pleasing end to a miserable day hiking.
So we ate meat, and drank beers, and ate more meat, and drank a lot more beers. As usually happens at these types of events, people taught me Chinese words that I could not remember the next day, and I talked to anybody that wanted. At one point, one of the other teachers [who had not been drinking beer, but something called Baijiu, which I refuse to drink for reasons you can infer from the link] started talking about how he wanted to visit Gavin and I in America some day and go to a baseball game. He kept going on and on about this and other things not in a serious manner, but in a “I’m drunk and am going to start rattling off things that I want to do but will never actually do” kind of way.
Like I have done many times before, and certainly will do many times again, I said to the table, “He is drunk.” It wasn’t in an inflammatory way or anything; I was pretty much just stating a fact. At that point the table got quiet. Apparently, I had made one of those ever-possible cultural faux pas, and the only way to lighten the mood was for somebody else to say that I was drunk (which I kind of was). Learning that I should never say that somebody is drunk again, it was about time to go.
As we all left the restaurant, Principal Paul offered Gavin and I a ride home. Thankful that the walking we had left to endure would only be up the staircase to our seventh floor apartment, I quickly got in the back of the car and waited for Gavin. Once everybody was in the car (Principal Paul, Gavin, Savio, and Lambert—who was also getting a ride home from the two Salesians) we set off for our apartment.
While the inside of our apartment is actually somewhat nice (probably more spacious than what I would currently be living in had I taken a job in New York or Chicago) the outside is not. What would probably be described with the word ‘project’ in the United States, the outside of our Apartment building features roads that are haphazardly paved, broken glass always within sight, hills of dirt and snow, and an uneven dirt road on one side.
If you have never seen uneven dirt roads after an unseasonably warm winter day that allowed most of the remaining snow to melt, then you are probably wondering why I didn’t end this story about 100 words earlier. The rest of you probably know what is going to happen next.
After telling Paul that we can get out and walk the rest of the way, Gavin then warns him not to drive through the huge lake-like puddle that is standing between the car and our apartment. Determined to get us as close as possible, Paul keeps going forward, and keeps going forward, and keeps going forward until the wheels of the car are spinning in place and mud is flying everywhere.
We were stuck, and it was time to start pushing.
Savio, Lambert, Gavin, and I got of the car and into the mud and started pushing it from behind as Paul kept hitting the gas trying to get it out of the mud. The mud flew off the tires towards the back of the car splattering our faces and covering our clothing head to toe with mud. We pushed, and we pushed, but the car did not want to budge at all. We were about a minute walk from our apartment where we could change our clothing, take off our boots, put up our feet, warm up, and go to sleep; but we still couldn’t get home.
Ten minutes or so of pushing and accelerating did nothing to move the car out of the mud (and probably even made matters worse) so we all stopped for a moment to rest and reevaluated the situation. Savio tried calling another Salesian to come with a larger SUV to help. Gavin continued to push the car. I climbed up a small hill of mud and snow that was next to the car to get a better look and Lambert went to go relieve himself nearby.
The situation was looking pretty bad as I tried to figure out how we could get the car out of this mud. Despite my camping experiences, I had really never seen a car that was more stuck in mud. Sure there was the time when Sharky and I completely destroyed the grass in front of O’Neill with a UHaul that was marginally stuck, but the wheels on that truck were sitting much higher above the mud then the wheels on this car.
I wiped a bit off my face and stepped down into the mud and water as Gavin tried to throw some drier dirt under the tires and Savio continued to make phone calls trying to get help. Just then, as if out of nowhere, Lambert starting yelling at Paul to turn the tires and put it in reverse. Thinking that the situation was hopeless, I watched in awe as the car magically drove out of the water and got itself back on solid ground.
Paul offered to drive around another way to get us to our apartment, but we weren’t going to mess around anymore and assured him that we could walk the rest of the way.
Trudging up the six flights of stairs to our apartment, Gavin and I were covered from head to toe in mud. My pants and jacket had a solid layer of mud on them, and my face was covered. Walking into the door of our apartment I immediately took off all the muddy clothing and put it in the wash. After a shower and an episode of Gossip Girl, I laid down in bed and instantaneously fell asleep, not realizing how sore my legs and feet were going to be for the next several days.